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Surveying the goalie depth charts of the top teams

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What’s the strategy for stocking teams with goalies, and how does it vary?

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Nashville Predators at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The strategy for acquiring and using goalies varies a lot across the NHL.

Perhaps strategy is too grandiose a term. There is some evidence that some teams just accidentally land where they are with their goaltenders. While luck is part of hockey, counting on it as your only strategy seems foolish, but we can hardly fault someone for having good luck instead of bad, and we shouldn't fault them for bad instead of good either.

Was it luck or planning that Marc-André Fleury was still on the Penguins for the playoffs, and was lights out when he needed to be? Either way, it's the single biggest reason they won the cup. At the very least, if you think you have a chance at a cup and are are a playoff team from puck drop on opening day, then your goalie strategy needs to be a little different than if you're rebuilding. Which brings us nicely to the Maple Leafs.

Are they still rebuilding or now just playing this game to win it? Because it all looks like serious business until Frederik Andersen steps aside and you see who is lined up behind him. What are the Leafs doing and how does it differ from the rest of the playoff bound teams?

To answer that, I picked 15 teams that either were in the top of the standings last year or are legitimately projected to be there this year. I fudged it a little to try to allow for the heavily skewed divisional strengths in both conferences this season and to get some interesting examples in the mix.

Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh let Fleury go, and they've gone all in on Matt Murray, which is not a hard call to make.

Because Murray is only 23, has been injured, and the Penguins are always playing this game to win it, they signed Antti Niemi, a very good backup who suffered from Dallas overpaying him more than anything else.

In the system and signed, they have Filip Gustavsson, who has promise, just-drafted Alex D'Orio and a group of older minor-league goalies of quality. They play it to win it in Wilkes-Barre too.

They are counting on Murray, and they have a plan B in Niemi for him as well as some prospects for the future. They took some years off from drafting goalies after Murray, but they've wisely started up again.

Washington

The Capitals have their solid starter in Braden Holtby, a high-quality backup in Philipp Grubauer and then.... some guys who can play in the AHL.

Unsigned so far is one very good prospect in Ilya Samsonov, who is playing in the KHL and could slip into an NHL net at some time in the future.

Their depth chart isn't a long list, but they drafted all three of those guys as well as one other lesser prospect.

Columbus

The Blue Jackets have Jack Adams award winner Sergei Bobrovsky as their workhorse starter. Last year, they ran a trio of potential backups, and they've made their choice from the three. Joonas Korpisalo was the winner, and I can't fault them for it. They lost Curtis McElhinney to you know where, and they let Anton Forsberg go to a place we'll discuss in a minute.

However, they have only one other goalie under contract, Matiss Kivlenieks and that seems a touch unwise. He's just graduated out of the USHL, is 21, might play AHL, and okay, this is extra-strength stupid.

They have two AHL-contracted guys on the Monsters, but one of those just left the USHL too. There has to be a back-up plan in their back pocket.

They have one possibility in the three goalies they've drafted since Korpisalo. Elvis Merzlikins, who looked very intriguing playing for Latvia last season in Olympic qualifying is not yet under contract. He's playing in the Swiss league, though, and might be supremely uninterested in riding the buses in the AHL just on the off chance he gets a shot.

New York Rangers

William Nylander didn't break him, and the injury he had at the end of the World Championships has healed, so Henrik Lundqvist, is the man in New York again.

The Rangers have gone with Ondrej Pavalec as backup. He's likely fine for their needs, but not exceptional.

They have two other young prospects signed, although one is 23, and that's not so young anymore. They regularly draft goalies, so they aren't assuming the King will reign for all time.

Tucked away in the KHL, they have the very good Igor Shesterkin, but for this season, their AHL team is relying on two AHL-contracted goalies to flesh out the roster.

Montréal

The ultimate star goalie, Carey Price, is the Canadiens long-term plan A. Do they have a plan B?

They chose Al Montoya last year as backup and they're sticking with that. He had some good results in Florida, but is not ever going to do what Fleury did last season. If plan A fails, the team fails.

They have three drafted prospects including Zach Fucale, who has consistently not impressed, but Charlie Lindgren and Michael McNiven, who they went out and got, are good young prospects. Their AHL team will be well supplied with good goalies. And as long as they keep adding prospects, they might get lucky.

San Jose

The Sharks have a secret. At least it might be a secret from the Eastern Conference fans who were asleep when Aaron Dell was busy being one of the best goalies in the NHL last year in limited minutes. He's their backup, but he's also 28. So was that a blip, or is this another case of a good goalie gone unnoticed for years? In front of Dell is Martin Jones, who is good enough, not great.

