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The Next Wave: Eastern goalies on brink of stardom

by Justin Goldman
Every NHL team wants one, even though very few reach elite status. They take up tons of space, they intimidate and frustrate opponents, and they instill confidence in their coaches and teammates. They're being drafted on a more consistent basis, and they're also claiming more roster spots than in the past.

We speak of none other than the coveted "big" goaltender, of course.

So for this installment of The Next Wave, we focus on three beasts emerging from the Eastern Conference: Robin Lehner, Ben Bishop, and Jacob Markstrom.

These three prospects not only have the potential to be long-term NHL starters, but they all have a chance to be full-time NHL goaltenders next season. But which one is likely to have the biggest impact, and what makes these guys so special?

Top 10 Goalie Prospects

This monthly ranking is a projection of a goalie's long-term future value in the NHL. Goalies included have 10 games of NHL experience or less, and are playing at the professional level in North America. Rankings are based on non-statistical categories such as opportunity, skill potential, development, and other attributes of a future NHL goaltender. The plus or minus for each goalie is movement based on last month's results (NR means not ranked in previous rankings). It is important to note that our rankings reflect sheer long-term value, not their talent alone. A less-talented goalie could be ranked higher due to their placement in the team's depth chart.

1. Jacob Markstrom, Panthers (same)
2. Robin Lehner, Senators (same)
3. Eddie Lack, Canucks (+1)
4. Matt Hackett, Wild (+1)
5. Ben Bishop, Senators (+3)
6. Alex Salak, Blackhawks (-3)
7. Kevin Poulin, Islanders (-1)
8. Leland Irving, Flames (+1)
9. Cedrick Desjardins, Colorado (-3)
10. Justin Peters, Hurricanes (NR)
*No Longer Ranked – Mike Murphy, Hurricanes
Robin Lehner: For his size (6-foot-4, 225 pounds), the 20-year-old from Gothenburg, Sweden has tremendous flexibility and athleticism. He plays a more aggressive butterfly than his counterparts, and his solid patience and apt footwork allows him to challenge shooters effectively.
One of Lehner's main trademarks, however, is his fiery attitude; he wears his emotions on his sleeves -- and he's not afraid to mix it up when players try to distract him or crash the crease. He's confident, he plays with bravado, and he makes saves with a dash of swagger.

Ever since Craig Anderson went down with a lacerated finger, Lehner's play has been a major catalyst for Ottawa. He won his first two games, including a start in Boston on Feb. 28 that resulted in 32 saves for his first NHL shutout. He went 2-1-0 in his first three games, stopping 97 of 101 shots. 

Lehner's biggest obstacle right now appears to be his mental game. He has been wildly inconsistent with Ottawa's American Hockey League affiliate in Binghamton this season, going 8-16-1 with a 3.38 goals-against average and .895 save percentage. The battle to stop enough pucks on a nightly basis is one thing, but his emotions have also gotten the best of him at times, and playing with an even-keeled demeanor has eluded him most nights.

Since Lehner has struggled under the weight of a true sophomore slump in the AHL, the Senators will likely give him one more year to "bounce back" before he makes the jump for good. But with Anderson on the shelf, this has been a great opportunity for Lehner to showcase his skills to NHL scouts.

Ben Bishop: Compared to Lehner, Bishop is the more composed, mature, and economical goaltender. These positive elements play a major role in the 25-year-old's success this season, but that doesn't mean he hasn't worked extremely hard to improve his game during the past 12 months.

Bishop was the only goalie prospect moved at the NHL Trade Deadline, which goes a long way in proving that he's an NHL-ready goaltender. Signed to a new one-way deal with Ottawa for next season, he makes a perfect fit as Anderson's backup. He brings a different dynamic to the crease; Alex Auld plays more of a veteran's supporting role, while Bishop brings some much-needed competition. He'll push Anderson for starts when the preseason begins, and that will go a long way in making everyone work a little harder.

Jacob Markstrom
Goalie - FLA
RECORD: 2-4-1
GAA: 2.66 | SVP: 0.923
Bishop's patience in the AHL is a great example of how even the biggest goalies can still thrive at the highest levels. Minimizing movements allows him to rely on size and positioning to make saves in a controlled fashion. As a result, he doesn't get caught being over-aggressive as much as he used to, and he has better balance when recovering, executing lateral pushes or slides, or cutting down angles to absorb shots. He has solid puck-moving skills, his rebound control is good for his size, and the big man can still react and move his feet when needed.

Overall, Bishop's stellar season in Peoria has gone a long way in honing his mental game, his vision, and his consistency. He was 24-14-0 with a 2.26 GAA and .928 save percentage before the trade to Ottawa, and since then, he has gone 2-0-0 with 82 saves on 85 shots in Binghamton. Nothing is set in stone, but no AHL goalie is more primed than Bishop to be a full-time NHL goalie next season.

Jacob Markstrom: Of the three Beasts in the East, Markstrom is likely to make the biggest splash in the NHL next season. Standing at 6-6 and 192 pounds, the native of Gavle, Sweden, is expected to push Jose Theodore for the starting job right from the moment training camp begins.

Markstrom's technique is rather polished for a 22-year-old, but it's his instincts that are off the charts. He scrambles with a determined and intimidating purpose, and he has a good balance between blocking and reactionary-save selections. He reads plays well, he stays patient on odd-man rushes, he challenges shooters effectively, and he has displayed solid rebound control in his limited action with the Panthers.

Markstrom's season started off with a bang, as he stopped 121 of 128 shots in a four-game recall stint due to a Scott Clemmensen injury back in October. But Markstrom suffered an injury of his own in January, and for the second time in two seasons, he underwent minor knee surgery.

Although the surgery wasn't serious, the time missed was another thorn in his side. He finally returned in mid-February and quickly regained his form, however, stopping 119 of 125 shots in four games for San Antonio. He'll finish the season with the Rampage, but as long as he stays healthy and trains hard this summer, nothing is getting in the way of him being a full-time NHL goalie next season.    


Braden Holtby
Goalie - WSH
RECORD: 0-1-0
GAA: 5.08 | SVP: 0.857
-- Capitals fans are trying to forget about Braden Holtby's rough season debut on Feb. 13. He was victimized on a goal from center ice, and was beat five times on 35 shots in a disappointing 5-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks. Holtby continues to be touted as one of the top goalie prospects in the NHL, but like Lehner, he has been fairly inconsistent in Hershey this season.

-- Brad Thiessen had a successful NHL debut by stopping 22 of 24 shots in a 4-2 win against Columbus. He wasn't tested often, but he did make a few timely saves on the PK in the second period. The AHL Goalie of the Year in 2011 was shadowing some style elements of Marc-Andre Fleury, including a quick glove, good footwork, and an active stick hand.

-- Another bright spot in February for Eastern Conference goalie prospects was Justin Peters. Due to a minor injury to Cam Ward, Peters stepped in and went 2-1-2 with a 1.56 GAA and .952 save percentage in five games. He stopped 138 of 145 total shots, and pitched a 17-save shutout in a win against Washington on Feb. 20. Like Bishop, Peters is 25 years old and likely to be a full-time NHL backup next season.

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