The Big Read: Evaluating the goaltending pecking order in the soon-to-be revamped Pacific Division

The Coyotes will still boast one of the elite tandems/trios despite realignment

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Coyotes goaltender Darcy Kuemper ranked among the NHL’s top five in goals against average, save percentage and goals saved above average last season. (All photos courtesy of Arizona Coyotes)

Darcy Kuemper spent the entire offseason in the Valley, rather than returning to his native Canada as he normally does during the summer.

“My fiancée (Sydney) is American so we could have got her into Canada but it was a bit of a process and we would have had to quarantine for two weeks so it was just easier to stay down here,” said the Coyotes goaltender, who is planning an August wedding. “We bought a house down here last season so it just made sense. We battled the heat, but it was good to get a full calendar year of working with (strength and conditioning coach) J.P. Major and the medical staff."

Like all of us, Kuemper has a lot of questions about the upcoming season. What will the schedule look like? What will the divisions look like? What will the travel look like? What will the rosters look like?

This is one time where the clichéd fallback of controlling what he can control has served Kuemper well.

“You just fade out the noise and treat it like you would any other offseason,” he said. “You just focus on the physical gains you want to achieve and, on the ice, you just want to get to the point where you’re feeling good and ready for camp. There’s a lot of us down here skating and I think we have done a really good job of that.”

The NHL is targeting a 56-game schedule that must be completed by early- to mid-July before the Olympics begin and rights holder NBC must turn its attention and all of its platforms toward that global event. In order to squeeze that many games in, the NHL will have to condense its schedule.

It is highly likely that all of the games will be played within teams’ divisions to limit travel and inequities that would otherwise arise because the Canadian teams will stay within their division, given the issues of crossing the border. Even so, teams could be playing a fair number of back-to-back sets and three games in four nights.

Given that condensed schedule, numerous NHL staff members (including Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong) have suggested that it might be prudent to carry a third goaltender.

“I don’t think there’s a need to play three goalies unless you have injuries,” Coyotes goalie coach Corey Schwab said. “The important thing for the two guys we have (Kuemper and Antti Raanta) is being well rested and sharp and ready to play. 

“Where I think the need for a third goalie comes in is when one guy is playing the majority of the games and he needs to take practices off. We have had that situation with both Kuemper and Raanta when they both went on runs toward the end of a season where we thought it was better for them to have a day off but it’s better for the team’s sake to have two guys on the ice.”

Two seasons ago, the Coyotes claimed Calvin Pickard off waivers in November and he spent much of his time serving as a practice goalie (he only appeared in six NHL games, plus four in Tucson). The Coyotes claimed Eric Comrie off waivers at the start of last season and hung onto him for two months without ever putting him into an NHL game (he played four in Tucson).

Tucson Roadrunners goalie Adin Hill has plenty of NHL experience, but right now, Schwab said he is still the No. 3 goalie and the better situation for him would be to play as many games in Tucson as possible.

There has been some discussion of creating taxi squads; extra players who can fill in for fatigued or injured players in games or practices, but nobody knows what form those will take just yet. If the NHL alters its AHL call-up rules for one season, teams may opt to rotate players in on a three-to-five-game basis, as Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet has suggested. Or maybe teams will choose to add a veteran goalie better suited to managing long layoffs, rather than shuttle a developing goalie back and forth between the AHL and NHL.

“The league does allow you to use a goalie on a short-term basis for practices that isn’t one of your call-up guys,” Schwab said. “That doesn’t disrupt the minor league guys. It’s not a long-term solution, but especially with how travel is going to be or quarantining, it’s going to be important to have somebody local who can fill in if needed.

“There’s just so much uncertainty about what the roster sizes will look like and the call-ups and where players will be playing and how much they will be playing. There are so many hypotheticals that you could draw something new up every day.”

Many of those answers should come in short order with the season quickly approaching, but one thing that most analysts already know is this: Whatever shape the Pacific (West?) Division, the roster and the season take, the Coyotes will have one of the best goaltending groups.

I spoke to analysts/goalies Kevin Weekes, Kevin Woodley and Jamie McLennan to get their thoughts on the goaltending tandems and trios in this revamped division. We arrived at a ranking that takes into account the uncertainty of the seventh and eighth teams in the Pacific or West, which could be Dallas, Minnesota or St. Louis.

