Wednesday, October 24, 2007 Updated: October 25, 10:02 AM ET
Vezina finalists facing unique challenges in new season
By Damien Cox Special to ESPN.com
One can't imagine there would be an NHL general manager with the necessary unmitigated gall.
Then again, you never know. Nothing ventured, nothing gained and all that.
Roberto Luongo led the Canucks back to the playoffs last season.
So maybe, just maybe, an intrepid GM, perhaps one with a sense of whimsy, has contacted Lou Lamoriello, Glen Sather, Dave Nonis or Darryl Sutter with an offer -- in passing, of course -- to take their goaltending "problem" off their hands.
Either stony silence or a loud guffaw would have been the response, but when the Patriots called the Raiders and offered a draft pick for one of the greatest receivers of all time, maybe they didn't get the negative response they anticipated, either.
That said, all four of the NHL managers listed above are experienced and smart enough to know that the absence of their starting goaltenders from the higher levels of the NHL stats sheet these days doesn't mean very much at all.
Still, it does jar the mind a little.
After all, New Jersey's Martin Brodeur and Vancouver's Roberto Luongo finished a tight 1-2 in the Vezina Trophy race last season, while New York Rangers puck-stopper Henrik Lundqvist and Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff, the 2006 winner, finished tied for the third.
This season, however, none would win the Vezina if, for some peculiar happenstance, a snap vote was held today. It would go to Niklas Backstrom of the Wild, or maybe even Philadelphia's Martin Biron, or perhaps a resurgent Cam Ward of the Hurricanes. One Timothy Jr. Thomas, which is how the Boston Bruins goalie is listed on the official NHL Web site, boasts the shiniest numbers of all, albeit in only four starts.
Lundqvist, meanwhile, has two victories, Luongo's save percentage is below the magic .900 level, Brodeur hasn't yet recorded a shutout and Kiprusoff's goals-against average is, at least by his standards, a bloated 3.18.
Have they all lost it? Has the hockey world gone mad? Will we find Derek Boogaard atop the scoring race next?
Well, no, no and no. Actually, the hockey-world-gone-mad question is a maybe, an issue to be mined another day. But while their respective clubs certainly would like more impressive stats from their No. 1 goalies in the early going of this season, the Flames, Devils, Rangers and Canucks are not in any kind of a panic.
They know that when it comes to goaltending, hockey is like a baseball season. You don't get too excited about the guy who's hitting .455 in April because, over the course of the season, most hitters settle into the area that their talent and/or HGH regimen dictates.
Similarly, five or six or seven early-season appearances do not an NHL goaltender's season make. This quartet of padded men -- Brodeur, Luongo, Lundqvist and Kiprusoff -- will all, barring injury, play upwards of 65 games this season, and it is their ability to do so that truly marks their talent, consistency and durability.
That said, professional sports being what it is, all have to perform for the whisperers to stay silent, and winning a Stanley Cup remains a defining part of the goalkeeper's career résumé. Brodeur has three rings, the last in 2003, while Luongo, Lundqvist and Kiprusoff have yet to climb that particular mountain.
Each of these goalies faces unique challenges in his particular situation and city, all worth considering and watching as the season unfolds.
Martin Brodeur played in an NHL-record 78 games last season.
• New Jersey Devils, age 35; six games, two wins, 3.51 GAA, .865 save percentage
He remains the king, and while many would argue Luongo should have won the Vezina last season (NHL general managers do the voting), Brodeur actually enjoyed one of his best seasons behind a suspect defense and a team clearly in transition.
This season, that transition has accelerated, and so far, Brodeur has yet to find his comfort zone. The Devils have played all their games on the road while waiting for the new Prudential Center to open for business in downtown Newark, N.J., and they have struggled to find a personality under new coach Brent Sutter.
While other head coaches arrived in the Devils camp and learned the Devils way, Sutter has arrived with his own ideas and practices, and it has caused some ripples of uncertainty. For starters, he split up the checking tandem of John Madden and Jay Pandolfo, and the Devils have been playing a decidedly more offensively aggressive game in the early going.
Still, they've only scored 21 goals, with six coming in one game. Brodeur, meanwhile, has given way to new backup Kevin Weekes on two occasions, once after Brodeur briefly left the team to attend to personal business back home. There's a sense that Weekes will be asked to share the load this season more than has traditionally been the case with Jersey backups during Brodeur's career.
There are those who wonder if after 897 regular-season starts and all those playoff games and all those international commitments, Brodeur is on the slippery slope downward. With Patrick Roy's all-time wins record and Terry Sawchuk's all-time shutouts record in the offing, however, don't expect Brodeur to throw in the towel just yet.
