Laidlaw looks at nine of this year's surprise starters and let's you know which ones are for real.
With Transformers making its return to the box office this summer it is high time we saw the return of my Autobots vs. Decepticons piece. If you recall, this is where I look at all the netminders that have sprung to fantasy relevance seemingly out of nowhere.
If you’ve followed my articles and ramblings over the years, you’ll recall that I tend to believe there are around 100 goalies actively playing on the planet who could become starters in the NHL. With skill established as a baseline, all any of those goalies needs is the opportunity, timing and luck in order to stick and have success.
With the injury woes and general struggles of many goaltenders this season has seen an exceptional number of backups and prospects achieve fantasy relevance. Knowing who to hitch your ride to and who to cut bait on is a huge decision. So, who are the Autobots and who are the Decepticons?
Frederik Andersen – 14-3-0 – 2.06 GAA – 0.928 Save%
The Anaheim goalie situation could be a whole article on its own. The Ducks have done a great job of talent evaluation, coaching and development with their goaltenders. They now sit on a gluttony of riches with Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth established at the NHL level and future stud John Gibson developing on the farm. Andersen’s emergence this season was just icing on the cake.
I think he’s a legitimate talent. He has the great size that predominates the goaltending ranks these days at 6’4” and plays with very solid positioning and fundamentals. His numbers across all levels are rather impressive. That includes leading the Swedish Elitserien in both goals-against average (1.62) and save percentage (0.943) across 39 appearances on his way to a Rookie of the Year nomination in 2011-12.
He then came across the pond putting up a 2.19 GAA and 0.929 save percentage in 47 games for Norfolk of the AHL. His NHL numbers this season are almost identical.
Talent is not in question. What I would be worried about is whether he has the fortitude to be a regular starter at the NHL level. Last season was the first time he’d made more than 40 appearances as a professional. Can he handle a greater work load? Can he handle the pressure of being a #1?
We won’t know until he does it. And we won’t see him do it any time soon.
The Ducks have no reason to overextend Andersen. They have him signed to a very reasonable deal for two more seasons, where he’ll make backup type money. That places him in direct competition with Fasth who also stands to make backup money going into next season.
I don’t see the Ducks feeling comfortable with a Fasth/Andersen tandem going into next season but incumbent starter Hiller is a UFA and may not be re-signed. Also, keeping three NHL ready starters on the roster is a nice problem to have but is still a problem.
If I had to guess, Hiller gets re-signed, Fasth is dealt and Andersen becomes next year’s backup. But with Gibson looming as the future #1, Andersen may never get the shot he needs. He’s done everything necessary when called upon but the door just hasn’t opened up for long enough for him to force his way into becoming a regular starter. The odds are stacked against him even though he has the definite talent of an Autobot.
If nothing else, Andersen makes a necessary handcuff for anyone investing in the Ducks’ starter next season.
Reto Berra – 8-16-2 – 3.02 GAA – 0.896 Save%
You’ve got to commend the Flames’ goaltending strategy following the retirement of long-time starter Miikka Kiprusoff. That there was no successor in place is reflective of the Flames’ inability to development talent over the last decade but handed this depleted franchise it was a clever strategy to bring in a couple of European free agents just to see if they could land the next Autobot superstar and if not well then tanking strategies would proceed as planned.
Karri Ramo has most definitely bested Berra, which should tell you all you need to know about Berra. If you can’t beat Ramo, you aren’t beating anyone. And it’s not surprising. Berra had never posted anything resembling an extended run of elite play in his career. His best showing came at last year’s World Championship where he helped carry Switzerland to a silver medal. He also won back-to-back NLA Goalie of the Year titles but only one of those appears earned. If his 3.01 GAA and 0.906 save percentage were the best numbers in the NLA last season, they need to up their standards.
I don’t even think it’s fair to call him a Decepticon because you should know he’s not that good.
