Daily Debate: Biggest surprise in net so far?
Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun look at a few of the surprising goaltending performances early on this season:
Burnside: Well, my friend, it was another interesting night between the pipes Tuesday in the NHL. When Mathieu Garon was signed by GM Steve Yzerman in Tampa Bay, how many people thought he would be the goalie to get the Eastern Conference finalists back on track after an ugly start to the season?
Garon was terrific again in the Lightning's 4-3 win over the Sabres and improved to a 3-1-1 record. Garon now has a 1.78 goals-against average and .942 save percentage after relieving the struggling Dwayne Roloson early on. Garon's play is mindful of Brent Johnson last season for the Penguins when starter Marc-Andre Fleury began the campaign playing like a bag of hammers. Fleury got back on track and finished with impressive numbers over the final two-thirds of the season. Do you expect the same of Roloson? What other goaltending surprises have caught your eye in the first month?
LeBrun: I do think Roloson will settle down, but given his age, 41, Yzerman was wise to bring in some veteran insurance in Garon. It's easy to forget, but Garon outplayed Steve Mason last season in Columbus and was a big reason the Jackets threatened to make the playoffs. The Lightning GM made it a priority to find a quality backup that could play some games behind Roloson. So far, that decision is proving fruitful. Garon is also a good character guy, and Yzerman was mindful of that, as well.
"He's been very good and has given us a chance to win [in] each game he's played," Yzerman told me via email Wednesday. "We did not play well in Buffalo, Mathieu had to make several difficult saves in the first period; if not, we could have been down 5-0. Somehow we got back in the game and we're fortunate to come out with a victory."
Another surprise has to be Nikolai Khabibulin in Edmonton. The veteran netminder looked to be on his way out of the league with his play last season, not to mention his legal troubles off the ice. But he is sporting a 0.97 GAA and .963 save percentage, stopping 35 shots in a 3-2 win over Vancouver on Tuesday night. Simply mind-boggling to me.
Burnside: No question Khabibulin, 38, looks like he's found the fountain of youth, at least early on. Speaking of another old-timer, how about the work of Johan Hedberg in New Jersey? With Martin Brodeur sidelined early with a shoulder injury, the Devils could have gone sideways like they did a year ago when confronted by injuries to key personnel (including Brodeur). But Hedberg, also 38, has been a rock. He stopped all 31 shots Tuesday night in a 3-0 win against red-hot Los Angeles. Hedberg is now 4-1-1 with a .937 save percentage and a 1.86 GAA.
I must admit, I didn't quite understand president and GM Lou Lamoriello's decision to bring back Hedberg since there doesn't appear to be an apparent plan of succession for the Hall of Fame-bound Brodeur; but Lamoriello has proved doubters wrong, at least early on, as has Hedberg, who is one of the most easy-going players in the league.
LeBrun: The Devils look like a playoff team right now, just as they did in the second half last season. What about St. Louis? Who could have foreseen Brian Elliott challenging Jaroslav Halak in the Blues' net early this season? Elliott wasn't even assured of a job in camp, as he had to battle Ben Bishop for the backup job before finally winning it. Elliott has been in the pipes of late, and the Blues have turned things around after a slow start. This is the same Elliott who was discarded by Ottawa and Colorado. What gives?
"Coming into training camp, there was competition for a roster spot," Blues GM Doug Armstrong told ESPN.com on Wednesday morning. "He and Bishop both played well, probably to a draw, but we decided to go with experience. When Brian has got a chance here to play, he's been very strong for us. One thing that's impressed his teammates is his mental approach and work ethic. Right now, he's on a roll and it's benefited us."
The question is, how is Halak taking it?
"Jaro understands that we need to win games," said Armstrong. "He's preparing and working real hard in practice. One of the things that we talked about to our team in camp is that we want to have great depth at all positions. We have that in goal, too. Jaro knows he's going to be a big part of things here."
Burnside: Well, in my books, no goalie has been more surprising than Dallas' Kari Lehtonen, who won again Tuesday. Lehtonen is a perfect 7-0-0 with a .955 save percentage and 1.54 GAA, and has made more stops than any netminder in the league. Having watched Lehtonen struggle early in his career in Atlanta, the jury is still out for me on whether he's a true No. 1 goalie, someone who turns in 65-70 starts a season and maintains the consistency that separates the average from the good and the good from the great. But early on, the Stars have been one of the surprise teams in the league, and Lehtonen's play has put them in a great position to secure an unexpected playoff berth. Wonder what we'll be saying about Lehtonen and the Stars at midseason?
LeBrun: Not sure I agree with you that Lehtonen is the biggest surprise. He was the Stars' No. 1 goalie last season and turned in what was for the most part a solid performance. He struggled at times, yes, but he was their No. 1 goalie from wire to wire; so, apart from the fact that he's on fire right now, I don't qualify that as a big surprise. To me, there is no greater surprise than Elliott challenging Halak. An interesting decision awaits Blues coach Davis Payne tonight in Vancouver. My guess is Elliott will get the start because he's on a roll, but how long do you let Halak sit out? Until tomorrow, my friend.