• Vancouver Canucks, 28; eight games, three wins, 3.00 GAA, .896 save percentage
Luongo, it's fair to say, faces the enormous chore of duplicating his performance of last season. It was his dazzling work in the postseason that still sticks in the memory bank most, a spring that included 12 starts, multiple overtime games and only 25 goals allowed, plus one very peculiar bathroom break.
The Canucks impressed the hockey world by making the playoffs largely on Luongo's back, but then couldn't score enough to win more than a round. Ideally, some extra firepower up front would have been imported in the offseason, but instead Nonis retained essentially the same roster, hoping for bounce-back seasons from the likes of Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison.
That has happened to a certain degree, but the 'Nucks still find themselves to be a middle-of-the pack squad on the attack. With Luongo not quite as brilliant in the early going while still facing almost 29 shots per outing, Vancouver is off to a sluggish start in the very tough Northwest Division.
Fair or unfair, Luongo is now the face of the Vancouver franchise, a club that has never won the Stanley Cup. It's a city with high expectations and the buzz of the Olympics coming in 2010, so there's nowhere to hide, even the goaltender many believe will prove to be the best in the sport this season.
• New York Rangers, 25; eight games, two wins, 2.00 GAA, .927 save percentage
It's the goals-against average and save percentage that tells you Lundqvist really doesn't even deserve to be mentioned as a goaltender trying to find his game in the early going of the 2007-08.
For the most part, the Swedish ace has been excellent, and Tuesday's 1-0 loss to the Penguins in which he stopped 21 of 22 shots but ended up second best to Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury was a microcosm of Lundqvist's season, and that of the Rangers.
Despite the additions of Chris Drury and Scott Gomez, the Blueshirts can't score to save their lives at the moment, having potted only 13 goals in eight starts this season. For a lineup that also includes Brendan Shanahan and Jaromir Jagr, it has been an utterly mystifying start on Broadway, marked by a lack of cohesion and chemistry among the forwards.
Lundqvist has allowed two or fewer goals in six of his eight starts, and really had only one lamentable appearance once (he coughed up five goals to awful Atlanta on 28 shots). Unlike Brodeur and Luongo, his GAA and save percentage are among the league leaders.
But a funny thing can happen to goalies on teams with terrible offensive problems. Night after night, the weight of having to hold the opponent to a goal or shut them out entirely is draining, sometimes forcing otherwise strong netminders to wilt.
Presumably, the Rangers will start to score. Otherwise, Lundqvist will have little room for the slightest misstep.
Miikka Kiprusoff won the Vezina Trophy in 2006.
• Calgary Flames, 29; nine games, four wins, 3.18 GAA, .884 save percentage
Perhaps Kiprusoff should've spent the summer with Dr. Phil, or at least in consultation with the likes of Ed Belfour, Curtis Joseph and Glenn Healy.
Playing under Mike Keenan's watchful eye night after night, after all, can be a stressful existence, even an excruciating one. Belfour could tell tales about being yanked by Keenan during his years in Chicago; Joseph essentially was run out of St. Louis by Iron Mike; and Healy has a million stories -- some humorous, some nasty -- about the way in which Keenan played head games with the Rangers goalies during his years in New York. Oh yes, and don't forget Luongo. Keenan found him wanting in Florida, and engineered the disastrous trade that made Luongo a Canuck before leaving the Panthers himself shortly thereafter.
So, it's fair to say, goalies and Keenan always have provided a story line in each of the eight cities in which Keenan has coached. So far in Calgary, there's been no indication that Kiprusoff will be part of this unsettled continuum, as he has played all but 24 minutes in the Flames' games this season.
Still, in his nine appearances, the Finn has held the opposition to less than three goals just twice and has surrendered four goals on four occasions. He's coming off consecutive 40-win seasons, but the Flames were terrible on the road last season, winning only 13 of 41 starts.
Keenan brought heavy expectations with him in his surprise appointment in Calgary, with many still believing the Stanley Cup finals appearance in 2004 should have been the precursor to bringing the trophy back to Cowtown.
Perhaps the best thing Kiprusoff has going for him, aside from his proven talent, is that the Flames have no other realistic options in net. The backup is Colorado College grad Curtis McElhinney, a veteran of two AHL seasons, while recent high draft picks Leland Irving and Brent Krahn don't seem poised to become NHL starters any time soon.
If these Flames are going anywhere under Keenan this season, it will have to be with full confidence in Kiprusoff. No head games allowed.
Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."