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Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Goalie carousel: Which moves will work?

By Scott Burnside

Of all the dizzying offseason moves -- coaches appearing out of nowhere, defensemen coming here, centers parachuting in over there -- are there any moves that have more potential for impact than the movement of goaltenders?

Take last season when San Jose first signed Antero Niittymaki and then added another Finn in Antti Niemi after Chicago walked away from an arbitrator's decision.

Niemi picked up where he'd left off in 2010 by leading the Sharks to a second straight Western Conference final this past spring.

Ilya Bryzgalov
Is Ilya Bryzgalov the netminder who will solve all of the Flyers' problems?
Chicago, meanwhile, added veteran Marty Turco a year ago in the hopes of supplying enough veteran savvy to get back to the promised land.

It didn't work out that way as Turco was supplanted by rookie Corey Crawford and the Hawks snuck into the playoffs on the final evening of the regular season but were ousted in the first round by Vancouver.

The revamped Tampa Bay Lightning thought former Nashville netminder Dan Ellis might be the answer last summer. He wasn't. So rookie GM Steve Yzerman brought in veteran Dwayne Roloson on Jan. 1 and ultimately shipped Ellis to Anaheim as the Bolts marched to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals.

Atlanta brought in veteran Chris Mason a year ago, but Mason couldn't deliver the goods when Ondrej Pavelec was injured, and the Thrashers faded out of sight and right into Winnipeg.

The Montreal Canadiens' 2010 playoff hero, Jaroslav Halak, was dealt to St. Louis last offseason, and the Blues signed Halak to a four-year deal. But the injury-plagued Blues fell short of the playoffs and Halak was only average.

This offseason has featured a number of teams making significant goaltending changes in the hopes those changes will yield playoff success or pay even greater postseason dividends. Here's a look:

Ilya Bryzgalov, Philadelphia Flyers

Well, there's a shocker. The Flyers' goaltending carousel tops the list of offseason goalie moves. After using three goalies during their 11-game playoff run this past spring that ended with a shocking sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins, owner Ed Snider declared he had enough, and GM Paul Holmgren went out and brought in the top free-agent netminder on the market: Ilya Bryzgalov.

The enigmatic Russian was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy in 2010 but his play was rather ordinary this past spring against Detroit as the Coyotes were swept by the Red Wings in the first round. Bryzgalov allowed 17 goals in four games and turned in a pedestrian .879 save percentage.

True, it's hard to compare the Coyotes, a hard-working but talent-strapped team, with the Flyers. Even with Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Ville Leino among the departed, this is still a deep and powerful offensive squad with a terrific blue line, assuming that Chris Pronger returns to good health.

But gee, nine years, $51 million including $10 million this coming season is an awful lot of faith for a goaltender who's appeared in a total of 27 NHL postseason games.

Pressure? Bryzgalov is about to enter the mother of all goaltending pressure cookers.

Can he stand the heat? Or does he melt like a plastic souvenir stick?

Semyon Varlamov, Colorado Avalanche

Let's stay with the Russians for a moment, shall we?

If Bryzgalov represents the biggest offseason goaltending move, then the Avs' acquisition of former Washington netminder Semyon Varlamov on July 1 ranks as the most curious.

Varlamov was a restricted free agent who had fallen to third on the Caps' depth chart behind other newbies Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby. Disgruntled with his lot in life in the nation's capital, Varlamov was making noise about playing in the KHL this season when the Avs dealt a first-round and second-round pick to Washington for Varlamov.

That's a big roll of the dice for GM Greg Sherman, who eschewed going after established veteran Tomas Vokoun to make the play for Varlamov, who has a history of injury and has not yet established himself as a franchise-type netminder.

When he's been healthy, Varlamov has put up good to great numbers -- 2.23 GAA and .924 save percentage in 27 appearances this past season -- but his durability remains a significant issue for an Avalanche team that was the runaway worst team in goals allowed per game this past season.

A number of NHL sources contacted by ESPN.com believe Washington GM George McPhee took the Avs to the woodshed and may end up with a lottery pick for a goaltender who was virtually off the radar for the Caps.

