A rough week for goaltenders
From Toronto to Anaheim, six big name goaltenders came under fire last week
Vesa Toskala (Toronto) and Carey Price (Montreal) took flak for lax practice habits
In other news, the Dallas Stars have forgive Brett Hull for signing Sean Avery
Like one of those February spring break videos, this was a week of Goalies Gone Wild.
From coast to coast and country to country, the goaltender was restored to his place at the center of the hockey universe: the man who invariably receives too much credit and too much blame for anything that happens.
They were dissected (Toronto's Vesa Toskala, Montreal's Carey Price), inspected (Philadelphia's Martin Biron) and resurrected (Anaheim's Jean-Sébastien Gigučre). They were ripped at a charity dinner (again, Toskala) and spoken about charitably under the circumstances (Detroit's Chris Osgood) even by a coach who might have been inclined to use stronger language. And a goalie who did use stronger language in describing his own play (Manny Legace of St. Louis) found himself in the minors.
Usually the microscope returns to the position just before the playoffs, but consider the goalie eruptions of the past week a head start, giving everyone in hockey something to talk about until Sean Avery returns, the trade market starts to percolate and general managers wade into the murky waters surrounding fighting in the NHL. A survey:
The story: Maple Leafs president Brian Burke chose the Conn Smythe Dinner in Toronto to take a bite out of his goalie, Toskala, whose inconsistent play is only a piece of the short-term problems facing one of the league's heritage franchises. Burke even critiqued Toskala's relaxed practice habits. When told of the remarks, the laconic Toskala shrugged and hinted that a physical problem -- presumably a wonky groin -- is behind any perceived lack of hustle in practice. Leafs coach Ron Wilson subsequently backed his boss' comments, as if anyone expected anything else.
The bottom line: Like almost any of the Maple Leafs except rookie defenseman Luke Schenn and a few others, Toskala will be available prior to the trading deadline. A holdover from an earlier regime, Toskala basically is a seat-holder for the goalie who will be in nets when the Leafs are a playoff team again. Presumably that goalie is Justin Pogge. Toronto is spotting the minor leaguer some NHL games to prepare him for a larger role, but his teammates must do a better job of cocooning him than they did in a 5-0 abandonment in Buffalo last week.
The story: After slinking by St. Louis in a shootout -- Legace called himself "the worst player" in the NHL that night and the Blues took him at his words by waiving the veteran and sending him to Peoria -- Osgood played poorly in the last two periods of a 5-4 win over Phoenix two nights later. Coach Mike Babcock said his team should have won 4-2 and lauded it for "picking Ozzie up." When a reporter mentioned that Osgood (save percentage .880) suggested the Wings were too tight and should be looser, a veiled criticism of the coach, Babcock bit his tongue. Ty Conklin was in goal for back-to-back games over the weekend, a home laugher against Edmonton and a shutout in Pittsburgh fewer than 24 hours later.
The bottom line: Assuming Osgood ramps up his play, the Stanley Cup-winning veteran will start Game 1 of the playoffs. He has important supporters in the organization, especially GM Ken Holland and goalie coach Jim Bedard. But if Osgood falters early, Detroit would not hesitate to switch to Conklin, just like it moved from Dominik Hasek to Osgood in the first round last season. The Red Wings have been constructed in such a way that their goalie doesn't have to be the best player. (Detroit is paying a mere $2.25 million for its pair this season.) But no goalie can sabotage the work of one of the best 18-man agglomerations in the league.
The story: Since returning from a groin injury, Carey Price had played in nine games prior to Monday. He'd allowed three or more goals in eight of them. Even if his groin is still bothering him, the malaise should not have spread to his glove hand. In a terrible 5-2 home loss to Toronto on Saturday, the Maple Leafs were zinging pucks past Price's trapper. The goalie definitely was having a Dick Stuart kind of evening. (An old Boston Red Sox reference: c.f. Strange Glove, Dr.) Coach Guy Carbonneau publicly held Price's feet to the fire after the game, refusing to coddle his talented sophomore. Although the murmuring is quieter than in Toronto, here too there is grumbling about the goalie's practice habits.
The bottom line: Price had a rocky stretch at this same time last season. Montreal sent the rookie to the minors then, but the landscape has changed. As Canadiens president Pierre Boivin said, "He's got to carry it." Price should be able to right his game, but his too-cool-for-school style -- he looks languid even when he is going full bore -- still creeps under a coach's skin.
The story: Biron was pulled after a poor first period in Boston on Saturday, yielding to Antero Niittymaki, who shut out the Bruins the rest of the way in a superb comeback win. Niittymaki also beat Atlanta the next day, making him 4-1 in his past five starts. (The only dud was a 4-0 loss in St. Louis when the Flyers were playing shorthanded because of illnesses on defense.) Meanwhile, Biron has allowed 17 goals in his last 13 periods.
The bottom line: Flyers coach John Stevens is wisely skirting any goalie controversy. Like Detroit, the Flyers would prefer to start the playoffs with the more seasoned Biron, who excelled in getting Philadelphia to the conference final last season. But Niittymaki is not a bad fallback position in the spring; the gap between starter and backup in Philadelphia is relatively small. Unlike wacky Flyers teams in the past, expect Stevens and GM Paul Holmgren to manage the goaltending situation with a minimum of fuss.
The story: When Jonas Hiller earned the bulk of the Ducks' starts in January, Gigučre seemed miffed at what he might have perceived as a lack of respect by coach Randy Carlyle, who always maintains that he has two No. 1 goalies. In fact, Carlyle had been giving Gigučre some time and space since the death of the goalie's father last December, a passing that devastated Gigučre. After a 4-2 loss in Nashville last Thursday, Gigučre, despite a four-game losing streak, was back in net on Saturday in Calgary, pulling off a 2-1 victory over the slumping Flames.
The bottom line: Gigučre remains among a handful of goalies -- think Vancouver's Roberto Luongo, Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff, the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist and, when healthy, New Jersey's Martin Brodeur -- who are capable of stealing any playoff series. By April, he should have fully regained his rightful place among the game's elite.
Hull is forgiven
With Avery on his way back to the NHL -- New York is the best spot for him because the Rangers know exactly what they are getting in terms of skill, energy and warts -- Dallas co-GM Brett Hull has been given a pass by the franchise for bringing Avery to the Stars. This disastrous free agent signing was Hull's baby from the start, but the Stars have adopted the attitude that management was all in this together. No recriminations.
Of course, it helps that Dallas has played markedly better since it cut ties with the forward. Says one source close to the organization: "The feeling is that Hull won this team a Stanley Cup (in 1999), so now things are even."