Florida Panthers v New York Rangers

Trading places: New goaltenders with pressure to perform next season

1 Comment

The offseason has been like a giant game of musical chairs for goaltenders around the NHL. There are midseason acquisitions who will be asked to carry the mail from the beginning of the season like Craig Anderson in Ottawa and Dwayne Roloson in Tampa Bay. There were plenty of netminders like J.S. Giguere, Brian Elliott, Mathieu Garon, Brian Boucher, Peter Budaj, and Jeff Deslauriers who found new homes in free agency that are expected to provide adequate back-up goaltending when the starters needs a break. Even Ondrej Pavelec will be trying to impress a new city and fanbase and he’s on the same team. Thank you True North.

Most importantly, there are teams who have handed the keys to the net to newcomers. Sure, there were teams that strengthened their goaltending depth, but there are a few teams that are depending on new goaltenders to carry them to success on a nightly basis next season. Their new teams’ success heavily depends on their ability to adjust to a new city, new fans, new system, and increased expectations.

Each goaltender faces a different set of circumstances that will contribute to the pressure in their new locales. Maybe the team expects to step up and be a playoff contender. Maybe their new team paid a king’s ransom to acquire them in the offseason. Maybe their new team expects the Stanley Cup and nothing less. Each will walk into a different situation—but they all face demands to succeed.

Here are five of the goaltenders who face the most pressure to perform for their new teams next season.

Ilya Bryzgalov (Philadelphia Flyers): Any discussion regarding pressure for goaltenders begins in Philadelphia with Ilya Bryzgalov. By signing the 31-year goaltender to a 9-year, $51 million deal (and other smaller decisions), the team was forced to part ways with Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, and even Kris Versteeg. The team that went to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final two years ago and was the second best team in the Eastern Conference last season basically blew up the team to build around their new goaltender. The result: the Flyers have more new faces than Bobby Knight in a postgame press conference and there’s great anticipation for Bryzgalov between the pipes next season.

“I want to be the guy who can carry this team. I don’t know what else to say. I want to help this team win the Stanley Cup because people in Philadelphia and the organization have waited long enough.”

At least he understands the expectations in Philly. In Phoenix, a great regular season and a playoff appearance were enough for to keep most fans happy. Next season, fans will expect a great regular season, a playoff berth, and much more.

Semyon Varlamov (Colorado Avalanche): Varlamov has a completely different set of expectations than Bryzgalov—yet still faces plenty of pressure. When the Avalanche gave up both a first and second round pick for the talented former 1st round pick, they loudly stated that they expected him to be the goaltender of the future for their rebuilding team. He’ll need to prove to the fans that he was worth the huge price GM Greg Sherman paid for him at July 1st or the jokes will be coming faster than you can say Phil Kessel. If Varlamov is only an average goaltender and the Avs struggle again next season, the Avalanche could have traded away one of the top picks of next year’s draft. It’ll be Varlamov’s job to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Tomas Vokoun (Washington Capitals): The Washington Capitals have been the best regular season team in the Eastern Conference over the last two seasons—including a Presidents’ Trophy as best regular season team in the NHL. Yet in both years, the team fell apart in the postseason and only managed one series win combined. One of the big question marks surrounding the team (rightfully or wrongly) has been the absence of a veteran goaltender that could carry the Caps deep into the playoffs. Jose Theodore played all of two playoff games in 2008-09 and the rest have been started by guys under the age of 23. When Vokoun fell into Washington’s lap on July 2, he wasn’t expressly given the starting job—but it certainly sounds like it’s his to lose. Over the majority of his career in Nashville and Florida, Vokoun has proven that he’s one of the most underrated goaltenders in the NHL. If he can perform at the highest level next season with the Caps, everyone will know his name.

Mike Smith (Phoenix Coyotes): Smith may have the most thankless job ahead of him this season. One of the least known people on this list, he’ll be faced with the challenge of replacing one of the best goaltenders over the last two years (Bryzgalov) on a team that has made the playoffs in consecutive years. The consensus opinion is that without elite goaltending by Bryzgalov, Phoenix would have struggled to make the playoffs in either season. This year, fans will find out exactly how important he was to the team—and if Smith is able to fill the large void left by the new Flyers goaltender. Smith knows people will measure him against his predecessor:

“The main thing is I know I’m capable of playing really well. I know ‘Bryz’ did some outstanding things in Phoenix and has had a great career so far and will probably continue to do so in Philly, but I’m not going there with the expectation of surpassing him… I’m just going to go there and take it one game at a time, play up to my capability, and if I do that, good things are going to happen for me.”

Sports cliché’s aside, Smith has the perfect outlook going into his new gig. He’ll just have to go into Phoenix and take advantage of his opportunity as the team’s starter. If Smith can recapture the spark that intrigued the Lightning enough to include him in the Brad Richards trade, the Coyotes may have a guy who could help ease the pain of losing their franchise goaltender.

