With the NHL’s Phase IV of the Return to Play agenda underway, and now being only a day away from critical hockey games, there is one category of decisions that still seems to be uncertain for several teams in the league – goaltending. Under the constraints of the bubble hub city format, any lack of goaltending depth could prove to be a major risk for any team, with that risk increasing the deeper a given team moves into the playoffs. With that taken into consideration, it was in the best interest of every team to, in many cases, include not only a third-string goaltender but a fourth-string option as well.
Now, despite 13 teams carrying four goaltenders into the bubble, it’s highly unlikely that the third, let alone the fourth-string see any meaningful ice time over the course of the next few months, at least in most cases. That being said, I’m a sucker for a good old playoff goaltending controversy so today I want to go down the rabbit hole and talk about some of the goalies who have slightly better than 0% chance of becoming their team’s next best hope at a Stanley Cup.
More importantly than simply discussing the chances of each of these goaltenders getting meaningful minutes, I want to discuss the possibility of them actually having success, for which there are many more factors at play.
Starting Goaltender: Sergei Bobrovsky
The Florida Panthers are carrying a total of four goaltenders into Phase IV. Up first to the plate will undoubtedly be their big-fish free-agent, Sergei Bobrovsky. Despite posting a dissatisfying 3.23 goals-against average through 50 starts in the regular season, Bobrovsky’s AAV unofficially dictates that he must be first in line to take the big punch.
After Bobrovsky, the battle in net lies between 26-year-old Manitoban, Chris Driedger who started in 12 games for the Panthers this year, and the 23-year-old Quebec native, Sam Montembeault who started in 14.
Despite the Panthers facing off against a relatively defensive-minded squad from Long Island, Joel Quenneville’s patience with Bobrovsky under such crucial circumstances will be much less forgiving than they were throughout the regular season. Should the 31-year-old Russian struggle in two consecutive games out of the gate, you can bet that the reigns will quickly be handed over to one of the more youthful netminders in an attempt to set a stronger course.
Sadly, for this to come to fruition would mean that the Panthers will likely have bequeathed a bold margin to the Islanders, leaving either Driedger or Montembeault with a slim chance of overall success throughout the playoffs. In a condensed best-of-5 series, the Panthers will likely sink-or-swim based on Bobrovsky’s qualifying round performance, leaving the greatest prospect opportunity to the potential quarterfinal matchup.
Between the two prospect netminders, I would err on the side of Chris Driedger, who had a stronger set of performances in both the AHL and NHL this year. Although technically Driedger lacks the precision and sharpness of the top echelon of NHL goaltenders, as proven by his performances on several instances this year, he will never quit on a loose puck and make every effort to defend his net.
Starting Goaltender: Pekka Rinne & Jusse Saros
The Nashville Predators are carrying a total of four goaltenders into Phase IV. The primary goaltending battle in Nashville is the same as we have seen for the last couple of years, between Juuse Saros and Pekka Rinne. It will take a significant injury and/or a catastrophic play for the Nashville Predators to make their way to their third-string netminder, but Connor Ingram just might be the most qualified, albeit untested goaltender prospect goaltender in Phase IV.
For the second-consecutive season, Ingram was named to the AHL all-star roster, and despite being shuffled out of Tampa under questionable circumstances he’s proven to be an extremely technically sound goaltender at the pro level, both in Syracuse and in Milwaukee.
The secret of what makes Ingram a relatively favorable option among prospect goaltenders in Phase IV lies equally in the strength of the team in front of him. The Predators, who will face off against the Arizona Coyotes are one of the strongest favorites to qualify for the official start of playoffs. Either Saros or Rinne will be exposed to a higher workload that in turn creates a higher risk for the team, should the need arise, Ingram could prove his value in being added to the roster over the course of a single start.
Starting Goaltender: Igor Shesterkin?
The New York Rangers are carrying a total of three goaltenders into Phase IV. Despite, or perhaps because of having what is arguably the top trio of netminders in the NHL, the New York Rangers were comfortable with forgoing the option of bringing a fourth netminder into the NHL bubble. One could argue that any one of Lundqvist, Shesterkin or Georgiev would be a valid starting option for the Rangers, but in reality, only one can hold that role.
Over the course of the regular season, it became increasingly evident that Shesterkin’s performance was, and would be worthy of dethroning Henrik at some point in the near future. With a midseason disruption, the clarity and projections of that situation have become less certain. Sentimental reasoning aside, with a boatload of playoff success, as well as an overall strong record against the Hurricanes backing him, Lundqvist might actually be put first in line to start this series.
That’s not to say, however, that his leash will be any longer than 60 minutes – if he does indeed get the first start of the series.
In the case that Shesterkin rides pine to start the series, there’s no doubt that he will be chomping at the bit to get his opportunity. The 24-year-old is an outstanding technical goaltender who excels in almost every facet of the position. His future as the King of New York is all but certain at this point, but the question of when the passing of the torch will actually occur might not be as certain as it seems when looking at how the season left off.
Starting Goaltender: Andrei Vasilevskiy
The Tampa Bay Lightning are carrying a total of three goaltenders into Phase IV. The ultra-dynamic Andrei Vasilevskiy will lead the team into their round-robin seeding pool which will help to determine who the Lightning will face off against in the quarter-final. Vasilevskiy has seldom underperformed for the Lightning, and in fact, has been the team’s MVP on more occasions than he has cost the team a game.
Unfortunately, asset management in the goaltending department has put the Lightning in a unique position as they head into playoffs. While almost every other organization has sufficient depth at the position to mitigate the risk posed by potential injury to their starting netminders, the Lightning have gone all-in on Vasilevskiy.
While the 37-year-old Curtis McElhinney will likely be opening the gates on most nights to start the tournament if the possibility of having to start someone other than Vasilevskiy arises at any point between now and October, the Lightning may wish to leave their options open. For this reason, I wouldn’t be surprised to see either Scott Wedgewood or McElhinney get an opportunity to show their stuff over the course of the Lightnings’ round robin play. This, in addition to taking some of the early lifting off of Vasilevskiy, could help to clarify the backup situation in Tampa.
Starting Goaltender: Braden Holtby
The Washington Capitals are carrying a total of three goaltenders into Phase IV. After sustaining an injury during Phase III conditioning, Ilya Samsonov will give way to the third and fourth-string goaltenders in the Capitals system to jockey for the backup to Braden Holtby position.
Despite at one point being considered the Caps’ next top prospect goaltender, Pheonix Copley has shown less improvement in the AHL than may have been expected. On the other hand, the 24-year-old Vitek Vanecek has boasted impressive, albeit gradual improvements over the course of his first four years in the AHL. This year, while splitting starts in Hershey, Vanecek posted a career best save percentage as well as goals-against average (0.917%, 2.26). While both netminders could see the crease over the course of the round-robin seeding round, it seems all the more likely that Vanecek will be the one to step up if any questions or injuries arise on the Braden Holtby file.
Enjoy the hockey, folks! @olaf1393