There’s no questioning the notion that making the NHL is insanely difficult. Talent, desire, and work ethic all need to be mixed together into the right prescriptions for a player to even have a chance to make the NHL. Once they have all of those qualities, then they need the opportunity to show their team (and the world) that they have what it takes to play on the world’s largest stage. World class talent, the desire to be the best, work ethic to improve, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to prove their worth. That’s what it takes to make it.
What happens when a player makes it to the NHL though? Some players are blessed to succeed from the very start. It’s only these chosen few that have to deal with another aspect of hockey that could be the most difficult of them all: Complacency.
We all experience complacency at some point in our lives. Maybe it’s when we get to that point where we’re completely comfortable in our career and we don’t push to climb the corporate ladder anymore. Maybe we’re in a relationship and we don’t put work into it like we did when it was fresh and new. Sometimes it’s with our families when we’re not as quick to pick up the phone and call our parents when we used to put in the effort. The fact of the matter is that we all fall into that trap at some point—and we’re constantly trying to avoid it.
Think about the mental game a player must deal with when they are successful in their very first season. Throughout their entire lives, they’re told, “It’s only going to get harder.” So they work and they work. At each level, they work to improve because they know it’s only going to get harder. Finally they reach the final step: The NHL. Instead of it getting harder like everyone tells them it will, they do whatever they want and produce like they always have. This is it – and it doesn’t seem all that hard!
Here’s the classic problem—early success. As an organization, management probably wants their young prospects to deal with a little adversity so they can see how they deal with it. What will happen when things don’t come as easy as they always did? What happens when a young sniper doesn’t score a goal for 3 weeks? What happens when that hotshot goaltender has a few games where they give up 6 goals on 21 shots?
The problem when there’s early success is that players have a tendency to think it will always be this easy. They forget about all of the hard work and dedication it took to get to that point and many times will come back with a little less focus and commitment.
The players that deal with these situations go by many names. Bust; Overrated; Flop; and the dreaded “Sophomore slump.”
Each and every year, we see players who were wildly successful fall flat on their face in their 2nd season. Last year, Steve Mason put his name in the hat for “Biggest Disappointment,” and didn’t receive much competition. The 2009 Calder Trophy winner followed up his stellar 1st season with one that helped lead the Columbus Blue Jackets to the 2nd worst record in the Western Conference.
Unfortunately for the Blue Jackets, goaltending is a position that has seen its fair share of sophomore slumps. And sometimes, that slump extends towards the rest of the young player’s career. I do not doubt the fact that Mason is a very good goaltender. We’ve just seen rookies between the pipes look amazing, only to peak way too soon. If you don’t believe me, ask Jim Carey, Andrew Raycroft, and possibly even Steve Mason.
On that note, there were two netminders who had spectacular rookie seasons. Tuukka Rask was one of the best goaltenders in the league, while Jimmy Howard’s performance landed the Red Wings into the playoffs and himself onto plenty of Calder ballots. But history tells us that rookies have a hard time following up their 1st year success. So which of these players is more likely to struggle next season?
(Note: We’re excluding Antti Niemi because we have no idea where he’ll end up this off-season.)
Tuukka Rask had a spectacular year last year. His 1.97 GAA and .931 save percentage were both the best in the NHL. So why would we say that he could be in danger of having a down year? Well, let’s be real—there’s no where to go but down. In fact, Rask has never had those kind of numbers at any level in his entire career. It might be asking a bit much to have him repeat those career bests in the most difficult league in the world.
For the record, I like Tuukka Rask a LOT as a goaltender. I love the way the Bruins took their time with him and loved his game last year. But take a step back and look at what he’s going to have to deal with this season. First, he’s going to have to deal with the loss of one of the top 4 defensemen in front of him in Dennis Wideman. I know it’s cool to talk about how badly Wideman sucked last year (and he did have his share of mental lapses), but the fact of the matter is that he ate up a ton of minutes and wasn’t quite as bad as some fans portrayed him. Unfortunately for him, his mistakes tended to be noticeable ones out in the open.
Secondly, Rask is going to have to bounce back from the Bruins’ 3-0 collapse in the Eastern Semis against the Flyers last year. We talk about how much goaltending is a mental game—and dealing with the 2nd year slump is mental, as well. He’s going to have to answer those questions quickly or the question marks will start to pop up more frequently.
Lastly, if he’s going to truly take over the #1 role in Boston, he’s going to play in more than 45 games. It’s one thing to perform when playing in half of those games, it’s another when you get up into the 60-65 game level. Then again, if he doesn’t get off to a good start, Tim Thomas and his huge contract will be waiting in the wings to replace him as the starting netminder.
Some people had a hard time even calling 26-year-old Jimmy Howard a rookie last season. The Red Wings made sure the former University of Maine netminder didn’t take the fast-track to the NHL. After being drafted in 2003, he played two more seasons in college before playing the majority of the next FOUR seasons with the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL. Each and every year, Howard had good numbers in the AHL, while tested veteran netminders helped lead Detroit deep into the playoffs. But with a Chris Osgood injury early in the 2009-10 season, it was finally time for Howard to show that the organization’s faith in him was warranted.
In 63 games he had a spectacular 2.26 goals against average and .924 save percentage. Both numbers put him in the top 5 in the league with the likes of Ryan Miller, Tomas Vokoun, and Evgeni Nabokov. Not bad company for a guy people were starting to doubt would fulfill that potential before the season began.
But now that the bar has been set, will he be able to continue performing at an all-star level?
Howard’s critics will tell you the key to his success last season was the team he played behind. Luckily for Howard, the all-world defensive corps that still includes Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Brad Stuart, and Nik Kronwall isn’t going anywhere. The flip side to that is the aging blueline will be yet another year older. He might not be losing anyone like Rask, but he might want some new blood at some point.
I’m not the only one wondering about the age in front of Howard:
“…but will the natural erosion of aging bring Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski down a level? If they drop quite a bit, Howard might be in trouble.” –James O’Brien (Pro Hockey Talk)
Another thing to consider when comparing the two netminders is that Rask is the goaltender who is SUPPOSED to be better. Howard is the goaltender who took 6 years to get to the NHL and has another young prospect banging on the door behind him in Thomas McCollum. On the other hand, Rask is a 1st round pick and is universally regarded as the goaltender of the future in Boston.
History tells us that some goaltenders make it and some surprise us and flop. So which category will these young goaltenders fall into? If one was going to succeed and one was going to fail, what do you see coming? I’m sure the Bruins and Red Wings are just as curious as you are.