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Looking at the new division: Goaltenders

The Hurricanes’ longtime perceived weak point might not be so weak when looking at the goaltending tandems in the division.

NHL: JAN 07 Hurricanes Training Camp Photo by Jaylynn Nash/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

You’re probably tired of hearing it, just the same way that the media is tired of writing and reporting it and, frankly, in the same way that the players themselves have gotten sick of it.

“If the Carolina Hurricanes had a top-level goaltender,” the conventional wisdom goes, “they’d be a true Stanley Cup contender.”

The spotlight this season will be on the goaltending perhaps moreso than in any other season in recent NHL history. With only 56 games and four games scheduled nearly every week — not to mention the inevitable rescheduling and roster reshuffling due to COVID-19 issues — goaltenders have very little margin for error. Successful teams will need to platoon their goalies. If your goalie plays 70% of your team’s games, that’s likely to be a disadvantage, not a strength.

Fortunately, a platoon is a situation in which the Hurricanes are very comfortable. How does the rest of the division stack up? And - let’s whisper it so as to not jinx it - could the Hurricanes’ perceived weak link actually be an advantage this season?

Let’s find out.

2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Tampa Bay Lightning

Andrei Vasilevskiy, Curtis McElhinney

At the top, there’s no question that Vasilevskiy, a Vezina Trophy finalist three years running who won the award two seasons ago, is the class of the division (at least, unless and until Ben Bishop gets healthy or Sergei Bobrovsky gets his act together). McElhinney is a capable backup who can get on a hot run, as we saw when he was with the Hurricanes two seasons ago.

But for a team with repeat Stanley Cup ambitions, there’s a lot resting on the shoulders of one player. Vasilevskiy is the workhorse, and if he goes down injured, there’s not much behind him to handle a compressed schedule. The Lightning are good enough that Vasilevskiy can take a break once a week or so, probably playing between 35 and 40 games, but if McElhinney is asked to take on any more of the workload that could foretell a bit of trouble.

Dallas Stars v Colorado Avalanche - Game Five Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Dallas Stars

Ben Bishop, Anton Khudobin, Jake Oettinger

Is it possible to have the best goaltending tandem in the division and also have the most question marks surrounding the position of any team in the Central? The Stars are doing their best to make that so. Bishop, who missed the majority of the Stars’ run to the Stanley Cup Final, is one of the best goalies in the league when healthy, the runner-up to Vasilevskiy for the 2019 Vezina and a true number one in every sense of the moniker., those two words - “when healthy” - are doing a whole lot of heavy lifting.

That’s not to disparage the job Khudobin did, a stabilizing force that may not have the game-stealing ability of Bishop but is certainly capable in his own right. But there’s a reason he’s never started more than 37 games in a season. With Bishop out until March following knee surgery, it’s going to come down to Khudobin and Oettinger to mind the shop. By the time we hit March, the Stars will have played a third of their schedule. Is that too much time lost for them to potentially need to claw back once Bishop is healthy?

Tampa Bay Lightning v Columbus Blue Jackets - Game Three Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Columbus Blue Jackets

Joonas Korpisalo, Elvis Merzlikins

The Jackets are a pain in the neck to play against, in part because of a goaltending tandem that very much resembles that of the Hurricanes. Korpisalo stymied the Leafs in the qualifying round and did his level best to hold the Lightning at bay in the first round of last year’s playoffs. If he can replicate that level, and Merzlikins continues to show that his first season in the NHL wasn’t a fluke, the Jackets will have good enough goaltending to make a run for the final playoff spot in the Central.

Now, it should be noted that the Jackets are, bar none, the stingiest defensive team in the division, so their style of play tends to make the goalies look better than they actually are. But John Tortorella’s squad doesn’t need either of their netminders to play lights-out hockey to be successful. The Jackets don’t have the firepower of the Hurricanes, but if Korpisalo and Merzlikins can platoon their way through the season, they might not need it.

Florida Panthers v New York Islanders Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

Florida Panthers

Sergei Bobrovsky, Chris Driedger

This has the potential to get bad in a hurry if the Bobrovsky from last year rears his ugly head again. Paid $10 million for his services, Bob was a black hole in net for Florida last season. And the Panthers are right back in the same spot again, fielding the same three goaltenders as last year, only this time with a compressed schedule. Yikes.

