Goaltending is massively important to determining which teams win and lose in the NHL, yet it's incredibly difficult to predict.
Even if you expect regression to take place, bringing down the highest highs and raising the lowest lows, there are still seasons that seem to come out of nowhere, either good or bad.
Anyway, I've taken a look at the goaltending situation, for all 30 teams, to this point in the season.
When the season began, it looked as though Jonas Hiller would be hard-pressed to split time with Viktor Fasth in the Ducks' net, but that's not how the season has played out, at all.
Hiller, who is slated to become an unrestricted free agent at season's end and could have been a viable trade chip under different circumstances, has been a solid, if not spectacular presence in net for Anaheim, posting a .914 save percentage.
Fasth, on the other hand, hasn't played since suffering a lower-body injury November 18. He appears to be nearing a return but, having played only five games this season, it would be shocking for the Ducks to turn to Fasth as the starter down the stretch and into the postseason. If he plays great, perhaps he can take the job, but there's not a great deal of time left to make that .
In Fasth's absence, 24-year-old Danish rookie Frederik Andersen has established his credentials an NHL goaltender, posting a .933 save percentage in 16 games. The interesting part for the Ducks, at least theoretically, is whether they would be comfortable going with Andersen and/or Fasth down the stretch, allowing them to still market Hiller, but contending teams tend not to clear out their starting goaltenders unless making an obvious upgrade. Well, that and Ducks GM Bob Murray has made it clear that Hiller's not going anywhere.
That leaves Andersen ticketed for the AHL, where top prospect John Gibson has been handling the starter's workload, when Fasth is ready to return.
The Bruins' situation in net is very clearly defined. Even with a slight slump recently, 26-year-old Tuukka Rask has a .930 save percentage and his .928 save percentage since 2009-2010 ranks as the best among goaltenders with at least 150 games played.
A positive development for the Bruins has been that 27-year-old Chad Johnson, who had played 10 NHL games prior to this season, has fared well in the backup role, with a .918 save percentage in 14 appearances. He's not a threat to Rask's playing time and is solid enough when given the chance to play.
A pending unrestricted free agent, 33-year-old Ryan Miller has been the Sabres' starting goaltender since 2005-2006 and while Buffalo is struggling this season, Miller is having one of his best years; his .926 save percentage is a career-best, behind only 2009-2010 when he won the Vezina Trophy as league's top goaltender. Considering his age and contract status, Miller is a prime candidate to be moved, which will shake up the goaltending on two teams -- Miller's new team as well as the Sabres, who will need a replacement.
Jhonas Enroth, the 25-year-old backup, might benefit immediately should Miller move on, but Enroth's track record, which included a respectable .912 save percentage in 70 career games, isn't enough to think that he's the inevitable heir apparent.
That could open the door for an external candidate (potentially in the summer) or prospect Matt Hackett, though Hackett currently has a career-low .906 save percentage in the AHL.
Few teams are as questionable in goal as the Flames. Karri Ramo came over from the KHL, where he had been very good for four seasons, and he struggled early, posting an .890 save percentage through the end of November. It's been better since -- .913 in 17 games since the beginning of December -- maybe enough to warrant NHL employment as a backup, but hardly anything to assure a future starting spot for the 27-year-old.
27-year-old Reto Berra had an okay run for seven games in December, but has been subpar otherwise, with an .893 save percentage an indication that he's not ready for more responsibility.
If any team needs a goaltending upgrade, it's the Flames and, with a new general manager, there isn't any loyalty due to those in-house. However, if the Flames are positioning for a draft pick -- and, by all rights, they should be -- there is no need to worry about that upgrade until the summer.
Injuries have been a problem for 29-year-old Cam Ward, limiting him to 36, of a possible 101, games over the past two (partial) seasons. Not only that, but Ward hasn't played particularly well when he has been in the lineup. Among goaltender to play at least 30 games since the start of last season, Ward's .901 save percentage ranks 41st out of 46.
