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Consistency finally settles on Central nets

by Larry Wigge

Coming into the 2007-08 NHL season, the only goaltender to be in the same spot in the Central Division since the end of the lockout three years ago is Nikolai Khabibulin in Chicago. 
When talking about goaltending in the Central Division, we could wax poetic and say something like: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Seriously, as strange as that may seem, the statement is as muddled as who’s behind the mask in Detroit or Nashville or Chicago or St. Louis or Columbus from one season to the next.

Think about it. Coming into this season, the only goaltender to be in the same spot in the Central since we came back from the lockout three years ago for the 2005-06 season is Nikolai Khabibulin in Chicago.

Back then, Dominik Hasek was the starting goaltender in Detroit in 2001-02 -- and he’s ready to start in goal again for the Red Wings in 2007-08. But he’s been retired, injured, in Ottawa and back again since.

Seriously, the only way to discuss the goaltending in this division is to just blame the lack of consistency on global warming. Or maybe the new millennium.

Hey, that’s the ticket!

Since 1999 changed to 2000, Detroit failed to win the division just once -- in 1999-2000 when St. Louis had the best record in the NHL. What makes the Red Wings’ reign so interesting is that they’ve won with a different No. 1 goaltender nearly every season -- going from Chris Osgood to Hasek, to Curtis Joseph, to Hasek, to Manny Legace to Hasek.

St. Louis has mainly worked with Roman Turek, Brent Johnson, Osgood, Patrick Lalime, Curtis Sanford and Legace as its No. 1 goaltender. But you can also throw in the menagerie of names like Reinhard Divis, Fred Brathwaite, Cody Rudkowsky, Tom Barrasso and Jason Bacashihua in an endless carousel of netminders.

Just when Nashville was getting comfortable with Mike Dunham, they traded him to New York and went with Tomas Vokoun. This season, Vokoun is in Florida and the man behind the mask is Chris Mason.

To start the new millennium, Chicago’s goaltending was manned by Jocelyn Thibault and then to the big, free-agent pickup of Khabibulin. Sprinkled in this mix, like St. Louis, was a variety of puck-stoppers like Steve Passmore, Michael Leighton, Adam Munro, Craig Anderson and Patrick Lalime.

Columbus started playing in the NHL with a tandem of Ron Tugnutt and Marc Denis in 2000-01. Denis played a remarkable 77 games in 2002-03. Since then, we’ve seen Brathwaite and Pascal Leclaire as the starter until Fredrik Norrena replaced the injured Leclaire early last season.

What you have to remember is that solid goaltending keeps teams in games during the regular season and wins games in the playoffs.

Here’s a look at all of the No. 1 goaltenders in the Central Division:

Hasek, Detroit -- He was 38-11-6 with a 2.05 goals-against average, .913 save percentage and eight shutouts in the regular season and 10-8 in the playoffs with a 1.79 GAA, .923 save percentage and two shutouts.

"I don't care what anybody says, when the game's on the line, I like having ‘The Dominator’ back there," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock told me going into the playoffs last spring.

Hasek has been NHL MVP twice and got Detroit its third Stanley Cup in six years in 2002.

"I'm proud of what I've done in this game with the Stanley Cup and trophies and gold medals," Hasek said. "But you don't prepare for the next season by living in the past. You come here to try to do everything to win again.

"To me, the motivation to win another Stanley Cup is the same as it was in 2002, when I was trying to proved to everyone that I could win a Cup."

Khabibulin, Chicago -- Nik had a 1.71 goals-against average while going 16-7 and helping Tampa Bay win the Cup in 2004. His best regular-season numbers were in 1998-99 in Phoenix when he had a 2.13 GAA. Last season he had a 2.86 average and was 25-26-5 in 60 games.

When Denis Savard came in as coach of the Blackhawks last season, he pointed out how well Nikolai played in spite of losing.

"He gave us a chance on most nights," Savard said.

You can point to the fact that the Hawks played young defensemen Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, James Wisniewski and Jim Vandermeer a lot of minutes and the Adrian Aucoin and Jasson Cullimore weren’t as good as expected -- and that may have had something to do with Khabibulin’s stats. But clearly GM Dale Tallon expected more for the $7 million-plus he’s paying Khabibulin.

Legace, St. Louis -- Manny finished last season with a 23-15-5 record and a 2.59 goals-against average, but its what he did after Andy Murray took over as coach that’s important to note -- 14-4-2 record, .928 save percentage and 2.01 GAA and a stretch in which he allowed two goals-or-less in 14 of the 20 games. That followed a 5-9-3 start with the Blues.

He started the season sharing the No. 1 job with Sanford, but put his fingerprints on the full-time job before a knee injury sidelined him for the season on Feb. 13 against San Jose.

"You expect your No. 1 guy to do the job," said Murray. "But there’s something about having Manny back there that makes the rest of the team better. Maybe it’s because he’s such a fiery competitor."

