The Goaltending Gamble

(Photo Credit: Scott Paulus)

Today is Marek Mazanec‘s Birthday. And, with that, it is worth remembering and reflecting upon what the now 26-year old Czech netminder provided: stability. The 2017-18 season will be the first season since 2012-13 when the Milwaukee Admirals will not have had Mazanec between the pipes for them. In that four-year tenure playing in the AHL he was debatably one of the Admirals best goaltenders during the AHL era having played 165 games, earned 82 wins and 11 shutouts, provided a 2.59 goals against average and 0.909 save percentage, and even managed to tally 11 assists.

It was year-to-year stability with a goaltender that wouldn’t be that much of a question mark if tabbed as the third choice option for the Nashville Predators. At this moment, the organization is heading into a short span where having that is going to be a gamble contested on the free agent market and the 2017-18 season marks Year 1 of this window in Milwaukee.

(Photo Credit: Mark Newman)

When looking within the prospect pipeline the Predators have always had quality at the defensive position and, in recent years, have started to build up skilled forward depth. What can perhaps get entirely lost in the Pekka Rinne Era is a remarkably weak depth at the goaltending position. The last real wave of that depth has most recently washed ashore and been ushered out – leaving Juuse Saros as the heir to the throne in Nashville, Mazanec a free agent, names such as Magnus HellbergChet Pickard in the European scene, and Jeremy Smith still contesting as a valuable third choice option in his now his fifth different AHL destination five-seasons removed from his last campaign with the Admirals. In the last ten-years the Predators have drafted twelve different goaltenders stationed across seven different draft classes. The lone drafts in which the Predators did not select a goaltender in the last ten-years came in 2009, 2010, and 2014. The breakdown of games played across all three tiers of the organization during that span tell a tale: 92 games with the Predators in the NHL, 518 games with the Admirals in the AHL, and 113 games with the Cincinnati Cyclones in the ECHL. The brunt of that NHL game time is pretty well split into three main figures with the most tenured, Anders Lindbäck with 38 games played, rejoining the fold for the 2017-18 season and is the now likely candidate as the third choice goaltending option within the organization.

(Photo Credit: Jamie Wahl)

Away from all of the past and present there are still a great many names that never made it into the mix or are still quite a few years away from being able to do that: Janne Juvonen (2013 NHL Draft), Karel Vejmelka & Evan Smith (2015 NHL Draft), Konstantin Volkov (2016 NHL Draft), and Tomáš Vomáčka (2017 NHL Draft). Juvonen turned up to Milwaukee from Europe, alongside defeneman Joonas Lyytinen, at the end of the 2015-16 season but has remained in his native Finland with his long-time club Pelicans. Vejmelka has been competing in his native Czech Republic with HC Kometa Brno and looks set to continue on. Smith is a mystery man who could be on milk cartons after having last played with the Saskatoon Blades of the WHL back in 2015-16. Volkov has been doing outstanding work for SKA-1946 St. Petersburg in Russia’s MHL but is playing there on affiliation agreement with SKA St. Petersburg after being selected in the 2nd Round of the 2014 KHL Draft and him leaving his home country might not be a sure thing. Vomáčka, the most recently drafted, presents the most interesting case as a Czech native who has spent the past season playing in the United States with the Corpus Christi Ice Rays of the NAHL and looks possible to move to the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL next season before joining the University of Connecticut in the 2018-19 season.

Some projects are long gone. Some projects are on the horizon. And some projects gave returned. Yet, what the Predators are getting with the return of Lindbäck is by no means a guarantee at either the NHL or AHL level.

(Photo Credit: Christian Petersen)

Lindbäck’s time outside of the Predators organization since his trade to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2012 Off-Season has been a roller coaster and one that has seemingly been grinding along these past three-seasons. His 2014-15 run with the Dallas Stars was nothing short of painful: 3.71 goals against average and 0.875 save percentage in 10 games with 8 losses. He would play a better part with the Stars’ AHL affiliate before being shipped off to the Buffalo Sabres. Those last two stops during the 2014-15 season were actually quite positive for him. It helped to get the Swede push forward and sign with the Arizona Coyotes for the 2015-16 season. However, that run in Arizona proved to be just as barren as the desert: 3.11 goals against average and 0.894 save percentage in 19 games. After having made 67 starts and winning 34 games in his first four NHL seasons Lindbäck has managed to start 35 games and earn 11 wins in his past three-seasons. And the real kicker came during last season when he arrived to the Los Angeles Kings’ AHL affiliate, the Ontario Reign, on a professional try-out contract basis only to be released 4 games in.

