Goaltender Injuries Shed Light on Panthers Prospect Pool

Goaltender injuries are unique. No other position in hockey has such a significant impact if a team’s number one goes down. Sure, losing your top center or best defenseman to injury is a tough pill to swallow for any franchise, but few affect a team as much as losing your number one goalie. Just ask the Montreal Canadiens, who likely would have reached the Stanley Cup finals last season had it not been for Carey Price going down with a knee injury following a collision with New York Rangers forward Chris Kreider in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Without your main backstop, a team is handcuffed, and although the NHL is filled with more-than-capable backups, every team feels the hit if their top guy goes down. The good news for most of the league is that goaltender injuries are a rare occurrence. If a goaltender does happen to leave a game with an injury, there’s always a backup on the bench ready to step in and fill the role. If said injury is a little more serious than expected, teams usually have a day or two to call another keeper up from one of their minor league affiliates to fill the roster spot while the backup becomes the new starter. Very rarely do both goalies go down in one game. When I say very rarely, essentially, what I’m really saying is never. It never happens. Well, at least, I thought. But as the common cliché goes, “never say never”, as just that happened early last week to the Florida Panthers.

How Did It All Go Down?

The eyes of the hockey world focused their gaze on Sunrise, Florida as the Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon and company scrambled to find a replacement goaltender. Here’s a video breakdown:

Backup goalie Al Montoya stepped in between the pipes after Panthers starter Roberto Luongo left the game at the end of the 1st period following a shot off of his right shoulder from Toronto Maple Leafs winger Leo Komarov. Fast forward to the 3rd period and Montoya is injured after colliding with Leafs forward Nazem Kadri as he scored his 16th goal of the season off a friendly bounce from the end boards.  The contact was completely incidental, but Montoya was obviously in some serious discomfort. He teased going to the locker room but then returned to the net after some deliberation between the coaches, players and management. Panthers center Derek MacKenzie actually spoke with head coach Gerard Gallant and was told to get dressed in goalie gear in case Montoya couldn’t go. Eventually,

(Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports)
(Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports)

Roberto Luongo arrived ala a super hero just in time to save the day. Unfortunately by then, Montoya (in obvious pain) surrendered the go-ahead goal to the Leafs that became the eventual game winner. Not many knew this at the time outside of the Panthers coaching staff and management, but Luongo actually came back from the hospital after being evaluated for his shoulder injury.

As the minutes ticked by, it became more and more likely that we would see either a Panthers forward playing net for the remainder of the game, or their goalie coach Rob Tallas (who last saw professional action 10 years ago in Austria) stepping in as a replacement. If you weren’t paying attention during this game, well, social media collectively lost their marbles with the potential scenario….

As fun as this may have been for the hockey world, the Panthers lost a crucial game in the middle of a playoff race to a team they really had no business losing to at this point in the season. Some may blame the continued anemic offense for being unable to tie it up against one of the worst defensive teams in the NHL. You can’t really fault the keepers, especially considering Roberto Luongo came back from the hospital to fill in for an obviously injured Al Montoya (who is now out 2-4 weeks with a groin strain). One thing that this extremely rare occurrence sheds light on is the lack of depth the Panthers have at the goaltender position.

Who’s In the System?

Behind Montoya and Luongo on the depth chart is Dan Ellis. Ellis has surprisingly played well in his two outings with the Panthers following the injuries, but the journeyman is no permanent solution for the franchise in the future. In 2013 the Cats drafted NCAA keeper Evan Cowley 92nd overall and in 2014

Dan Ellis
Dan Ellis has filled in for the Panthers after both goaltenders went down with injuries (Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)

they selected Swedish tender Hugo Fagerblom 182nd overall. Both are still playing in their respective leagues and have yet to make the jump to the pro level. Behind Ellis in the American Hockey League is undrafted keeper Michael Houser. Neither of these prospects is expected to make any significant impact at the NHL level. One thing to consider is that Roberto Luongo turns 36 years of age in less than a month, and although he still looks great on the ice, the team cannot expect more than a few more seasons out of the all-star netminder. With that in mind, it’s important to realize that the Panthers may have a monstrous hole to fill in a couple seasons.

There was a time when the Panthers possessed the best goaltending prospect not currently in the NHL. Jacob Markstrom was the 31st overall selection in the 2008 NHL Entry. For years after being drafted the expectations were high for the young Swedish goaltender. He eventually made the jump across the pond during the 2010-11 season. After struggling in his first season in North America, Markstrom found his groove and posted back-to-back seasons of .920+ save percentages in the AHL. He shined in a 7-game segment with the big club in 2011-12, but after a few knee injuries and less-than-stellar stints in the NHL, Markstrom was sent to the Vancouver Canucks as part of the trade that brought Roberto Luongo back to the Panthers after 8 years, leading to the hole they currently have in their system at the goaltending position.

What Can They Do?

The good news for the Florida Panthers is that goalies are probably the hardest position to predict in terms of success when it comes to prospects. Often, late round selections/undrafted keepers find success at professional levels. Unfortunately, the cupboard is somewhat thin. Dale Tallon needs to recognize that in five years, the chances of Luongo still minding the net (and being as effective as he is today) are slim. Sometimes you can find goaltenders via free agency or trade (think Jaroslav Halak for the New York Islanders and to a lesser extent Jonas Hiller in Calgary), but the only way to solidify that position is through the draft. Go for a few keepers in the next couple of drafts and fill your stock with quality potential. One day, Roberto Luongo will retire as the most successful Panthers goaltender in the franchise’s history. This is a guarantee. Who replaces him is not. General Manager Dale Tallon will need to find the “starter of the future”, and should begin in this year’s draft.