Viktor Fasth’s Strong Play ‘Curse in Disguise’ For Anaheim Ducks?

Viktor Fasth stole’s headlines today after securing his first NHL shutout in a 3-0 victory over the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday night. Fasth stopped 31 shots in a superb performance and his 4-0-0 record and strong play has undoubtedly been a crucial factor for the Anaheim Ducks in a surprisingly strong start that now sees them leading the division. It might seem contradictory to common logic, but the bad news for Ducks fans is that the emergence of Fasth might just be a curse in disguise given the history of Bruce Boudreau’s management of netminders and the likely psyche’s of Fasth and Jonas Hiller.

Few eyebrows were raised when Anaheim announced the signing of Fasth to a one-year deal reportedly worth $1 million last May. Fasth was a two-time Swedish Elite goaltender of the year winner, but most assumed it was just a back-up measure to take a few starts away from incumbent starter Hiller, who had played in 73 games in 2011-12.

Viktor Fasth
(Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

That plan seemed to be in effect when Hiller started four of the first five games. The debut for Viktor Fasth came on January 26 in a back-to-back game, which Anaheim won 3-2. Fasth stopped 19 of 21 shots and out-dueled Pekka Rinne in the shootout. However, the picture has changed in February with Boudreau handing three out of four starts to Fasth, and the Swede is surely the favorite to be back in net against the Dallas Stars on Friday after his shutout performance.

In short, Viktor Fasth has completely outplayed Jonas Hiller so far in the shortened 2013 NHL season. He is 4-0-0 with a .962 save percentage and 0.98 GAA. Hiller is 3-1-1, but his save percentage has never been over .900 in a single game and averages at .871 on the season, while he holds a massive 3.54 GAA. It would be foolish to make long-term judgments about goaltenders based upon short-term statistics, but few can blame Anaheim fans for feeling for favoring the ‘new boy on the block’ in the early stages of the young season.

There are any circumstances where having two strong goaltenders can be incredibly advantageous and would be a fact worth celebrating, but in the case of the Ducks, there is perhaps reason to be a little concerned about this specific situation, even if Fasth’s strong play is beneficial in the short-term.

The first potential problem with the goaltending situation is head coach Bruce Boudreau. The last time that Boudreau coached in the playoffs in 2011, he picked rookie goaltender Michal Neuvirth and ran with him for nine games, including the second round sweep against the Tampa Bay Lightning. However, there’s little doubt that he mismanaged the situation up to that point.

He inherited a situation in 2008-09 where the Capitals had Jose Theodore as a solid veteran backed up by another reasonable veteran in Brent Johnson, and an organisation stacked with young goaltending talent in Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby. There were signs in that first season that Varlamov and Neuvirth were coming through combining for a combined eight starts. Theodore struggled for much of the year (though didn’t receive much defensive help), but Boudreau trusted him with the starting job in Game 1 against the New York Rangers. It lasted only one game though. Stunningly, Boudreau turned to Varlamov as the starter for the next 13 games as Washington battled to within one game of the Eastern conference finals, eventually losing in seven games against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

It seemed only natural that Varlamov would take over the number one goaltending reins to start the 2009-10 season, but Boudreau once again surprised many by turning back to Theodore as the starting netminder. Varlamov would ultimately endure some injury problems during the season and the games started statistic would end up being split three ways: Theodore (43 games started), Varlamov (23 GS) and Neuvirth (16 GS).

None of Boudreau’s three netminders finished with particularly impressive statistics, but Boudreau decided to give Theodore the first start in the first round against the Montreal Canadiens in the 2010 playoffs. Theodore played well in an opening game loss, but was replaced in Game 2 by Varlamov after conceding goals on each of the first two shots. Varlamov would start the remaining five games of the series as they were shocked in the first round.

The starting job would be up in the air again in 2010-11 as Neuvirth, Varlamov and Holtby all inter-changed starts. It’s not Boudreau’s fault that he had a group of young goaltenders, all of whom needed some more time to develop, but there’s little doubt that he simply failed to establish the situation in Washington’s crease in three straight seasons. This doesn’t mean that Boudreau won’t be able to manage the situation with Viktor Fasth, but if he believes that he has a playoff team (and he has good reason to), then he needs to make sure that he manages this situation and has a clear picture between the pipes sorted before the start of the 2013 NHL playoffs.

The second biggest problem could be the particulars of this situation and the psyche of these two goaltenders. Viktor Fasth enters this league as a two-time Swedish Elite goaltender of the year with something to prove. Fasth is trying to join the likes of Niklas Backstrom, Tim Thomas and Cristobal Huet as goaltenders establishing themselves as NHL talent later in their careers. Fasth has a one-year contract and a shortened season is possibly the perfect opportunity for the 30-year old, who is used to playing in the shorter European schedule.

Hiller is at a similar age to Fasth, but at a very different point in his career. He has two years left on a $4.5 million per year contract and had what looked set to be a superb 2010-11 season derailed by vertigo issues. He played 73 games last season, but he struggled for consistency, and he hasn’t made an especially strong start to the 2013 NHL season. There hasn’t been a lot of commentary from Hiller on this issue, but it’s hard to imagine that he isn’t a little bit surprised, maybe even shocked by the situation that he finds himself in.

Two goaltenders competing and battling early in the season is not a serious situation, especially since it is definitely helping Anaheim to pick up important short-term victories. However, the Ducks will have to have some concerns about a potentially complicated situation getting out of hand and coming back to cause this team concerns in the postseason. The success of Viktor Fasth is helping to propel the Ducks early success, but his success might just be disrupting what was a settled situation in Anaheim’s net.