As the summer starts to wind down and the players start to trickle back into the area to prepare for training camp, after the jump I've decided to outline for you today what I believe will be the biggest battle to keep an eye on as things unfold at training camp next month.
The Competitors: Mark Dekanich, Chet Pickard, and Anders Lindback
The Reward: Winner gets NHL backup job to start the season while the others head to Milwaukee (AHL)
With Pekka Rinne getting a contract extension late last season, it all but assured Dan Ellis would leave this summer as a free agent to pursue another opportunity and open up a spot at the NHL level for a goaltender. Despite having a couple of veteran free agents still on the market as camp approaches, it looks more and more likely that Predators GM David Poile is satisfied with the prospect depth at the position and will try to utilize that depth to fill the need.
Signed to a one-year extension earlier this week, Mark Dekanich is the senior member of the group at age 24. Having been drafted in the fifth round of the 2006 draft, Dekanich played four seasons of collegiate hockey at Colgate University (NCAA - ECAC) before turning pro for the 2008-09 season and heading to Milwaukee (AHL) where he has spent the past two seasons outside of a weekend in Cincinnati (ECHL) last season.
Statistically speaking Dekanich has been a very steady performer since becoming the starter at Colgate at the beginning of his sophomore year. In three seasons as the starter, Dekanich compiled a 51-44-16 (W-L-T) record in 113 games to go along with a 2.26 goals-against average (GAA) and .924% save percentage (SV%) . Upon turning pro, Dekanich has maintained his consistent numbers accumulating a 42-26-6 (W-L-SOL) record in 77 games during his two seasons with the Admirals and a tidy 2.21 GAA and .919 SV%.
Then why is Dekanich not locked into the No. 2 role with those statistics? The answer is simple, consistency.
"But Seth, how can you classify Dekanich's numbers as steady, yet say he isn't consistent?"
That's a good question my friends. While Mark has put up consistent year-end numbers, it is his lack of game-to-game consistency especially last season that has this as a wide open battle and needing him to prove himself once again at camp this season.
Last year in his first season as the starter in Milwaukee, Dekanich struggled from game to game with consistency issues. Despite recording 4 shutouts along the way, his play was so inconsistent that it actually lead the team to demote him to Cincinnati (ECHL) for a weekend as a major wake-up call. Thankfully, Dekanich took the demotion positively and allowed 1 goal in two games en route to Player of the Week honors and a recall. The trip seemed to serve it's purpose and Dekanich regained some of his confidence, but at the end of the season the question still lingers, "can Dekanich be consistent enough to be effective at the NHL level as a backup?"
Chet Pickard enters camp as the least likely to start the year as Pekka Rinne's backup due to his age (20) and experience level, but can't be ruled out of the equation simply due to the fact that if he outplays the others...he'll get the spot on opening night. The Predators second pick (1st round, 18th overall) in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, Pickard is the currently touted as the goalie of the future for the franchise.
After apprenticing for two seasons with the Tri-City Americans (WHL) behind Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, Pickard shined as the team's starter during the 2007-08 campaign posting a 46-12-4 record with a 2.32 GAA and .918 SV% leading the team to the the regular season division title and the Western Conference finals. For his efforts, Pickard was recognized with Top Goaltender of the Year awards for both the Western Hockey League (WHL) and Canadian Hockey League (CHL). Pickard followed up on his breakout season with another solid year in his final season for the Americans posting a 35-12-3 record with a franchise single-season record 2.28 GAA and .921 SV% during the 2008-09 season. During the year, Pickard also won a gold medal as part of Team Canada at the 2009 World Junior Championships where he saw action in two games playing behind Dustin Tokarski (Tampa Bay) in the tournament.
In his first season of professional hockey, Pickard was assigned to Milwaukee out of training camp last season where he spent most of the year as the backup goaltender. However, around mid-season with Dekanich struggling to find consistency, Pickard was given the opportunity to supplant Dekanich as the starting netminder. Unfortunately, Chet wasn't able to secure the job himself due to consistency issues of his own and Pickard split the majority of the remaining starts finishing the season with a 14-16-3 record, 2.85 GAA, and .892 SV%.
This summer Pickard returned to the annual Predators Prospect Conditioning and Evaluation Camp in July and turned heads once again with his solid base of natural talent and ability. Pickard is known for his competitive spirit and never-ending quest to improve, therefore while he struggled at times last year as a rookie...he cannot be counted out for the No. 2 spot in Nashville during this season's training camp although it might be best for him to spend the year as the starting goalie in Milwaukee as he continues his development for the long-term.
The tallest goalie ever drafted by the Predators standing at 6'6" without skates on, Swedish netminder Anders Lindback is commonly compared to Predators starter Pekka Rinne (6'5" tall) due to his size and draft story.
