By ERIK ERLENDSSON | The Tampa Tribune
Published: June 16, 2012
Updated: June 16, 2012 – 6:33 PM
Goalies kept churning in and out.
Tampa Bay captured the 2004 Stanley Cup with Nikolai Khabibulin leading the way in net. Since Khabibulin left for Chicago after the 2004-05 labor lockout, Tampa Bay’s pursuit of a new No. 1 led it to play 18 different goaltenders in seven seasons, more than any team in the league.
Only one – Mike Smith in 2008-09 – posted a save percentage above .910 while appearing in at least 40 games.
The Lightning have spent seven years on the lookout for their next bona fide No.1 goaltender – someone to provide stability to a position that has been as unstable as a toddler skating for the first time.
And now, a new name has joined the list of hopefuls after Tampa Bay acquired 6-foot-6, 24-year-old Anders Lindback from Nashville on Friday with the expectation he will take hold of the top spot.
“He was highly sought after and I think he has all the physical skills to be a good goalie in this league,” said Kevin Weekes, an analyst with CBC in Canada as well as NBC Sports Network and the NHL Network who appeared in 80 games for Tampa Bay from 2000-02. “I think it has potential to be a good move. I think they have upgraded the position tenfold right now.”
Through the years, Tampa Bay’s search found one or two goaltenders that enjoyed moderate success, but for the most part the process produced one failure after another.
“That doesn’t surprise me,” Weekes said. “The goaltenders that have come through there, for the most part, have not been quality NHL goalies.”
Certainly, none came close to replicating the success Khabibulin provided for three full seasons: five playoff series wins and franchise career records for victories (83), goals against average (2.39) and save percentage (.914).
Along the way, John Grahame, Marc Denis, Smith and Dwayne Roloson were considered the answer, in some capacity. But only Roloson enjoyed much success. He helped the Lightning to the Eastern Conference final in 2011 as a mid-season trade acquisition before struggling last season and losing the top job to Mathieu Garon.
Enter Lindback, the next to deal with the expectations of filling the void.
Just ahead of next weekend’s NHL entry draft and the July 1 start of free agency, Yzerman landed what he hopes will be that elusive No. 1 goaltender. At the end of last season he stockpiled early round draft picks with the intention of acquiring a goaltender. In spending three of those picks – two second rounders in 2012 and one third rounder in 2013 – Yzerman is banking on Lindback.
“The thing we like about him is his technique,” Yzerman said of Lindback. “I like the way he moves in net. He’s quick. He’s in control. I think he has really good potential.”
Lindback wants to fulfill those expectations.
“That’s my goal, for a long time now . . . and I haven’t played much, but I just want to get better and prove myself,” Lindback said. “I think I have a great opportunity here but I know that I have to show up and play good every night and try to help the team to win every game.”
Finding the right guy can be crucial to a team’s success.
The Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup this season behind stellar play from Vezina Trophy finalist Jonathan Quick, who received the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.
The Phoenix Coyotes, who advanced beyond the first round for the first time since the franchise moved from Winnipeg in 1996, won their first division title and reached the Western Conference final with former Lightning goaltender Smith as the season-long No.1.
It’s no fluke that a team’s success – or lack thereof – often can be traced back to the quality of its goaltending. When it succeeds, it often is the result of a team identifying the type of player it has in net and patiently allowing him to play.
At least that’s what one former post-lockout Lightning goaltender thinks.
“The hardest thing, unfortunately for a lot of general managers, is not necessarily finding the right guy but recognizing when you have them,” said Sean Burke, now the Phoenix goaltending coach, who made 35 appearances with Tampa Bay in 2005-06.
“That’s what I have seen in the NHL more often than I would like to. There are guys out there, given the right opportunity, that put in the proper situation can be a successful player. But there is a lot of panic that happens when it comes to the goaltending position. There are a lot of excuses made and a lot of not understanding of the mental side of what a No. 1 guy has to be like. …I see it happen all the time where teams and organizations have a guy and part of it is just the way the game is today, there’s not a lot of patience to that position sometimes.”
The Lightning have three players that could fit that description in Dustin Tokarski, recently re-signed Riku Helenius, the team’s 2006 first-round pick, and Lindback.
Tokarski, 22, has won championships at every level, capturing a Canadian provincial title as a teenager, a Memorial Cup with Spokane in juniors, a gold medal with Canada at the World Junior Championships and a Calder Cup this past season with the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals. Helenius, 24, led his Finnish team to a title this past season. Lindback is perceived to be a No. 1 in waiting after spending two years backing up Pekka Rinne in Nashville.
But Tampa Bay’s present is just as pressing as its future.
After reaching the conference final in 2011 and coming within a victory of the Stanley Cup final, Tampa Bay failed to qualify for the postseason in 2012 despite a 60-goal season from Steven Stamkos. Stars Vinny Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis will be 32 and 37, respectively, at the start of next season.
As much good will as has been created since Jeff Vinik purchased the franchise in 2010 and hired Yzerman as general manager, winning is what really matters. A big key to winning is having dependable and consistent goaltending.
“It’s an important position, I can’t deny that,” said Yzerman, entering his third season at the Lightning helm. “Ultimately, you want to find that starter that you can put in there for 65 games, under two goals against (average) and in the .930 (save percentage) range – and that’s a priority.
“There aren’t many of them out there and it’s a tough position. The consistently elite guys, you just don’t get those guys.”
Not even the acquisition of Lindback guarantees the issue is resolved. There is more work to be done.
The Lightning have yet to draft and develop a starting goaltender among the 20 they selected in franchise’s two decades.
Tampa Bay has two picks in Friday night’s first round – 10th and 19th overall – with three goaltenders rated high enough to warrant being selected in the opening round: Malcolm Subban, Oscar Dansk and Andrei Vasilevski. Any would add to the young group Yzerman already has in the organization.
“I think that type of internal competition is great,” Weekes said. “For the Lightning organization, this gives them more depth and hopefully they can cultivate it and it will germinate for them to the point where they can say they have three or four NHL goalies. And that’s a great problem to have.
“For my money, the teams that do well consistently, especially in this new NHL, it’s not all about trading for a guy or signing a UFA, it’s about drafting and developing within the organization.”
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