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Predicting the Most Unstable NHL Goaltending Situations for 2014-15

Carol SchramFeatured ColumnistAugust 27, 2014

Predicting the Most Unstable NHL Goaltending Situations for 2014-15

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    Andre Ringuette/Getty Images

    Going into the 2014-15 season, the NHL is loaded up with great goaltending. It should make for some intriguing turf wars as the season gets underway.

    Broadly speaking, an elite corps of top netminders are being paid big salaries based on their experience and track records. They're being chased by a group of young guns who are out to prove that the only thing they're lacking is the pedigree: They're showing that they can outduel the big-money veterans on a regular basis.

    Team by team, the situation is much more complicated. In more than one case, contemporaries at very different points on the pay scale are battling for the top spot on their respective squads.

    With training camp just a few weeks away, here's a look at the most contentious crease battles we'll see in the NHL this year.

Anaheim Ducks

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Who Are the Players? 

    After Viktor Fasth was dealt to the Edmonton Oilers at the trade deadline and Jonas Hiller signed as a free agent with the Calgary Flames, the Anaheim Ducks are going (mostly) young in net this season.

    Sophomore Frederik Andersen should see starting duties, while young gun John Gibson will challenge. Veteran backup Jason Labarbera has been signed for insurance purposes.

     

    What's the Issue? 

    As an AHL injury recall during injuries to Fasth and Hiller in 2013-14, Andersen showed enough talent to make them both expendable. He posted a 20-5-0 record during the regular season, with a .923 save percentage and a 2.29 goals-against average.

    An injury to Andersen during the playoffs forced the Ducks to turn first back to Hiller, then to Gibson—who'd earned a shutout in his first-ever NHL game and been named second star of the week after his first week of competition. Gibson and the Ducks fell in seven games to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.

     

    How Will It Shake Out? 

    Just 21 and with only three regular-season games under his belt, Gibson can still be sent to the minors without having to clear waivers, so it's likely that he'll start the season with the Norfolk Admirals. The Ducks know they have something special with Gibson. They'll try to bring him along slowly, but like Andersen last year, he could get a chance to shine if the injury bug strikes once again.

Detroit Red Wings

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    Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

    Who Are the Players? 

    The Detroit Red Wings enter the 2014-15 season with the same goaltending tandem as last year—30-year-old starter Jimmy Howard and 29-year-old backup Jonas "The Monster" Gustavsson.

    With a little help from injury replacement Petr Mrazek, the group combined to give Detroit a 39-28-15 record in 2013-14, good for eighth place in the Eastern Conference.

     

    What's the Issue? 

    Last season, there was little to choose from between Howard and Gustavsson. In the first year of a six-year, $31.75 million contract, injuries limited Howard to 51 regular-season games. He couldn't start the last two games of Detroit's first-round playoff series with Boston due to the flu, per TSN.ca.

    As Howard struggled, Gustavsson thrived. He couldn't salvage the playoff series but posted an impressive 16-5-4 record during the regular season, leading the Wings to re-sign him to a one-year, $1.85 million contract—a raise of $350,000 over his previous deal.

     

    How Will It Shake Out? 

    If Howard struggles out of the gate in 2014-15, fans will be crowing for more starts from The Monster, who delivered wins for the Red Wings last season.

Minnesota Wild

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    Who Are the Players? 

    Who aren't the players? The Minnesota Wild have incumbents Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding under contract for 2014-15 and retain the rights to restricted free agent Darcy Kuemper.

    Last season, they finished the playoffs with Ilya Bryzgalov in net. Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Bryzgalov would like to continue with the Wild.

    "Ilya would very much like to return to the Wild and further the success the team had down the stretch last year," his agent, Ritch Winter, said. "It was one of the most satisfying experiences he has had in his career."

     

    What's the Issue? 

    Right now—roster size. Down the road—chances of injury.

    The Wild turned to Kuemper and Bryzgalov last season after Josh Harding's terrific start was derailed at Christmas by complications related to his multiple sclerosis. Backstrom managed just 21 games before his season was ended in March by a strained abdominal muscle that required surgery.

    Russo reports that the Wild are "working toward re-signing" Kuemper and that general manager Chuck Fletcher is willing to commit three roster spots to goaltending. 