The Avs are banking, instead, that they've found their goaltender of the future.

Those are the gambles that can directly effect job security.

The Avs also signed veteran free agent and former Stanley Cup winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere to battle with Varlamov for playing time in Denver.

Tomas Vokoun, Washington Capitals

Not only did McPhee add (steal?) assets in moving Varlamov, he managed a day later to add the second-best goaltender on the market for a pittance. Tomas Vokoun looked like he'd be a terrific fit in Denver, but the Avs never made an offer to the veteran. Instead, Vokoun signed a one-year deal with the Caps for $1.5 million. Holy bargain basement.

Now, many have overstated Vokoun's potential to get the Caps over the proverbial playoff hump, but the fact still remains Vokoun is very much an unknown when it comes to playoff netminding. And since the talented Caps are all about the playoffs, the jury will be out on this signing until the spring. Still, Vokoun put up good numbers with a Florida team that struggled offensively. In four years in South Florida, Vokoun's save percentage ranged from .919 to .926. Impressive.

He'll get a lot more run support in Washington and coach Bruce Boudreau has already tabbed him as the No. 1 guy ahead of Neuvirth given Vokoun's experience.

Still, Vokoun has appeared in just 11 NHL playoff games and really has very little playoff experience at any level. Does it matter? We'll let you know come mid-April.

Dwayne Roloson, Tampa Bay Lightning

Roloson didn't actually go anywhere, of course. And it wasn't all that surprising that Yzerman signed Roloson to a one-year deal worth $3 million even though Roloson will turn 42 during the second week of the regular season.

Roloson proved in the playoffs that even though he might have the occasional wobble he is as mentally tough as anyone in the business. His duel with eventual playoff MVP Tim Thomas in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals was a classic.

Yzerman did go for a little more stability in the backup role, though, bringing in Mathieu Garon, who has toiled in relative anonymity for years in Edmonton, L.A., Pittsburgh and Columbus but has always delivered quality starts when asked. One has to imagine he'll be asked to carry a bigger load working with Roloson, but the two should make for a solid tandem and the Lightning should again be a playoff team in the East.

Mike Smith, Phoenix Coyotes

We admit to having a soft spot for the big netminder who was mentored early on by Turco in Dallas and might have saved his NHL career with a couple of terrific performances for the Lightning during the playoffs.

At one point last season, Smith had been waived and sent to the minors but was given another chance by Yzerman, and Smith repaid that with hard work, a great attitude and quality performances in relief of Roloson.

With Bryzgalov off to Philadelphia, the Coyotes were in the market for a new No. 1 netminder and goaltending coach Sean Burke convinced GM Don Maloney that he could replicate his success with Bryzgalov with Smith, whom they signed to a two-year deal.

Smith will also be reunited with coach Dave Tippett, for whom he played in Dallas.

Smith is highly motivated and seems to be in a position to marry a top technical game with a mental side that has taken some time to mature. If he can put them both together, maybe the Coyotes won't miss Bryzgalov as much as most people expect they will.

Jose Theodore, Florida Panthers

The Panthers did make a couple of overtures to Vokoun in the days leading up to free agency in an effort to keep him in the fold, but when the money started flying on July 1, GM Dale Tallon wanted to make sure he found himself a No. 1 netminder to go with his re-made Panthers lineup.

Now critics will suggest Tallon never quite got there, but signing the former Hart Trophy and Vezina Trophy winner gave Tallon a guy who has actually compiled a pretty impressive body of work the past few years. Two seasons ago Theodore went 30-7-7 for the Capitals. In his last 24 starts that season, Theodore did not lose in regulation (he was pulled in one game, but Varlamov took the loss).

This past year, he was 15-11-3 for an offensively challenged Minnesota Wild team. Yes, Theodore was given the hook in his last two playoff series for the Caps in 2009 and 2010, but the Panthers are a team that hasn't played a playoff game since 2000, so let's not put the blocker ahead of the puck (or something like that).

Theodore will turn 35 on the eve of training camp and, like many of the new-look Panthers, Theodore has lots to prove and maybe more than a little to give.