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Backchecking: Taking a tour through the blue paint

Scott Cullen
1/23/2009 5:54:29 PM
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Taking a look at the crease situations around the NHL, Trade Rumours, Hot n' Not and the best in quotes, Chirping, in this week's edition of Backchecking.

First, a look at each team's goaltending:

Anaheim: It's been a troubling season for Jean-Sebastien Giguere, whose 3.08 goals against average and .904 save percentage represents his highest mark since the earliest days of his career in Calgary and it has opened the door for Jonas Hiller, the second-year Swiss goalie who has been consistently strong.  Giguere still has to be considered the number one, but he'll need to reverse his January slump to hold the job.

Atlanta: Oft-injured Kari Lehtonen has missed time again this season and his numbers (3.19 GAA, .904 SVPCT) have been the worst of his four-year NHL career.  Even so, he's the Thrashers' best option, ahead of 35-year-old backup Johan Hedberg and 21-year-old prospect Ondrej Pavelec, who has dominated in the AHL, but has yet to prove he can do the job at the NHL level.

Boston: Both of the Bruins' veteran goaltenders are going to be free agents at season's end, but it's helped to keep them motivated and performing well.  Thomas holds the edge for No. 1, which could leave Fernandez as trade bait this season because 21-year-old Tuukka Rask is showing well in the American Hockey League and should be ready for big league duty soon.

Buffalo: The Sabres have committed to Ryan Miller as their puckstopper of the present and the future who, despite some bumps in the road, has been having the best season of his career.  Veteran Patrick Lalime hasn't been very good as the backup, but he's under contract through next season and figures to keep the position.

Calgary: While it remains to be seen if Miikka Kiprusoff is going to be good value over the life of his long-term contract, he's at least been better over the last couple of months.  Good thing, because backup Curtis McElhinney only has four career starts.

Carolina: Cam Ward is having the best season of his career, even if there are still some consistency issues that crop up from time-to-time.  Michael Leighton has been mediocre as the backup though, to be fair, it's the first time in five years that he's played more than five games in the NHL.

Chicago: Going into the season, it was thought that the Blackhawks would unload Nikolai Khabibulin so that Cristobal Huet could take a firm hold on the starting job.  A slow start by Huet, coupled with excellent play from Khabibulin, has resulted in an equitable balance between the two and it's only getting stronger now that Huet is back in fine form.  With Khabibulin a free agent at season's end, the Blackhawks are well-equipped in the minors with Corey Crawford and Antti Niemi.

Colorado: Quite possibly the least consistent goaltending duo in the league.  Peter Budaj is slumping in January, but he does it by alternating between quality and nearly disastrous starts.  Andrew Raycroft won nine of his first ten decisions, but has dropped three in a row since to take momentum away.  If Budaj can't get a good hold on the starting job, though, Raycroft has a chance to get more action down the stretch.

Columbus: After putting up nine shutouts in 2007-2008, Pascal Leclaire is virtually an afterthought because of ongoing ankle issues and the exceptional play of 20-year-old rookie Steve MasonWade Dubielewicz, fresh off a stint in the KHL, has been signed to back up Mason, but don't expect him to see much, if any, time while the Jackets are in playoff contention.

Dallas: While Marty Turco is going through easily the worst season of his career, the Stars apparently don't have enough confidence in 24-year-old Swiss netminder Tobias Stephan to give Turco a break.  If the Stars still have a shot at the postseason, they may consider bringing in a veteran backup for the stretch drive.

Detroit: Coming off a sensational Cup-winning season in 2007-2008, Chris Osgood has stumbled behind a Red Wings defence that has, at times, been suspect this season.  Ty Conklin has been more effective as the pair have split starts, but if the Wings don't make a radical change before the deadline, Osgood figures to be the one who will get the nod in the playoffs.

Edmonton: Cleared out their goaltending logjam by dealing Mathieu Garon to the Penguins for Dany Sabourin and it leaves Dwayne Roloson firmly entrenched in the starter's role ahead of promising Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers.  Roloson is a free agent at season's end, but may be a good fit as a mentor for his up-and-coming backup.

Florida: Coming on after a so-so start to the season, Tomas Vokoun has been a solid number one, but the real story has been backup Craig Anderson, who has put up sensational numbers and pushed effectively when Vokoun wasn't at his best.  Anderson will be a free agent at season's end, but his play this season will earn him a nice raise.

Los Angeles: After shipping out Jason LaBarbera, the goaltending duties have been left to 22-year-old Jonathan Quick and 26-year-old Erik Ersberg.  While both are unproven, they have fared well in limited action and should both see action down the stretch.  Ersberg will be a free agent at season's end, which could create an opportunity for prospect Jonathan Bernier, who has been uneven in his first full pro season.