Philipp Grubauer – 6-4-5 – 2.38 GAA – 0.926 Save%
Like Anaheim, Washington’s goaltending situation could probably get its own article. Their crease has been an absolute mess this season. Starter Braden Holtby has struggled as the Capitals have tried to push him deeper into his crease and become more of a reactive goalie. So far so bad, which coupled with injuries to Michal Neuvirth (always injured) opened the door for Grubauer who started strong but was sent back to the AHL before his numbers could truly come back to Earth.
I’ve little doubt those numbers, if given another dozen games would have dropped to below average, which is where I see Grubauer.
His rise this season was particularly surprising to me as I’d written him off early in his career based on his plodding junior numbers. Since leaping to the professional ranks Grubauer has been average at worst while bouncing between the ECHL, AHL and now the NHL.
His worst numbers at any stop came last season when he posted a 2.30 GAA and 0.912 save percentage in 26 appearances for Reading of the ECHL. His numbers won’t blow you away though, which leads me to believe he’s more Decepticon. I suspect Grubauer could be a starter at some point but definitely a below average one and that’s not where you want to set your sights.
Carter Hutton – 13-9-4 – 2.87 GAA – 0.904 Save%
Hutton is a goaltender who has done a fantastic job of carving out a professional career for himself. He has improved his play at every single level he has played at, which shows how hard work can pay off. It has allowed him to claim the Predators’ starting job with Pekka Rinne on the shelf. He fought off hard charging prospect Marek Mazanec and has kept recent acquisition Devan Dubnyk at bay.
But he’s only been mediocre. Maybe that improves as he gains more NHL experience. As I said, he’s a guy who has improved at every level. Next season he could be even better, and he’s landed in a great spot (Nashville) for developing goaltenders. But he’s already 28, so barring a Tim Thomas type late-career surge he has reached his peak. Nashville also has this nasty habit of making overachievers look really good before siccing them upon another franchise who liked what they saw.
Hutton is a solid pro but he looks like Dan Ellis 2.0, which makes him a definite Decepticon and a career backup.
Martin Jones – 8-4-0 – 1.71 GAA – 0.940 Save%
Jones’ short run as the Kings starter this season was as brief as it was stellar but it left a lasting impact. Yes, the Kings are locked into starter Jonathan Quick for the next decade and that means Jones will never be the Kings starter but eventually he’ll land on his feet somewhere. His glorious play already opened the door for the Kings to move Ben Scrivens and who knows, maybe he forces them to move Quick as well.
What’s truly intriguing is that Jones was never drafted. We know goalies come out of nowhere all of the time. But this wasn’t nowhere. He was a star for the Calgary Hitmen for two seasons and even made Canada’s 2010 World Junior team. He was right under everyone’s noses the whole time putting up solid numbers.
Once he signed with the Kings he quickly adapted to the pro game putting up increasingly solid numbers for three and a half seasons before getting his shot and making the most of it.
There are questions about sample size at the NHL level and about whether the Kings’ defensive style makes it really easy for goaltenders to put up incredible numbers but Jones isn’t exactly a flash in the pan. He’s been slowly burning in the minors for some time now. You might have to wait but you are kidding yourself if you don’t think Jones’ long term prospects make him an Autobot.
Anton Khudobin – 13-6-0 – 2.14 GAA – 0.927 Save%
Khudobin didn’t technically come out of nowhere. He was a very solid backup for the Boston Bruins last season and had a few cups of coffee with the Wild prior to that but this is the first time he’s had any extended burn and has he ever burned brightly.
Khudobin right now is a better goalie than the Hurricanes’ current big money starter Cam Ward, who is only average at best. Ward has the track record of a couple of elite playoff runs (including a Conn Smythe) but rare is the fantasy league that counts playoffs. And last time I checked playoff performance only matters if you get there, which is something Ward has only helped Carolina to twice in his eight seasons and only once as the starter. Ward is an average goalie with injury history and potentially degrading skills. But, oh that contract.
If Carolina cares about making the playoffs they’ll roll with Khudobin the rest of the season. That’s not to say that Khudobin is a great bet long term though. He’s undersized, which counts against him even if he’s got great reflexes and a fighting spirit. Size is still a great asset and he doesn’t have it.
