We've officially made it to a month in which real, honest-to-goodness hockey is going to be played. The World Cup of Hockey is a mere 16 days away from dropping the puck in Toronto and so continues our preview coverage leading up to the tournament.
Today, we focus on the goaltending trios for each team. In coming up with a ranking, it is pretty clear that the U.S. and Canada are in a tier higher than everyone else in terms of depth. However, goaltending isn't going to be a huge concern for any team. After the top two, it gets a lot more bunched up in terms of quality. Most teams will have multiple options for their No. 1 goalie, which is going to make for some interesting pre-tournament goaltending controversies. There's a lot of talent here.
Here's a look at the top goaltending trios heading into the World Cup:
Roster: Corey Crawford, Braden Holtby, Carey Price
Breakdown: A lot of this ranking hinges on Carey Price's health and effectiveness after such a long layoff. He is expected to get the net and help Canada win another world title just as he did during the Sochi Olympics.
Price hasn't played a live game since Nov. 25, though, and he'll be jumping into a tournament with the intensity and speed of the Stanley Cup Playoffs right away. If he's not as ready as he or Team Canada hopes, their safety net is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, Braden Holtby. The Washington Capitals No. 1 goalie also has sparkling postseason numbers to hang his hat on, proving he's ready for the intensity and pressure this tournament will bring.
Then their No. 3 goalie is a guy with two Stanley Cups on his resume already. Additionally, Corey Crawford had a .924 save percentage in each of the last two seasons. Canada should be fine between the pipes with or without Price at 100 percent readiness.
Roster: Ben Bishop, Jonathan Quick, Cory Shneider
Breakdown: Price's long layoff very nearly led me to slot the U.S. ahead of Canada here. The depth is the really impressive thing. The question is who does John Tortorella pick as his No. 1? He could go with Quick, the two-time Stanley Cup winner and USA's No. 1 at the Sochi Olympics. However, Bishop and Schneider have both put up better numbers over the more recent sample for evaluation.
Bishop is a two-time Vezina finalist and posted a .926 save percentage last season. He also has been excellent in two deep playoff runs by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Injury prevented him from playing beyond Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals last year, but he was excellent before that. Meanwhile, Schneider may be one of the most underrated No. 1 goalies in the league. Since 2011-12, Shneider has the highest save percentage (.926) among goalies with at least 100 starts. The only downside is a lack of postseason experience with six playoff starts under his belt.
Quick obviously has the big-game reputation, which will be a factor in Tortorella's decision, but he struggled mightily during Los Angeles' first-round exit last year. Does that tip the scales towards one of the other guys?
Roster: Sergei Bobrovsky, Semyon Varlamov, Andrei Vasilevskiy
Breakdown: This is where the rankings get tricky. Russia gets the edge here for overall depth compared to Sweden and Finland. It's really tight, though.
Bobrovsky had a terrible season last year, which makes him a shaky candidate for No. 1, but he was quite good for Russia at the most recent World Championship. Varlamov has experience and was probably the best of the three during the regular season last year, but young Vasilevskiy has been good every time he's put on a Russia jersey.
Called into action after the Lightning lost Bishop in the Eastern Conference Final, Vasilevskiy almost single-handedly kept Tampa alive in that series. The 22-year-old saw a lot of pucks over eight postseason appearances and never looked rattled while posting a .925 save percentage.
On top of that, we've seen Bobrovsky and Varlamov steal games on their own in the past. You just need two good weeks out of a goalie to make this work and Russia has three pretty good options here, with safety nets if the initial pick doesn't work.
Roster: Jhonas Enroth, Henrik Lundqvist, Jacob Markstrom
Breakdown: We know Henrik Lundqvist can win games if Sweden needs him to. Having lost Robin Lehner to injury, the Swedes have only one true No. 1 on this team. He just so happens to be one of the best, if not the best goalie of his own era. That said, the lack of depth at the position is why Sweden drops a spot.
With the best defensive corps of the tournament in front of him, Lundqvist is a tremendous last line of defense for this team. Despite a rough go in the playoffs last season, his overall body of work and career .921 save percentage leaves little concern. If he performs up to his career standards, Sweden has a real shot to win this thing.
They just need to make sure he stays healthy.
Roster: Mikko Koskinen, Pekka Rinne, Tuukka Rask
Breakdown: Finland has long been a bastion for goaltenders, but we're reaching a leaner period for the national team.
Rask looks to be the clear-cut No. 1 on this roster. He's coming off of a down year and has been kind of trending down, but he's trending down from winning the Vezina two years ago. He's had a high bar to live up to. Meanwhile, Pekka Rinne had a particularly poor year and only had brief flashes of his old self during Nashville's playoff run last year. It was a surprise drop-off after a strong 2014-15 season before it, so he should still manage to get some games here.
Koskinen is a bit of a wild card, but he was incredible during last year's World Championship and is off to a good start in the KHL with SKA St. Peterburg.
6. Czech Republic
Roster: Petr Mrazek, Michal Neuvirth, Ondrej Pavelec
Breakdown: Consistency is the key for the Czech goalies. No one is expecting this team to do much in the tournament, but if goaltending is strong enough they can at least put a scare into the teams in their group.
Mrazek was mostly good for the Red Wings last year with a .921 save percentage over the full season. He's also performed well when he's had the chance to play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs (.931 save percentage in 10 postseason starts).
Meanwhile, Neuvirth is coming off of the best season of his career, with a .924 save percentage in 34 appearances with the Flyers. He also shined brightly in his three playoff starts last year, during which he allowed only two goals on 105 shots.
Pavelec is there for depth, but it's fair to say he's Plan C, if the other two falter.
7. Team North America
Roster: John Gibson, Connor Hellebuyck, Matt Murray
Breakdown: When Matt Murray was named to this team, he was not yet, Stanley Cup winner Matt Murray. His incredible performance through 13 regular-season starts and then backstopping the Pittsburgh Penguins to another title likely gives him the No. 1 job.
Then you've got two really strong young Americans in John Gibson, who won out in the battle with Frederik Andersen to be Anaheim's No. 1 goalie of the present and future. Meanwhile, Connor Hellebuyck is a name most fans don't know yet, but soon will. He spent most of the last two years in the AHL, but should be Winnipeg's No. 1 sooner than later.
They're inexperienced compared to the field, but these guys will not be weak links for North America.
8. Team Europe
Roster: Frederik Andersen, Thomas Greiss, Jaroslav Halak
Breakdown: While this trio may rank eighth on this list, goaltending isn't going to be a huge concern for Europe. All three are capable of being the No. 1 if needed.
Andersen is the new top goalie for Toronto and probably has the best shot at starting for Europe. He had a .919 save percentage for Anaheim last year and did his level best to get them out of the first round of the playoffs with a solid postseason performance. Consistency has been an issue throughout his young career, however.
Meanwhile, this team has both Islanders goalies. Greiss had an unexpectedly phenomenal year while appearing in 41 games and ending up as the Isles postseason goalie. He had a .925 save percentage in the regular season and a .923 mark in the playoffs. Then there's Halak, who is the most experienced starter of the three.