Happy Friday, Rink Nation. Today we round out or top ten lists in the Southeast Division with a keen eye on the last line of defense -- the goalie.
More than any other position, compiling a top ten list in the SE proved difficult, because of the motley bunch of unknown quantities, aging veterans, and the ebbs and flows of backup netminders, beyond, at most, a "top three." For example, how best to compare Scott Clemmensen, a career No. 2 who shone brilliantly in dreary Newark while Martin Brodeur was on the shelf last season, to José Theodore, who has exhibited a much more consistent, if underwhelming, level of performance?
Further, as I was reminded again on Wednesday night during my league game, even the sharpest of 'tenders can get lit up when the defense in front is consistently out-of-position, allowing opposing forwards to take frequent point-blank shots and to have enough unmolested time in the slot area to cook a Thanksgiving turkey.
So we'll go with this important criterion: If you had to choose one goalie in the division to win a playoff series, who would you want?
Once the object of Craig Billington's affection, Johan the "Moose" Hedberg has fashioned for himself a decent career as a backup, on the verge of 250 GP in the show. He certainly earned the ire of Capitals fans everywhere for his performance in the 2000-01 playoffs as a member of the arch-rival Penguins, finishing that post-season with a 9-9 record, 2.30 GAA and .911 SV%. But that was a long time ago.
Clearly, a Calder Cup victory does not necessarily lead to a great NHL career as a goalie. But, like other rising Caps goalie star Simeon Varlamov, Neuvirth has already demonstrated that he can handle playoff pressure and sold-out arenas full of delirious fans. He and Atlanta prospect (and fellow Calder Cup winner) Ondřej Pavelec, appear to be most promising amongst the crop of young SE 'tenders for taking the next step toward at least a sizable NHL backup role. (A step that Varly, by all accounts, has already taken.)
Capitals fans with even a short memory will recall that "Niitty" can steal a game for his team, stoning even the most offensively prolific team's onslaught. Niittymaki has proven to a be a capable backup, and didn't perhaps get a fair go as a No. 1 when he was backstopping a woeful Flyers team in 2006-07. He enjoyed his best season in 2008-09, playing in 32 games for the orange and black, and should have a real opportunity to take the No. 1 job in TB this coming season.
7. Mike Smith (Tampa Bay Lightning)
Smith posted his best SV% to date last season for a Tampa Bay team that allowed the third-most SA/G and fourth-most GA/G in the league. He allowed four goals or more in 11 games (40 starts) last season, and seemed to keep his team from completely unraveling until suffering a concussion that finished his 2008-09 season by February. (By comparison, José Theodore allowed four or more 19 times in 55 starts.) The kid has certainly got a fire in his belly (guess Olie Kolzig's time in Tampa had an impact there), and he's got the tools to succeed. He'll have to prove that he's fully recovered and ready to resume #1 duties.
The Des Moines, Iowa native's name sounds like a journeyman starting pitcher sweating in the high summer heat on the mound in a AA ball park somewhere in the midwest. And, similar to the storyline of The Natural, Scott Clemmensen emerged at age 31 to lead a contending New Jersey Devils team through the heart of the 2008-09 season, when the legendary Brodeur was out of action, winning 25 of 40 games with a .917 SV%, and earning high honors from his teammates. Prior to last season, however, he played in only 28 NHL games over five seasons. Still, last season's performance was enough to earn him a tidy three-year, $3.6 million deal with Florida.
5. José Theodore (Washington Capitals)
Caps goaltending guru Dave Prior had no question in his mind that JT should have been given the chance to rebound from a lackluster Game 1 in last spring's series versus the Rangers. And we'll never know how Theodore would have performed in that crucial Game 2 and beyond. But we do know that Theo has played over 500 games in the NHL, with a career .908 SV%, a Vezina Trophy, and four playoff series victories to his credit. Being a right catching mitt (like Tomáš Vokoun, below) can make things interesting for opposing shooters as well. A decent, if not stellar, workhorse.
4. Simeon Varlamov (Washington Capitals)
There's scant career numbers to analyze, for sure, but Varlamov, in two playoff serieses to date, won one and took the second to a Game 7. That second series was lost on account of a myriad of other factors which we've debated endlessly here. He played as well as could possibly be imagined of any mere mortal netminder last spring. Durability and stamina are still in some doubt, but with some further conditioning, the potential seems boundless.
3. Kari Lehtonen (Atlanta Thrashers)
Lehtonen can dazzle and amaze, and certainly has frustrated the Caps over the years, most recently turning away 49 of 50 Caps shots in a game in mid-March. He's earned the tenth-best SV% since the lockout of all NHL goalies with 70+ GP. Like Smith, he played behind a defense which gave up a lot of SOG: 32.7 per game on average. He faced 35+ SOG in almost half (21 of 44) of the games in which he started last season. And in eight of those 21, he faced 40+ shots. To have allowed four or more in just 15 of those 44 starts is impressive.
2. Tomáš Vokoun (Florida Panthers)
Vokoun played his first NHL game for Les Habs, but has since toiled away in relative obscurity for Nashville and Florida. As a predictable result, he has garnered little notoriety. So you may be surprised to know that Vokoun has the second-best SV% of all NHL goalies since the lockout. And even with an injury-shortened 2006-07 campaign, he's earned 25 or more wins for six consecutive seasons. His playoff experience is limited, and he's yet to win a series (3-8, all with Nashville), but even in those 11 games, his playoff SV% was .922.
Cam Ward, in his admittedly brief career, has been as durable as they come, with 60+ GP and 30+ wins in each of the last three seasons. He's had his bad moments, for sure, but he's improved his SV% in each of the last three seasons as well. And talking about selecting a goalie to win a series, it's hard to argue against one who won four consecutive ones en route to a Stanley Cup (the only goalie in this list to win the ultimate prize).
So, finally, having ranked the top ten 'tenders in the Southeast individually, how might the division's denizens stack up in the goaltending department on a team-by-team basis? Which tandem, or system, of the five clubs is most solid now and most exciting in the between-the-pipes pipeline? A rough and dirty rank order: (5) Tampa Bay; (4) Altanta; (3) Carolina; (2) Florida; and (1) Washington.
Sure, we're biased in having seen much more of the Caps' G prospects, but a Theo/Varly tandem seems more solid than, say, Lehtonen/Hedberg, and I can't see a pipeline in the SE comparable to Varlamov, Neuvirth, and Braden Holtby. So that's where you come in: tell us what you think about our rankings, both from an individual and an organizational standpoint.
(And don't go for the 2-for-1 Friday happy hour well drink special -- go for the label you can read.)