To carry such a question mark in the AHL you would assume a more sturdy or reliable option would be the complement in net. But it isn’t. The Predators have paired two question marks together in Milwaukee hoping one of those two options comes good.

(Photo Credit: Maya Devereaux)

The secondary option is Matt O’Connor who was an undrafted but highly thought of goaltending prospect coming out of the Boston University program. His choice was to sign with the Ottawa Senators after finishing his collegiate career and that process proved to be rather rough. In his AHL career with the Binghamton Senators he made 71 appearances with a record of 24-38-5-1 while achieving a 3.27 goals against average and 0.895 save percentage. It could be such that his final moment in the 2015 NCAA Championship Game could haunt his career or that he simply was playing part in an AHL team that has been one of the worst in the league the past two-seasons. If given a better complement of players in front of him? Who knows what O’Connor could be capable of. But, that is a question much like Lindbäck. And for a third choice option for the Predators should Rinne or Saros go down with serious injury – that’s a problem. That might be a hypothetical problem but it will be a very serious reality on display in Milwaukee as the question marks that are Lindbäck and O’Connor get answered. How long will those question marks take to be answered is essentially an answer left blank and rightfully so for the length of the 2017-18 season.

What the Predators have done for the upcoming season is gamble on a familiar face regaining form and a former well thought of collegiate prospect reestablishing confidence within a new setting. Rinne and Saros should be locked in and you would hope the leash on Saros would be such that he is given further opportunities this season than last. Meanwhile, the constant that had been someone as reliable or steady as Mazanec in Milwaukee for four-years is completely gone. The Admirals are entering a 2017-18 season with an unknown in net. Those early months of the season could paint a rather immediate picture of if Nashville’s gamble paid off.

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4 thoughts on “The Goaltending Gamble”

  1. After last year you’d think Nashville would have taken this position a little more seriously. While the numbers on Saros were good you can’t help but watch some of the Rusty performances he had after sitting for lengths behind Rinne and the fact he’s never really been “The Guy” in net on any North American club. He has either split considerable time with Maz the last two years or backup to Pekka. I feel that’s a disservice to him that will only get seen when Pekka is traded in two years and any other safety nets aren’t there. He never has had a true playoff run at starting Goalie here either where all the pressure and demands of a playoff series are on you. Sure he had to come in a few times to clean up the net after a few crap games in the playoffs but no pressure situations. No elimination game type of stuff. When I say he’s underdeveloped that’s what I mean. Are his skills there? Of course, but goaltending is a lot of mental too he could have benefitted from a full season plus playoffs as the Ads true #1. Look how it worked for Pekka, they took their time developing him and he’s a top 5 in the league. Lindback and O’Connor maybe the new Dov and Daigneault and if anyone remembers that you’ll know those were rough games to watch. Hopefully they sign another vet to mix it up a bit.

  2. I agree with frontrowjon that it could be quite a rough year for the Ads due to the goaltending. I’ve been casually following Lindback since he left the Preds out of curiosity and have been quite shocked…because of how poor his performance has been. I knew nothing about O’Connor, but when I looked him up the only thought that came to mind was “oh no.”

    I do have to disagree with frontrowjon about Saros and the AHL. To me Saros really had nothing left to gain from staying in the AHL. Yes, he might have received more playing time, but he needs to face the NHL caliber players now. My guess would be he gets quite a bit more playing time than previous back-ups to Rinne in the 17-18 season and during 18-19 it’s half and half. That’s the end of Rinne’s contract then. He’ll be 36.5 years old at that time. I don’t think there will be a rush to sign an almost 37-year old goaltender and I have a hard time believing he’d be traded by the Preds (as much because what team would take him as I don’t think even Poile would trade Rinne at that point).

  3. Both offer some size by comparison to Saros, but neither has the ability Saros showed in his time here.
    Perhaps the changes in scenery will help both, or it may be a long season.

  4. Won’t lie, I’m nervous about the goalie situation this year. I hope we are in for a pleasant surprise of some sort.

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