When looking for teams that could surprise, one should look at the last line of defense – the goaltender. Why? It is simple. This is the one position where teams can unexpectedly overperform. Now, we may miss a goaltender or two here but here are four goalies to look at for the 2019-20 season.
Alex Nedeljkovic – G – Carolina Hurricanes
Nedeljkovic could be the biggest debate because of uncertainty. Jason Muzzati was recently hired as the Carolina goaltender coach and he could arguably help the 24-year-old goalie more. The other problem for the young Carolina goaltender is the depth chart. Petr Mrazek was re-signed but James Reimer was also brought in with term and dollars remaining on his contract from Florida ($3.4 million AAV, 2 years).
Does Carolina keep Nedeljkovic in the AHL for the start of the year to see how their goaltender situation works out or do they want the young goaltender splitting duty with Mrazek ultimately? Nedeljkovic represents the Hurricanes’ best chance to win and maybe by later this season. This will be a story to keep an eye on throughout training camp and beyond.
MacKenzie Blackwood – G – New Jersey Devils
How does Blackwood follow up 2019-20 with more expectations for New Jersey on the horizon? Blackwood saw a stint in the ECHL for a little while before finding himself and lateral mobility. Once he did, his career arc trended upward and quickly.
Last season, he was called up due to the Cory Schneider recovery from surgery. The result was Blackwood playing 23 games and going 10-10-2 in the process. Not only that, he kept New Jersey in a lot of games it had no business being in. This was more than the 2.61 goals-against average and .916 save percentage.
In a small sample size, Blackwood produced an .893 save percentage on the penalty kill and a goals-above average of over 5. Blackwood is still just 22-years-old and has room to grow. He could split time with Cory Schneider or even take the starter’s job over at some point during the season. With a team that has made several significant upgrades, Blackwood could be the top goalie out of this batch of younger goaltenders.
Elvis Merzlikins – G – Columbus Blue Jackets
The 2014 third-round draft pick for Columbus has enjoyed his time in Lugano (SHL) as his game has grown. Now, he is expected to at least back up and maybe start for Columbus in 2019-20. That is quite a leap for the Latvian goalie. Can he handle the pressure?
Joonas Korpisalo is his main competition for playing time. Both goalies are 25. However, Korpisalo is the one with NHL experience (81 games started). His numbers are not impressive and that will open the door for Merzlikins. His upside and ceiling dictates starting goaltender. The biggest problem with Columbus is the loss of talent. With Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Matt Duchene all gone, there is a lot of volatility.
One thing is certain. There will be playing time just how much?
Carter Hart – G – Philadelphia Flyers
Hart just tuned 21 this summer and enjoyed a memorable rookie season for the Philadelphia Flyers. He goes into training camp as the number one goaltender. How does he follow up his 2018-19 campaign?
There was much to like. He went 16-13 in 31 games played with a 2.83 goals-against-average and .917 save percentage. His goals saved above average approached 7. Also, Hart helped stabilize a shaky penalty kill in Philadelphia with a .906 save percentage.
The one concern was and still is Philadelphia’s defense. It is very much a work in progress. Hart’s ,916 even-strength save percentage was okay but not great. He is young and prone to some bad streaks. That does not help when the defense regularly gives up quality chances.
If Philadelphia can even improve slightly inside their own blueline, Hart will perform that much better this season. Hart may play 50+ games this season, if he can stay healthy.
By Chris Wassel