They have one older AHL goalie, and they signed Antoine Bibeau this summer. They haven't drafted a goalie since 2015, and the two they took that year don't inspire confidence.

They must intend to keep on finding gems like Dell or trading for them as they did Jones.

Dallas

There's something so very Texan about the Stars' goalie strategy: Pay for it, and when that doesn't work, pay more for someone more famous.

When paying big for Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi failed them, they spent some more on Ben Bishop. Then they gave him term. He's 30.

Bishop is a decent starter of average quality. He's not a top goalie, he's not terrible either, but he's not getting better at his age. They kept Lehtonen as backup, which they pretty much had to, since he's paid more than Bishop and would be very hard to trade. Oops.

The Texas Stars have a couple of young prospects who aren't taking anyone's NHL job soon and a journeyman of quality.

Dallas drafted a highly-touted prospect in Jake Oettinger this summer, and they have taken a goalie every year since 2012, so they have a lot of lottery tickets for the future. Perhaps they've decided to be a little more prudent behind the scenes while they go big or go home on the NHL ice.

Anaheim

Did you know the Ducks drafted John Gibson the year before they took Frederik Andersen? Those were two good draft wins, and they are set on Gibson as a starter. They promoted him young instead of letting him stew as a backup, and it's hard to criticize that choice, even if Gibson has some chronic injury issues.

But the Ducks are big believers in a plan B. Last year they used Jonathan Bernier for that, and leaned on him hard during some key times when Gibson was out. This season, they have Ryan Miller on the downslope of his career. They suddenly plucked Reto Berra back out of Switzerland for another go round in the AHL/NHL late in the summer. Their plan B has a plan B. Both of those goalies can be spectacular or very much not on any given night.

Lurking in the AHL is Dustin Tokarski, Montréal's former backup, who can man an AHL net fine, and two other goalies as well, one quite young.

They draft occasionally, but after hitting the jackpot twice running, you'd think they'd try it more often on the assumption their scouts are smart. They took longshot Olle Eriksson Ek this summer. They look set for now, and their near future is resting with Gibson.

St. Louis

The Blues tried the tandem deal and then ultimately picked Jake Allen out of their duo. This might be a case of spending so much time ranking two essentially equal players, you never realize you should lift your head and find someone better than either. (Bernier vs Reimer, anyone?)

Behind Allen, they have Nashville's former backup Carter Hutton. Hutton has the honour of being the only regular NHL goalie who might be as bad as McElhinney averaged over his career.

Lurking in the minors, they have interesting young prospect Ville Husso, and a couple of other youngish AHLers. They draft only occasionally and have one not very good looking junior in addition to Husso.

St. Louis has one of the best forwards in the NHL and yet don't seem to inclined to build around him like a sensible team would, so maybe it's not surprising their goalie choices are blandly uninspiring overall.

Los Angeles

The Kings have a very controversial goalie in Jonathan Quick, and that controversy seems to be built around a difference of opinion between people who judge by win record and people who don't. Quick is a good enough starter who has played on some very good teams, much like Bishop.

Behind him, instead of Bishop, who the former GM wanted, they have Darcy Kuemper, a goalie who seems to be in the NHL because he's in the NHL.

The Kings signed college free agent Cal Petersen this summer, in a very smart move. The also have AHL stalwart Jeff Zatkoff and the faded hopes of Jack Campbell.

If Quick is hurt, they better hope that college boy is ready to graduate to the big time.

They draft goalies only rarely, and have no sign of a star on the way.

Minnesota

The Wild have an excellent starter in Devan Dubnyk, and a curious situation for backup. They ended up with Alex Stalock who passed through the Leafs briefly without stopping, but he seems to have the most tenuous hold on the job.

Behind him is not much. They do have prospect Steve Michalek, but he's not wowing anyone. They also have some draft picks still in junior.

They signed Niklas Svedberg out of the KHL for some depth, and he might take that backup job over at some point. Given their cap crunch, that's about all the Wild can do.

It's Dubnyk or bust, and the future can take care of itself.

Calgary

It's Calgary, so do they have a goalie controversy? The Flames signed Mike Smith, who is either a workhorse star or an overrated goalie who turns in the occasional hot streak, depending who you ask. He's 35, so like so many of us, isn't getting better.

They backed him up with Eddie Lack. Lack, you should recall, was supplanted at the World Championships by Viktor Fasth, who toiled futilely down the road in Edmonton for a while.

