Lundqvist tops NHL.com goalie rankings at Sochi Olympics
It's not hard to find a lot of hockey people to agree that goaltending will play a huge role in deciding who leaves the 2014 Sochi Olympics with a medal.
Nor is it too tough to get some of the NHL's great goaltending minds to break down puck-stopping performances so far this season.
But getting a consensus on how those goaltenders and their varying styles will be affected by a short-notice transition to wider ice, different team systems and increased expectations at these Olympics? That proved a lot harder.
Though common themes emerged, opinions varied among the half-dozen active League goalie coaches and two goalies now playing professionally overseas that were consulted to come with a ranking of goalies going to the Olympics.
Even when most agreed more conservative goalies would adjust quicker to the big ice because they had to commit less aggressively to their reads and travel shorter distances to recover from them, a couple pointed out that too passive an approach may leave lots of net for shooters that will have more time and space to pick corners. And since goaltending never exists in a vacuum, team play and the ability to trust the defenders in front of you immediately will also play a big role in performance.
There were just too many unknowns for confident predictions.
"Every year at the World Championships over in Europe we see guys that can't get a job here play well, but that doesn't mean they can play in the NHL," said one of the goalie coaches queried. "And there are guys that we know are really good here that go over and struggle. There's no hard rule how it translates."
The reality is any of the goalies in the top 10 of this list could realistically return to the League in a couple of weeks with an Olympic gold medal. But these are called rankings for a reason so we didn't want to cop out with nine No.1s:
Sweden/New York Rangers
Lundqvist may not be reigning Olympic champion, but he is the last goaltender to win Olympic gold on international ice and the belief is his deeper, more patient, inside-out, angle-first style from the goal line, complimented by a tight Swedish system he is comfortable behind, played a big role in that. After experiencing one of the only prolonged blips of his remarkably consistent NHL career to start this season, Lundqvist's recent return to form includes a .948 save percentage in his past 12 games and, perhaps more importantly for the Swedes, a rekindling of his faith in a patient approach that should again serve him well on big ice.
2. Jonathan Quick
United States/Los Angeles Kings
Quick is the biggest wild card in the Olympic deck. Several coaches picked him as the goalie most likely to struggle with the adjustment to big ice because of his super-aggressive style, particularly against the rush. Yet even those wondering if he might end up swimming in all that extra ice ranked him as America's best goalie. Quick's lateral quickness, particularly on his knees, is usually enough to overcome his aggressive nature, but it's fair to wonder if he'll have as much defensive support for that style behind the U.S. Olympic team as he gets from the stingy Kings. So after a couple wobbles going into the break, and with Ryan Miller very capable of leading the U.S. into the medal round, any early struggles on the big ice could leave one of the world's best watching from the bench.
3. Carey Price
There are similarities between Quick and Price and the situation they face supplanting their medal-winning Olympic playing partners. Price isn't nearly as aggressive as Quick, especially under new Canadiens goalie coach Stephane Waite, but he does have some backwards flow to his game off the rush, relying slightly on timing that can be disrupted by the extra space on big ice. Price, who has been brilliant while often being bombarded in Montreal, most also get used to fewer shots, something goalies that rely on rhythm can struggle with. But in terms of upside, Price has the most for Canada. Any positional aggression -- and Price plays on the edge of his crease on end-zone play, so it's not overdone -- is made up for by his mobility advantages. Price is also more active, more engaged and more "on the puck" visually since lowering his stance at the waist. Like Quick, though, the question is whether he gets to show it through any early stumbles.
4. Sergei Bobrovsky
Russia/Columbus Blue Jackets
An incredibly athletic goalie who benefited from added structure and technical adjustments over the past year in Columbus, the biggest question for Bobrovsky is whether Russian coaches can command enough defensive support out of a group loaded with top offense-first talent. More contained in his movements, more active with his hands and bigger in net after raising his torso, and better tactically on plays around the net, Bobrovsky is also very comfortable on the big ice, giving Russia its best Olympic goaltending option since Vladislav Tretiak.
5. Semyon Varlamov
You could almost paste the Bobrovsky text into this space for Varlamov, who has experienced a similar resurgence by cleaning up technical elements under goaltending coach Francois Allaire in Colorado. Similarly comfortable on big ice and spectacular in terms of raw athletic talent, Varlamov relies less on it now, adding a layer of consistency that gives him an equal shot at starting in Sochi and Russia just as good a chance at a medal with either goalie in net.
6. Tuukka Rask
Rask hasn't represented Finland internationally since the World Junior Hockey Championships in 2007, and it would be easy to argue his outside-in, flowing style of play might cause some translation problems, or that like Quick he may have less defensive structure in front of him in Sochi than he does behind the typically tight Bruins. But Rask was good on big ice in the Czech Republic at the start of last season and has been one of the League's best for several years. And whatever problems Finland may have scoring because of injuries, strong team play is rarely an issue internationally, making both medal possibilities.
7. Ryan Miller
United States/Buffalo Sabres
It seems absurd to see Miller this far down any list given the season he is having and his status as the MVP at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. More than one NHL goalie coach queried was worried about ranking Quick ahead of Miller simply because they didn't know if Miller would give Quick a chance to get the net. Self-labeled as an aggressive goalie, Miller will attack shooters and throw out a poke check, but actually plays deeper than Quick and should adjust more easily to the big ice. Seeing fewer shots may be an adjustment after a season behind the struggling Sabres, but all consulted believed he would make it quickly.
