Netminders' struggles hurting teams' playoff goals

Updated: November 4, 2006, 6:29 PM ET
ESPN.com

AROUND THE RINK

It is the oldest truism in the hockey handbook -- no team goes anywhere without solid, consistent goaltending, and in the new NHL, that means having more than one netminder who can provide it.

That is why at least three NHL teams that had playoff aspirations, if not legitimate Cup hopes, are in serious trouble.

The biggest letdown in the second season of the post-lockout era has been the play of Henrik Lundqvist in New York, where the Rangers are 7-6 after Thursday's win in San Jose. Only four teams have given up more goals than the Rangers and Lundqvist has been victimized by poor goals on almost a nightly basis.

A year ago, the Rangers were able to establish their strong work ethic and team unity in large part because Lundqvist was so good early in the season. Through the Rangers' first 10 games last season, Lundqvist didn't allow more than three goals in any one contest, giving up just 19 goals over that period. This season, Lundqvist has given up a whopping 36 in his first 10 starts. Rangers coach Tom Renney has been trying to use Lundqvist as often as possible to help him get his confidence back and help his team stay on track.

But that strategy soon might go by the boards as witnessed by Kevin Weekes' consecutive starts this week. Last season, Weekes, more than capable in spite of rough treatment at the hands of the Madison Square Garden faithful, played four times in October and then went 6-2 in November as the Rangers surged to the top of the division and conference standings. It's clear that Weekes is going to have to figure much more prominently into the Rangers' future plans if they're to approach lofty preseason expectations.

Meanwhile, the Phoenix Coyotes thought they'd added enough pieces, especially along the blue line with Ed Jovanovski and Nick Boynton coming in, to make life easier for workhorse Curtis Joseph. But Joseph, who was between the pipes for 32 of 38 Coyotes' wins last season, has struggled. He's allowed 31 goals through his first nine starts and the team's lack of goaltending depth has contributed to the Coyotes' woeful 3-9 start. Mike Morrison won the backup job over incumbent David LeNeveu out of camp, but was brutal and was waived after allowing 13 goals in four games. LeNeveu backstopped the Coyotes to a huge win over Edmonton last week, but then was torched for seven goals against the Rangers in his next outing (although he deserved better).

GM Mike Barnett has made inquiries, but the usual suspects when it comes to potential trading partners (Anaheim, San Jose and Buffalo) will not be making any moves any time soon to unload their prized goaltending depth. The end result? The Coyotes will have to pay dearly for better goaltending in the form of draft picks or prospects, or hope Joseph regains his form.

The third and most curious of this group is defending Vezina Trophy winner Miikka Kiprusoff, whose Flames continue to languish in the Northwest Division basement with a 3-7-1 record following Wednesday's 3-2 loss to Detroit. Kiprusoff started last season allowing fewer than three goals six times in the Flames' first 10 games. This season, he's managed that feat just three times over the same period. GM Darryl Sutter, so quick to dismiss anyone who has the temerity to criticize his team, suggests the team performed in a similar fashion a season ago but still managed to win the division. Oh, never mind then.

WHAT'S REALLY FREE?

Poor Dave Nonis. The Vancouver GM has become a lightning rod for discussion this week after he unloaded while speaking at a local business luncheon. Among other things, Nonis complained the adjustments to free agency in the collective bargaining agreement make it harder for teams to keep their young players together. Gee, there's a news flash.

Did Nonis forget his predecessor Brian Burke struggled for years to assemble a competitive team under the old system with a payroll one-third what teams like New York or Detroit or Colorado or Philadelphia were spending? Did Nonis forget that it was virtually impossible for any team like the Canucks to develop, and keep, young stars because those aforementioned teams would simply outbid them for their services when they became free agents, or that teams like Vancouver regularly dealt young stars because they couldn't afford to pay them beyond their entry level deals?

Those same factors are still at play, but they're at play for Detroit and Philadelphia and the Canucks alike. Bottom line? If you can't create a winning environment for young stars in seven years, a place where they want to stay regardless of their status as free agents, then you'd better find another line of work. Imagine what Nonis, who insisted later that he'd been quoted out of context and really does love the NHL (and his job), would have to complain about if the owners hadn't taken the players to the woodshed during the lockout.

-- S.B.

ENOUGH!
OK, hands up for anyone who is sick of all the moaning and wailing about the schedule. Once again kids, you can't have it all. You want to see Alexander Ovechkin and you live on the West Coast? Well, take a good hard look at a map and be thankful for the weather.

No doubt it's a drag if you're in the Western Conference and you only get to see Sidney Crosby or Ovechkin once every three years. And maybe there's a way to alter the schedule to allow teams from a Western division to face a different Eastern division team every year as they do in the NFL. But what do you think attendance is going to be like in Vancouver with the Islanders coming in on a Wednesday night in November? Will Nonis then complain about having to sell dogs like that?

