The 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs are but a week away. As the excitement around the league grows for the tournament to capture the ultimate prize in hockey so does the speculation on how it will all play out. The playoffs are a battle that only the toughest, most focused teams can endure. Winning the Stanley Cup relies on many factors ranging from strong special teams to ultra-physical play to timely goals from unlikely sources.
But the one area that is most important is goaltending.
This is the time of the year when the man between the pipes can become the stuff of legend and carry his team on his back to a championship. Anaheim Ducks fans will forever remember J.S. Giguere carrying the team to within one game of the Stanley Cup back in 2003 and won’t soon forget Jonathan Quick’s dominance two years ago as the Kings captured their first Cup.
As the Ducks gear up for their run this year, one thing remains on the minds of Ducks fans: can Jonas Hiller take us all the way? There is no other player on the Ducks roster worthy of more debate. Hiller has dazzled us many times with highlight reel saves and dominating shutouts but he has also left us frustrated with soft goals on far too many occasions.
Since day one of franchise history the Ducks have been spoiled with goaltenders. Other teams like the Philadelphia Flyers have had a revolving door of starting goalies while the Ducks have had only three: Guy Hebert, J.S. Giguere and Jonas Hiller. That’s fewer than half as many starter goalies than head coaches over the same period.
In the last six years Hiller has put up some good numbers: 162 wins, 21 shutouts, a .916 save percentage, and five seasons with 20 or more wins. On paper, these are great numbers. But the Cup isn’t won on paper. The Cup is won battling for two months every spring. We were tempted by Hiller’s marvelous series against San Jose in 2009. His bizarre illness in 2011 left us with Ray Emery who came up short against Nashville. But if you look at last year’s playoffs against the Red Wings when the Ducks finished second in the West and were poised for a long run, was a telling series for the Swiss netminder.
Many Ducks fans will point to Hiller’s average and unspectacular play as a key factor in losing to Detroit. There were a couple of key injuries – Getzlaf, Beauchemin and Lydman – and Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan had a poor series. Sheldon Souray also picked a bad time to show his age. But if Hiller had been in playoff mode and made the big saves one demands from their goalies in this time of the year, the Ducks would have advanced.
As this season came upon us, Hiller’s future with the Ducks seemed very much in doubt. He is currently in the last year of his four year contract and will become an unrestricted free agent in July. Viktor Fasth received a two year contract extension last season and had the potential to surpass Hiller as starter but injuries caused him to spend almost the entire season on IR. Frederik Andersen won his first three games and also received a two year contract extension before finally surrendering a loss after six wins. The Ducks had two goalies under one-way deals for the next season and Hiller looked like the odd man out.
With Fasth out Bob Murray didn’t seem comfortable trading his long-term starter Hiller and relying on a rookie. Hiller helped his own cause by winning: In the two month span between December and February he won 14 straight starts, a franchise record. Some fans thought this was proof that Hiller deserved an extension but his record has been 6-8-3 since February. Andersen has continued to play well and has started to get consecutive starts until a head injury prevented him from joining the team on their two-game road trip this past weekend. Fate might just be forcing the Ducks to rely on Hiller and prove his worth.
So, what’s the deal with Hiller? The statistics referenced earlier suggests an above-average goaltender. But Hiller has a propensity to lose sight of the puck. All too often Hiller will be oblivious to the location of the puck until it’s too late and it’s in the back of the net. He might also be the worst puck-handling goalie this team has ever had. (Which is saying something since Giguere was no Marty Turco himself). It’s the soft goals that are the most frustrating. When an NHL goalie has a clear view of the puck, he should be able to stop it. On too many occasions we have seen pucks squeezing through Hiller followed by him throwing his head back, as if acknowledging that he should have been able to stop that puck. One is hard pressed to find a single example of a soft goal scored against Anderson this year, although admittedly he has been played significantly less.
With the Ducks having a chance to win the Cup again, do we really want to put our hopes on Hiller? Are we ready to trust a 24 year-old rookie who has never even played in an NHL playoff game? Is it too risky to put Hiller on a short leash just to yank him out at the first sign of trouble?
Anaheim is widely lauded for their goaltending depth. Not only has Frederik Andersen been a revelation but so has John Gibson down with the Norfolk Admirals. The writing on the wall indicates that the future in Anaheim does not include Jonas Hiller. But is the future here already? While I would love to see what Andersen can do in the playoffs, if either he can’t handle the pressure, we have no choice but to go with Hiller. This is a contract year for Jonas and if he was ever going to showcase what he can do to earn a big payday, this is it. Let’s just hope we don’t see him snap his back in anguish too much this spring.
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