Questions surround teams' new lineups in net
When NHL training camps open in less than a month's time, most of the focus will be on high-profile free agents who've swapped jerseys in the offseason.
Among that illustrious group, there is a striking paucity of top-name goaltenders.
When Jean-Sebastien Giguere re-signed in Anaheim after the Ducks captured their first Stanley Cup last June, the only top-level netminder was off the market.
While the free-agent goaltending cupboard may have been bare, the goaltending merry-go-round did not stop altogether, it just spun in relative obscurity. Still, when and how that goaltending ride stopped will say much about the immediate fortunes of many NHL teams.
Here's a look at how the goaltending picture may come into focus in the coming months.
Trending up (they hope)
Toronto: The Leafs swallowed hard and gave up three picks, including the 13th overall in June's entry draft, to acquire the San Jose Sharks' backup netminder, Vesa Toskala. Does the 30-year-old Finn become another Miikka Kiprusoff? GM John Ferguson better hope so.
Toskala was a stellar 49-17-5 over the past two seasons in San Jose, but he's played more than 60 games just once in his career dating back to junior days in Finland. Given the inconsistent play of last season's starter, Andrew Raycroft, if Toskala doesn't play that many games in Toronto, chances are the experiment's a failure.
Florida: The Panthers believe they're poised to make a run at the playoffs for the first time since 2000, and much of that optimism is fueled by the draft-weekend acquisition of former Predators backstopper Tomas Vokoun. When healthy, Vokoun is one of the top goaltenders in the game, but the Czech netminder struggled after returning from a thumb injury late last season. With journeyman Craig Anderson inheriting the backup role, the Panthers better hope Vokoun stays healthy or the early offseasons in South Florida will continue.
Boston: The epitome of unstable, the Bruins are doing their best to stabilize themselves from the goal on out, pursuing former Minnesota Wild netminder Manny Fernandez for weeks before acquiring him after the draft. The problem is that all reports suggest Fernandez, who shared the William M. Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed with Wild teammate Niklas Backstrom, was deemed expendable by the Wild because Fernandez is both moody and unstable. Hmmm.
Question Mark City
Los Angeles: The Kings made a bevy of offseason moves, but the one they didn't make will tell the biggest tale about the coming season. With so few quality goaltenders available via free agency, Kings GM Dean Lombardi and coach Marc Crawford have decided former AHL player of the year Jason Labarbera will get a chance to prove he's got NHL stuff. Labarbera played 29 games for the Kings in 2005-06, but none last season.
Phoenix: If the Coyotes can't deliver quality goaltending, they're certainly doing their best to deliver quantity. By signing free agent Alex Auld to a two-way deal this week, the Coyotes now have three would-be NHL netminders, none of whom has proved he can handle being a starter. Look for Auld to battle David Aebischer and Mikael Tellqvist for the right to backstop what will likely be the worst team in the NHL.
Pittsburgh: Expectations are high for the Penguins to take a mighty step toward a Stanley Cup this season. They'll have to do so without veteran netminder Jocelyn Thibault, who provided quite the safety net for young starter Marc-Andre Fleury last season. Thibault is in Buffalo and the safety net is considerably more frayed given that Dany Sabourin (only 14 NHL appearances to his credit) will start the season as backup. Much-traveled Ty Conklin is also in the mix.
Edmonton: On the other side of the backup ledger, the Oilers have given starter Dwayne Roloson more in the way of support, at least in theory, by bringing in former Hab and King Mathieu Garon, who couldn't seize the starter's job in L.A.
Buffalo: The Sabres divested themselves of one of the game's consummate backups at the trade deadline when they sent Martin Biron to Philadelphia. Bringing in the veteran Thibault, who was terrific in the last half of the season for the surging Penguins, will help Ryan Miller should he falter or come up lame.
New Jersey: The consensus impression, right or wrong, was that Martin Brodeur had been overused during the regular season when he set an NHL record for wins with 48. Enter veteran backup Kevin Weekes, who served as Henrik Lundqvist's understudy with the New York Rangers the past two seasons. Weekes can deliver quality starts, which should keep Brodeur fresh for the playoffs.
Calgary: There are few jobs less taxing than being backup to Kiprusoff, who has played in 148 games the past two seasons. But with Jamie "The Chopper" McLennan off to Russia, the job of opening the Flames' bench door will fall to youngsters Brent Krahn or Curtis McElhinney.
Chicago: The Blackhawks hope to ride a wave of talented youth and savvy veterans back into the playoff hunt. Former Cup winner Nikolai Khabibulin will be crucial to that effort, but look for Patrick Lalime and Wade Flaherty to battle for the chance to back up Khabibulin with Lalime in the driver's seat for that post.
The kids are all right (maybe)
Minnesota: With the mercurial Fernandez in Boston, the Wild will look to 23-year-old Josh Harding to take another step forward as Backstrom's backup. Harding was solid while turning in a 1.16 goals-against average and .960 save percentage in seven games last season.
Montreal: The Canadiens did little in the offseason to improve their chances of making the playoffs, but if there is one reason for optimism, it's the depth in goal. Watch for Carey Price, sensational on the international stage for Canada as a junior and then a surprise playoff hero in the AHL, to make a strong case to make the big club as Cristobal Huet's backup. Price just turned 20.
Rangers: With Weekes headed across the river to New Jersey, the Rangers will allow journeyman backup Stephen Valiquette and top netminding prospect Al Montoya to battle for the role of Lundqvist's stand-in. Montoya, the sixth overall pick in the 2004 draft, was terrific for Hartford of the AHL last season and the Rangers may believe it's time to give him a taste of NHL life.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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