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Goalie countdown: 12 burning questions

By Justin Goldman - NHL.com Correspondent

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Goalie countdown: 12 burning questions
Will anyone step up and win 40 games? Who's the next hotshot rookie? Is Ilya Bryzgalov ready to lead the Flyers to the promised land? NHL.com goalie guru Justin Goldman poses the top 12 questions surrounding netminders this season.
At this point of the summer, predicting is part of the hockey lover's human nature. 

When it comes to forecasting the NHL's goaltenders, there's a lot to discuss because there are so many "unstable" situations–ones that could result in a significant or negative impact on a goaltender's career, or for their team's overall success.

Every year, some goalies face the pressure of extremely high expectations. That comes with high salary, high skill level or high marks for their previous season's success. Others are simply expected to rebound from an inconsistent or injury-plagued season.

No matter what kind of situation your favorite goalie is facing right now, there's clearly no lack of intrigue between the pipes. So join me as I count down 12 of the "burning questions" facing the NHL's 2011-12 goaltending class.

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12. CAN SOMEONE WIN 40 GAMES THIS YEAR?
Last year, for the first time since the 2003-04 season, no goaltender won 40 games. This partially proves that backups and third-stringers (like Cory Schneider, Jhonas Enroth, Michal Neuvirth and James Reimer) are better than ever. Even Tim Thomas, who posted a .938 save percentage last season, only won 35 games. Carey Price won 38, but had to start 70 games to get there. Roberto Luongo also won 38 games, but only played in 60 because Schneider was too good to bench. So can one goalie play well enough, and in enough games, to win 40?

11. WHO WINS THE TWO BACKUP BATTLES?
Right now, two main backup battles are just over the horizon. Ray Emery and Alexander Salak will duel in Chicago, while Brian Elliott and Ben Bishop contend for the job in St. Louis. Everyone has their eyes on Emery right now, as last season's Masterton Trophy finalist will try to continue the inspirational success he had in Anaheim and earn a new contract. But don't count out Salak -- he's fresh off an Elitserien championship with Farjestad, and I consider him to be one of the most electric and athletic European prospects in the world.

10. WHO RISES UP FROM THE ROOKIE CLASS?
Raw but skilled rookies are extremely fun to watch because they play like ravenous beasts. They've worked their entire lives just to get these opportunities, so you know sheer will and work ethic will be a big part of their success. I've already pondered the odds of Bishop and Mark Dekanich, but who else could rise from the rookie class? Can Enroth play well over the course of a whole season? More importantly, when (not if) will an AHL gem like Cedrick Desjardins or Richard Bachman step up and steal the spotlight?

9. WHO SUCCUMBS TO THE SOPHOMORE JINX?
Every sophomore goaltender faces difficult obstacles they didn't face as a rookie. Durability over the course of a full season is one. Adjusting to the opposition's scouting and playing consistently is another. So who will crumble under the weight of these pressure points, and who will continue to excel? The obvious goalies in question are Reimer, Schneider, Neuvirth, Corey Crawford and Jonathan Bernier, but don't forget about the likes of Sergei Bobrovsky, Devan Dubnyk, Henrik Karlsson or Al Montoya either.

8. WILL IT BE BOOM OR BUST IN COLUMBUS?
The Blue Jackets made a bold move this summer when they signed Dekanich, a former Nashville Predators prospect, as their new backup. He was one of the best AHL goalies last season, but has one game of NHL experience. Steve Mason, the Calder Trophy winner in 2009, has posted just a .901 save percentage each of the past two seasons, allowing three goals on average per game. Both seasons were mired by inconsistency and untimely goals, so it's safe to say Columbus is taking the "boom or bust" route in goal this year. Can Ian Clark, the team's new goaltending coach, help solve Mason's inconsistencies, or could Dekanich be the new go-to guy?

7. WHO TAKES OVER THE CREASE IN FLORIDA?
Timely saves, a strong work ethic and off-ice professionalism are very influential in terms of a young team's confidence. In Florida's case, Scott Clemmensen and Jose Theodore may not exhibit tons of talent, but they do emit a lot of leadership. These guys have seen it all before during their career and have nothing to lose. They'll be competitive, but it won't be pretty on some nights. If they do struggle, will the Panthers make a trade, push prized prospect Jacob Markstrom into the lineup, or finally give Tyler Plante his chance?

6. HOW MANY GOALIES WILL THE ISLANDERS USE?
Rick DiPietro
Goalie - NYI
RECORD: 8-14-4
GAA: 3.44 | SVP: 0.886
When it comes to predicting how the Islanders goaltending situation will pan out, your guess is as good as mine. That results in a plethora of burning questions. Can Rick DiPietro stay healthy for at least 40 games? Can Al Montoya, who played well beyond expectations last season and was rewarded with a new one-year contract, keep the team competitive? Most importantly, now that Evgeni Nabokov is back on the ice, will we see him play games in an Islanders uniform, or will he be traded as soon as Garth Snow gets the chance?

5. HOW WILL REIMER HANDLE THE PRESSURE?
There's no denying that Optimus Reim was the surprise goaltender from last season. More importantly, he developed an endearing reputation around the League, meaning that many fans will cheer for him even if he's losing. That will play a huge role in alleviating the pressure that comes with his lofty expectations, but beware the tricky season that lies ahead. Can Reimer handle a 60-game workload and fend off a smarter opposition? Other teams have certainly done their scouting homework, but has he done the same?

4. HOW WILL MIKE SMITH MESH IN THE DESERT?
After a tumultuous season in Tampa Bay, Smith has earned the opportunity of a lifetime in Phoenix. He'll certainly feel comfortable playing in Dave Tippett's defensive-minded system, but still has to prove himself over the course of the entire season. Can he handle the pressure of playing behind a team that many expect to struggle scoring goals? Can he live up to the lofty expectations left behind by Ilya Bryzgalov? Finally, how will Smith compete against Jason LaBarbera, a capable guy who is ready to challenge for the starting role?

3. CAN JONAS HILLER KEEP HIS BALANCE?
If Jonas Hiller truly suffered from vertigo, then staying healthy is more about his vision and balance and less about durability and strength. What makes this such a burning question, however, is the sheer unknown of it all. Nobody other than Hiller truly knows how he's feeling. This situation plays a massive role in the goaltending scene because Anaheim's postseason fate could depend on Hiller staying healthy. So can the Swiss sensation keep his balance and play at an elite level for the entire season?

Semyon Varlamov
Goalie - COL
RECORD: 11-9-5
GAA: 2.23 | SVP: 0.924
2. WHAT WILL HAPPEN AT A MILE HIGH?
The Colorado Avalanche signed three new goalies over the summer, all of which are coming off injury-plagued seasons. One is considered an elite goalie when healthy, the other is a perfect veteran mentor and the third, Desjardins, is an NHL-ready hidden gem. But which one, if any, will help this team the most? Aside from Craig Anderson's stellar 2009-10 campaign, Denver has been a city where goalies can quickly freeze over. I give the club a lot of credit for bringing in some elite talent, but the durability and health of Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere will be major question marks all season long.

1. HOW WILL BRYZGALOV PLAY IN APRIL?
Forget the lucrative salary and the pressure of being a Flyers goalie. Bryzgalov, for many reasons, is truly one of the most talented goalies in the world. Nobody doubts he can he play at an elite level for 60 games during the regular season, either. But no matter how many games he wins through March, if he can't win 16 more in the Stanley Cup playoffs, his season will be considered a failure. Due to these lofty expectations, and due to the intense mental and physical pressure he'll be under, whether Bryzgalov can excel in the playoffs is my choice for the most influential goalie question heading into the season.
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