As for the current schedule, some Western fans may not get Crosby and Ovechkin, but they do get to see Chris Pronger and Ales Hemsky and Jarome Iginla and Markus Naslund and Marian Gaborik at least twice a year, and depending on the division, sometimes four times a year. Fans in the Eastern Conference don't. The other factor that the schedule whiners forget is that inter-conference games generally stink. Ask coaches. Divisional and conference games always, always mean more, and therefore generally produce a higher level of emotion and a better product. In the end, isn't that what this about, putting the best product on the ice?

Here's a hanky, Dave. Dry your eyes and move on.

--S.B.

E.J. & BARRY
Hradek and Melrose debate the scheduling issue.
HEAD SCRATCHERS
SHAPE UP!
Darius Kasparaitis Darius Kasparaitis: Kevin Weekes' first win of the season coincided with the first game of a 10-day "conditioning" stint for veteran defender Darius Kasparaitis, although 10-day stint in the hockey equivalent of 'the cooler' is more like it. Coincidence? Kasparaitis has been in coach Tom Renney's doghouse from the outset and the "conditioning" stint might put the rest of the Rangers on notice that Renney means business. As for Kasparaitis, it might be the end of the road in New York and will no doubt start another round of 'bring Brian Leetch home' rumors. -- S.B.
WHO'S LAUGHING NOW?
Canucks With Todd Bertuzzi looking more and more like that rusted shell of a car you see on the back roads, (the troubled former Canuck had back surgery and is out 6-8 weeks), Dave Nonis appears to have the steal of the season essentially swapping netminder Alex Auld and defenseman Bryan Allen for Roberto Luongo. Early returns suggest Luongo is everything the 7-5-1 Canucks imagined (Luongo is second in the NHL in minutes played and boasts a .923 save percentage) while the Panthers are stuck in neutral, which has pretty much defined the franchise's master plan since appearing in the finals in 1996. -- S.B.
MISSING PERSON
Rick Nash Has there been any bigger disappointment early on this season than the play of former NHL scoring champ Rick Nash? After tying Ilya Kovalchuk and Jarome Iginla for the goal-scoring lead in 2003-04 with 41 and then missing 28 games to injury last year, Nash was expected to spearhead the Blue Jackets' first playoff drive. Thus far Nash has just three goals in 10 games, zero in the last seven games. Just one of those goals came while the Blue Jackets were at even strength. The focus in Columbus, especially after Wednesday's 5-3 loss to Colorado, is on coach Gerard Gallant's future but critics would be better served organizing a search party for the hitherto invisible Nash. -- S.B.
HE SAID IT
Evgeni Malkin We never thought we'd see this, but Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has admitted to making a mistake, about hockey no less! After taking in a period of the Devils-Penguins game this week, Cuban posted a blog entry on his Web site saying that "not creating my own ownership group to buy the Penguins will go down as a huge mistake." Why? The Pens' young guns. Cuban called the period one of the most exciting he's seen in hockey and said the pairing of Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby could be a glimpse of what it might have been like to see Gretzky and Lemieux play together on an NHL team. He wrote: "You may or may not be an NHL fan, but if you are a fan of greatness in the making, watch the Pens." Come next summer, some Pens fans might have wished Cuban made the investment. -- Joy Russo
WILD RALLY
Canucks can't put away the Wild.
FORWARD THINKING: WEEKEND
Games on our radar over the next few days:

Eric LindrosFriday: Stars at Oilers, 9:30 p.m. ET: The Stars are off to their best start in franchise history (10-2-0), but they run into an old nemesis on the road. The Oilers are looking to turn things around after dropping three of their last four games. Things always seem to get a little chippy when these two teams meet and that's just the way we like it!

Saku KoivuSaturday: Devils at Canadiens, 7 p.m. ET: Devils coach Claude Julien makes his first return to Montreal after being fired by the Habs midway through last season. Julien's New Jersey squad is struggling to find the back of the net, while the Habs boast one the best penalty-killing units in the league as well as a top-five power-play unit.

Evgeni MalkinSaturday: Penguins at Sharks, 10:30 p.m. ET: Rookie sensation Evgeni Malkin continues his assault on the NHL record books as he hopes to score at least once in each of his first seven NHL games. He became the first NHLer in 89 years to score at least a goal in each of his first six games by tallying twice, including the game-winner, against the Kings. Malkin has a ways to go before he approaches the all-time record set by Montreal's Joe Malone, who scored in his first 14 NHL games in 1917-18.

Kevin WeekesSunday: Sabres at Rangers, 5 p.m. ET: The struggling Rangers have had success on the road, posting back-to-back wins against Anaheim and San Jose … with Kevin Weekes in net. Now, the Blueshirts return to MSG. Captain Jaromir Jagr recently said the team gets too stressed out at home. Well, they'll have to suck it up and prove their mettle against the East's best club.

Complete NHL schedule