Ward's inconsistency and injuries present opportunities for others. Anton Khudobin (who ranks eighth on that same list of 46 goaltenders) has been very good for Carolina and the 27-year-old could be in line to handle more work, but he's played a career-high 16 NHL games this season, and has played a total of 37 games in his career, so it's not easy to hand the reins over to him.
The pleasant surprise for the Hurricanes, when Ward and Khudobin were injured earlier in the season, was the play of 27-year-old Justin Peters, who struggled last year, but has a .919 save percentage in a career-high 21 games this year. Peters will be an unrestricted free agent in the summer, which could make him a trade candidate, though his uneven track record (.904 save percentage in 68 career games) will limit the potential return.
Last season's Stanley Cup win gives Corey Crawford a measure of job security, which is good for him because he's missed time due to injury and hias .911 save percentage isn't anywhere near last season's .926 mark. Crawford has played well enough since returning from injury (.918 save percentage in January), but the Blackhawks have struggled as a whole this month.
Crawford was supposed to have veteran Nikolai Khabibulin as his backup this year, but Khabibulin has played just four games and is out for the year following shoulder surgery. The injuries suffered by Crawford and Khabibulin created an opportunity for 24-year-old Finnish rookie Antti Raanta, who played pretty well through the end of December, but his numbers have slipped over his past four starts.
In any case, the Blackhawks are a team with a stable position in net. Crawford starts, with Raanta on hand for spot starts.
Sure, the Avalanche have a great crop of forwards and that talent is impressive, but if there is a single reason for their dramatic improvement over last season, it's likely on the shoulders of goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who has a career-best .925 save percentage, up from a career-low .903 last year. With early-season legal troubles seemingly behind him, Varlamov has performed at an above average level, even after his spectacular start (.945 save percentage in October).
Veteran Jean-Sebastien Giguere started the year at an outrageous level, posting a .949 save percentage through the end of November, but he's dipped since, with an .857 save percentage in his past six outings.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
It would have been unfair to expect 25-year-old Sergei Bobrovsky to duplicate last year's Vezina-Trophy-winning season, when he posted a .932 save percentage, but Bobrovsky slumped in November before getting hurt. Fortunately, for the Blue Jackets, Bobrovsky has been great since coming off the injured list, with a .925 save percentage in January, so he's re-establishing his credentials as a top puckstopper.
When Bobrovsky was out, Curtis McElhinney was pressed into more action and has played 22 games already, the second-highest total of his NHL career. 30-year-old McElhinney has a .908 save percentage on the year, which is respectable enough for a bargain backup goaltender.
A January swoon has knocked Kari Lehtonen's numbers (.915 save percentage) down to an average level, but Lehtonen's track record is pretty strong. Among goaltenders that handle the heaviest workload, Lehtonen ranks seventh with a .917 save percentage (minimum 180 games) over the past four seasons.
Dan Ellis has struggled in the backup role, with an .898 save percentage this season (after .906 in Carolina last year), but is fine, and relatively inexpensive, in the role.
DETROIT RED WINGS
It's been a tough year for Jimmy Howard, who had a .921 save percentage over the previous two seasons, but had a .906 save percentage through the end of December. He's been better lately, though injuries have made it difficult for him to establish significant momentum in the crease.
Howard's injuries allowed Jonas Gustavsson to play and he played well enough -- his .910 save percentage is a career-best -- but he's regressing over the last half dozen starts.
21-year-old Petr Mrazek may be the goaltender of the future and has a .923 save percentage in nine career NHL games but, so far, he's only been able to get spot duty when Howard has been out.
The season started with Devan Dubnyk and Jason LaBarbera as the Oilers' tandem in net, but they're both gone, leaving Ben Scrivens and Ilya Bryzgalov to battle for playing time.
Scrivens, 27, has had a strong season between Los Angeles and three starts with the Oilers, posting a .930 save percentage in 22 games. He's going to be a free agent at season's end, so this is a prime opportunity for him to audition for next year.
