With just one week’s worth of NHL games under our belts, we’ve already seen several high-profile starting goaltenders suffer long-term injuries.
Jonathan Quick and Mike Smith have serious lower-body injuries; Carey Price has been dealing with a very severe bout of the flu; Matt Murray is still working through the recovery process after breaking his hand in the World Cup of Hockey.
As a result, backup goalies and those more used to bench warming have been shunted back into the limelight. Each of these teams and goalies have been met with varying results, and in such a young season, it’s difficult to separate the wins and losses from individual performance and team potential.
Regardless, I’m going to try to do that.
Let’s start by looking at Quick, two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Los Angeles Kings. Quick put up an admirable, if not medal-worthy, performance at the World Cup of Hockey for Team USA, but he only made it through a few minutes of the Kings’ first game of the season before leaving with a major injury.
Quick was sliding to make a save and stretched his leg out uncomfortably.
The Kings spent some time vacillating on what to do behind the scenes, only recently announcing that Quick will likely miss three months, bare minimum. He will not have surgery, but the injury seems to be related to the past groin injury that kept him out for a couple months back in 2013.
At the moment, the Kings’ solution is to put Jeff Zatkoff in net. Zatkoff was initially drafted by the Kings and stepped up early in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ triumphant Cup run last season, shutting down the New York Rangers in game one of the playoffs. After signing with the Kings in the offseason, it’s doubtful that Zatkoff predicted that this would be his role on the team.
So far, the Kings are 0-3-0 to begin the season for the second straight year. The Kings’ defense relies primarily on Drew Doughty, with a lackluster cast of supporting characters behind him. One Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman cannot drag a questionable defensive corps and perennial backup goalie to a winning record alone.
(My dad is a huge Zatkoff fan, and hates whenever I write anything negative about him. I’m sorry, Dad, but I’m doing it again.)
If Zatkoff and the players in front of them can’t step up their game quickly, look out for the Kings to acquire another goalie.
Peter Budaj is backing up Zatkoff now, but he only played one game for the Kings in the NHL last year. While Budaj is a more-than-capable AHL-level goalie, it’s just not realistic to think that a tandem of him and Zatkoff can hold the fort for three whole months.
Arizona is now looking at a similar situation: in their second game of the season, against the Ottawa Senators, starting goalie Mike Smith was injured and had to leave the game. While he seemed to have hurt his hand making a save, he had to be helped off the ice and was favoring his left leg during that time.
The Coyotes are definitely hoping it isn’t a double-whammy, because they’re poised for a breakout year.
The Coyotes are a young team, from their 27-year-old general manager John Chayka to the youth movement of players, including Dylan Strome, Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Jacob Chychrun, Connor Murphy, and Lawson Crouse. These offensively-minded young guns, combined with the veteran leadership and grit of players like Shane Doan and Brad Richardson, have put the Coyotes on the rise.
However, that could be derailed early on if Smith will be out for an extended period of time. Backup goalie Louis Domingue proved himself under pressure last season, but following his entrance into the game against the Senators, the team went from being down just 3-2 to ultimately losing 7-4. He also allowed a goal on the first shot he faced.
It’s early in the season, and he came into the game cold. It happens. But, as with the Kings’ situation, you can’t expect to win and cash in on your scoring weapons if your goalie can’t be a solid backstop. Coyotes fans are definitely hoping Smith’s injury won’t turn out to be long-term and he’ll quickly be back in the crease. The good news is that he’s only considered to be day-to-day at this point.
I will take partial credit for the injury, though; I picked Smith up on my fantasy team the same day that he got hurt. I’m convinced that I’m a curse. Sorry, Arizona.
The other two cases I mentioned earlier are not nearly as drastic as these, which is good for fans of Eastern teams. The Montreal Canadiens imploded when Carey Price went down last season; however, with an improved backup in net and Price sidelined only by an illness, they seem to be dealing with his absence just fine for now.
Al Montoya is the newest member of the Canadiens’ goalie club, and is a veteran backup in the NHL. The “Big Cubano” blanked the Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-0, and helped lead his team to a definitive win very early on. That’s a great morale-booster for a team that’s had a lot of internal issues over the past few years.
Price will make his season debut tonight, but there are still some questions surrounding his start. He lost 7-8 pounds due to his illness, and hasn’t played in the NHL since injuring his knee last November. While he looked sharp for Team Canada in the World Cup of Hockey, this severe flu took a big toll on his body.
We’ll see this evening if he’s back up to par, but even if he isn’t yet, there’s no reason for the Habs or their fans to fret.
Meanwhile, Matt Murray of the Pittsburgh Penguins has finally been cleared for full practice. He broke his hand while in net for Team North America at the World Cup, and has been recovering since then. As a Penguins fan myself, it’s wonderful to see him finally get back out there on the ice with the full team rather than just skating on his own or with the healthy scratches.
Without him, we’re back to little old Marc-Andre Fleury. What a drag.
I’m totally joking. Fleury was and remains the backbone of this Penguins team, and has made some truly phenomenal saves so far. Without Sidney Crosby in the lineup, the Pens’ defense really has to tamp down to make up for the potential of diminished scoring. Fleury has been a huge part of that so far, and he always holds his team accountable for their play in front of him.
A tandem of Fleury and Murray was a pure force of nature at the end of last season and throughout the playoffs, and if the Penguins can cash in on a full season of that, then there’s a lot of hope for a Cup repeat. I’m absolutely biased, but you just can’t underestimate these guys’ natural ability and cohesive teamwork.
Bonus: Murray signed a 3-year, $11.25 million contract extension with the Penguins just this morning. That’s a huge move of confidence by the management, especially in the climate of uncertainty surrounding the upcoming expansion draft.
Goaltender injuries are always worrisome, but nearly unavoidable for any team during the season. The nature of their job opens them up to a huge risk of injury – they literally sit there and get hit by pucks going 100 mph – and the best teams have strong pipelines so they don’t need to rush their starters back too soon.
At this point in the season, no team is going to want to make a dramatic change. Most teams are either two or three games in and are still trying to get back up to game speed, or are working to find cohesion with new teammates or a revamped coaching staff. A loss or two in October will probably not make or break your entire season.
In the long-term cases, the goalie problem may solve itself once the teams as a whole get back in the swing of things. In others, we may very well see a new battle for starter. Our best predictions aside, only time will tell.