Arizona Coyotes

Depth chart: Darcy Kuemper, Antti Raanta, Adin Hill

Injuries: None. The concussion that Raanta suffered in the bubble has healed and Kuemper’s midseason groin injury has fully healed.

Stats (via Natural Stat Trick):

Analysts’ thoughts

McLennan: “I don’t know if Bill Armstrong was asking a lot for Kuemper in a trade but I imagine he was and I know for a fact there were a lot of teams sniffing around him. You’ve got cost control for a couple of seasons and a guy who can give you elite starter minutes. He’s a big, strong goalie who has come into his own with maturity. He has grown into his body and mind.

“I think earlier in his career he was volatile from an emotional standpoint. I went through it. Most goaltenders do, and most goaltenders become more consistent with more maturity but he has really come into his own.  I thought he got robbed of Vezina (Trophy) votes a couple of seasons ago when he played 55 games. He was so good. 

“Unfortunately for Raanta, he’s just a guy who gets nicked up. I’m sure he works hard and is in good condition but when you have that injury bug sometimes it is tough to shake. But when I look at that tandem it’s as good as anybody’s. Raanta has shown he can be a fantastic starter as well when he’s healthy. His biggest challenge is his health. Is he available for you when you need him?”

Weekes: “The fact they can trot out either one of those guys gives them elite goaltending without question. I think those guys are tops in the division.

“I have always liked Kuemper. He has all the tools. I think he just needed to mature, be a little harder core and a little harder on himself in terms of expectations, which all goalies learn. (Kings goaltending coach) Billy Ranford deserves a lot of credit for how he helped him in L.A. Corey Schwab deserves a lot of credit, Kuemper deserves a lot of credit and so does Rick Tocchet and the (Coyotes coaching) staff. They have coached him, they have believed in him and they haven’t played head games with him, which unfortunately happens with some teams. He has become a top-flight, All-Star goalie.”

Woodley: “I did take a look at their performance compared to what was expected on Clear Sight Analytics. When I evaluate Raanta and Kuemper, that is what I am looking at, but I took it a step further and thought you have to rank them one through three because you’re probably, more than any other year, going to have to play your No. 3. If one of the top two gets hurt in a condensed schedule, you can’t just ride the other one. If you’re playing four (games) in six (nights) you’re not getting through that with one guy at the start or even the middle of the season. So when I consider one through three, I actually put Arizona ahead, based on Adin Hill as a No. 3. He has a good body of work at the NHL level and he has played well.

“Everybody knows about Kuemper, and Raanta’s adjusted numbers are up there near the top of the league when he is healthy. A big part of the job is being available for selection and that has been an issue for him, but at the end of the day when he has played, he has played at an elite level.”

Rank: No. 1

Vegas Golden Knights

Depth chart: Robin Lehner, Marc-André Fleury, Oscar Dansk

Injuries: Lehner had shoulder surgery in the offseason but said he expects to be ready for camp. Fleury and Dansk are healthy.

Stats (via Natural Stat Trick): Lehner’s stats are from his time in Chicago. He only played three regular season games with Vegas after his trade.

Analysts’ thoughts

Woodley: “You could argue that Lehner-Flower is a better 1-2 than Arizona but when you factor in all three goalies, Arizona ranks slightly ahead of Vegas. Dansk just doesn't have the same pedigree, experience or upside in my opinion. I think Dansk can be an NHL goalie for a period of time that doesn’t hurt you, but Hill actually has upside.

Weekes: “The big question now is will Fleury be there? Flower is a future Hall-of-Famer but for whatever reason (Vegas coach) Pete (DeBoer) loves Lehner. Now it has been reported that Vegas is considering moving the Flower. Lehner is coming off shoulder surgery and Malcolm (Subban) is no longer there so I don't know what this situation looks like. Will they be able to move him and in a compressed schedule how will that affect them? It should be a locked down position with those two guys but now there are questions because of the rumors.

McLennan: “Vegas is the deepest I would argue with Lehner and Fleury, who are two legitimate starters. I know Fleury is on the other side of 35, but he’s still a really good player.”

Rank: No. 2 (could change if Fleury is traded).

Los Angeles Kings

Depth chart: Jonathan Quick, Calvin Petersen, Matthew Villalta/Troy Grosenick

Injuries: None.

