What in the world drives a person to become a hockey goaltender? Of all the positions to play, it is the easiest spot to place the blame on when things go awry. There's a slim chance of being a hero, but the odds of turning into a villain are higher, and there's also the compliance of placing your body before a puck being fired ferociously, tracking it's destination, while putting up with forwards who refuse to get out of your way blurring your vision like a blindfold.
The lonely feeling of teammates skating away after a goal is conceded and the sad fact that the netminder won't be included in a scoring celebration - as an unwritten rule, a player who's found himself a goal should skate over to his goaltender for a complimentary fist pound before the next whistle - can create a sense of abandonment. But there's also the triumph of a win, symbolized by the extraordinary feeling of everyone skating towards you for a celebration. Handling such ends of a spectrum are their obstacle, and treating it smoothly, is why they are uncommon athletes.
Second-string netminders always have their work cut out for them because they play when the starter is asked to leave the game and other than a comeback of epic proportions, those minutes are meaningless to the rest of society. In his eyes, their as valuable as playoff games because it's a rare chance to show off for the coaching staff and who knows, maybe convince the boss to observe him further. Martin Brodeur, Evgeni Nabokov, Henrik Lundqvist and Miikka Kiprusoff are so overused that it's a miracle anyone could point out Yann Danis, Thomas Greiss and Chad Johnson (not Ochocinco) from a team photograph. Curtis McElhinney is rather anonymous in Anaheim, but Calgary's new back-up, Vesa Toskala, is famous in his own special way.
A suitable secondary goaltender is extremely valuable because they may allow a condensed season for their partner, an advantage that would make postseason fatigue less of a concern. Some would argue that this format has it's negatives; the preparation and form might not be up to par with less matches to their name. But Brodeur, Nabokov, Lundqvist and Kiprusoff were bounced from the latest few postseasons as if they're trampolines. Rest helps, and a capable No.2 option keeps the No.1 selection on full alert as it becomes somewhat of a competition between the two.
Injuries between the pipes are nagging and, as a case in point, Martin Biron's assistance in 2006 when Ryan Miller became unavailable was one storyline for that particular campaign. Fortunes weren't as helpful three years down the road because Patrick Lalime, whose personality is more of a service than his actual performances, broke into pieces as Miller's replacement with the rest of the club. An ankle sprain did him in not long before the playoffs, Buffalo couldn't manage without him and Lalime was a scapegoat for the failing project.
It just so happens that the 35-year-old is an unrestricted free agent this upcoming July and Jhonas Enroth will be 22 years-of-age in a couple of weeks. Enroth will join the growing wave of European goaltenders who this season, controlled 42 per cent of the kingdom that featured in 30 or more games. Darcy Regier prefers his players to be bred through the bloodline in their American Hockey League affiliate and he's served two years with the Portland Pirates after exclusively beginning in his native Sweden.
A second round selection from 2006, Enroth is, assuming Tyler Ennis earns his jersey in training camp, Buffalo's best prospect. Smaller than most goaltenders, he erases that flaw with his technique, quickness, agility, consistency and ability to control an outcome. As someone who's been compared to Lundqvist, Enroth has a detectably terrific glove-hand and posted splendid numbers in the Swedish Elite League, receiving a nomination for top rookie honors in 2008 thanks to his league-leading goals against average and save percentage. He's won 54 games in two years with Portland, displayed his intelligence vividly and matured suddenly. While he lost his first NHL start back in November, his teammates were the source of blame mostly because of a flat showing.
There is a school of thought that he will be used as a trade lure. Regier won't trade Enroth, bank on that - not until he creates an appetite from general managers by casting the netminder into motion. It produces options for tomorrow and the future. Lalime, the encouraging and grand teammate that he is, will be missed if he's not resigned. But this is a business and although the former Ottawa Senator did accomplish goals such as winning his 200th career game and jump-starting a victory versus Pittsburgh that began in a 3-0 deficit, his record was putrid. Errors like this and that are unforgivable for a goaltender and also grounds for dismissal.
To present the Sabres with the peace of mind that they will be in good hands if an injury occurs to Miller, Regier must let Lalime walk away and launch experimentation for Enroth. With one year remaining on his entry level contract, his value can't be uncovered if he's not ushered into the gauntlet. A coach can only resist a lauded prospect for so long.
Out with the old, in with the new.