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Wave of the future

Young goaltenders hold key to playoffs and beyond

Posted: Monday March 20, 2006 3:54PM; Updated: Monday March 20, 2006 4:16PM
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The Avs have placed their playoff hopes in the hands of rookie netminder Peter Budaj.
The Avs have placed their playoff hopes in the hands of rookie netminder Peter Budaj.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
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Much has been made of this season's doubly rich crop of NHL rookies, and with good reason. Because of the excellence throughout the league, the inordinate influx of freshman goaltenders has not been given full recognition. Collectively, the advancement of so many rookies at once is changing the landscape of top-level puck-stopping for years to come.

Certainly, there are still the one-horse teams with a huge disparity between starter and back-up. Martin Brodeur in New Jersey, Tomas Vokoun in Nashville and Marty Turco in Dallas all come to mind. And that model is hard to argue with, since all three are apparently playoff-bound. But if you look at the situations in Buffalo with Ryan Miller, New York City with Henrik Lundqvist, Philadelphia with Antero Niittymaki and out in Anaheim with Igor Bryzgalov, you'll find four rookies playing better than their more seasoned partners.

That poses an interesting question in those markets, since no rookie has backstopped a team to the Stanley Cup since Patrick Roy did it for the Canadiens in 1986: Given the history versus the current performances, how far do you ride a raw rookie come playoff time?

In Anaheim, JS Giguere deserves the benefit of starting given his 2003 Conn Smythe tour de force in taking the Ducks to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals. Ken Hitchcock in Philadelphia seems predisposed to starting Robert Esche based on his fine showing in the spring of 2004, when he played brilliantly during the Flyers' run to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals.

The Rangers have in Lundqvist a rookie who is better and more consistent than his more senior backup, so their selection of him over veteran Kevin Weekes would be valid -- especially since Lundqvist is coming off a gold medal in the Olympics and a Swedish Elite League title in 2005. The Sabres have made Miller their man, and he has responded. But so too has Martin Biron -- the veteran incumbent from whom Miller usurped the starting job. Yet, while Biron is a veteran, he has no real playoff pedigree that would make Miller a stretch as the starter for the postseason.

There are a few situations involving rookies that are a bit tenuous, however. Alex Auld has played exceedingly well all season for the Canucks as the starter due to injury to Dan Cloutier. He is getting a full education with a playoff spot not yet secure and there are signs that he might be fatiguing at the worst possible time. The Avs in Colorado have turned to rookie Peter Budaj for the stretch run after trading David Aebischer to the Habs for eventual but currently  injured No. 1 man Jose Theodore.

Budaj is the least experienced of the youngsters being asked to step into the breach, although some might counter that Ray Emery in Ottawa is another rookie who has been forced to fend for himself due to mitigating circumstances. Emory has started 11 straight games as Dominik Hasek fine-tunes his body and soul for the playoffs. Hasek hasn't played since sustaining an injury at the Olympics, providing Emory the chance to play meaningful games -- a string in which he's made the most of the opportunity by going 9-1-1. The Senators are chasing a division title and the President's Trophy -- pressure, sure -- but Budaj is battling with his team for their playoff lives.

Add Kari Lehtonen in Atlanta and his 19 straight starts after injury sidelined him for most of the first half, and Mathieu Garon in L.A., and you have more rookie goaltenders than usual carrying the playoff aspirations for their respective teams. Throw in unproven commodities like Martin Gerber for the Hurricanes, Mikael Tellqvist taking over for aging Eddie Belfour in Toronto, and Cristobal Huet in Montreal, and it is apparent that this season is the year the goaltending position turned over in the NHL.

The experience gained by many of these kids over the next 30-90 days will impact not only this spring, but the balance of goaltending power for seasons to come.