There really isn’t any disputing the fact that the Western Conference is the better of the two sides in the National Hockey League. It’s been responsible for four of the last five champions (even if those were just two different teams) and has 11 or 12 teams that could certainly be in the mix for a playoff spot. Looking up and down the conference, there are some teams that look primed to make a deep run, outside of the obvious Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks.
However, while teams like the St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks might be favorites to do just that, and while the Minnesota Wild look to build on their recent success and make a legitimate run in the 2014-15 Stanley Cup Playoffs, their success is far from a guarantee, even with quality rosters. Each of that trio of team faces significant questions between the pipes.
St. Louis Blues
The Blues’ questions in net come as no surprise to anyone. They sent Jaroslav Halak away during the regular season in hopes that Ryan Miller could get them over their playoff hump. That obviously did not happen and Miller was cut loose in free agency, as he went on to sign with the Vancouver Canucks. Instead, the Blues will roll into the new campaign with Brian Elliott and Jake Allen as their goaltending tandem. As things stand right now, Elliot is penciled in, but the hope is that Allen will take over the starting gig at some point during the season.
Say what you want about Elliott’s numbers over the last few years, they came in somewhat limited action. He made 38 starts three years ago, 24 in the lockout shortened campaign in 2013, and 31 last year. Those are far from a starting workload. A career backup, Elliott has a long way to go to prove he can shoulder that kind of load. Luckily, he’s the beneficiary of playing behind a very good defensive squad, which should help his tradition.
What the Blues are likely hoping for, though, is that their goaltender-of-the-future takes hold of the starting job early on, allowing Elliott to remain in that backup capacity. Jake Allen is coming off of a very good season in the AHL, in which he went for a 2.03 goals against average. He has a very nice skill set and is the type of goaltender that this team has coveted the last few years. Is this the season he breaks out and proves to be that future franchise goaltender? Either way, the goalie picture for the Blues is very foggy right now, which certainly complicates projecting what they could accomplish in the upcoming season.
Unlike the other two teams here, the Wild will enter the new season with their goaltending situation identical to what it was last year. On paper, the Wild would appear to have three goaltenders capable of starting, in Josh Harding, Niklas Backstrom, and Darcy Kuemper. However, each has dealt with various health issues over the last couple of seasons, to the point where Ilya Bryzgalov was grabbing starts in the postseason.
That’s to be somewhat expected with Harding, who had to take the final few months off of last year because of multiple sclerosis. When he was between the pipes, he was very good last year. One would imagine he’ll make up half of the tandem for the Wild early on in 2014-15. The question is the other. Do they go with the veteran in Backstrom, or do they go with the upside in Kuemper? This is an issue that will likely be solved during training camp. Regardless of the duo they roll with, it’s going to come down to health. The Wild have built up a very good roster up in Minnesota and are a very real contender in the Western Conference. If they have similar health issues in goal, though, any hopes of a deep run will likely be derailed early.
The Ducks are in a position, unlike the other two teams here, where they are heading into the new season with two completely different goaltenders on the roster. Both Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth are now gone (Hiller in free agency, Fasth in a trade last year). Instead, John Gibson and Frederick Andersen will start off the season as the young duo for a Ducks team that has Stanley Cup aspirations.
You could very easily make the argument that Gibson has the highest upside of any goaltender mentioned here. He got off to a fantastic start to his NHL career, including a shutout in his first start, and did some very special things in the postseason. There are going to be some growing pains, for sure, and he’s going to cede some starts to Andersen simply to avoid an overwhelming workload, but he has the chance to be a top tier goaltender in this league in the very near future. How long that takes, though, could decide how far Anaheim is actually going to go in the playoffs this year.
It’s not necessarily that these three teams are in trouble in net. There is noted upside with any situation that these teams are facing. However, the downside is similar across the board. St. Louis and Anaheim could deal with failed aspirations from a young netminder, while the Wild could continue to battle injury woes. Either way, these are three contenders that have very clouded pictures in net, as far as health and as far as who will get the bulk of the starts. But that’s what training camp is for, and whatever cannot be solved in training camp will likely be solved very early on in the regular season.
Nonetheless, these teams will need to sort out their situations if they’re going to make the type of run that is expected from each of them. The Blues and Ducks each carry aspirations of a Stanley Cup title, while the Wild are primed to make a run at the conference final, at the very least. Either way, these will provide some very interesting headlines heading into the upcoming campaign.