Minnesota: Niklas Backstrom has been one of the best goaltenders in the league this year and the 30-year-old pending free agent has established himself as a top-tier netminder.  Backup Josh Harding hasn't played much, making seven starts this season, but his strong numbers (2.17 GAA, .929 SVPCT) offset his 1-5 record and indicate that he could handle a bigger role than what he's been given thus far.

Montreal: Though he missed time with an injury, second-year puckstopper Carey Price is enjoying a strong sophomore campaign, further establishing his credentials as a potential franchise goaltender.  Price's backup Jaroslav Halak is solid, and filled in admirably when Price was hurt.  Both are on entry-level contracts through next season, so they provide exceptional value for the dollar.

Nashville: A breakthrough season in 2007-2008 vaulted Dan Ellis into the spotlight as the Predators' starter, but he hasn't been nearly as effective this year, providing an opportunity for Finnish rookie Pekka Rinne to continue the trend of Predators backups playing better than the starter.

New Jersey: When Martin Brodeur went down with a serious elbow injury early in the season, it looked like the beginning of the end for the Devils (and some of us wrote as much), but minor-league call-up Scott Clemmensen has more than done the job as starter ahead of Kevin Weekes.  When Brodeur returns, perhaps by March 1, the Devils will be set in goal, though one of the backups could be traded if not lost on waivers.

N.Y. Islanders: It's pretty much a disaster zone here.  Rick DiPietro has to be the franchise saviour to justify that long-term contract, but he's been hurt most of the year and is out for the rest of this season.  Joey MacDonald only had 13 career NHL starts before getting 36 starts as DiPietro's reasonably effective fill-in before getting hurt.  That leaves Yann Danis as the current starter ahead of first-year pro Peter Mannino.  The Isles definitely need DiPietro to be healthy and on top of his game next season.

N.Y. Rangers: Henrik Lundqvist is one of the better starting goaltenders in the game and he's rebounding with a strong January after a poor month of December.  He's backed up by Stephen Valiquette, who has been very effective in limited action over the past couple of seasons.  Valiquette will be a free agent at season's end and the Rangers have 24-year-old Miika Wiikman performing adequately on the farm in Hartford.

Ottawa: The Sens dispatched Ray Emery in the off-season, figuring that Martin Gerber would be the number one, but he couldn't hold the job through the first couple weeks of the season, giving Alex Auld an opportunity to carry the mail for a couple of months.  Once Auld faltered, and Gerber couldn't reverse the Sens' slide, Ottawa called up Wisconsin grad Brian Elliott and he's played well in five starts, leading the Sens to waive Gerber.    

Phoenix: Ilya Bryzgalov was a gift from the Ducks last season and he's been a solid starter, even if he has slipped some from last season.  Mikael Tellqvist hasn't seen a lot of action, making 11 starts, but he's been fairly consistent in a reserve role over the last couple of years.  Perhaps the most notable development in the Coyotes crease would be that Al Montoya, a one-time first-round pick of the Rangers, has been surpassed by undrafted Josh Tordjman in the organizational depth chart.

Philadelphia: The Flyers' goaltending has been okay.  Not great, not terrible, just okay.  Martin Biron runs hot and cold, but that inconsistency leaves him vulnerable to be pushed by Antero Niittymaki, who is putting up better numbers this year.  Both are free agents at season's end, and prospect Scott Munroe has been one of the AHL's top puckstoppers this season, so there may be some changes before long.

Pittsburgh: Marc-Andre Fleury took a step towards being an elite goaltender in last year's playoffs, but injuries have slowed that ascent some this season.  He's played well since getting back into the lineup and that will have to continue if the Penguins are going to get back into the postseason dance.  Newly-acquired Mathieu Garon looked like he might be a starter-calibre stopper last season, but his play has slipped this year.  Nevertheless, he's a nice option as a backup.

San Jose: Evgeni Nabokov has been one of the league's elite goaltenders in recent seasons and remains there even though his numbers have declined some this year.  Brian Boucher has been terrific as Nabokov's backup, going 9-1 with a 1.87 goals against average and .927 save percentage.

St. Louis: The number one job has essentially been Manny Legace's to lose after a couple of decent years for the Bluenotes, but injuries and ineffectiveness have given Chris Mason more opportunities, while 6-foot-7 prospect Ben Bishop has emerged at the head of the class for the Blues' goaltending future.

Tampa Bay: It could have been easy to overlook Mike Smith early in the season, when the Lightning were seemingly losing every night, but Smith has become a bona fide number one goaltender for this rebuilding squad.  Veteran Olaf Kolzig has been adequate in eight starts, but may be better served by joining a contender as insurance for the playoffs.  While the Bolts would like 22-year-old Karri Ramo to take the next step, he's struggled in both the AHL and, in limited duty, in the NHL this season.

Toronto: One of Toronto's best players last season, Vesa Toskala is going through the worst season of his pro career, which doesn't do much for his trade value at a time when Toronto might consider moving the veteran netminder.  41-year-old Curtis Joseph has struggled, posting an .850 save percentage, so there will be room in Toronto soon enough.  Prospect Justin Pogge will get a chance after the All-Star break to show what he can do at the NHL level.

