Ladies and gentlemen…The 2012-2013 Pre-season Top 10.
10. Mike Smith, Phoenix Coyotes– Mike Smith is someone who probably wouldn’t have factored into this list as recently as last pre-season. He signed a discounted, short-term deal with the ‘Yotes to replace the departing Ilya Bryzgalov and it couldn’t have worked out better. It seems the combination of Sean Burke and coming into his prime years finally allowed Smith to fulfill his potential. He is starting to use his size and blocking skill to his fullest advantage, and he has cleaned up his positioning considerably. I’d like to see a little bigger sample size before feeling completely comfortable with this ranking, but what I saw this year tells me Smith is capable of perennial Vezina caliber campaigns.
9. Jonas Hiller, Anaheim Ducks– Hiller must just be the oddest goaltender in the NHL today. From his masks to his equipment to his stance and odd vertigo issues, he is nothing if not unique. He is also incredibly talented. It took me a while to warm up to his idiosyncrasies, but the more I watch the 30 year old Swiss native, the more I like his game. He is a pure blocker with plus mobility and body control. He has one of the best glove hands in the NHL and covers the bottom part of the net exceedingly well. He is also a southpaw, which is just an added perk (you don’t see too many good one’s anymore).
8. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins– Obviously, Fleury came under fire in this year’s playoffs for his wretched performance, and has always been the target of criticisms claiming he can’t put his team on his back and carry them to the promised land. It doesn’t help the perception around here that The Suit is a pretty vocal critic of the former #1 overall pick. Some of the criticisms are valid, as he has a habit of leaning on unorthodox techniques when he is struggling, as well as bouts of extreme aggressiveness. Now this might all sound negative, but Fleury is an absolute top-10 talent. His athleticism and mobility are elite as well as his positioning and vision. He can be his own worst enemy sometimes, but is still only 27 and theoretically entering his prime years. For a more in-depth analysis on Fleury, check out my scouting report here.
7. Ryan Miller, Buffalo Sabres– Ryan Miller is an American Hero. That is enough for me to look past his down year and without hesitation put him in the top 10. His performance in Vancouver in 2010 was other worldly. The man defines “gamer” and has some of the best positioning instincts in the NHL. He plays a very simple and somewhat “old-school” style, but his lack of excess movement and elite body control help bridge the gap to the modern game. Watch for Miller to shake off his rough year and jump back into the elite conversation for 2012-2013.
6. Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings– Jimmy Howard is quietly climbed his way up this list to the elite of the NHL. He doesn’t make a ton of money (2 year/$4.5m deal), but he anchors one of the preeminent franchises in the league. Howard is one of the best in the league when it comes to tracking the puck and can find the biscuit in traffic better than most in the game. He has above-average athleticism and tremendous lateral movement. The former UMaine Black Bear is not the flashiest or the most athletic guy in the league, but he is rock solid and well on his way to cementing himself as one of the game’s best.
5. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens– It took Carey Price a couple years to really figure out how to navigate the NHL in general, but more so the rabid hockey market of Montreal. The former #5 overall pick had three up and down years before really cementing himself as one of the elite goalies in the league the past two seasons. There are still some maturity issues to iron out and there’s that whole “the Habs are terrible” thing, but Price’s game has definitely gone to the next level. He has elite level mobility and poise, with a scary efficiency when he moves around the goalmouth. He is incredibly technically sound, and expends the least amount of movement possible when executing save techniques. Price is poised for big things, even if the Canadiens team doesn’t have quite the upside of their 25 year-old tender.
4. Cam Ward, Carolina Hurricanes– Cam Ward is one of my personal favorites in the game today. The guy just flat out gets it done. He isn’t particularly flashy or freakishly athletic, but he has a feel for the game possessed by few. He is tremendously disciplined and controlled in his movements, which gives Ward elite recovery ability and rebound positioning. His rebound control in general is fantastic, not to mention his overall positional game. Hopefully, this season the re-vamped ‘Canes will be able to give him a little more help than last season, but for me, he is the biggest factor in Carolina returning to the playoffs. One of the most underrated tenders in the game today, pay close attention to the awesomeness that is Cam Ward this season (if we have one, of course) and you’ll see what is in front of everyone’s noses but no one really recognizes.
3. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators– Ah, now we get down to the big three. I’m sure rankings 3-1 don’t really come as a surprise to anyone, but that’s mainly because how inarguable their abilities are. Rinne is probably the best “big” goaltender to ever play the game. The 6’5” Fin has some of the best body control in the league, much less for a guy that size. This combination leads to an athletic, disciplined package that takes up an astonishing amount of net space. His lateral mobility and puck tracking skills are elite, not to mention the advantage his frame gives him when fighting for pucks through traffic. It is generally tough to scout and project a goaltenders development path, especially the bigger guys because they tend to mature later than their pad-less counterparts. I’m assuming this was a contributing factor to Rinne being drafted in the 8th round (258th overall) by Nashville in the ’04 draft. I’m sure there are quite a few teams that would take a mulligan that year if they could.
2. Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings– I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who believe that Jonathan Quick is the deserving recipient of the prestigious #1 ranking. There are plenty of persuasive arguments one could make concluding that to be the case. The biggest factor for me on this decision between #1 and #2 was longevity. Quick has had two absolutely sensational years back-to-back, but how soon we forget the questions persisting back in 2009 about whether Jonathan Bernier would eventually overtake Quick for the number one job out in LA. None of this is to disparage Quick’s unbelievable level of talent; he is 26 years old, signed to a reasonable (under the circumstances) deal, fresh off a Stanley Cup/Conn Smythe/Vezina nominated season, which the entire hockey world really got a look at Quick’s game. His mobility and athleticism are beyond elite, and his compete level is off the charts. The guy is all the heart and determination of Tim Thomas combined with the athleticism/god given talent of Carey Price. An absolute monster who could very easily grab that top spot next year with a season even in the ballpark of this one. Just be very glad he is rooted in the Western Conference for the next decade.
1. Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers– Yeah, I got it: I’m a huge Rangers homer who was always going to give The King the top spot. In reality, I could probably be persuaded to put Quick here, but the difference for me, as I mentioned before is longevity. Hank has put up absolutely sensational numbers since his rookie debut in ‘05-‘06. Every year (7 total) he has put up at least 30 wins. You know how many other goalies have done that in their first seven seasons? None. Henrik’s rock solid play has never wavered, and inconsistencies in his performance have come only when he has been so fatigued from overuse that no one could expect his normal level of play. Hank is far from traditional in style, but there’s no questioning the results. He has been the constant, reassuring presence in the Rangers’ crease since the NHL emerged from the last lock-out and has thrived in the most intense, demanding market in American sports. His accolades include a Vezina trophy, four nominations, an Olympic Gold Medal, three time NHL All-Star, a Hart Trophy nomination, the Ted Lindsay Award, Rangers team MVP every year since 2007, countless Swedish Elite League accolades and a 2002 IIHF Inline Hockey Gold Medal just for good measure. The guy is a workhorse of epic proportions who will likely one day have his #30 retired to the rafters of The World’s Most Famous Arena. With all due respect to a terrific netminder in Jonathan Quick, long live The King.
And there you have it. Agree with my rankings? Sound off with your own opinions in the comments section! Also, since this was the first year of the list, please feel free to give suggestions for next year’s edition, whether it be format, content, whatever. Your opinions are always appreciated.