Like Rinne was during his draft year in Finland, Lindback was stuck in Sweden behind veteran depth and another rising prospect in the form of Florida Panthers goalie Jacob Markstrom before asking to be demoted from the Brynas Gavle (SEL) program in the 2007-08 season to get playing time with the Almtuna IS (SWE-1) program in a lower division. Lindback shined with Almtuna and was invited to the 2008 World Junior Championships with Sweden where he posted a .915 SV% in two games. That summer, Lindback was selected by the Predators in the seventh round with 207th pick of the NHL Entry Draft and learned that he had been promoted back to Brynas Gavle for the 2008-09 season where he would split time with and eventually take over the starting role from the highly touted Markstrom. Lindback finished the year with a 2.57 GAA and .916 SV% in 24 games. Additionally, Lindback got the start in all four post-season games for Brynas Gavle posting a 2.37 GAA and .916 SV%.
During the summer, Lindback came to his first prospect camp with the Predators where he received instruction from Mitch Korn and simply wowed fans with his size and raw skill over the course of the week. Lindback also received a great opportunity to start the 2009-10 season as the No. 1 goalie for the Timra IK (SEL) hockey club after splitting time the past few years. With the increased role, Anders opened many eyes to his talent playing in 42 games for the Red Eagles carrying the team into the playoffs with a 2.46 GAA and .913 SV%. In the playoffs, Lindback started all five games for Timra IK posting a 2.94 GAA and .910 SV%. After being eliminated from the playoffs, Anders was called upon by his country to represent Sweden during the 2010 IIHF World Championships where he saw action in one game and received a Bronze medal as the third part of a goaltending trio with Toronto Maple Leafs starter Jonas Gustavsson and Markstrom.
In July, Lindback returned to Nashville for his second prospect camp after signing a two-year entry level contract with the Predators in May and declaring his intentions to play the 2010-11 season in North America. Lindback arrived to camp to find that Reebok could only provide him with leg pads two inches too short, but again impressed as a goalie with very quick reflexes to go along with a huge frame that takes up almost all of the net. Anders did however struggle throughout the entire camp with allowing goals high to the glove side. This is definitely an area of concern and something that must be corrected before stepping onto NHL ice.
The situation will play itself out in camp based on performance. With all three goalies being waiver exempt this season, there will likely be a lot of movement rotating goalies through the system to make sure that each gets ample playing time to continue their development...however, where do they all start?
My thought on this is that if all three goalies play evenly throughout training camp that Dekanich gets the nod to start the year as Rinne's backup due to his experience with Pickard moving into the No. 1 role in Milwaukee, but splitting time with Lindback, who could also rotate with Jeremy Smith (another prospect needing a spot) as the starter in Cincinnati.
However, what I would honestly like to see is Lindback win the backup role out of training camp and be given the opportunity to learn behind Rinne in Nashville to start the year due to their similar stature and playing styles. In this scenario Dekanich and Pickard would split starts with the Admirals until one is rotated with Lindback later in the year to insure that all get a fair amount of playing time.
What happens is anyone's guess, but this is likely the best opportunity for Mark Dekanich to prove himself at the NHL level with this organization before being surpassed by the talented youth moving up the depth chart. Lindback is at the start of his North American pro career and will be looking to continue to build on his development over the past couple of seasons and establish himself as a legitimate starting goalie prospect and Pickard will simply be looking to improve on his rookie year and continue his development this season in a fashion that retains his position as the "goalie of the future" for the organization, a position he will likely see a lot of competition for over the next few years.
While it might seem the Predators are loaded with goaltending prospects with simply the three listed above, Jeremy Smith (2007 2nd round, 54th overall) and Atte Engren (2007 7th round, 204th overall) are also chomping at the bit waiting for opportunities to move up the depth charts as well.
Smith (3rd goalie from the left in the picture above) struggled in his final year of juniors in the 2008-09 season and was assigned to Cincinnati (ECHL) at the end of training camp last year where he split his rookie season with Robert Mayer (Montreal property) and helped lead the Cyclones to the 2010 Kelly Cup Championship, being named playoff co-MVP along the way. Smith played well in this summer's prospect camp and honestly deserves a promotion to the AHL this season, but honestly that opportunity will likely only come this season in the form of a platoon AHL back-up/ECHL starter situation unless he is loaned outright to another AHL club.
Engren, like Lindback, also attended his first prospect camp with the Predators during the summer of 2009, where he was arguably the best goalie throughout the week showing his refined skill set and quick glove hand until the final session of the camp when he struggled after straining his calf muscle during the morning dryland activities. Atte rebounded in style upon returning to Finland for the 2009-10 season putting up a 2.63 GAA and .920 SV% in 35 regular season games for TPS before capping off the year by winning the SM-liiga playoff championship with a 7-1 record, 1.82 GAA and .935 SV% in the playoffs en route to being awarded as the SM-liiga Top Goaltender and Playoff MVP for the 2009-10 season. The Predators signed Engren in late May to a two-year entry level contract and promptly announced that he would be returned to TPS for the 2010-11 season.
Despite not taking a goaltender in either the 2009 or 2010 NHL Entry Drafts, David Poile has made sure that the pipeline is stocked with quality prospects all fighting for a spot in the organization. It is due to that competition that I believe we will continue to see very fierce battles for playing time over the next few seasons and that can only be considered a good thing for the Predators moving forward...