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Trading places: New goaltenders with pressure to perform next season

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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.

Capuano firing puts focus on Snow

BETHPAGE, NY - SEPTEMBER 09:  (L-R) Head coach Jack Capuano, John Tavares, and General Manager Garth Snow of the New York Islanders pose for a photo during a press conference naming John Tavares the New York Islanders team captain at Carlyle on the Green on September 9, 2013 in Bethpage, New York.  (Photo by Andy Marlin/Getty Images)
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A coaching change is rarely made without management shouldering some, or much, of the blame.

Case in point, last year, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford admitted that he was partly to blame for his team’s struggles, “because I didn’t get the defensemen that were necessary to have more movement from the back end.”

But Rutherford fired Mike Johnston anyway, and we all know where Mike Sullivan led the Pens, with some help from his GM.

Today, Jack Capuano was fired after a lengthy run as the head coach of the New York Islanders. And while there was certainly a case to be made for the move, GM Garth Snow will not, and should not, escape blame. The Isles’ roster is littered with underperformers, and it starts with Andrew Ladd, the team’s big offseason acquisition.

Halfway through the season, Ladd has just eight goals and four assists. He also turned 31 in December and is signed through 2022-23 for a cap hit of $5.5 million. 

Nikolay Kulemin is another aging, overpaid winger. So is 37-year-old Jason Chimera. For some reason, Cal Clutterbuck got a five-year, $17.5 million extension. He hits a lot, sure, but he only has three goals in 40 games. Meanwhile, Nino Niederreiter, whom the Isles traded to get Clutterbuck, has turned into an impact player for the Wild.

And we haven’t even mentioned the goaltending situation, which remains in flux. Thomas Greiss has been the Isles’ only good netminder this season. Greiss is also a 30-year-old pending unrestricted free agent who will undoubtedly be looking for a raise.

Now, do the Isles have some good, young prospects? Yes, they do. Mathew Barzal, Kieffer Bellows, Anthony Beauvillier, Michael Dal Colle, and Josh Ho-Sang all have real potential.

But management and ownership have a major task ahead of them in re-signing John Tavares, who can become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2018. So far, the captain has said he wants to stay. But with just 24 playoff games on his NHL resume, he’s also said he wants to have success.

“I think for myself, I’ve always shown and talked about my commitment here,” Tavares said recently. “Wanting to have success here and keep building on some of the good things we’ve done. Obviously, this [low] point’s been disappointing.”

It was reported back in December that the club’s new owners, Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky, had been searching for a “big name” to run the team. The Isles denied the report, but it immediately set off speculation about Snow’s future.

Don’t expect that speculation to die down now that Capuano has been shown the door. Snow was actually asked today if he thought his job was safe.

“I don’t even worry about that,” he told reporters.

It’s beyond his control anyway. All he can do now is hope for a miraculous turnaround. The Isles start a six-game home stand Thursday. They’re currently dead last in the Eastern Conference, eight points back of the second wild-card spot.

“We need to turn this ship around,” said Snow, “and I really have a lot of confidence in our coaching staff and in our players.”

Of course, he’s said that before.

Goalie nods: Interesting times in St. Louis, as Hutton makes third straight start

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 01: Carter Hutton #40 of the St. Louis Blues stops a shot by Vincent Hinostroza #48 of the Chicago Blackhawks during a preseason game at the United Center on October 1, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Jake Allen‘s had trouble adjusting to life as the Blues’ No. 1 netminder — see here, here, here and here — and now, he’s getting an awfully long look at St. Louis’ No. 2.

Tonight, Carter Hutton will make his third consecutive start when the Blues host the Sens at Scottrade. The decision to stick with Hutton comes after he stopped 55 of 56 shots in back-to-back wins over the Sharks and Ducks — on the road, no less — and posted a 23-save shutout in San Jose on Saturday.

Allen, meanwhile, hasn’t played since a 5-1 loss to Los Angeles last Thursday in which he was hooked in favor of Hutton. That was, somewhat infamously, when Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock dropped some pretty frank talk on his beleaguered No. 1.

“This is really on the athlete. There’s times in your young career where you just said you’ve had enough and then you’ve got to go turn it around the other way,” Hitchcock said of Allen’s struggles. “He’s in a position where he’s the guy that has to really take charge here.

“He’s got to man-up and get better.”

Allen, 26, was tasked with carrying the load this season after the Blues dealt Brian Elliott to Calgary at the draft. His status as the club’s No. 1 was cemented with a four-year, $17.4 million deal signed not long after. But things haven’t gone to plan since — Allen’s struggled all year, and is currently saddled with a .900 save percentage and 2.76 GAA.

This latest development is really compelling. For most of the year, Hitch has adhered to the “he’s our guy, we gotta stick with him” philosophy with Allen — until now. Perhaps Hitch is tired of waiting. Or perhaps he sees Nashville in the rear view — the Preds have won three straight, and are now just four points back of St. Louis in the Central.

For the Sens, Mike Condon starts in goal.

Elsewhere…

— More of the same for the red-hot ‘Canes, who will give Cam Ward his 20th consecutive start. No word yet on who goes for the host Blue Jackets, as Sergei Bobrovsky has been dealing with an illness.

