Before the puck drops to start a game in the National Hockey League, everybody settles to a stop in the neutral zone, ready for the opening face-off. The two opposing goalies skate past their blue line, through their defensive circle, as they look into the crowd and settle into the goal crease. Once they turn around towards the action, they become more than just a hockey player, but a defender of sorts, there to protect their team, fans and a six-foot wide by four-foot tall net.
In the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, the eventual-champion Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers had net minders who went through the same routine. It is widely held that Jonathan Quick and Henrik Lundqvist are two of the toughest goalies to score on in the entire league, especially under the pressure of the biggest moments.
One can argue, however, that the duo could not have gotten to that point, where they constantly flashed greatness, without help. That help throughout the season came in the form of their backup goaltenders.
The Kings and Rangers had two tremendous backups who, believe it or not, had better statistical performances during the regular season than those ahead of them on the depth chart. This is not to say that they are the better players, don’t read take this that way, but Martin Jones won 12 games for the Kings with an impressive 1.81 goals against average, while Cam Talbot of the Rangers only ceded 1.64 while tallying the same number of wins.
Now, it is difficult to argue that either team would have missed the playoffs with a weak goalies a backup, but there is always the possibility that once the playoffs came, that the extra lactic acid floating around from unnecessary games in which they were needed just to make the postseason would limit the starter’s performance.
For the 2014-2015 season, the New York Islanders have made moves to follow in the path of the Kings and the Rangers, and justify the beliefs of many analysts who think that after years in the dungeons, that this could be their season. Last year, they had three goalies who combined to give up over three goals per game. In the NHL, that simply will not equate to wins. No matter how strong of an offense you have, it is too much to overcome having the third most goals given up of any team in the league.
Many may jump to blame Evgeni Nabokov, who over his many years with the San Jose Sharks and three with the Islanders, showed that he certainly can be a starting goaltender in this league. With a groin issue amongst other injury concerns, he did not stop pucks he would have stopped in the past last season, which not only gave General Manager Garth Snow the hint that it was time to cut bait, but that there was another issue.
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Backup goaltenders Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson were simply not good last season. When Nabokov had to sit out due to injury, or cycle with his teammates when he was struggling or needed rest, somebody had to step up to act as if they were a starter in the NHL. When neither Poulin nor Nilsson did that, the Islanders finished with only 79 points, right near the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
Islanders fans cried for help, and Snow answered, not only getting a quality replacement for Nabokov, but somebody who can push him for his minutes on the ice, and do just as well in the net when his time comes. Welcome to Long Island (at least for a year), Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson.
Halak has been on a merry-go-round of sorts, which is odd for a top-tier goaltender. After the St. Louis Blues picked up Ryan Miller to make a push in the playoffs, they had no need for the man who got them into contention in the first place, Halak. After a brief stint with the Washington Capitals last year, the Islanders acquired Halak for a fourth round pick, and would sign him to a four-year contract.
Backing him up, for now at least, is former Boston Bruins backup Chad Johnson. With all of the hoopla regarding the pickups of Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy, who do satisfy a need on the blue line, with a ton of playoff experience to boot, Johnson is the more important pickup.
“It is too much to overcome having the third most goals given up of any team in the league.”
After getting almost no ice time with the New York Rangers or the Phoenix Coyotes, Johnson spent last season with the Boston Bruins, where he shined. In the 23 games that he started, he won 17, showing that he can hold his own at the professional level. In fact, his numbers were not far off of teammate and Bruins starter Tuukka Rask’s, who went on to win the Vezina Trophy, which recognizes the league’s top goaltender.
As the Islanders get deeper and deeper into the season, especially if the race for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East gets tight, coach Jack Capuano will have to have flexibility. If he feels that Halak is off of his game, he needs to have the confidence to not only go to his backup, but also have the belief that he can go out there and win a hockey game.
So, as John Tavares leads the Islanders in their final season on Long Island, there will be fans who are uncomfortable with the idea of seeing their pride and joy leave. One thing they can feel comfortable about, however, is that if Halak gets off to a slow start, they have somebody who will fill in just fine, and have no problem propelling the team to where the players, fans and all of Long Island wants them to go: the playoffs.