Net loss

June 11, 2013, 4:45 PM

Sochi is less than a year away, and if the NHL playoffs have shown us anything, it’s that Canada’s goaltending situation is in rough shape

Joel Quenneville didn’t want to hear it from the assembled throng of hockey media, didn’t want anybody questioning his starting goaltender, Corey Crawford, who had just lost his second consecutive playoff game to the upstart Detroit Red Wings. “We’re not talking about that right now,” the Blackhawks coach snapped after a 3–1 loss put his team down two games to one. “Crow is fine.”

Quenneville was more peeved at the question than truly concerned about his goaltender, but though he might not want to, Canada has to talk about it right now. Because, as the second round of the playoffs began, his Blackhawks were the only one of the eight remaining clubs employing a Canadian goaltender as their starter. And with the 2014 Olympics less than a year away, “fine” is not nearly good enough for Team Canada, not in a tournament where anything less than gold is a failure.

Crawford hadn’t been truly terrible on any of the seven goals he’d given up in the two consecutive losses, but he’d been outplayed by American Jimmy Howard in the Detroit net. The goals Crawford had allowed in game three—over-committing on a slick deke by a young Swede, failing to cover a goalmouth jam-in by an American grinder and whiffing on a top-corner laser by a Russian sniper—were a microcosm of the high-stakes international stops that will be required of the man who guards the Canadian net in Sochi. This wouldn’t have been a problem in the lead-up to Olympic tournaments past, when a lineup of all-stars, Vezina contenders and Cup champs crowded the Canadian crease. But it’s a problem now, because that crowd has noticeably thinned and, strictly by statistics, Corey Crawford was the NHL’s best Canadian goaltender in 2013. And with all due respect, that’s not an encouraging thought.

The evidence abounds for anyone who wants to start worrying nine months out. What used to be an unassailable strength of the Canadian hockey program is now a wild card at best, and perhaps even the Achilles heel of a team that would otherwise be a favourite to defend its gold. There are just four Canadian goalies who played in more than 20 NHL games this year and finished among the top 20 in goals-against average: Crawford, his teammate Ray Emery, Martin Brodeur and Marc-André Fleury.

Crawford and Emery are known far more for their competence than excellence. Fleury—a Cup champion in 2009 and once Canada’s goalie of the future—just self-destructed in the first round of the playoffs for a second consecutive year, prompting the Pittsburgh Penguins to bench him in favour of 36-year-old Czech Tomas Vokoun. Brodeur is perhaps the greatest goalie to ever play the game—but he faded down the stretch, and while he might garner a roster spot on the strength of his resumé should he desire one, he’ll be 73 days shy of his 42nd birthday on the day of the gold-medal game.

Of course, Team Canada always has options—but this time there are cases to be made against all of them. Roberto Luongo beat out Fleury and Brodeur to win the job and the gold in 2010, but has since lost his starting gig with the Vancouver Canucks. And though he played well in two playoff games (both losses), his .907 save percentage in the regular season placed him 31st out of 50 goalies. Carey Price, two years ago considered, along with Fleury, the likely successors to Luongo and Brodeur, ranked 29th in GAA, 35th in SP and recorded an .894 SP in four playoff games before exiting with an MCL sprain. He’s shown flashes of brilliance but has been unreliable when it counts. Cam Ward has a Stanley Cup on his resumé—but he hasn’t seen playoff ice in four full years, which was also the last time his GAA was under 2.50.

A newspaper headline in early May summed the situation up: “Mike Smith makes case for Canada’s 2014 Olympic team.” And somewhere, Patrick Roy, Ed Belfour or Brodeur did a spit-take with their morning cornflakes. Mike Smith? The 31-year-old laid out a biography that would, to put it politely, make him unique among NHLers who have worn the red-and-white in an Olympic crease in recent years: “I played a year in the East Coast League, four years in the minors and found my way to the NHL,” Smith reflected. “It was an endurance race for me. Not a sprint.” That a goalie with Smith’s modest pedigree can so easily join the discussion is a clear indication that the blue ice that once belonged to blue-chippers may now be an open competition, claimed by whoever enters February 2014 with the hottest glove hand.

