What's hurting goalies more: Traffic or wear and tear?
Editor's note: In our "Friday Faceoff," ESPN.com NHL writer Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Toronto Star columnist and frequent ESPN.com contributor Damien Cox (based in Toronto) duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!
This week's topic: What is the reason behind all the goaltending injuries of late? Too much traffic in front, or too much wear and tear?
Scott: So, I was glancing at the scoring summaries this week and stumbled across such luminaries as Dany Sabourin, Johan Hedberg and, hang onto your keyboard, Ty Conklin. Yes, the same Ty Conklin who was last seen giving away the Edmonton Oilers' chance at a Stanley Cup in Game 1 of the 2006 finals. What gives? I thought this was supposed to be the marquee position in the NHL. It's like watching Joey Harrington.
Damien: Hey, don't leave out Alex Auld! Here's a guy who, 10 days ago, wasn't dressing as one of the three goalies with the AHL's San Antonio Rampage. Talk about being plucked from the trash heap. I think we're looking at a couple of factors. First, there seem to be more goalie injuries this season, and the difference between netminders in the NHL and across pro hockey in general is much smaller than people think.
Scott: Do you think more goalies are getting hurt because of the traffic in front, or are we seeing goalies breaking down from too much wear and tear like Roberto Luongo in Vancouver and Marc-Andre Fleury in Pittsburgh, who is now out for about six weeks?
Damien: Well, clearly they're not wearing nearly enough equipment just kidding! Seems mostly circumstantial to me, with every situation being different. There do seem to be more players accidentally "falling" on goalies in their crease these days, and more clubs seem to want to go with the same guy every night (hello, Evgeni Nabokov). But let's face it -- the masked men have had it their way for a long, long time.
Scott: Yes, I must admit I haven't been able to work up a whole wellspring of sympathy for the boys between the pipes and their complaints about traffic, etc. Hey, it's hockey, right? I am curious about your thinking that maybe there's not a lot of difference between top-end goalies and bottom-end goalies. Surely you're not suggesting that Auld is going to make Boston fans forget about Gerry Cheevers or even Timothy (as I understand he's now known) Thomas? Auld had every opportunity to show he was a No. 1 goaltender in Phoenix and was voted off the island even though he essentially had no competition (sorry, Mikael Tellqvist).
Damien: Outside of the very elite guys -- Martin Brodeur, Luongo, Henrik Lundqvist, Rick DiPietro -- I think it's largely a toss-up based on situation, experience, confidence, age, defensive schemes, cities, etc. Auld, to me, is a classic example. He looked more than good enough to be Vancouver's goalie, then got moved in a deal for Luongo to a bad Florida team, then to a bad Phoenix team, and now is back in the NHL with a Boston squad that has a clue in its own zone. And he's not the only one. Remember, the difference between a good goalie and a "bad" one is only 20 saves per 1,000 shots.
Scott: Oh sure, throw the math into the discussion. You know I hate that. I'm not sure I agree. What about a guy like Vesa Toskala, who has had an up-and-down season in Toronto but who I have always believed was a quality NHL netminder. If he's playing in, say, Columbus -- where coach Ken Hitchcock has his guys playing defense better than ever -- would Toskala have numbers like Pascal Leclaire, who might well be your Vezina Trophy winner if you had to vote today?
Damien: Great question, my Georgian friend. Toskala's a perfect example of what I'm talking about. This season, he had to adjust to not getting the start opening night, a new home rink, a new city with lots of new pressures and not being able to challenge as much as he did behind a more defensively sound San Jose squad. Once he made those adjustments (it took him more than two months), he started to shine. In his past seven starts, he's 5-1-1.
Scott: I know a goalie is only as good as his defense, etc. I read that in my handy goaltending cliché book. But I look around at teams that aspired to be Cup contenders, like Pittsburgh, which started the season with Sabourin and Fleury. Now it was a leap of faith that Fleury was going to take another step forward, and he didn't. Now, he's hurt. And now you've got Sabourin and Conklin, and that's a combination that's not going to get you into the playoffs, let alone put you on a playoff run. And though the Penguins aren't the 1976 Habs defensively, they're not all that bad. I think that's bad planning.
Damien: Bad planning? That's a little unfair, my friend. Few teams can plan on their No. 1 goalie going down. Do you think Kevin Weekes is ready in Jersey should Martin Brodeur go down for 6-8 weeks? And the fact that Conklin and Jussi Markkanen very nearly brought a Stanley Cup back to Edmonton (where they invented the sport, by the way) tells you that perhaps too much success is laid at the feet of big-name goalies.
Scott: So, if your theory is correct, Johan Holmqvist, who allowed four goals on six shots in the Lightning's 9-6 loss to Calgary on Thursday, would be a Vezina Trophy candidate if he were simply in the right spot? Or has the NHL become like baseball, where there simply aren't enough good goaltenders to go around? Or, hey, maybe the new game has just exposed some of these guys as being what they are -- ordinary.
Damien: Whoa, whoa, whoa! If you watch the Lightning play, it's pretty clear Terry Sawchuk would have his hands full behind that group and the style they play. I'm not saying Holmqvist is as good as Lundqvist (that actually sounds kinda cool). But I do think there are a lot of good goalies to go around, which makes you think Kings GM Dean Lombardi should have been able to find one in two years.
