Last season, the Lightning goaltending was-well, let's face it. It was awful. Together the four netminders who played for Tampa Bay put up an abysmal .893 save percentage and a 3.23 goals-against average. The best of them, Mathieu Garon, put up a .901 on the season, good for 67th in the NHL. The team gave up a league worst 3.39 goals per game. Consequently, there is no shortage of concern regarding goaltending. Without improvement in net, there isn't going to be much improvement in the Lightning's fortunes.
At the end of last season, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman took steps to address the situation, acquiring Anders Lindback from the Nashville Predators. Lindback is both young and unproven, but he has impressed many observers in his limited NHL playing time. In total, however, he played just 38 games in Nashville behind workhorse Pekka Rinne. The intention was to get a goalie who could hit the ground running, in a manner of speaking, but one who still had the potential to be a good long-term investment. As Yzerman said at the time, he was looking for a goalie who could be a future Hall of Famer, emphasis on the future. The team was willing to put in the time to develop him.
The lack of experience is a concern for this year, however. Lindback still has issues controlling rebounds and reading plays, and he has a tendency to tense up at times. These "comfort" issues are best dealt with through playing time, however, and Lindback took steps during the lockout to get that playing time. He signed with Ilves (Lynx) Tampere of the Finnish SM-Liiga in late October and played 13 games there.
The Lynx were and are an objectively terrible team, having won only 9 of their 39 games so far this season, which is better than the 10 out of 60 they won last season. Despite the team's problems, Lindback was able to put up a .930 SV% and a 2.33 GAA. Although this is an extremely small sample from which to draw conclusions, it is a hopeful sign for Lightning fans. More to the point, 13 games was more than he started in 2011-12 with the Predators. And if he starts even half of the Lightning's games this season (24 starts), that's nearly as many starts as he has gotten in his entire NHL career to this point (28). This is all good. After all, the only way to get experience in the NHL is to actually play in the NHL.
In September, Head Coach Guy Boucher told NHL.com that both Lindback and Mathieu Garon will both get plenty of ice time, though I expect Lindy to get around 28-30 starts. Part of Lindback's progress could come from Garon's steady presence. He rarely gets flustered and can be a valuable resource for his young colleague. He can also be called on to spell Lindback at critical points throughout the season. I don't expect, however, that Garon will actually be real competition for the number one spot, despite his performance last year.
In large part, this is because while Lindback was playing real games, Garon, like the vast majority of NHL goaltenders during the lockout, was left to workouts and player-managed skates. As any of the locked-out players will tell you, there simply is no substitute for game conditions, and few NHL goalies were able to arrange time in other leagues. I'd have to think that Lindback's time in Finland gives him a leg up in winning the starting job.
While Garon definitely won over some Lightning fans last year by stepping up when Dwayne Roloson faltered, Garon's performance was far below the league's average .914 save percentage for 2011-12. Another year where--in the absence of an injury--the Lightning must rely on a goaltender with a .904 career save percentage has to be considered a failure on some level. In other words, as good as Mathieu Garon is as a backup goaltender, he's not a starter. If he must become one again, the team is in a very bad position.
Coach Boucher has repeatedly said that he doesn't expect Lindback to be any kind of savior, which is good, because he won't be. Or rather, his success should not be taken for granted. While Lindback has a great deal of potential, his transformation from raw kid to NHL starter will come at its own pace and only with the help of appropriate coaching.
nd that's a big issue for the Lightning, moreso to my mind than even the compressed schedule. To be blunt, goalie coach Frantz Jean has yet to show that he has the ability to manage goaltender development very well at the NHL level. With Jaroslav Janus's stellar season in the KHL and Riku Helenius's disappointing one in Syracuse, the pattern of goaltenders doing well outside the Tampa system and mediocre to poor within it continues to get stronger, and I am left wondering whether Jean has trouble communicating with and listening to his goalies.
I said in the summer that I believed that Lindback's style was not highly compatible with the way the team coaches goaltenders, and that impression has only gotten stronger over the past few months. Lindback's biggest issues right now are in the areas of comfort and visual processing, whereas Jean has been discussing his positioning and form. I think there's a very real potential for miscommunication here, and that could leave Lindback both unprepared and tense, neither of which help him in the areas he needs to improve in.
I could be wrong. I very much want to be, because this is also going to be an issue for Riku Helenius, Jaroslav Janus, and dauntingly, Andrei Vasilevski, all of whom are reactive and aggressive in game situations. Finding the proper balance between technique and instinct is going to be critical for all of them.
As I said earlier, I expect Lindy will get around 30 starts, even if he does well. I don't expect him to put up stellar numbers, especially early on, largely because he will be adjusting to a new team and new opponents, while learning how to manage his energy and focus in a starters' role. There's likely to be a learning curve. I do expect that he will be given every opportunity to succeed, even in those periods where he isn't playing as well as the team might wish. Anything over .915 for the season is a bonus, as well as a clear improvement from last year.
This leaves Garon with about 18 starts. Last season was one of Garon's better years and was statistically right around his career averages. He is not, however, very consistent. I'd expect somewhere around .900 for the season. I also think that he is at an elevated risk of injury given his style of play combined with his enforced "idleness" over the past 4 months.
If there is an injury, Dustin Tokarski (.906/2.28 with the Syracuse Crunch right now) is able to step in, though expectations should be modest if he does. Tokarski is at a point where NHL experience could stretch him enough to take the next step in development. Could. No guarantees. Tokarski and the rest of the Lightning prospects playing with the Crunch would be better served by him making the strides at the AHL level that have been expected of him over the past twelve months.