8. Roberto Luongo
Just like Miller, Luongo remains very capable of leading Canada back to the gold-medal game four years after winning it. Even critics recognize Luongo is a better goalie now than in 2010, tweaking his game each season, including a move back in his crease to a three-quarters depth that should make the adjustment to big ice easier, while also leaving him less reliant on rhythm and better equipped to play well when not busy. Despite some recent struggles behind a Canucks team in a tailspin and playing its 10th defenseman on the depth chart, one NHL goalie coach consulted still firmly put Luongo ahead of Price because of his big-stage experience, but on form heading over to Sochi it was hard to do the same.
9. Kari Lehtonen
At his best, Lehtonen is every bit Rask's equal in terms of raw athleticism and skill, just as capable of stealing a medal for the tight, tough Finns, and worthy of a spot higher up this list. Consistency has improved with work habits and a more controlled tactical approach in Dallas, and should also make the adjustment to big ice easier for a goalie that hasn't played on it for more than a decade.
10. Jaroslav Halak
Slovakia/St. Louis Blues
Halak backstopped Slovakia to the bronze medal game before losing to Finland, their best-ever finish at the Olympics in 2010, and his contained, controlled style of play should be just as effective on the international ice. But even with Zdeno Chara in front of him for nearly half of every game, Halak and the Slovaks may be hard pressed to match their run to the semifinals four years ago.
11. Jonas Hiller
The well-structured Swiss are always capable of throwing a scare into the top teams, and Hiller's positional-based game and strong "down" movements fit that style perfectly. His success overseas before coming to the League should make the transition to big ice easy, but the kinds of corner-picking scoring chances he is likely to see may force Hiller outside his norm to give the Swiss a shot.
12. Ondrej Pavelec
Czech Republic/Winnipeg Jets
Based on raw talent, Pavelec deserves a better ranking. But his overreliance on that natural skill, combined with questions about the roster in front of him, make it hard to justify a higher spot. Capable of brilliance, a still questionable technical foundation leaves Pavelec prone to the ups-and-down of rhythm goalies that rely too much on timing, making too many saves harder than they need to be. Add in the way a change in team play and ice size can affect that timing and Pavelec may have a tougher time finding the rhythm he's captured of late in the League.
13. Mike Smith
At least one goalie coach still saw Smith as a legitimate, and great, option for Canada despite most expecting him to spend his time in Sochi cheering from the stands. But in addition to a Lundqvist-like style that requires no adjustment to the bigger ice, Smith is the world's best puck handling goalie, and if Canada forces opponents to dump the puck in, no one can make better use of the missing trapezoid and wide-open 15 feet behind the nets in Sochi.
14. Peter Budaj
Budaj has quietly bettered Price's save percentage in Montreal and his numbers are all better than Halak behind a team that doesn't defend as well. But like the role he plays so well for the Canadiens, and despite some success at the last Olympics on big ice, Budaj goes to Sochi expected to watch from the bench.
15. Antti Niemi
Finland/San Jose Sharks
It's not always pretty or smooth, but Niemi's style has been effective enough to produce a Stanley Cup win and Vezina Trophy nomination. It may also be better suited to short-notice adjustment to the big ice than the more aggressive style of his fellow Finns. But with his League numbers down through recent struggles and no international success on his resume, Niemi goes in as the third-stringer.
16. Jhonas Enroth
Enroth earned his Olympic spot by backstopping Sweden to gold on home soil at the World Championships last spring, so neither big ice nor a big stage should be a problem for the undersized Buffalo backup. But the shooters in Sochi will be better and it's hard to picture Enroth playing much outside of a Lundqvist injury.
17. Jimmy Howard
United States/Detroit Red Wings
Another ranking that seems low given his track record in the League, but Howard has struggled for most of this season. And unlike Smith with Canada he's too similar in style to Quick and Miller -- not as aggressive as Quick, but more than Miller -- to think he'll be anything more than an emergency option for the U.S.
18. Reto Berra
Berra combined with Martin Gerber to backstop the Swiss to the gold medal game at last year's World Championships, and has provided glimpses of that potential in his first NHL season, but expecting a repeat of last year's results now that every country has their top players seems a stretch for the Swiss.
19. Alexander Salak
Czech Republic/St. Petersburgh SKA (KHL)
Salak can be every bit as aggressive as Pavelec, and equally over reliant on athleticism to bail him out with highlight reel saves as a result. But Salak has been performing that magic on big ice for the last two seasons, turning down offers to come back to North America last summer in favor of a much better contract in the KHL, and faces no style or rink-size adjustments.
20. Jonas Gustavsson
Sweden/Detroit Red Wings
It's probably not fair to rank Gustavsson so far down given past success at the World Championships, including bronze medals in 2009 and 2010, and numbers overseas that defy a style overly reliant on inherent athleticism. But injuries have derailed a promising start in Detroit this season, and Gustavsson heads overseas the apparent third-stringer on a Swedish team not expected to get past No.1.