So where does that leave Steve Yzerman’s Team Canada? Grasping at Crawfords. And Devan Dubnyks. And James Reimers. Good players all, and they might not be bad Olympic goalies. But there’s no evidence they’ll be great ones. It’s an uncomfortable feeling for Canadian hockey fans—but we should have seen it coming. Of the past 15 Vezina Trophy nominees, just three were Canadian—Steve Mason in 2009, Brodeur in 2010 and Luongo in 2011. The 2013 award marks the second straight year without a Canadian nomination, and the fifth without a win.

As a whole, the 36 Canadian netminders who made an NHL appearance this season combined for a 2.58 GAA and a .911 SP. The American, Russian, Finnish and Swedish goalie contingents all had better numbers. And Canadians were increasingly playing smaller roles. Though they made up 43.9 percent of NHL netminders, Canadians played just 38.5 percent of the games. (Finns, in contrast, represented 9.8 percent of goalies and played 14.4 percent of the games.) A decade ago, that wasn’t the case—the Czechs, thanks largely to the work of the sublime Dominik Hasek, were the only nation with comparable on-ice goaltending stats, and Canadians represented 57.1 percent of the goalies while playing 58 percent of the games. Two decades ago, there weren’t even enough non-Canadian goaltenders to make a fair comparison. It’s not just that Canada’s no longer the only fish in the pond, it’s that the other fish are growing rapidly.

Like a blinking dashboard light, the World Junior Hockey Championship has been warning of this crisis for years. The last truly great performance from a young Canadian goalie was Mason’s gold-medal tour de force in 2008. Canada won gold again in front of Dustin Tokarski in 2009, but he was outplayed by his counterparts and bailed out by a dominant offence. In each of the past four tournaments, Canada has come up short. From 2010 to 2012, goalies Mark Visentin (in two appearances), Scott Wedgewood, Jake Allen and Martin Jones combined for a 5.67 GAA and .807 SP in three elimination-game losses. Before the 2013 junior tournament, Hockey Canada goaltending coach Ron Tugnutt looked forward to better days—“We went through a little phase there,” was how he summed up three years of no-show goaltending in big WJC games—and praised the goalies with 1994 and ’95 birth years, including Malcolm Subban, a Boston Bruins first-rounder, and Jordan Binnington. They then combined to allow five goals in a blowout loss to the United States in the semifinal and six more to Russia in the bronze-medal game. The prospects, thus far, are not panning out the way they once were. It’s not simply that we have yet to find the next Roy or Brodeur, because generational talents will always be in short supply; it’s that we’re still wondering who among the should-be superstars can be, at the least, relied upon not to melt down when the stakes are high. When the baseline standard for international goaltending rises, the average performance of your country’s goalies needs to be better, not worse. Otherwise, you’re counting on sheer offensive firepower to see you through, and as the recent WJCs have illustrated in embarrassing fashion, that’s a dicey proposition at the best of times.

This problem isn’t going to disappear. There are still prospects developing in Canada’s junior pipeline or slowly maturing at the NHL level. Subban rebounded from his struggles to carry the Ontario Hockey League’s Belleville Bulls all the way to a seven-game loss in the conference final, and 24-year-old Jonathan Bernier put up better numbers than Jonathan Quick in 14 appearances as the L.A. Kings’ backup this season. But even if promising talents pan out, and it turns out that the elite goaltending gene simply skipped a generation, that help won’t arrive in time for February.

Eleven years ago, Roy decided he’d skip the 2002 Olympics, and it didn’t even matter. His presence as a reigning Stanley Cup champion and the Conn Smythe winner was requested, not required. Eleven years ago, Patrick Roy was a luxury Canada’s hockey program could easily forgo. It would hardly be worth recalling, but it serves now to illustrate how far we’ve fallen. The nation is still desperate for hockey gold, and there are 254 days until the puck drops in Sochi. Right now, it’s anybody’s crease.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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