Signing 33-year-old Bryzgalov seemed desperate at the time and he hasn't played at a level that suggests he's going to turn around the Oilers' problems.
Tim Thomas's return to the NHL, after sitting out last season, has come with a few hiccups. He started slowly, suffered some injuries and then played pretty well in December in January, though his last few starts haven't been stellar. Thomas is a 40-year-old who will be an unrestricted free agent, which would make him trade bait if the Panthers aren't in playoff contention. However, there may not be a line of teams looking to acquire an older goaltender who is having an uneven season.
36-year-old backup Scott Clemmensen has an .887 save percentage in 32 games over the past two seasons, which isn't doing the Panthers any favours, but he's in the final year of his deal, so isn't part of the long-term plan.
Which brings us to Jacob Markstrom, the 23-year-old who was expected to be the Panthers' starter as soon as this season, before Thomas was signed. Markstrom might be considered a quality prospect, but his results to this point, which include an .898 save percentage in 43 games, raise some doubts about whether he's legitimately the Panthers' starting goaltender of the future.
LOS ANGELES KINGS
After a down season in 2012-2013, Jonathan Quick had a strong playoff, which figured to set him up for a good 2013-2014 season. Not quite, as Quick had a .905 save percentage in 16 games before getting hurt. Since coming back from his groin injury, Quick has been terrific, with a .934 save percentage in a dozen games, which should provide some comfort, though it would be nice -- no matter who is in net -- if the Kings could provide better offensive support.
When Quick got hurt, Ben Scrivens got the first shot to play, but then 24-year-old call-up Martin Jones played so well that he couldn't get bumped out of the net. In a dozen games, Jones has a .940 save percentage, which isn't sustainable, but his AHL performance (a .922 save percentage in 151 games) would seem to suggest that he's NHL-ready.
The story of the season was the play of 29-year-old Josh Harding, who has a .933 save percentage and league-leading 1.65 goals against average. But Harding has been sidelined since last playing New Year's Eve, as he tries to get his MS medication adjusted, but the uncertainty over his health has forced the Wild to look for alternatives.
Fortunately, prospect Darcy Kuemper has been terrific since getting called up, with a .941 save percentage in January, which is dramatically better than a couple of rough early-season outings for the 23-year-old.
The emergence of others has left Niklas Backstrom, the 35-year-old who started for the past six-plus seasons, on the outside looking in. That Backstrom has a career-low .899 save percentage is making it much easier to look for other options, but it will be interesting to see what the Wild can do in the future with Backstrom, who still has two years remaining on his current contract.
The Canadiens' defensive collapse, particularly in the month of January, has taken its toll on the numbes of Carey Price, yet Price's .921 save percentage is still the second-best of his career. Over the past four seasons, he's been one of the top heavy-workload puck-stoppers.
Peter Budaj continues to perform well in the backup role. He's been much better as a second-stringer and his .921 save percentage this year is a career-high.
With Pekka Rinne out for most of the season, Nashville's goaltending plans have been adjusted on the fly. Their latest addition, Devan Dubnyk, was having a miserable season in Edmonton and hasn't fared well in his first couple starts with the Predators, which makes matters even more challenging.
28-year-old Carter Hutton had played precisely one NHL game before winning the job to be Rinne's backup, a gig that figured to require maybe 15 games of work, but Hutton has already played 26 and, while there have been some bumps along the path, he does have a .915 save percentage over the past couple months, emerging as the number one option.
For a time, 22-year-old rookie Marek Mazanec was getting many of the starts for the Predators, but his performance faded after a strong start, and he's been returned to Milwaukee of the AHL.
