Coming into the season, Canada's goaltending situation for the 2014 Winter Olympics looked cloudy at best. With such a star-studded group of forwards and defense, it looked like the team's last line of defense would be its Achilles heel. And it may still be. However, as one looks at the performance of Canada's goaltending group this season, it's hard to wonder if it's really all that much of a problem.
There is no clear favorite to start at this point, but the pool of viable candidates to man Canada's net in Sochi is a deep one. The toughest decisions for Steve Yzerman and Mike Babcock are probably who to trot out as the team's starter and who will be the third goalie.
Looking at the pool, it's hard to see Carey Price and Roberto Luongo left off the team. Those two seem to be playing well enough and have the body of work to suggest either could start and Canada would be in good shape. One of these two will almost definitely be Canada's starter.
Luongo has the edge in experience, having played in each of the past two Olympics and helping Canada win gold in 2010. He has had a very up-and-down year but he has played in these situations more than any other goalie in Canada's group save for Martin Brodeur. There's a big benefit in that.
Price, meanwhile, is having the best season of any of the goaltenders Canada brought to its summer orientation camp and ball hockey extravaganza. He has played well behind a rather shaky Montreal Canadiens club and gives them a chance more nights than not.
So then it comes down to the third goaltender, or the guy who is barely going to see playing time, if at all. That's where the toughest decision probably comes, but if there's anywhere to have that tough of a call, it's probably nice to have it be a position of minimal importance.
Among the candidates are the other goaltenders that were invited to Team Canada's camp. That includes Braden Holtby, Mike Smith and Corey Crawford. Then there's the group that likely played its way into consideration, which includes Marc-Andre Fleury, Brodeur, Jonathan Bernier, James Reimer and Josh Harding.
That's a large group of players fighting for a spot on this team that may be of no consequence, but most players would go in any capacity if asked. With that in mind, here's a look at each candidate listed in a depth-chart format.
1. Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks: The elder statesmen of the strongest group of candidates, Luongo's past few seasons have been rather shaky, but he brings the most national team experience of starter candidates.
The bigger ice surface in Sochi will probably impact the goaltenders more than anyone else. The angles are different, which can impact a goalie's positioning. It's one of the major adjustments goalies have to make on the big ice. Luongo has done it before at the 2006 and '10 Olympics and in numerous world championship events.
Luongo has gotten a lot of work this year with 19 starts already. He has a .914 save percentage, which isn't great held up against some of his competition, but respectable. Of Canada's legitimate candidates, Luongo is the most battle tested, which is why it's going to be tough to bet against him as the team's starter at least heading into the tournament.
2. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens: Long believed to be Canada's goalie of the future, many had the 2014 Olympics as Price's time to take the reins. He just may with the way he has played for the Habs this season. His .935 save percentage is best among candidates invited to Canada's camp. He also has a 2.05 goals-against average.
Price is having the start he needed after a very average season last year. His last Canadian national team experience was a gold-medal effort at the 2007 World Junior Championship, though. With the way he has played this season, he has to be a top candidate to knock Luongo off as starter, if anyone can.
3. Mike Smith, Phoenix Coyotes: The leading scorer among Team Canada goalie candidates this season, Smith has performed adequately while stopping pucks for the Coyotes. Smith has a 12-3-4 record, .915 save percentage and a rather high 2.92 goals-against average. He is seeing more shots on average than he is probably used to since joining the Coyotes, which could be cause for the dip in numbers.
Smith has some recent international experience, having played for Canada at the most recent World Championship, which should help a bit. He performed well enough there in four appearances. He has a bit of a leg up on some of the other competition due to his inclusion in Canada's summer camp, but his status for making the team is far from a sure thing.
4. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins: It's hard to shake the images of Fleury's more recent postseason performances when evaluating his Team Canada prospects. However, Fleury is off to a strong start this year with a .924 save percentage and 1.91 goals-against average. He's still prone to giving up some weak goals, but he has at least played himself into consideration. He was on the 2010 roster, but never saw playing time behind Luongo and Brodeur.
5. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals: With a .923 save percentage, Holtby's numbers look in line with an Olympic candidate, but he has been fairly inconsistent in 18 appearances. It seems Holtby is good for a clunker every several starts, which is a bit of a cause for concern. In his career, Holtby has made one start in a Team Canada jersey, and that was at the 2007 World Under-18 Championship. He doesn't quite have the body of work of some of his competition.
6. Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils: The living legend has shrugged off much of the talk of him being a candidate for the Olympic team, but he has played pretty well for a pretty average New Jersey club. His surprising .915 save percentage and 2.06 goals-against average to go with a 7-3-2 record are notable. If the 41-year-old were to make the team, he would make his fifth Olympics. He was the starter way back in 2002 when Canada broke its gold-medal drought. It's hard to see Canada bringing Brodeur as the No. 3 guy, but who knows.
7. Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks: The most recent Stanley Cup-winning goalie has had a lukewarm start to the season. He has been overworked with appearances in all 21 of Chicago's games, but has a paltry .904 save percentage. You also have to wonder how that heavy workload would wear on Crawford before he even gets to the Olympics. It's something to consider. As an invitee to Canada's camp and with a Stanley Cup title under his belt, he's an obvious candidate, but it's hard to see him making the team at this point.
8. Jonathan Bernier, Toronto Maple Leafs: The offseason acquisition has done well in Toronto while splitting time with James Reimer. With the Maple Leafs getting routinely outshot, he has had to be strong in net. His .935 save percentage and 2.19 goals-against average are rather impressive. Bernier also has some solid international experience and spent the first half of last season playing in Germany, which is helpful. Though a career backup before this year, Bernier would have been a starter for most teams, but is he national team material? His performance suggests yes, but it is a somewhat limited body of work.
9. Steve Mason, Philadelphia Flyers: The way Mason has played this year has to get him at least on the radar. When looking at his entire body of work, however, it's certainly concerning. You really can't take much away from how Mason has played. He has kept the struggling Flyers in a lot of games they probably otherwise shouldn't have been. As a result, Mason has collected a .932 save percentage and 2.12 goals-against average to make that 6-7-2 record look a lot less important. Mason last played for Canada at the 2008 World Juniors, where he backstopped the team to a gold medal.
10. Josh Harding, Minnesota Wild: You can't take anything away from what Harding has done this season. He certainly has the best numbers of any of the Canadian goaltending candidates, but he is a career backup. As good as he has been, it's tough to know how he would handle the Olympics. If he made the team, he probably wouldn't play, but it's hard to leave off players with more experience as a No. 1.
11. James Reimer, Toronto Maple Leafs: Things are going pretty well in net for the Leafs this year, eh? A .942 save percentage and 2.27 goals-against average look nice and Reimer was in that pressure-cooker series with the Bruins last year. He has some recent international experience, too. That said, Reimer has been used like the No. 2 on the Maple Leafs and it's hard to see him overtaking any of the clear starters.