Henrik Lundqvist‘s trusty backup, Antti Raanta, is out until the All-Star break with a lower-body injury, so it’s King Henrik in goal for the foreseeable future. No word yet on who Dallas will start, though Kari Lehtonen did play in yesterday’s loss to Buffalo.

Robin Lehner, fresh off a 31-save win over Dallas on Monday, is back in for the Sabres. He’ll be up against Frederik Andersen in Toronto.

— The Devils will stick with Cory Schneider after he beat the Canucks in Vancouver on Sunday. The host Wild are going with Devan Dubnyk, who continues to be lights-out this season.

— It’s Roberto Luongo versus Chad Johnson as the Panthers take on the Flames in Calgary.

Semyon Varlamov, who’s lost his first two games since returning from a groin injury, will get the start in Colorado as the Avs host the Blackhawks. Chicago counters with Corey Crawford.

Jonathan Bernier took advantage of a rare start on the weekend, shutting out the Coyotes, but the Ducks will go back to John Gibson when the host the Bolts. Tampa Bay has yet to announce a starter, but Ben Bishop did play (and win) yesterday in L.A.

Ryan Miller gets back in goal for Vancouver after Jacob Markstrom played against New Jersey on Sunday. Looks like Miller will face off against Pekka Rinne, who starts for the visiting Preds.

Isles fire Capuano

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 24: Jack Capuano of the New York Islanders leaves the ice following a 2-1 victory over the Florida Panthers in Game Six of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Barclays Center on April 24, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The Islanders won the game 2-1 to win the series four games to two. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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After a disappointing campaign that’s seen numerous calls for his job, Jack Capuano has been fired by the Islanders.

Assistant GM Doug Weight, who also served as a bench coach on Capuano’s staff, will take over the gig on an interim basis.

Capuano’s dismissal come with the Isles sitting dead last in the Eastern Conference, with a 17-17-8 record and just 42 points. They’re eight back of Philly for the final wild card spot, though the club did just put forth one of its best efforts of the season in Monday’s 4-0 win over the Bruins at TD Garden.

Despite that, the Isles are still a far cry from where they were last season, when they qualified for their second straight playoff appearance and won a round for the first time since 1993.

The team underwent some significant changes this offseason — Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo and Matt Martin left in free agency, while Andrew Ladd and Jason Chimera came aboard — and never seemed to gel. Ladd and Chimera have disappointed, the defense and goaltending have been suspect (24th in GAA) and special teams have been a constant problem (26th-ranked PP, 21st-ranked PK).

There was hope former first-round pick Ryan Strome would take another step forward in his progression, but it hasn’t happened. And the club’s talented prospects — Mathew Barzal, Michael Dal Colle, Josh Ho-Sang — were deemed too young and inexperienced to play this season.

As a result, Capuano openly questioned how the club would compensate for the offseason departures.

“Where are we going to get point production?” Capuano asked reporters earlier this month. “One hundred and thirty-four points out of our lineup that we lost. Now we have to find a way. Like everything gets magnified, I get it. You guys are talking about the (losses) lately…but we have to find a way to get some balanced offense in our hockey team.”

There was also a constant issue with the club’s three-goalie setup, only recently alleviated with the waiving and AHL demotion of Jaroslav Halak — which came after Caupano called Halak out for his poor play.

It’s worth noting that, earlier this season, Isles GM Garth Snow had given Capuano a vote of confidence. But time and patience apparently ran out. As a result, the NHL’s fourth longest-tenured head coach is no longer.

Tough day in Vancouver: Hutton out 3-6 weeks with fractured hand

ANAHEIM, CA - OCTOBER 23:  Ben Hutton #27 of the Vancouver Canucks trips Ryan Garbutt #16 of the Anaheim Ducks during the first period of a game at Honda Center on October 23, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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Just a short while ago, the Canucks announced they were shutting down Anton Rodin — the Swedish Hockey League’s reigning MVP — with a troublesome knee injury that isn’t getting better.

Now, more bad news.

Sophomore defenseman Ben Hutton, just weeks removed from signing a two-year contract extension, has suffered a fractured hand and will miss the next 3-6 weeks of action.

Hutton hasn’t dressed since Jan. 6, when he played nearly 22 minutes in a win over Calgary. He sat out the next night’s game — and did so on late notice, forcing the Canucks to play with just five d-men — and now joins fellow blueliners Erik Gudbranson and Philip Larsen on the shelf.

The University of Maine product is a big piece of Vancouver’s defense. Prior to getting hurt, he had four goals and seven assists in 41 games while averaging 20:59 of ice time.

The 23-year-old burst onto the scene last year, and surprised many last year after making the team out of training camp and putting together an impressive campaign. A fifth-round pick in 2012, Hutton finished tied for second with Colton Parayko in rookie d-men in assists (24), trailing only Flyers standout Shayne Gostisbehere.

Hutton was then named to Team Canada’s gold-medal winning side at the 2016 World Hockey Championships.

Looking ahead, the Canucks project to ice a blueline featuring Alex Edler, Chris Tanev, Luca Sbisa, Nikita Tryamkin, Troy Stecher and Alex Biega tonight when they host the Predators.