After doing a superb job filling in when Tomas Vokoun was out with a thumb injury last year, Chris Mason will take over the role as the Predators top goaltender this season.
Mason, Nashville -- He finished the 2005-06 season with six-consecutive wins when he took over for Vokoun after the No. 1 goalie was sidelined for the remainder of the season with a blood condition. Last season, Chris had a 24-11-4 record and 2.38 goals-against average and .925 save percentage. Again, he filled in for a long stretch when Vokoun was out with a thumb injury -- and the team didn’t miss a beat with Mason in goal.

He’s got big pads to fill, but he deserves a chance.

"Chris Mason is steady, he’s a battler and competitor in goal," said coach Barry Trotz. "If Chris is in his zone, his rhythm, he can be just as good as Tomas."

Norrena, Columbus -- If you ask me, Fredrik became the man in goal for the Blue Jackets. In supplanting the injured Leclaire, Norrena did something no other Columbus No. 1 goalie had done -- finish with a winning record (24-22-3).

"Freddie really came up big when we needed someone to come in and give us great goaltending," Jackets star winger Rick Nash told me late last season.

Hasek and Osgood should give Detroit solid goaltending regardless of injuries or a slump or two. It will be interesting to see if Mason in Nashville, Legace in St. Louis, Khabibulin in Chicago and Norrena in Columbus can put back-to-back good seasons of puckstopping on the scoreboard.

When you consider that this group of goalies range from Mason at 31 to Hasek at 42, there’s plenty of netminding experience. But long-term stability?

Stay tuned.

Around the Central Division

Red Wings -- The buzz at informal workouts in Detroit leading up to training camp has led a lot of the veterans to stop and gaze at the skills of 24-year-old winger Igor Grigorenko. The Red Wings spent a second-round draft choice on this prospect in 2001, when he had been playing on a high-scoring line in the Russian junior program with Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk.

The Wings gushed every time they talked about Grigorenko, even after he sustained a broken femur and a fractured tibia in his left leg and wound up on a ventilator following an embolism on his left lung in a near-fatal car crash in May of 2003. Four years later, he has finally returned to some of the form that distinguished him as an even stronger prospect than Datsyuk.

The injuries have cost him a step of speed, but the hands are still magical and accounted for 13 goals in his final 30 games in the Russian Super League last season. Optimists in Detroit hope he can sparkle on a line with Datsyuk and Tomas Holmstrom.

Knowing the Wings’ success at bringing along young, European and Communist bloc players, this story is likely to deserve a peek at Grigorenko by more than just Detroit fans.

Predators -- There’s obviously no love lost between Detroit and Nashville after the bloodbaths they’ve put on the last two seasons. That’s reason enough to pay particular attention to the progress of right winger Josh Langfeld in the Predators’ training camp.

At 6-3, 216 pounds, the 30-year-old journeyman spent last season in the Red Wings organization -- playing 33 games in Detroit. With just nine goals and 23 assists in 141 NHL games over the last five seasons, with Ottawa, San Jose, Boston and Detroit, he’s not a solution to Nashville’s who-going-to-score-goals-now-that-Paul Kariya-and-Scott Hartnell-are-gone dilemma. But he can be a nifty late free-agent signing for the Preds.

Blues --St. Louis coach Andy Murray’s has to love seeing Paul Kariya taking Keith Tkachuk aside in informal Blues’ workouts when play stopped and motion where he would like to see Tkachuk set up around the net when Kariya has the puck.

Murray is counting on Kariya’s well-known playmaking skills along the halfboards to spell success to last season’s anemic power play.

Blue Jackets -- Fresh start. Clean slate. Those were the first words out of the mouth of Ken Hitchcock after he replaced Gerard Gallant as coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets last November. The same tone applies in the first Jackets training camp for the team of Hitchcock and new GM Scott Howson.

The executive tandem has spent countless hours visiting with each player by phone or in person during the off-season conveying the expectations they have in Columbus this season. Playing with more of an edge or attitude comes up often.

While not singling out either Sergei Fedorov or Nikolai Zherdev, it’s clear that Howson and Hitchcock want more than 42 points from Fedorov and 32 points from Zherdev. The personal touch with Federov and Zherdev, for example, stressed how important Howson and Hitchcock think they are to the success of the Jackets this season.

Blackhawks --Jonathan Toews centering for high-scoring right winger Matin Havlat? That’s how GM Dale Tallon sees it, dispelling rumors that coach Denis Savard was thinking about using free-agent center Robert Lang with Havlat while Toews would center a kid line with No. 1 overall draft pick Patrick Kane.

What all of this speculation proves is that the Chicago Blackhawks have plenty of depth at center with Lang, Toews, Tuomo Ruutu, Yanic Perreault and Kevyn Adams -- something Tallon seemed to be begging for all the time last season after Michael Handzus was lost for the season with a knee injury after just eight games in 2006-07.

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