     

    How Will It Shake Out? 

    Despite Brzygalov's strong showing last season in Minnesota, he'll likely start the season as he did last year—outside the NHL, where he'll still earn $1.6 million as part of his buyout from the Philadelphia Flyers. On paper, it's unlikely the Wild's goaltending situation will be as complex as it was last season, but Harding's disease is unpredictable and 36-year-old Backstrom's body may be breaking down.

    Chuck Fletcher is wise to keep Kuemper on call, with Bryz as an ace in the hole—if he doesn't get snapped up by another team.

San Jose Sharks

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    Len Redkoles/Getty Images

    Who Are the Players? 

    Another tandem that played together last year. Soon-to-be 31-year-old Antti Niemi is in the last year of a four-year contract with an average annual value of $3.8 million a season. Backup Alex Stalock is 27, signed to a $1.6 million-a-year deal and supplanted Niemi during the San Jose Sharks' first-round playoff loss to the Los Angeles Kings.

     

    What's the Issue? 

    When the Sharks signed Stalock to a two-year deal just before the draft, Eric Gilmore of NHL.com reported that the backup would "be given a chance to supplant Antti Niemi…as the Sharks' No. 1 goaltender." Niemi is just one season away from becoming an unrestricted free agent.

     

    How Will It Shake Out?

    The Sharks are looking to get younger and change their culture, though they've been reluctant to make bold personnel moves this summer. A goaltending shift could create the optics of change that the team is promising.

    Stalock outplayed Niemi during his 24 NHL games last season and has handled a starter's workload previously in the AHL. Expect to see him play no less than a career-high 40 games this year.

Toronto Maple Leafs

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Who Are the Players? 

    Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer, both 26, will battle it out once again for the top spot in the Toronto Maple Leafs' crease.

     

    What's the Issue?

    Sean Farrell of NHL.com says the Leafs' goaltending question is the No. 1 issue for a team that has undergone major changes throughout its organization this summer. 

    General manager Dave Nonis admits that trade possibilities were explored for Reimer but says all sides are comfortable with him staying in the fold.

    What he did ask was for us to explore opportunities that would make sense for both sides. We did. I went back to him and said, 'I don't have something that I would feel comfortable doing and we prefer to sign you.' We both felt him coming back was good for us and for him. He wouldn't have signed a two-year deal if he didn't feel comfortable coming back to Toronto.

     

    How Will It Shake Out? 

    After Bernier was acquired a year ago, he held the edge in minutes played, wins, goals-against and save percentage in 2013-14. He's also earning $2.9 million to Reimer's $2.3 million this season. 

    Instead of a no-trade clause, it's more like Reimer has a "must-trade clause" attached to his new deal. Whether Reimer dazzles out of the gate or settles into a backup role, expect to hear his name in trade rumors until he's eventually dealt.

Vancouver Canucks

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    Bill Wippert/Getty Images

    Who Are the Players? 

    During a summer of change, the Vancouver Canucks signed veteran Ryan Miller to a three-year, $18 million contract, anointing him as their new No. 1 goaltender. Vancouver also has young Swedes Eddie Lack and Jacob Markstrom under contract for 2014-15.

     

    What's the Issue? 

    Canucks fans are still feeling the sting of losing both Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo but warmed to the affable Lack. He brought a lighthearted touch to the crease—along with enough good goaltending to supplant Roberto Luongo at the Heritage Classic in March.

    Lack faltered in the late stages of the season as the team in front of him fell apart, but he showed plenty of promise earlier in the year. The Miller acquisition could make Jacob Markstrom expendable.

     

    How Will It Shake Out?

    As Kevin Woodley puts it on NHL.com, it will likely come down to "Which Ryan Miller did the Canucks get?"

    If Miller can deliver wins and help get the Canucks back on track to a playoff spot, he'll probably roll through the season as the undisputed No. 1. But as soon as he falters, fans will be braying for more opportunities for Lack, who said, via Woodley, "I'm going to keep working hard, push for playing time and when I'm not playing I'll do what is best for the team."

    It's unclear how Markstrom will fit into the equation. He came back to Vancouver as part of the Roberto Luongo trade, but that was under the Mike Gillis regime. The most likely scenario sees him exposed on waivers as he heads to Utica to start another season in the AHL.

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