Scott: Yes, it does make you wonder about teams that can't seem to find at least some sort of comfort zone between the pipes. And once a team loses confidence in a guy, it doesn't really matter how good he is; it's going to be tough. That's why I think the Pittsburgh situation is interesting when/if Fleury gets back and the team manages to get into the playoffs. It's also interesting in Atlanta, where Kari Lehtonen is back but has some work to do in getting back the trust of the dressing room, given his play since last season's playoffs.
Damien: Ah, now you're on to something. As of Friday morning, there were 31 goalies with save percentages of .900 or better. But it's the netminders who have the confidence of their team (Lehtonen probably doesn't right now) who allow those teams to play in such a way that the goalie looks better and the team looks better. Toskala, as mentioned, is a perfect example.
Scott: And that confidence is a pretty hard thing to pin down. Sometimes it's how they react to goals, like not blaming their teammates to the media after the game, which has long been a goaltender defense mechanism, or not letting in that killer goal. I like to watch coaches who sometimes betray their emotions when a bad goal goes in and I think teams pick up on that, too. Bolts coach John Tortorella is an example. He's highly charged, and I think his disappointment at his goaltending at times gives his players an excuse for their own play. That's my Goaltending Psych 101 lesson for today.
Damien: Francois Allaire you are not. But I do wonder if any goaltender right now could go into that Tampa situation and succeed in the post-Nikolai Khabibulin era. I mean, those guys take a penalty and they start sending three men in. Forget Holmqvist -- Marc Denis has been a shattered soul since he went to Tampa to be the No. 1 guy.
Scott: Well, you bring up an interesting point on the role of goaltending consultants or coaches. I think it's generally regarded that the Allaire brothers (not to be confused with the Hanson brothers) have set the standard for preparing young netminders, like Lundqvist, Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Ilya Bryzgalov. But you still have to have the clay with which to mold the object, no? And with all due respect to Denis, he may need a clay infusion (he took the loss Thursday night, allowing four goals on 25 shots, which doesn't seem fair as Holmqvist allowed four on six. But I digress.).
Damien: Hey, your digressions are usually your strongest moments. I'm not sure I agree on Denis. He was a standout junior and won gold for Canada at the world championship by delivering some clutch performances, but just hasn't been in a stable, winning environment as a pro yet. But it's true that some guys just don't have the makeup to make it happen. See Andrew Raycroft for details.
Scott: Which is why you need to have an adequate Plan B. Sometimes it happens by chance, as in Ottawa, where GM Bryan Murray has lucked into a pretty good tandem with Ray Emery and Martin Gerber, a duo I think might be good enough to get the Sens back to a conference final. But your plan can't be "Gee, I hope this guy doesn't get hurt" or "Gee, I hope this guy suddenly channels Patrick Roy even though he's shown no inclination to do so before now."
Damien: But haven't guys like Bryzgalov, Auld, Toskala and Mike Smith demonstrated pretty strongly that there are goalies out there buried in different organizations who could do a lot more than they're doing?
Scott: Well, I think Miikka Kiprusoff is the obvious example of true "buried" treasure after coming out of San Jose, or even Dominik Hasek being dealt away from Chicago a few hundred years ago. I like Bryzgalov, and I think his performance in a supporting role in the playoffs the past couple of seasons in Anaheim has been largely overlooked. I'm not sure I'd put Auld in that category (he's had many chances to be "unburied"). Toskala? I think the jury is still out. The guy I'm really curious about is Leclaire in Columbus. I keep waiting for him to hit the wall, but he's been pretty terrific so far.
Damien: What may be the case, and Kiprusoff supplies intriguing evidence on this theory, is that most of the goalies have a limited shelf life in terms of being able to play 65, 70, 75 games a season. Most can play well for periods of time, but few have that kind of durability and longevity. That's what makes Brodeur unique. Let's face it, the man's a freak.
Scott: I think what is so impressive about Brodeur is that when evidence starts to build that he's maybe breaking down (like earlier this season), he simply turns in a string of world-class performances. Luongo may be that kind of goalie, although playing at that level with the added pressures of a true hockey market will make for an interesting study going forward. Sadly for teams like the Kings, there just aren't enough of those guys to go around (and thank goodness for anyone who likes to see some goals once in a while).
Damien: Maybe they should let Brodeur play for more than one team. But hang on a second -- wasn't it you who questioned him earlier this season and wondered about him coming off a so-called weak playoffs? I don't think he had a weak playoffs at all -- his team didn't score. But his excellence has given that team the ability to make changes over the past 15 years and scarcely miss a beat. Does he have bad games? Definitely. But this season is a perfect example of how doubting him at this point in his career is a total waste of time.
Scott: Did I say that? Must have been someone else. Well, I actually do recall a pretty ordinary series against the Senators, but maybe that's just my foggy memory. Well, have we saved the goaltending profession, until next week, my friend?
Damien: We have, as usual, managed only to muddy the waters. But that's part of our charm. Later.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."
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