Now, things are...well, we can’t really say better, but let’s say “less bad” on defense in front of Bob. Markus Nutivaara is a nice pickup for the Panthers’ blue line, and ridding themselves of the dumpster fire that was Mike Matheson’s contract is addition by subtraction. And Bob simply can’t be as bad this year as he was last year, right? There’s something to be said for a goalie taking a year to get acquainted to new surroundings, but then again, we saw with Scott Darling how sometimes that initial impression holds up over time. For the Panthers’ sake, they’d better hope that Bobrovsky’s second act is more appealing than his first.

NHL: MAR 02 Oilers at Predators Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Nashville Predators

Pekka Rinne, Juuse Saros

Last season marked the start of a changing of the guard for the Predators, in more ways than one. Yes, there was a coaching change, and some longtime franchise stalwarts (Craig Smith, Nick Bonino and Kyle Turris among them) moved onto greener pastures. But where it was most pronounced was in net, where a trend became a true shift: for the first time in 10 years, the Predators’ crease is no longer the exclusive domain of Pekka Rinne.

One could easily make the argument that the Preds held on to the past for too long. Saros clearly outplayed his countryman last season, and by the time the playoffs started the shift was complete. This is Saros’ job now, with Rinne clearly the backup.

But with the season so compressed for time, the Preds will need both goaltenders to handle their business. Saros kept up his end of the bargain last year in a nearly dead-even time share with Rinne. If Rinne can bounce back from a sub-.900 performance last year, the Preds could be in good shape to grab a playoff spot. But if Rinne continues his decline in a losing battle with Father Time, putting everything on Saros’ shoulders will make or break the Preds’ season. We’ll know early in the season, in all likelihood, which way this is heading.

Carolina Hurricanes v Detroit Red Wings Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images

Detroit Red Wings

Thomas Greiss, Jonathan Bernier

If you looked at the Wings’ goalies in a vacuum without looking at the dearth of talent elsewhere on the roster, you could squint hard enough and see a Greiss/Bernier tandem backstopping the team to the edge of a playoff berth. That isn’t going to happen, because the rest of the Detroit roster is still largely a wasteland, but we’re not talking about the rest of the roster here. We’re talking about the goaltending, and let’s be honest, the Wings are nowhere near the basement of the division in that department.

Similar to Korpisalo and Merzlikins a couple of hours to the south, this is an underrated duo that could keep the Wings in games they have no business being competitive in. (Pour one out for Jimmy Howard, who did precisely the opposite last season. The numbers are incredible: 27 starts and a goals saved above average of minus-22!) Greiss was the odd man out when the Islanders decided to go with a pairing of Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin, but he was a workhorse for the Isles two years ago and was more than respectable last season. His addition by itself is a significant upgrade.

Bernier, a loyal soldier through some very dark days in Detroit, had to fight harder than he should have needed to to wrest the starter’s job away from Howard, but he’s at worst a capable 1B next to Greiss. The Wings have plenty of issues, but this isn’t one of them. Put this tandem on any other team in the division and they’d hold their own.

Edmonton Oilers v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images

Chicago Blackhawks

Malcolm Subban, Collin Delia

Here’s one place where Greiss and Bernier would make a difference. Or, really, any other goalie in the league, starter or backup.

The rebuild is on in Chicago, and after trading Robin Lehner and moving on from the just-retired Corey Crawford, the Hawks somehow looked at what they had - a career backup who has never posted a GSAA above zero, and a third-stringer with 16 NHL starts to his name - and said “yep, we’re good here.”

No, they really aren’t. This is a historically bad tandem, one that recalls the strip-it-all-down Sabres of 2014-15. That was the season where any goalie that showed any promise whatsoever was exiled to the AHL or immediately traded. After all, they couldn’t risk their shot at Connor McDavid. If your team is being compared to that squad, heaven help you.

Next to this, Mrazek and Reimer might look like a tandem of Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur. It’s going to be a long season in Chicago.

Wrapping it up, the Hurricanes look to actually be in the upper tier of the division in net. The Lightning are in front of them as long as they can ride Vasilevskiy, and they’re also behind a healthy Stars tandem. But given a two-month head start with Bishop recovering from surgery, the Hurricanes might be able to come out ahead of them. Everyone else is largely on their level or - ahem - significantly below. The Hurricanes don’t have a game breaker in net, but in this year’s Central, they might not need one.