Vancouver: Roberto Luongo missed nearly two months and, while Curtis Sanford had his moments, Sanford was ultimately waived when the Canucks acquired Jason LaBarbera from the Kings.  Now that Luongo is back in the lineup, he'll see the bulk of the action, with LaBarbera a serviceable stopgap.  Top prospect Cory Schneider got his feet wet in the NHL while Luongo was hurt, but could still use some time to mature before handling NHL shooters on a nightly basis.

Washington: An early-season slump by Jose Theodore almost vaulted Brent Johnson (who has played well) into the starter's job, but Theodore has, for the second straight season, started to play much better in January.   While he's risky, and could always be replaced by a better option, Theodore could be good enough behind a strong Capitals team for at least a couple of playoff rounds.   

TRADE RUMOURS
- More reports out of New Jersey suggest that checking centre John Madden could be shuffled out of town, though the Devils could consider moving Madden's former tag-team partner Jay Pandolfo, too.  The Newark Star-Ledger has the Devils interested in adding a defenceman.

- The Globe and Mail names the three players most likely to move at the deadline: Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay; Jay Bouwmeester, Florida; Tomas Kaberle, Toronto.  The Globe also holds Maple Leafs RW Nik Antropov as having high value since elite scoring wingers Marian Gaborik (injured) and Ilya Kovalchuk (just named captain) aren't likely to move.

- According to the Columbus Dispatch, the Penguins are looking at Panthers winger Nathan Horton and the Senators are talking about dealing Mike Fisher after not drawing enough interest in Jason Spezza.

- The Ottawa Sun, in addition to noting that teams have called about Fisher, pegs Senators D Filip Kuba and RW Chris Neil as possible bait for the trade deadline.  The Sun also has the Oilers inquiring about Fisher while the Blue Jackets have asked about Spezza.

- The Tennessean notes that, with Alexander Sulzer looking ready on the blueline, the Predators may be ready to sacrifice some depth on defence to improve their forward ranks.

- According to the Delaware County Times, the Philadelphia Flyers have expressed interest in Lightning D Paul Ranger.

- The Ottawa Sun has the Flyers looking to move Daniel Briere's long-term deal.

- The New York Post suggests that the Rangers have to start slashing the payroll to create more cap flexibility, noting that they pay too much to spare parts Petr Prucha, Aaron Voros and Dan Fritsche.

- According to the Ottawa Sun, there are rumours that the Atlanta Thrashers would send D Mathieu Schneider to the Sabres for RW Maxim Afinogenov.  Of course, both will be free agents at season's end, so the Thrashers may want to get something for the future in any deal for Schneider.

- The St. Peterburg Times has the Lightning expressing interest in Leafs D Ian White.

HOT
Marek Zidlicky, D, Minnesota (4-5-9, plus-1 in last 6 GP)
Douglas Murray, D, San Jose (0-5-5, plus-8 in last 6 GP)
Manny Malhotra, C, Columbus (2-7-9, even in last 7 GP)
Rich Peverley, C, Atlanta (2-6-8, plus-6 in last 4 GP)
John Madden, C, New Jersey (1-6-7, plus-6 in last 5 GP)
Scott Clemmensen, G, New Jersey (4-0, 1.75 GAA, .944 SVPCT in last 4 GP)

NOT
Chris Pronger, D, Anaheim (0-0-0, minus-4 in last 5 GP)
Bryan McCabe, D, Florida (1-0-1, minus-4 in last 5 GP)
Jean-Pierre Dumont, LW, Nashville (1-0-1, minus-4 in last 5 GP)
Nik Antropov, RW, Toronto (0-6-6, minus-9 in last 14 GP)
Patrick Sharp, C, Chicago (1-0-1, minus-2 in last 8 GP)
Steve Mason, G, Columbus (1-2-1, 3.61 GAA, .865 SVPCT in last 4 GP)

CHIRPING
"Points are points, and we need as many as we can get.  There's a kerfuffle in the middle, and we're in the kerfuffle, and we need to get points against those teams." - Stars coach Dave Tippett

"We've got a lot of nervous ninnies in here." - Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson, on trade speculation around the Leafs

"I remember trying to convince my parents to move to Vancouver. I thought it was the best decision for me and my family but they didn't see me eye-to-eye on that." - Oklahoma Sooners QB Sam Bradford, who grew up idolizing Pavel Bure and wanting to play for the Canucks

"I think we're getting sick and tired of people telling us how good we are." - Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville

"We've taken a big step just being in the playoff race this year. We have never really been in this position as a franchise." - Blue Jackets RW Rick Nash

"I know there are a lot of fast skaters but don't know if there is any faster than he is." - Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky on RW Enver Lisin.

Scott Cullen can be reached at scullen@tsn.ca



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