Which Goalie Is Winning the Race to Be Canada's Olympic Starter?

Jonathan WillisNHL National ColumnistOctober 26, 2013

Which Goalie Is Winning the Race to Be Canada's Olympic Starter?

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    In some years, Team Canada's starting goaltender is obvious to all, held by an incumbent with a sterling résumé. This is not one of those years. 

    All three goalies who represented Canada in 2010 have had problems in the years since.

    Roberto Luongo is still regarded as a high-end starter but has spent most of the last two seasons as trade bait after Cory Schneider unseated him in Vancouver. Only cap considerations kept Luongo a Canuck.

    Martin Brodeur lost the top job to Luongo in 2010 and is in the twilight of an illustrious career. He has been a sub-average (or worse) goalie for the last three seasons and through four games with New Jersey this year has a .865 save percentage; it is a foregone conclusion that he will not be going to Sochi.

    Third-stringer Marc-Andre Fleury has had his own problems. While the Penguins goalie has posted solid regular-season results in Pittsburgh, he has failed to hit the .900 save percentage mark in four consecutive playoff appearances since the Vancouver Olympics and has often been the primary reason for early playoff exits for Pittsburgh.

    So, with an uncertain group of incumbents, who is winning the race to play in Sochi right now? Read on to see how we rank the contenders and the pretenders and to see who our choice is for the top job. 

     

    This list makes use of statistics from NHL.com and HockeyAnalysis.com.

13. Steve Mason, Philadelphia Flyers

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    Amid the doom and gloom in Philadelphia is at least one bright spot: Steve Mason rehabilitating his game.

    Mason gained fame in his rookie season by taking over the starting role in Columbus and going 33-20-7 with a .916 save percentage. He won the Calder Trophy for his efforts.

    The Blue Jackets anointed him starter, and Mason imploded, dragging the team down with him in three seasons as the starter. Columbus subsequently dumped him to Philadelphia, where he has been very good.

    But that isn't enough to make Mason a serious option for Team Canada, because 14 encouraging games does not undo the previous three years of poor play. 

    Key Numbers:

    • .915 five-on-five save percentage, 2008-13.
    • 2-5-0, .930 save percentage this season.

12. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Colorado Avalanche

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    Giguere has been ridiculously good for Colorado, forcing the team to give him starts despite the very strong play of starter Semyon Varlamov (6-1-0, .948 save percentage).

    Once a very good starter-level goalie in the NHL, Giguere's career has been slowly winding down over the last five seasons. He lost the top job in Anaheim, was unable to keep it in Toronto and while he has been better in Colorado, the Avalanche clearly see him as a strong backup rather than a starting option.

    Despite his brilliant play, Giguere is well down any list of potential Canadian Olympic goalies.

    Key Numbers:

    • .917 five-on-five save percentage, 2008-13.
    • 3-0-0, .981 save percentage this season.

11. Josh Harding, Minnesota Wild

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    One of the very best stories in the NHL this season has been Josh Harding's incredible performance with the Minnesota Wild.

    A year ago, Harding was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a pronouncement which seemingly brought an end to his status as one of the league's better up-and-comers. He played just five games during the 2012-13 season, going 1-1-0 with an .863 save percentage.

    Instead, he has been one of the league's best goalies playing in relief of the injured Niklas Backstrom.  

    Key Numbers:

    • .920 five-on-five save percentage, 2008-13.
    • 5-2-1, .953 save percentage this season.

10. Devan Dubnyk, Edmonton Oilers

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    With a strong start to the season, Dubnyk might have played his way into the Team Canada conversation. His long-term numbers have been pretty good, and he'd established himself as an NHL starter in 2012-13 and had three years of solid play on his side.

    Dubnyk did not start strongly. He got lit up badly in his first four starts, prompting a goaltending crisis in Edmonton. He has since rebounded (2-2-0, .918 save percentage) over his last four starts, but even so, at this point the idea of him playing in the Olympics is risible.

    Key Numbers:

    • .921 five-on-five save percentage, 2008-13.
    • 2-5-1, .878 save percentage this season.

9. James Reimer, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    From a statistical perspective, the lack of respect that James Reimer gets is shocking.

    To be sure, Reimer's 100-odd NHL games do not represent a big enough sample to be absolutely confident in his true talent level. However, his .926 save percentage at even strength over that span is remarkably good, putting him in the upper echelon of Canadian goalies in that category.

    The Leafs, however, don't seem comfortable with him. After pursuing a goaltender at last year's trade deadline, they added Jonathan Bernier in the offseason. Now Reimer's stuck behind Bernier and probably will not get the chance to show what he might be capable of doing.  

    Key Numbers:

    • .926 five-on-five save percentage, 2008-13.
    • 2-0-0, .917 save percentage this season.

8. Cam Ward, Carolina Hurricanes

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    Normally, Cam Ward would rank much higher on this list. He is an accomplished NHL starter, has played in three World Championships for Canada and has strong career numbers. Unfortunately, he was on the outside looking in over the summer and misfortune has intervened in the form of injury. 

    Chip Alexander of the Raleigh News & Observer reports that Ward will miss the next three to four weeks with a "lower-body injury." It's a big blow to a Carolina team that was already missing its backup goalie thanks to injury and at least as big a blow to Ward's Olympic hopes. 

     

    Key Numbers:

    • .925 five-on-five save percentage, 2008-13.
    • 2-2-3, .912 save percentage this season.

7. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals

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    Holtby was a somewhat surprising invite to Canada's summer orientation camp, given he had played in fewer than 60 NHL contests at the time. Making the invite more surprising was an up-and-down history of AHL performances; over three seasons, Holtby had posted .920, .906 and .932 save percentages.

    The 24-year-old's work early has been pretty good. He struggled in his first few games but has caught fire since and now has a very respectable .919 save percentage on the season. But there just isn't enough history to include him on this year's Olympic roster.

    Key Numbers:

    • .930 five-on-five save percentage, 2008-13.
    • 4-4-0, .919 save percentage this season.

6. Jonathan Bernier, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    As with Braden Holtby, the primary trouble with Jonathan Bernier is simply his lack of a track record.

    The highly touted goaltender had appeared in just 62 NHL contests prior to this season. He had put in solid work at the AHL level, and his draft pedigree (11th overall, 2006) shows that he was highly regarded even before that. But with Jonathan Quick locked in as the Kings starter, Bernier had no chance at taking the job himself.

    Now he's in Toronto, and he's done excellent work. If he keeps playing like this, he will be a strong candidate for the 2018 team. Right now, it's just too early to put him ahead of Canada's other options. 

    Key Numbers:

    • .923 five-on-five save percentage, 2008-13.
    • 5-4-0, .930 save percentage this season.

5. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    With Tomas Vokoun hurt, there were fears in Pittsburgh that Fleury would crumple without a safety net. So far, he's done everything possible to put those fears to rest, going 7-1-0 with a .930 save percentage to start the year and giving the Penguins everything they could possibly want out of their starting goalie.

    Unfortunately for Fleury's Olympic ambitions, his status as a pressure goalie has been demolished by his work over the last four years. The powerhouse Penguins have had early playoff exit after early playoff exit, in no small part because of Fleury's playoff meltdowns. His playoff save percentage now sits at a miserable .903, despite good numbers early in his career.

    Fluery's long-term five-on-five track record puts him just outside Canada's upper ranks anyway; his playoff performances should represent the final nails in his Olympic coffin, despite his strong play early this year.

    Key Numbers:

    • .921 five-on-five save percentage, 2008-13.
    • 7-1-0, .930 save percentage this season.

4. Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks

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    Corey Crawford has had his share of criticism—and then some—over the last two seasons. A quick Google search for "Corey Crawford glove hand" gets 108,000 results, and the top results have titles like "Bruins Abusing Corey Crawford's Glove Side" and "Corey Crawford's Glove Hand AWOL."

    And yet, somehow, Crawford managed to post a .932 playoff save percentage as the Blackhawks starter last year in a run that ended with a Stanley Cup win.  

    Crawford's career numbers are good, he has a Cup ring as a starter now and he's played well in the early going this season. He's very much in the conversation for Team Canada, but right now, he probably falls just short.

    Key Numbers:

    • .924 five-on-five save percentage, 2008-13.
    • 5-1-2, .921 save percentage this season.

3. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

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    The 2005 fifth overall pick has been the next big thing for years, both for Team Canada and for the Montreal Canadiens (a team with its own modest history of exceptional starters). While he has yet to definitively prove he's that guy, his start this season is awfully encouraging.

    Price's career numbers put him somewhere in the No. 2-6 slots on Canada's depth chart, but he certainly fits the profile of what Canada seems to like in its third-string goalie. He's young enough (he turned 26 in August) to still be seen as an up-and-comer, and yet he has enough of a track record to plausibly step in and play if the need arises.

    Another positive:Tthe Canadiens' starting job might be the only one in the league that properly prepares a goalie for the pressure cooker that is the Canadian starting job.

    Key Numbers:

    • .924 five-on-five save percentage, 2008-13.
    • 5-4-0, .936 save percentage this season.

2. Mike Smith, Phoenix Coyotes

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    When Team Canada brought Mike Smith in for last summer's World Championships, they were doing more than hiring the best available goalie for an important international tournament. They were giving a potential Olympic starter the chance to play his first international games. The audition went relatively well; Smith recorded a .944 save percentage over four contests.

    Now Smith should be considered the favourite for the Olympic backup job. His long-term save percentage numbers trail only those of incumbent Roberto Luongo, and despite some ups and downs early in his career, he has come into his own in Phoenix.

    Also working in Smith's favour is his puck-handling game, something dramatically highlighted when Smith scored a goal last week.

    Key Numbers:

    • .926 five-on-five save percentage, 2008-13.
    • 5-2-2, .907 save percentage this season.

1. Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks

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    Despite Luongo's battle for playing time in Vancouver, he was the preseason favourite to start for Canada at the Sochi Games. And so far, there has been little to suggest that the Canadian team should look elsewhere. 

    Luongo's long-term track record is second to nobody else on this list, and with goalies, the long-term track record has to be king because their performance fluctuates so much in the short term. Nothing in his performance this season raises enough doubt to overturn that.

    Some will doubtless ask about Luongo's track record under pressure, but it's actually better than reputation would suggest. Luongo has been superb in basically every tournament he has ever played for Canada, and his career playoff numbers (32-31-5, .916 save percentage) at the NHL level aren't bad, either.

    Key Numbers:

    • .931 five-on-five save percentage, 2008-13.
    • 6-3-1, .908 save percentage this season.