We are entering a very rare period of time in hockey history.
With the disturbingly quick slide into mediocrity of goalie Martin Brodeur, it is now time to start focusing on his heir apparent — the next great Canadian goalie.
But is there one, right now?
Not since Ken Dryden retired following the 1978-79 season has there been such an ominous void.
After Dryden, it took a few years before Grant Fuhr emerged and became one of the all-time clutch goalies, and then Patrick Roy stepped to the forefront and led the strongest group of Canadian goaltenders since the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Brodeur took over that mantle early this millennium, but at 38 and his sudden string of injuries and on-ice troubles — in 27 games this year he has a record of 5-18-1, a goals-against average of 3.15 and a save percentage of .880 — it is safe to assume his time is drawing to a close, whether he retires this year or in the next couple.
Had things played out the way that most though it would have, Roberto Luongo would be taking over those reins, but the hockey gods have thought otherwise. Despite a solid but unspectacular regular-season resume, he has yet to deliver a team to the Stanley Cup or even the final. In 11 pro seasons he doesn’t even have a Vezina to his name. He has much to prove yet, and at 31 it’s fair to wonder if he ever will.
The three strongest possibilities currently in the league are Carey Price in Montreal, Marc Andre Fleury with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Cam Ward in Carolina.
Price is stock full of potential, and playing for a heritage franchise gives him that launching pad. But it comes down to where his head is at, and in Montreal that’s an asset that cannot be overlooked with the rabid media and fan base. He’s still only 23 and some would argue he was pushed way too soon by an organization looking for their next legendary keeper of the net, and he has struggled mightily with the pressure. He has played well so far this season, but a 31-game stretch does not make a career.
Fleury is another case of a goalie pushed too hard, too soon. The Penguins broke him in at 18 — an age when most other backstops are still in major junior — and derailed the early part of his career. While he does have one Stanley Cup under his belt, he still fights extended bouts of inconsistency.
Ward has had as much a roller-coaster ride in the league as any of the top young Canadian goalies. At times he looks like the best goalie in the game, as he did when he lead the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup in 2006, and if the former Red Deer Rebels star can find that consistency in his game, look out.
There are other highly-touted young Canadian goalies on the cusp, like Corey Schneider in Vancouver and Jonathan Bernier in Los Angeles, but it is far too early to peg either of them for superstardom. Washington’s Braden Holtby is another potential up-and-comer — he has great numbers in the AHL but hasn’t transferred that success to the NHL.
The natural place for people to look for the next big thing is the world juniors. While for forwards and defencemen this tournament has proven to be a terrific showcase, for goaltenders it has been a red herring.
For starters, none of Canada’s best goalies of the last couple generations have played in the annual post-Christmas event. Brodeur, Roy, Ed Belfour, Curtis Joseph, Grant Fuhr — all overlooked. The Canadian goalies with the best NHL careers to graduate from the tournament: Luongo, Mike Vernon and Sean Burke.
The last six or seven years have been a little better at producing legitimate NHL talent in the likes of Price, Bernier and Fleury, but there are just as many questions marks that have been raised with the level of the other Canuck tenders. I don’t think anyone has supreme confidence in the performance of Olivier Roy or Mark Visentin. Last year the goaltending situation was just as disappointing with Martin Jones and Jake Allen. With Canada’s last gold, Justin Tokarski, while flashing signs of brilliance, was as touch-and-go as any recent Canadian goalie. The last Canadian goalie to really star at the tournament was Justin Pogge and he hasn’t exactly been on a rocket ship to stardom.
The list of Canadian goalies who have stolen the show at the world juniors reads as a who’s who of backup and platoon goalies at the NHL level: Trevor Kidd, Jamie Storr, Craig Billington, Pascal Leclaire, Manny Legace, Stephan Fiset and Jimmy Waite. And those are the ones who actually made it.
For now it appears the title of NHL’s best is set to be carried uncharacteristically by stars from other nations, whether it be just across the border — Ryan Miller, Jonathan Quick, Tim Thomas — or from across the pond — Miikka Kiprusoff, Henrik Lundqvist, Jonas Hiller and Pekke Rinne.
But hockey is cyclical, and it is only a matter of time before a Canadian takes over again.