All this is a matter of the Predators trying to tread water until Rinne returns. He's their $7-million franchise goaltender and, on a team that is on a budget, they can't very well afford to have him out of the lineup. But, they don't have much choice in the matter, and have to find a way to make it work until Rinne is sufficiently recovered from hip surgery.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
When New Jersey acquired 27-year-old Cory Schneider in a draft day trade with the Vancouver Canucks, it appeared that the Devils had settled on their goaltender of the future and, considering Martin Brodeur's decline in recent seasons, probably the present.
Turns out that the Devils are still very loyal to Brodeur, the 41-year-old who has backstopped them to three Stanley Cups, but his play over the past four seasons is not worthy of starting goaltender status. Among goaltenders with at least 100 games played in that span, Brodeur ranks 33rd of 36 with a .904 save percentage. Oh, yeah, and Schneider ranks first at .930, yet Brodeur has played one more game this season.
If the Devils are committed to making the postseason, giving Schneider the chance to run with the starting job is the first order of business, and Schneider is forcing that decision with a .952 save percentage in January.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Not altogether surprisingly, 38-year-old Evgeni Nabokov has been a subpar starting goaltender this season, with a .905 save percentage in 25 games, even though he's been better lately, with a .925 save percentage since the beginning of December. Injuries have limited him to 15 games since October, so it's tough to trust him, and could be reason enough for the Islanders to seek an upgrade if they think they can make up the difference that they need to make the playoffs.
Nabokov's injuries have forced 23-year-old Kevin Poulin into a heavier workload than he can handle and he has an .891 save percentage in 28 games. Poulin might be the goaltender of the future, but he's had a rough go of it over the past couple seasons.
Anders Nilsson, also 23, has made it into half a dozen games, but hasn't done anything to indicate that he's the answer to the Isles' current problems. Using www.hockey-reference.com Goals Saved Above Average, the Islanders would have allowed 29 fewer goals with average goaltending in place of Nabokov, Poulin and Nilsson.
NEW YORK RANGERS
One of the elite goaltenders from 2005-2006 through 2013, Henrik Lundqvist has been surprisingly inconsistent this season. He's been better lately (.931 save percentage in January), but Lundqvist's tough start to the year caused the Blueshirts some headaches that they haven't been accustomed to dealing with for most of the past decade.
It didn't take long for Martin Biron to heed the call of retirement, which created an opportunity for Cam Talbot, which didn't seem like much of a big deal. He is a 26-year-old that was undrafted and played collegiately at that hockey factory Alabama-Huntsville. But Talbot has played well in the AHL (.920 save percentage in 60 games since the start of last season) and has been terrific for the Rangers, posting a .935 save percentage in 16 games.
Lundqvist is signed to a new long-term deal, so it's not like Talbot is going to usurp him from the No. 1 role, but Talbot's contribution has been crucial to the Rangers' season.
Last season was one for the ages for Craig Anderson, who had a .941 save percentage to lead the league. It was also extremely likely -- practically guaranteed -- that he could not duplicate such a lofty percentage over a full season so regression was to be expected. Well, expected or not, Anderson has regressed notably this year, with his .907 save percentage ranking as his lowest since 2005-2006. At the same time, Anderson has still been getting the starter's workload, so the Senators are struggling in part because of goaltending, which was the primary reason for their success in 2012-2013.
22-year-old Robin Lehner is destined to be the Senators' goaltender of the future and his .923 save percentage in 46 career games is a positive indication, but he's been unable to wrest the job from Anderson this year and giving up five goals in three of his past four starts doesn't make it look very promising for Lehner to take that job this season.
When the Flyers acquired Steve Mason from Columbus last season, there was little reason for optimism -- Mason had been among the league's least effective goaltenders since 2009-2010 -- but Mason has played pretty well for the Flyers, recording a .920 save percentage in 47 games. It should be noted, however, that Mason's save percentage has dropped to .899 in 21 games since the beginning of December, so it remains fair to wonder (or even expect) if 25-year-old Mason will fall back to his established norms, which could cause the Flyers to regret the three-year, $12.3-million extension he just signed.