Stats (via Natural Stat Trick):

Analysts’ thoughts

Weekes: “Jonathan Quick could go down as the best American born goalie in history. I’d like to see him healthy because I love his game, he’s super athletic, maybe not quite the superman he used to be but still very athletic and can still play and guys love playing in front of him. 

“I have been intrigued by Cal Petersen for a while. He’s a southpaw and I love the way he competes. I think they’re in a very good position with him backing up Quickie and I wouldn't be surprised to see him play a fair number of games. 

“You can make a case that L.A. has had one of the best goaltending development teams in the league, if not the best, and they have also done a good job of re-establishing guys, including Kuemper.”

Woodley: “Say what you want about Quick but I still think he can play when he gets help. Cal Petersen is a legitimate future star and Troy Grosenick has had good success in the AHL and I think he can be a good No. 3 in relief work if needed.”

Rank: No. 3

Dallas Stars

Depth chart: Anton Khudobin, Jake Oettinger, Landon Bow/Colton Point

Injuries: Ben Bishop is the No. 1 but he will be sidelined until April while rehabbing from offseason knee surgery. Khudobin had offseason surgery on his arm after dealing with numbness in his hands because of a nerve issue. He is expected to be ready for camp.

Stats (via Natural Stat Trick):

Analysts’ thoughts

Woodley: “Bishop gets it done even if it’s not always pretty, but he is starting the season on IR and Khudobin just came off surgery and even though he is scheduled to be ready for the start of the season, he just played a lot more games than he has played in a while and he’s 34. He is going to be leaned on and beyond that, it’s Jake Oettinger and Colton Point and Landon Bow, a journeyman and two kids. They get bumped down because they don’t start the season with the tandem that would normally rank among the NHL’s best.”

McLennan: “Dallas is interesting. They made it to the Finals. Are they going to hit the ground running? They are a bit of an older team with some really good young players, too, but everything comes back to goaltending. Khudobin has to start the season and he doesn't have a safety blanket with Ben Bishop to take some starts so I could see them taking a step back. Khudobin is a nice player but he is not an elite starter. Are their young guys ready?”

Weekes: “Dobby is a quality pro and a guy that the guys rally around. I love the fact that they re-signed him, but the challenge is for him to take a bigger body of work while Bishop is out right out of the gate and he had a minor surgery. Is Jake Oettinger ready to be a No. 2? I hope he can run with it but might have some stumbles as any young goalie would.”

Rank: No. 4

Colorado Avalanche

Depth chart: Philipp Grubauer, Pavel Francouz, Hunter Miska

Injuries: Grubauer re-injured his groin during the playoffs and Francouz suffered a hip injury in the postseason but both are healthy and have focused their offseasons on building greater durability.

Stats (via Natural Stat Trick):

Analysts’ thoughts

McLennan: “Colorado statistically was good, but I think the team helped bail them out. I think Grubauer is a platoon guy and Francouz was a .925 save percentage guy but if you looked at it at critical times, he wasn't very good. You saw that in the playoffs and I know he was nicked up but I think Colorado may grab someone at some point.”

Weekes: “I like Grubauer a lot but the challenge is staying healthy. He has a little playoff experience. Francouz had an outstanding year but didn’t play as well in the playoffs and he’s a 30-year-old guy which is a little concerning because he’s not a young guy. He has a wealth of experience. That said, they’re not going to get out-goaltended most nights and I’m hedging that those guys will be better in the postseason, but it’s clear they both need to be.”

Woodley: “Both starters are coming off injuries so that’s always a concern. With Francouz, I’m not sure what happened in the playoff bubble was injury-related or not. After the regular season ended, I thought Francouz should start the playoffs. He was that good, so he either had an out-of-body experience or he was hurt in the playoffs. If it’s injury related it’s almost a relief because he was a totally different goalie. If it was not then was the moment too much and what does that mean for this ranking long term? I like Miska, but if one of these two guys goes down is he giving you two games a week?”

