<
>

Competition between goalies not always bad, but some teams in East face big questions

In something of a surprise, big-money starter Jimmy Howard, left, is on the verge of being supplanted for good by Petr Mrazek. AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Ah, the good old-fashioned goaltending controversy. Nothing makes a coach or general manager's job easier than seeing one guy grab the job and run with it. But with more league-wide depth at the position than ever, it's inevitable that several teams end up splitting duties, at least temporarily. Sometimes it works. Often, it does not.

By my count, there are a dozen cases around the league where teams are facing some degree of uncertainty over just who owns the crease. Some are developing into classic goalie controversies, the kind where two (or more) guys get their hands on the job and tug it back and forth over the course of a season. Others are situations caused by slumps or injuries, the kind teams hope will be only temporary.

We'll start with the East today; the West will get its turn tomorrow. Here are six Eastern Conference teams with goaltending situations currently up for grabs.

Detroit Red Wings: Jimmy Howard vs. Petr Mrazek

In this corner: Howard is a former All-Star who had been Detroit's starter for six years before being overtaken by Mrazek in time for last season's playoffs.

And in this corner: Mrazek is a 23-year-old who would make spot appearances in Detroit for two years before earning the backup job last season. He got the start in all seven playoff games against the Lightning, and he played well.

The results so far: It was a mild surprise when the Wings went to Mrazek last spring, and some suspected that the departure of coach Mike Babcock would mean Howard getting the job back. But new boss Jeff Blashill has treated it as an open competition, and so far Mrazek has been better, posting a .928 save percentage to Howard's .914 and earning 15 of the team's 26 starts.

Prediction: Mrazek's grip on the job is getting firmer. Howard hasn't been bad by any stretch, but he's being outplayed by a younger, cheaper option. If that continues, what happens next could get tricky; Howard remains signed through 2018-19 on a contract that carries a $5.3 million cap hit, and he would become yet another questionable long-term contract in Detroit. Mrazek is earning $738,000 this season, after which he'll be a restricted free agent.

Philadelphia Flyers: Steve Mason vs. Michal Neuvirth

In this corner: Mason has been maligned as a subpar starter for most of his career, and rightfully so based on his numbers. But credit where it's due: He's been good since coming over to the Flyers in 2013, and he was downright excellent last season.

And in this corner: Neuvirth has bounced around over the last few years, and he spent last season playing way too well for the tanking rebuilding Sabres, who traded him to the Islanders. He came into this season as the clear-cut backup in Philadelphia.

The results so far: Mason's been fine. But Neuvirth has been fantastic, making 10 starts and posting a league-leading .939 save percentage. And it's not like he's benefited from a backup's schedule against the league's weaklings -- he has wins against the Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators.

Prediction: Mason is still the man in Philadelphia, a town that's well known for its patience when it comes to goaltenders. I'm sure this will work out fine. But just for fun: Assuming the Flyers are out of the playoff race at the trade deadline, what could they get for a red-hot Neuvirth?

New York Islanders: Jaroslav Halak vs. Thomas Greiss

In this corner: Halak was last year's starter and put together a decent season, nearly leading the Islanders to their first playoff win since 1993.

And in this corner: Greiss was a sneaky-good pickup by the Isles, signing on the first day of free agency after a solid career as a backup around the league.

The results so far: Based on the numbers, Halak's been better than he was last season. But Greiss has been just as good, and he has earned 11 starts to Halak's 13, a higher ratio than most were expecting (although some of that was due to Halak missing a few games due to injury).

Prediction: This has been one of those nice-to-have problems for the Islanders, as both guys are playing well enough to start and the team is sitting comfortably in the top 10 for goals allowed per game. Halak should get the majority of the starts going forward, but Greiss will continue to get a bigger chunk of the work than expected heading into the season.

Montreal Canadiens: Carey Price vs. Carey Price's right knee

In this corner: Carey Price, the reigning MVP and quite possibly the best goaltender in the league.

And in this corner: Price's knee, which kept him out for three weeks when he initially hurt it in late October, and will now reportedly cost him six more weeks after he reinjured it last week.

The results so far: As good as Price is, his injury hasn't cost the Canadiens all that much so far, thanks to the solid play of rookie backup Mike Condon. On Monday, the Habs called up prospect Zachary Fucale to serve as Condon's backup. Dustin Tokarski is available as well. Nobody can replace Price, but it's a deep position in Montreal.

Prediction: Patience. The Canadiens have built an 11-point cushion atop the Atlantic, so there's no need to panic here, and it doesn't sound like the club is feeling any pressure to make a trade for a veteran. That could change if things start to fall apart in Price's absence, but there's been little indication that it will. If the Canadiens still have a comfortable lead when Price is nearing a return, expect them to take their time easing him back rather than risk yet another reinjury.

Buffalo Sabres: Chad Johnson vs. Linus Ullmark (for now)

In this corner: Johnson is a career backup, one who was acquired at the trade deadline to bring a veteran presence to the Sabres' crease.

And in this corner: At 22, Ullmark is a Swedish prospect who came over to North America this season and was expected to spend the year in the AHL.

The results so far: This was supposed to be Robin Lehner's job, but his opening-night ankle injury temporarily upended that plan. Given how shaky the team's goaltending has been in recent years, you could forgive Sabres fans for fearing the worst. Instead, Johnson and Ullmark have combined to do a reasonably good job, enough to keep the Sabres hanging around on the outer edges of the playoff race.

Prediction: Lehner will get the job back once he's healthy, which could be at some point later this month barring another setback. At that point, Ullmark will presumably go back to the minors, Johnson will resume his backup duties and the Sabres will probably come out of the whole situation feeling better about their goaltending situation in both the short and long term.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Jonathan Bernier vs. James Reimer

In this corner: Bernier entered the season with what appeared to be a firm grip on the starter's job. But a shaky October followed by an injury opened the door for Reimer.

And in this corner: The one-time toast of the town, Reimer had lost the confidence of both the fans and the organization over the last two years (somewhat unfairly).

The results so far: Bernier was 0-6-1 in October before getting hurt, and Reimer was largely brilliant in his absence. Bernier is healthy again, but hasn't looked sharp in two starts since returning and sounds like he's lost the confidence of coach Mike Babcock -- which is understandable, given goals like this. The team sent him down to the minors on Wednesday for a conditioning stint.

Reimer is fighting a nagging injury of his own, which is bad timing considering how hot he was and how far out of favor Bernier seems to have fallen. That opens the door for a third candidate, so let's go just ahead and throw a third name into the mix ...

And then in this corner: Rookie Garret Sparks, who made his first NHL start on Monday and became the first Leafs goalie to record a shutout in his debut. Sure, it was against the Edmonton Oilers, but that still technically counts.

Prediction: There's no question that it's Reimer's job right now, with Sparks playing the supporting role of the rookie underdog for as long as he can ride it; Bernier clearly has long way to go to earn back Babcock's trust. But he'll likely be given the opportunity to do that, at least eventually -- it's worth remembering that Bernier is signed through next season to a deal that pays him starter's money, while Reimer will be an unrestricted free agent this summer.