Jose Theodore (Florida Panthers): The Florida Panthers have certainly made a splash this offseason as Dale Tallon has worked to transform the team from one with potential and prospects to a team with plenty of proven NHL players. As part of his rebuilding plan, he hoped to re-sign Tomas Vokoun to go with all of the new faces. When it was apparent that Vokoun was looking for more money than the Panthers were willing to offer, he quickly moved to Plan B and picked up free agent Jose Theodore. Last season, Theodore had a .916 save percentage and 2.71 goals against average for a poor Minnesota Wild team; this year, he’ll fight with Scott Clemmensen for the starter’s role. The team went out and made plenty of acquisitions this year and expects to fight for the playoffs—but if the goaltending falls apart, there’s no way their team will be able to take the next step from cellar-dweller to playoff team. Theodore’s performance will have a lot to do with the Panthers’ success next season.

Colorado’s core is under heavy scrutiny, yet again

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 25: (l-r) Joe Sakic and Alan Hepple of the Colorado Avalanche attend the 2016 NHL Draft on June 25, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Getty
1 Comment

Prior to Thursday’s loss to Columbus, Colorado GM Joe Sakic was asked how his core players have performed during an ugly 9-12-1 start to the year — “inconsistent,” he said — and was then asked he had any intention of breaking the core up.

“Not right now, no,” Sakic said, per the Denver Post. “It’s early in the year.

“I have faith in them, but to me, the start is not a core thing — it’s a team thing.”

Not long after Sakic said that, the Avs lost their fourth straight game, putting them on 19 points — tied with Arizona for the fewest in the NHL.

And then, in his first real bit of message-sending, head coach Jared Bednar took the core to task.

“I’m going to say this,” Bednar said in his postgame media availability. “Tonight, I thought our supporting cast did a real good job up front. I didn’t love some of our top guys tonight. Not that they didn’t work hard, but I didn’t love their game as a whole.”

The controversy surrounding Colorado’s core guys dates back to the Patrick Roy era. After missing the playoffs for a second straight year — which he called “unacceptable” — Roy unloaded on his top players in an April radio interview, saying “the core needs to show more leadership.”

“It was like this when I played for Montreal, it was like this when I played for the Avs,” Roy continued. “The core are the ones that have to carry the team. They’re the ones where, when you lose a game, it has to hurt from the inside. You should want more.”

At this point, it’s probably prudent to identify exactly who comprises the Avs’ core. The Post says it’s “generally considered to be six players, now all tied up to long-term contracts.” Six of the longest-term contracts on Colorado’s books belong to Nathan MacKinnon (signed through 2023), Erik Johnson (2023), Gabriel Landeskog (2021), Tyson Barrie (2020), Matt Duchene (2019) and Semyon Varlamov (2019).

Carl Soderberg, signed through 2020, could be seen as the potential seventh member.

Roy clearly wanted to move on from at least some of these guys, and the fact Sakic didn’t was a major reason why Roy abruptly resigned in August. But it wasn’t that Sakic just keep the core intact — he actually strengthened his commitment to it by giving Barrie a four-year extension this summer, at a time when many figured the puck-moving blueliner would be dealt.

In light of that, it’s not really surprising that Sakic came out yesterday and publicly defended his core guys.

He’s sticking to his guns.

For now, anyway.

Like the Blackhawks, the Ducks have a youth movement of their own

Anaheim Ducks' Ondrej Kase, center, of the Czech Republic, celebrates his goal against the Vancouver Canucks with Ryan Getzlaf, left, Nick Ritchie, front right, and Cam Fowler, back, during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016, in Vancouver, British Columba. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)
AP
Leave a comment

The Anaheim Ducks, after a fairly unimpressive start under new/old coach Randy Carlyle, are slowly but surely beginning to find their game. The Ducks dominated the Canucks last night in Vancouver, a 3-1 triumph that came after consecutive victories in San Jose and at home to Montreal.

Last night’s game-winning goal was scored by Ondrej Kase, a 21-year-old rookie forward from the Czech Republic who was playing only his eighth NHL game.

That’s worth mentioning, because the Ducks have been forced to introduce a number of young forwards into their lineup, after losing the likes of David Perron, Chris Stewart, and Jamie McGinn to free agency, and while Nate Thompson remains sidelined with a ruptured Achilles tendon.

Carlyle was asked if his lineup needed some fresh blood anyway, after last season’s disappointing first-round playoff exit.

“Well, if we did or didn’t, it was budget,” he said. “Simple as that. So that’s the way the hockey world works. You can’t maintain the level of player and the pay scale when you have talent in your lineup that grows. So you always have to have a fresh supplement of talent, and they have to be entry-level people.”