Khudobin’s track record is also pretty spotty. His NHL numbers are off the charts but those include nothing more than a handful of spot starts for the slow-paced Wild and then for the defensively sound Bruins and this strong run this season. He hasn’t even made 40 starts as an NHLer so sample size is not where it needs to be.
Looking at his numbers in the minors, he looks average at best. He struggled initially coming over from the KHL but I can sympathize with that. It takes time to adjust to a new country, a new language and a new ice surface. His numbers have improved every season, which puts him in my good books as an overachiever.
He’s definitely not the elite starter he has looked like this season but his play demands that he receives a nice pay raise and an opportunity at a starting spot somewhere. That means a return to Carolina is doubtful. They’ve got Ward whether they like it or not. That uncertainty of destination, either at the trade deadline this season or this summer leaves it up in the air whether or not Khudobin gets another real shot at a starting job, which makes him a risk long term. I like Khudobin for the rest of the season but I question his long term chances.
Even if he gets a starting job somewhere I have some doubts that he can sustain his strong performance. Thus he gets Decepticon billing.
Darcy Kuemper – 8-3-2 – 0.917 GAA – 2.46 Save%
Kuemper only received his opportunity after Josh Harding’s brilliant run fell apart following some complications with his MS treatment. Some guys just have no luck. But Harding’s pain is Kuemper’s gain.
Kuemper looks like the real deal. This is only his third year as a professional and he has just 76 appearances across all levels to draw on but all indications are that he is the real deal. He was dynamite in his final year of junior with a 1.86 GAA and 0.933 save percentage and he has carried that momentum with him to the pros. You’d love for him to have played more professional games to help dilute the sample size but you can only use what you’ve got.
It helps Kuemper’s cause that the Wild are known for playing it tight and that they’ve got a loaded farm system that will hopefully usher in an era of contention in the near future. I hate to say it but with Niklas Backstrom’s career essentially done and Harding’s in limbo Kuemper looks like the guy for Minnesota.
The only cause for concern would be the rumours swirling about Minnesota’s interest in Ryan Miller, whose presence would knock Kuemper back this season and potentially long term. You have to like that the Wild already removed Kuemper’s biggest rival, Matt Hackett, though. Even if Miller does land with the Wild that only delay’s Kuemper’s clock. He’s an Autobot ready to maximize.
Eddie Lack – 8-8-3 – 2.22 GAA – 0.922 Save%
There isn’t much to dislike about Lack’s game. He has great size, solid position and strong reflexes. His numbers at every level from Sweden to the AHL have been very strong outside of last season’s injury-shortened run in the AHL.
His record this season is a bit spotty but blame the team in front of him for that.
The only real cause for concern is that Lack may not get a chance to start any time soon as he is stuck behind Roberto Luongo and his “sucky” contract. But the last guy stuck back there carved out plenty of starts and has landed on his feet just fine.
Patience will prove fruitful with this Autobot.
Antti Raanta – 12-2-3 – 2.40 GAA – 0.904 Save%
You or I could suit up in goal for the Chicago Blackhawks and win a bunch of games. That’s why their decision to give Corey Crawford a big money extension last summer was so puzzling. That contract may never prove to hold the Blackhawks back but it will stand in the way of every prospective “Transformer” to come through the Chicago system.
Once upon a time Crawford was one of those Transformers and he made good on his Autobot billing but he’s also one of the reasons why Raanta can only ever be a Decepticon. Injuries gave Raanta a chance but it will always come back to Crawford.
Raanta probably isn’t that good anyway although he may require more time to evaluate. He’s only 24 and has been in North America for just one season leaving him with plenty of room to improve. His numbers back in Finland were also astounding, which earns him some rope but his numbers in both the AHL and NHL this season have been below average.
If Crawford blew out his hip tomorrow I might feel differently but even then, I’d expect the Blackhawks to trade for one of the many goaltenders available to help fill the void. It’s all about championships for them and while they’ve proven twice that you can win without a name brand goalie, they no longer seem interested in taking that risk. There’s no room for Transformers in Chicago, which makes Raanta a Decepticon.