Behind Lack is a pile of signed prospects in junior or the AHL and it might add up to the largest number of goalies under contract by any team. Leading the group is Tyler Parsons, who is not a bad guy to pin some hopes on. Just maybe not all your hopes.

Edmonton

The Oilers are counting on Cam Talbot to be a legit starter, and so far so good. His backup is former Calgary pick Laurent Brossoit, who looks like a very good AHLer who can play some NHL games.

Behind Brossoit are some more of the same and one prospect in junior. There's not likely a starter in that mix. They have some unsigned drafted prospects that might turn into something, including this summer's pick in Stuart Skinner as well as Miroslav Svoboda, who is playing in the Chech league.

They draft a lot more goalies than they used to, but considering their big hit was Dubnyk, and he's long gone, just drafting them isn't enough. You have to keep the right ones.

Chicago

I don't think Chicago really is a top team this season, although many still believe. But they run their goalie department like they are, so let's look at it.

They have an NHL star in Corey Crawford, who is sometimes disdained mostly because the team in front of him hasn't been that great lately.

For a backup, after the loss of Scott Darling to the starter's job in Carolina, they have two choices: Anton Forsberg who lost the battle in Columbus, and Jean-Francois Berube, who sat in the press box for as long as Frank Corrado, ended up in Vegas for five minutes, and was signed by Chicago.

Neither of those players are waiver exempt, and Chicago chose to waive Berube and keep Forsberg. As a backup plan if he gets claimed, they've kept Jeff Glass around as an AHL goalie. They also have one young prospect there who has just left college.

Nashville

I don't quite rank the Preds as a top team either, but they played on the last day last year, so they get consideration even if their lineup has some holes in it. And the biggest hole they have is in net. Some of the time.

There is no denying that Pekka Rinne can be glorious on occasion, but he's capable of the opposite extreme too. The average of the two isn't as good as it used to be. But his highs got them into the finals, and his lows weren't the only thing that kept them from the cup.

Behind Rinne is the very promising Juuse Saros, and interestingly, Anders Lindback. Their plan B has a plan B too. They also added Matt O'Connor to the mix, after he didn't do anything very exciting on a bad AHL team in Binghamton.

So the AHL is set, the NHL backup chair has options, but they have no prospects signed to a contract. They have some, they draft goalies regularly, but never top prospects, possibly because they took Chet Pickard 18th overall and got burned. Lindback began as one of their draft picks, however.

The Preds are one of the few teams that seem very sure of who their "next one" is. It changes how you operate. The Ducks, once they became convinced of Gibson's value, stopped looking for much other than backups in bulk.


The differences here in approach are stark. From the Penguins, who are like a person who packs four pairs of underwear for an overnight trip, to the Blue Jackets, who figure they can always just go commando, the depth at goal varies dramatically.

And what of the Leafs?

They aren't either of those extremes, but they have focused first on their starter, and then worked on the depth at the bottom end. Meanwhile, they have largely failed at any sort of solid backup plan in the NHL.

They draft now frequently, and high enough to maybe find a good goalie of the future. They worked very hard this summer to build up the AHL depth so it extends down into the ECHL. They had invites galore at the rookie tournament, training camp, Marlies camp, and the results are an AHL-contracted starter for the Solar Bears in Cal Heeter and a risk-free ECHL contract for a guy coming off of surgery in Matt Hackett.

The AHL is set with Garett Sparks and Kasimir Kaskisuo, and the Leafs seem comfortable without a veteran AHLer to fall back on. At the NHL level, things are even thinner.

If he keeps up his current streak of performing at the top of his capacity, they might get away with Curtis McElhinney. And while some pundits think Sparks is due up to the NHL, that seems based on little more than "there is no one else", which is not how you make that kind of decision.

As Andersen goes, then, so goes the team. There is no Fleury manoeuvre available here. The Leafs are either not ready to spend for that level of backup and depth, or they just haven't been able to find it. This is the biggest argument against the Leafs management group seeing the team as having progressed beyond the intermediate stage between rebuild and permanent playoff contender.

I like the Pittsburgh model. Not because they won the cup, but because they didn't just get lucky at the draft, they work at keeping their system stocked top to bottom with talent all the time. The Leafs are coming to that thinking late, like all their smart managerial decisions.

The Leafs might have a starter now, but he's not young, and there is no real sign of the next one in the system yet. At minimum, they should be equalling what the Preds are doing and getting someone in place, but instead, they seem concerned more about not subjecting Andersen to too much pressure from a hot young prospect.

No matter their intentions, for right now, the Leafs are running the Habs model, so next time you LOL Habs over how they're nothing without Price, ask yourself what the Leafs are without Andersen.