The Ducks, of course, had to give significant raises to a couple of their young stars, Rickard Rakell and Hampus Lindholm.

     Read more: With Lindholm signed, Ducks GM hopes to keep team together

Kase, a seventh-round draft pick in 2014, is just one of the rookie forwards who’ve played for the Ducks this season. Joseph Cramarossa is another. Nick Ritchie isn’t a rookie, but he’s still on his entry-level deal.

“We’re still very much so a work in progress from the standpoint that we haven’t found a niche for every player,” said Carlyle. “You know, big Ritchie’s been a good player for us. … Cramarossa basically coming in and earning a spot in training camp. Kase. Those are decent entries into our lineup and we don’t have to play them too high. And that really helps when you don’t have to put them into your top-six forward grouping.”

That’s because the Ducks still have veterans like Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Corey PerryJakob SilfverbergAndrew Cogliano, and Antoine Vermette.

The Ducks, in that way, are a lot like the Chicago Blackhawks, who’ve been forced to an even larger extent to insert fresh blood into their lineup. It’s been a work in progress for Chicago as well. Though the ‘Hawks have been winning a lot of games, they’ve been heavily reliant on their veterans for goals. Whether they can become a consistent three- or four-line threat by springtime remains to be seen.

In fact, for both teams, that question may very well determine how far they go in the playoffs.

Because like Carlyle said, for teams to remain successful in today’s NHL, there has to be that constant supply of young talent. The Pittsburgh Penguins, with their contributions from all the Baby Pens, proved that again last season.

When that supply runs out, well, did you see the team the Ducks played last night? There’s a reason the Canucks are no longer among the league’s elite. Their supply ran out for a few years, and it’s only starting now to be replenished.

Abdelkader out 2-4 weeks as another — yes, another — injury hits Detroit

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 15: Justin Abdelkader #8 of the Detroit Red Wings skates against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center on March 15, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Flyers defeated the Red Wings 4-3.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Getty
1 Comment

Injuries are a part of the game. But in Detroit, they’re becoming a fabric of the team.

On Friday, the Red Wings announced that burly power forward Justin Abdelkader would miss the next 2-4 weeks with a MCL sprain (per the Free Press), suffered in last night’s OT loss to Florida.

Abdelkader — who has four goals and eight points through 22 games this season — was averaging 16:26 TOI per night prior to getting hurt. He’d also been heating up lately after a slow start to the year, with four points in his last six contests.

As mentioned in the headline, this is just the latest in a series of injuries to hit the Wings:

Andreas Athanasiou has been out since Nov. 11 with a knee injury.

Darren Helm has been out since Nov. 17 with a shoulder issue.

Jimmy Howard hasn’t played since Nov. 25 due to a groin strain.

Alexey Marchenko was placed on IR last week with a shoulder problem of his own.

Brendan Smith is out four weeks with a knee injury.

Tyler Bertuzzi is out 3-5 weeks with a high ankle sprain.

The club is expected to make another recall from AHL Grand Rapids to fill the Abdelkader void. Leaning on the Griffins has been a common trend this year — in last night’s game against the Panthers, both Anthony Mantha and Ryan Sproul saw significant playing time.

Gudbranson threatened Martin in a ‘fit of rage,’ didn’t really mean what he said

4 Comments

Erik Gudbranson didn’t really mean it. He doesn’t actually intend to kill Matt Martin.

“That was kind of a spur of the moment,” Gudbranson said Thursday. “I was walking to the dressing room. I was just frustrated. That was a tough night. Do I mean anything I said? Absolutely not. That’s outrageous. That’s just kind of a fit of rage. Unfortunately, it got blown up to that proportion.”

Gudbranson, of course, was heard saying, “Matt Martin’s dead,” after his Vancouver Canucks got thumped, 6-3, in Toronto on Nov. 5. Martin, the big Maple Leafs forward, had gone after Canuck rookie Troy Stecher in the boisterous affair, which had also featured a controversial Nazem Kadri hit on Daniel Sedin, among a few other things.

The Canucks have a rematch with the Leafs Saturday in Vancouver.

Gudbranson was asked if he’d heard anything from the league ahead of the game. He hadn’t, personally, but his general manager, Jim Benning, was contacted, and then Benning relayed the message to Gudbranson.

The message is obviously that the league will be watching closely.

The Canucks, currently missing their two best defenseman, had one of their worst performances of the season Thursday, falling 3-1 to the Ducks at Rogers Arena. So they should be doubly motivated to play well Saturday against the visitors from Toronto.

“That’s a good hockey team that spanked us in their own building,” Gudbranson said of the Leafs. “Our main focus, and especially mine, is coming out and getting two points. That’s the best way to hurt them. We need to be ready for a big tilt.”