For better or worse, former Montreal Canadiens one-time playoff hero Jaroslav Halak represents at least the short-term future of goaltending for the St. Louis Blues. The Blues’ hopes for a return to credibility rest largely on the Slovakian netminder’s shoulders.
Even with Halak firmly planted in the No. 1 role, it’s likely that the Blues will lean on its backup quite a bit too. Halak only played in 57 games in 2010-11, which represented a career-high. He struggled with injuries and inconsistency at times so maybe he can flirt with the 65 GP mark next season, but chances are that the No. 2 job will get some play in St. Louis.
With that in mind, the question is: who will it be? The Blues allowed former backup Ty Conklin to leave via free agency after his play flat-lined during an abysmal 2010-11 season. St. Louis is then left with a choice: over-sized prospect Ben Bishop or flawed but more experienced free agent addition Brian Elliott.
One of the most interesting things about this situation is that their goalie competition is on an even playing field, as Jeremy Rutherford discussed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The Blues signed Elliott to a two-way contract that will pay him $600,000 in the NHL and $105,000 in the AHL. Four days later, the team re-signed Bishop, then a restricted free-agent, to an identical contract. That sets up a situation that couldn’t be any more even heading into training camp in September.
“Two guys, both making the same amount of money, looking for the same job,” Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said recently.
Rutherford points out an interesting fact: this won’t be the first time the two goalies have battled eahc other. Elliott (then a junior at the University of Wisconsin) faced off against Bishop (then a freshman at Maine) in the 2006 Frozen Four, with Elliott’s Badgers earning a 5-2 win and then eventually a national championship.
Elliott had the experience edge then and he’ll have it now. He’s played in 142 NHL regular season games, going 61-53-16 with a .901 save percentage and 2.90 GAA. Elliott made one playoff appearance in which the Pittsburgh Penguins dismantled him in four games, forcing the Senators to turn to Pascal Leclaire.
Bishop’s NHL resume is scarce, with 13 games played during the last two seasons. He went 4-5-1 with an even more mediocre .896 and 2.83 GAA, although Rutherford makes a case for why he might have shown glimpses of promise.
In seven games with the Blues last season, when Halak had an injured hand, Bishop was 3-4 with a 2.76 goals-against average and an .899 save-percentage. But not told in those numbers is that after playing in Peoria until mid-February, Bishop joined the Blues and didn’t allow a goal in nine of his first 10 periods, including a 39-save shutout Feb. 5 against Edmonton. Of the 17 goals he permitted, nine were scored in two periods.
Considering Halak’s lack of a track record in carrying a big starting goalie workload, it’s likely that the Blues will need some solid play from their backup next season. The Elliott vs. Bishop training camp battle should be interesting to watch, although with both goalies under two-way contracts, that battle might extend far beyond September.
The Blues wouldn’t mind if it was still a question being asked beyond mid-April, either.