Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Who's the best young goalie?

Even though my skating skills are suspect at best, manning the pipes is, by far, the last position I'd ever want to play in hockey. Why? There's too much pressure. Slapshots, despite copious amounts of padding, still hurt. And I'm afraid walking would be impossible after my first split save.

Thankfully, my fears, no matter how unfounded and unrealized, are quickly dismissed by the NHL's elite goalies. Pressure? Sounds like breakfast. Stinging shots? They only hurt until the pain goes away. Split saves? That's why you stretch.

To be in a position of deciding any game, where a flick of a glove is the difference between winning and losing, has got to be flat-out funky. Imagine, though, if you were just a kid, relatively speaking, squaring yourself as Washington's Alex Ovechkin tore down the ice.

In a second, you'd face these questions: Will he unleash a bullet? Or, will he dangle? Who's on the off-wing and, really, will Ovie pass? Am I wearing my cup?

Sounds like a job description that only very few people can handle. Sure, all are in the NHL. But these five young goalies, 25 years old or under as of Oct. 4, are the best ones to ask:

No. 5: Kari Lehtonen
Atlanta Thrashers
24 years old (11.16.83)
Drafted 2nd overall in 2002
The skinny: Though whispers on his abilities and conditioning are approaching chatter level, Lehtonen's still among the league's most exciting goalies. He faces a ton of shots (1,560) and puts up solid numbers: four shutouts within a injury-marred 12-win campaign, a 2.90 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage. Most teams would love a goalie with his abilities and, um, potential.
Last season's ranking: No. 4

No. 4: Carey Price
Montreal Canadiens
21 years old (8.16.87)
Drafted 5th overall in 2005
The skinny: His performance in the playoffs, exposing a somewhat weak glove, should not be your lasting impression of this could. He played so well that even the most grizzled hockey veteran dared mention his name in the same sentence as Patrick Roy and Ken Dryden. Monster stats, too: Three shutouts within 24 wins, a 2.56 GAA and a .920 SP. I'm thinking, too, that Price, whom I suspect will only climb up this list in the seasons ahead, spent the summer working on his glove hand.
Last season's ranking: first appearance

No. 3: Pascal Leclaire
Columbus Blue Jackets
25 years old (11.7.82)
Drafted 8th overall in 2001
The skinny: After years of waiting for Leclaire to step up and get noticed, the 2007-08 campaign was his coming-out party. Nine shutouts within 24 wins, a 2.25 GAA and a .919 SP validated what many have said about him -- he's a top-shelf goalie. Can he lead the Blue Jackets to the playoffs? If he repeats last season's performance, there's no reason why Columbus won't play past early April.
Last season's ranking: first appearance

No. 2: Cam Ward
Carolina Hurricanes
24 years old (2.29.84)
Drafted 25th overall in 2002
The skinny: To some, last season might be viewed as a disappointment. Still, though, six shutouts in 37 wins is pretty darn good. A 2.90 GAA and a .916 SP are respectable, too. I still have faith in Ward. To me, he's a money goaltender. Hurricanes fans, I hope, will agree. If they don't, I'm sure quite a few NHL teams would welcome his 1,870 saves.
Last season's ranking: No. 5

No. 1: Marc-Andre Fleury
Pittsburgh Penguins
22 years old (11.28.84)
Drafted 1st overall in 2003
The skinny: In a team loaded with superstars, Fleury is likely the most unheralded. Last year's playoffs, though, should support his rising through these rankings. A 1.97 GAA and a .933 SP should have been good enough to win the Cup. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh ran into the Red Wings. Barring injury or burnout, this kid is the best goalie, age notwithstanding, in the NHL.
Last season's ranking: No. 3

Ones to watch

These five young keepers, listed in alphabetical order, should soon become the next wave of elite goaltenders:

Jonathan Bernier, Los Angeles Kings
20 years old (8.7.88) / 11th overall in 2006 Draft
The skinny: Yes, he could use some AHL seasoning. But, the Kings will give him a chance this season. Given the revolving door in the Kings crease last year, he should have the chance to earn a starting gig. The smart money, however, has him starting in a couple years.

Jaroslav Halak, Montreal Canadiens
23 years old (5.13.85) / 271st overall in 2003 Draft
The skinny: As much as I hate to admit it, the Canadiens look stacked in net for years to come. Halak performed admirably in a handful of games last season. The big question, though, is where does he play: Montreal, watching mostly from the bench, or Hamilton, where he'll get playing time?

Karri Ramo, Tampa Bay Lightning
22 years old (7.1.86) / 191st overall in 2004 Draft
The skinny: Last season's run with the Lightning showed that Ramo wasn't quite ready for the NHL's prime time. Still, his aggressiveness in net and competitive spirit bodes well for the Lightning. Like Lehtonen, he's another top young Finn goalie.

Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators
25 years old (11.3.82) / 258th overall in 2004 Draft
The skinny: Let's see, Chris Mason runs off Tomas Vokoun. Dan Ellis sends Mason packing to St. Louis. Rinne, another Finnish product, could easily send Ellis to the bench or who knows where. Stuck in the AHL for the past few seasons, this is his opportunity to show what he can do. He had five shutouts and 37 wins as Milwaukee's starter last season.

Tobias Stephan, Dallas Stars
24 years old (1.21.84) / 34th overall in 2002 Draft
The skinny: Though he won't make anyone forget about Marty Turco, this season will either spent riding the pines or starting for AHL Iowa. Six shutouts within 26 wins, even at the minor-league level, isn't anything to sneeze at. Dallas, it seems, is set in goal for the next few years.

Feel free to check out Hound Central 3.0's best young goalies.

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