With Training Camp literally right around the corner, now is as good a time as any for making myself look ridiculous. There’s no chance at all that I’ll end up A) wrong; and B) INCREDIBLY wrong. With that understanding, and with only 2 slots open for 3 signed guys, I’m honestly wondering if there’s going to be a goalie battle playing out this pre-season.
Who’s The Starter This Season?
This might be the most obvious question and answer I’ve ever taken the time to write about. Ville Husso has this slot on lock-down until further notice. If you missed the recap on his ‘22-‘23 performance and individual predictions for the coming season, you can find the write-up here courtesy of the fantastic Kyle Kujawa. No arguments from me here.
Who’s The Back-Up This Season?
Buckle up, buttercups. Here’s where it gets interesting.
Conventional thinking tells us to expect James Reimer to stand in for something like 30-40 games this season. One of our free agent signings on July 1st, Reimer comes to us from the bottom-feeding Sharks last season. Sporting a career .911 SV% and 2.87 GAA in 476 regular season games, most expect that his .890 SV% and 3.48 GAA from last season were anomalies and the direct result of playing for the 4th-worst team in the league by points (3rd-worst by goals against). But I’m not convinced.
James Reimer was only the 3rd-best goalie for the Sharks last season. In admittedly small sample sizes, Aaron Dell and Eetu Makiniemi both posted significantly better stats than the now-35-year-old Reimer (4GP, .913 SV%, 2.71 GAA; 2GP, .906 SV%, 2.13 GAA respectively). The season prior, Reimer finished 2nd-best of a fairly mediocre Sharks goaltending squad and behind Kaapo Kahkonen (48GP, .911 SV%, 2.90 GAA vs 11GP, .916 SV%, 2.86 GAA).
What concerns me, apart from his ‘22-‘23 season numbers, is that this up-one-season/down-the-next type of performance has been seen with Reimer before. Splitting time with Petr Mrazek in ‘19-20’ for the Hurricanes, and with 25 games played, Reimer led the team in both SV% (.914) and GAA (2.66). In the following Covid-shortened ‘20-‘21 season, with 22 GP, he finished LAST of the 3 goalies played by Carolina. The raw numbers that season weren’t all that bad – .906 SV% and 2.66 GAA. But compared to what his net-minding partners did (Nedeljkovic: 23 GP, .932 SV%, 1.90 GAA; Mrazek: 12 GP, .923 SV%, 2.06 GAA) on a Carolina team that was tied for 4th-best Goals Against (134), Reimer was absolutely off-form. At his age, I have to wonder if he has the capacity to “bounce back” again.
Giving Reimer a run for his money this season is the King Of Small Sample Sizes, Alex Lyon. In 15 games with the Florida Panthers, the largest NHL sample of his career, now-30-year-old Lyon put up not just the best season stats of his career (.914 SV% and 2.89 GAA) but was statistically the best goalie for the Panthers in the regular season (Bobrovsky: 50 GP, .901 SV%, 3.01 GAA; Knight: 21 GP, .901 SV%, 3.18 GAA). But, again, it was a small sample size much as it has been for his NHL career as a whole to this point.
What gives me hope about Lyon’s numbers is that last season didn’t happen in a vacuum. In addition to his NHL stats, he put up a solid year for the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers with a .910 SV% and 2.43 GAA in 23 GP. The season prior, he had 2 games with the Carolina Hurricanes where he played admirably (.908 SV%, 2.93 GAA) and the majority of a season with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves where he was downright dominant (30 GP, .912 SV%, 2.16 GAA). These are the numbers of someone who deserves a shot at the main roster – not a guaranteed spot, but at least the opportunity to prove himself.
It’s because of all this that I’m picking Alex Lyon as the back-up on Opening Night. Am I wrong? Probably – it’s never a good idea to bet against a career starter until they show that they’re only AHL capable. But Lyon absolutely has the capability to outplay Reimer from the past few seasons, and doubly so if the Reimer we signed this summer is the same Reimer from last season. Whatever happens, it should be interesting to watch the goalie-battle unfold during Training Camp and pre-season play.
What do you think – is there really going to be a goalie battle for the back-up spot, or am I reading tea leaves when I should just default to the obvious? Make your best case in the comments, and…