Rank: No. 5

San Jose Sharks

Depth chart: Martin Jones, Devan Dubnyk, Alexei Melnichuk

Injuries: None

Stats (via Natural Stat Trick):

Analysts’ thoughts

Woodley: “The Sharks’ tandem has two No. 1s and if they can solve their issues defensively they can be better. Having Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson on the ice at all times may sound great offensively but it doesn’t exactly help their goaltenders. Marty Jones had the second lowest expected save percentage in the NHL last season to Braden Holtby. If you don’t improve that it doesn't matter who's in net but if you do, some of the work that Jones is finally doing this summer (with Sharks goaltending consultant Adam Francilia) which also plays well into some of the things Dubnyk needs to do, I could see it leading to a real positive bump for them.

“Beyond those two guys they only have Alexei Melnichuk. Normally there is a transition period coming from the KHL but we don’t know if he’ll get that opportunity with the AHL season so right now I have them and the Avs neck and neck. If we see the Francouz of the regular season, Colorado is ahead. If not, I’d put San Jose ahead of them.

Weekes: “I have been a Marty Jones fan for a while because he’s an undrafted guy, he’s so big, so patient and so skilled. His game has deteriorated for whatever reason. I hope this offseason was a really good reset for him. He has a ton of game, but he has to hit the reset button. Bringing in Dubnyk is a chance to reboot again after he did that in Minnesota but he was playing through some challenges with his wife’s health last season. I just think his situation had kind of run its course for him in Minny.”

Rank: No. 6

Minnesota Wild

Depth chart: Cam Talbot, Alex Stalock, Kaapo Kähkönen 

Injuries: None

Stats (via Natural Stat Trick):

Analysts’ thoughts

Weekes: “I don't see the signing of Cam Talbot as being a lateral move but I see it as a good move because guys like playing for him so much. Stalock is a great value contract for them and he has been huge for them. Talbot’s signing gives Kähkönen more time to develop.”

Woodley: “Talbot fits the Wild system very well, and unless there really is something in the water with how the Wild play that doesn’t give past goalies enough credit, I can see him having a really good season 

“Stalock is one of those goalies whose adjusted numbers haven’t been overly flattering but he’s shown if you need him to play a bunch of games every once in a while, he can raise his game. That’s not surprising. He’d be better playing more, given his style, and a condensed schedule should let him do that. Kähkönen looks like he’s ready for a shot even though his small sample adjusted numbers last season were also not as flattering as his raw numbers. Minnesota has good depth, one through three.”

Rank: No. 7

St. Louis Blues

Depth chart: Jordan Binnington, Ville Husso, Jon Gillies

Injuries: None.

Stats (via Natural Stat Trick):

Analysts’ thoughts

McLennan: “Binnington is still a really good goaltender but he needs help. He needs someone to take some minutes off of him and they don’t have anybody with experience behind him.”

Woodley: “If Ville Husso comes in and plays great then I am going to eat this but he doesn't have a ton of experience and they're a team that got looser last year defensively. As much as the talk was about Jordan Binnington benefiting from a tight system the year before, he actually outperformed his environment significantly last year. Their ranking has nothing to do with Binnington and everything to do with replacing a known quantity in Jake Allen with an unknown. When your options beyond Binnington are Husso and Joel Hofer, a first-year pro who hasn't been on the ice since March, I think it’s  pretty fair to rank them low.”

Rank: No. 8

Anaheim Ducks

Depth chart: John Gibson, Anthony Stolarz, Lukáš Dostál (this would change if free agent Ryan Miller re-signs).

Injuries: None

Stats (via Natural Stat Trick):

Analysts’ thoughts

Weekes: “Anaheim has an ace in Gibson. He just needs help in front of him. He’s a guy that can steal games and a guy who can keep you in games you have no business being in. The biggest challenge is what do they do at the backup spot? I think (free agent) Ryan Miller can play until he’s 44, but they're also sitting on Anthony Stolarz. If Ryan Miller isn’t with them he can still kick and if I was another team I’d take a look. I know he wants to stay out west because his wife is an actress.”

Woodley: “There’s an assumption that they are shored up but Gibson has had injury concerns and No.2. Anthony Stolarz is well suited for No. 3 but if you prop him up to No. 2, I don’t know. Their ranking would depend on Ryan Miller coming back. Right now, they only have two guys.”

McLennan: “It’s tough to evaluate their goalies because they get beat up every night, but Gibson is as good as there is.”

Rank: No. 9

Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter: @CraigSMorgan