The NHL’s postmortem season is well under way, with three first-round series concluded and five other elimination games to be played within the next 48 hours. Normally, the primary storyline these past few years would revolve around goaltenders and their dominance, so what a happy turn of events that – with a handful of exceptions – goaltenders are not stealing the spotlight, or if they are, it is because they are leaking hockey pucks with abandon.
The best illustration might the Montreal Canadiens - Ottawa Senators’ series, which featured Carey Price’s struggles and then Carey Price’s injury. Or if it isn’t, it’s only because the Pittsburgh Penguins find themselves in an unexpectedly competitive series with the New York Islanders, after goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury had three rough outings in a row, forcing coach Dan Bylsma to switch to Tomas Vokoun for what finished as a 4-0 shutout win Thursday night. On paper, it may have looked easy, but the Islanders were the better team for the first period and Vokoun needed to be good then, until Sidney Crosby and Co. began to roll, with three goals in the second period to put it out of reach. The Chicago Blackhawks are through to the second round, in part because the Minnesota Wild was down to its No. 3 goalie by the end of the series; and the Vancouver Canucks deployed both Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider en route to getting swept by the San Jose Sharks.
Luongo wants to move and the Canucks want him to go, but realistically, the best landing place for him is Philadelphia, where the thick skin he developed in all those years of playing on the Left Coast would serve him well in a goalie wasteland. Philadelphia might be the City Of Brotherly Love, but there is little love lost between the Flyer faithful and whomever happens to be the goalie of the moment. It is impossible to see how Ilya Bryzgalov can return there next year, no matter how costly a compliance buyout might be. And if Brygalov takes the money and runs back to Russia, then Luongo’s contract – which closely resembles those that the Flyers signed Mike Richards and Jeff Carter to back in the day – suddenly becomes – well, tolerable might be the most charitable way of describing it.
And if not Philadelphia, could he possibly land in Tampa, where four different goalies (Anders Lindback, Mathieu Garon, Ben Bishop and Cedrick Desjardins) all saw time between the pipes for the Lightning this year? The numbers there, incidentally, paint an interesting picture, given that each of the four goalies had GAA’s between 2.90 and 3.00. Does that mean the goaltending was collectively mediocre across the board, or the team’s overall defensive play was? And if so, would a veteran presence such as Luongo make a difference? It’s a tough call for Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, who must surely have goaltending on the brain now, as he prepares a shadow roster for Canada’s 2014 Olympic team in Sochi.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly all but guaranteed that the NHL would be participating in Sochi next February, which was expected coming out of the lockout.
Most people, in forecasting Canada’s roster a year out, had both Price and Fleury on their lists in goal. Philosophically, Yzerman believes in taking a long view of player assessment, which is why they’ve been scouting players since January. The fact that neither Price nor Fleury performed well under pressure in these playoffs will not help their respective causes. You’d have to think that right now, the leading candidate might be Mike Smith, currently playing for Canada at the world championships in Stockholm, and thus far, leading the tournament with a .952 save percentage (greatly enhanced by a shutout win over Sweden earlier in the preliminary round).
The irony there, of course, is that Smith played for Yzerman in Tampa and ultimately was permitted to leave as an unrestricted free agent following the 2010-11 season (in which he posted an okay 13-6-1 record, with a 2.90 goals-against average). Smith revived his career after signing with Phoenix as a free agent, in no small part because of his work with Coyotes’ goalie coach Sean Burke, arguably one of the greatest international goalies of his generation and a former Olympian. Burke will have been filling Smith’s ears about the value of playing for Hockey Canada internationally – and if Smith continues to impress on the larger ice at the worlds, he should be in the conversation for the Olympic team along with Cam Ward, the Carolina Hurricanes’ goaltender, whose stock will rise by default, given that he was limited to 17 regular-season games this year because of injury.