After Ray Emery had a strong season with Chicago in 2012-2013, there was likely a hope that Emery could compete with Mason for the starting job, but he's struggled this year -- his .897 save percentage is his lowest since 2007-2008.
Mike Smith may be a Canadian Olympian, but a lot of that would seem to be predicated on his performance in 2011-2012, when he had a career-best .930 save percentage. In the 79 games since, he's posted a .909 save percentage and the Coyotes need better, especially in the years to come since they have Smith signed through 2018-2019.
Backup Thomas Greiss has never played much, never more than 19 games in a season, but he's been good. His career-best .935 save percentage this year gives him a solid .917 mark in 57 career games. If Smith continues to struggle, would it be feasible for Greiss to see more action?
While Marc-Andre Fleury is having another strong regular season, with an entirely respectable .917 save percentage, what he does in the regular season doesn't much matter. Well, it would matter if it was terrible, but the prime objective for Fleury is, once the playoffs come around, to play at a level that will help erase the past four postseasons, during which he posted an .880 save percentage.
26-year-old Jeff Zatkoff hasn't played much, the first 11 games of his NHL career, but he's been fine in the role. A .902 save percentage isn't but his two starts this month (stopping 57 of 65 shots) have dropped otherwise decent numbers.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
Antti Niemi has been an above-average-to-very-good goaltender over the previous three seasons, but his play hasn't quite been to that level this season -- his .913 save percentage is his lowest since his rookie year in 2009-2010. He is in good company among starting goaltenders over the past four seasons.
26-year-old Alex Stalock had played 72 minutes in three NHL games prior to this season, but he served his time in the AHL and has been great in limited action, posting a 1.56 goals against average and .943 save percentage. He's allowed more than two goals once in 10 starts.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
Coming into the year, it looked like Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott might share time in the crease for the Blues, but Halak has taken the decided edge, playing 36 games to Elliott's 22 games, which is strange enough given their relative play (Elliott has a .917 save percentage; Halak has .915).
Both are headed for unrestricted free agency and the Blues always seem to get linked to Ryan Miller, which makes for interesting times as the trade deadline approaches. The beauty of it is that, for whomever gets the starting nod, they get to play behind a strong defence.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
27-year-old Ben Bishop had played 45 games in the NHL prior to this season, including nine with the Lightning last year, during which he posted a solid .917 save percentage, which appeared to give him an advantage in the goaltending competition with Anders Lindback.
Turns out that there was no competition to be had, as Bishop has been exceptional this season, with his .933 save percentage in 39 games putting him right in the middle of the Vezina Trophy conversation.
Lindback has continued to struggle and has a .894 save percentage in 41 games with the Lightning since the start of last season.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
When the Toronto Maple Leafs made a deal for Jonathan Bernier, then signed him to a multi-year contract, there was little doubt which way the club was leaning when it came to their goaltending tandem.
To his credit, 25-year-old Bernier has played great, with a .925 save percentage, while handling a starter's workload for the first time in his career.
James Reimer, also 25, made it difficult to set a number one guy early on, posting a .931 save percentage through the first two months, but his last handful of starts has widened the gap and now it's Bernier's job to lose.
It might have taken some convincing to get him to come back to Vancouver, Roberto Luongo has resumed his role as the starter and his .921 save percentage is his second-best in the past seven seasons. There's still the matter of his outrageously long-term deal, but as long as the Canucks have a chance to contend, Luongo is still a strong starting goaltender.
26-year-old Eddie Lack, recovered from a hip injury that cost him most of last season, has been a very good backup, with a .922 save percentage, performing at least adequately when he had to string together a few starts with Luongo injured.
24-year-old Braden Holtby was off to a fine start to his pro career, and was playing well through the end of November, but he's taken a sudden downturn, posting an .875 save percentage in 11 games since the start of December and talking about having lost his confidence.
Michal Neuvirth has been okay when asked to play, with a .915 save percentage in 10 games, but Washington's best option in goal this season has ben 22-year-old Philipp Grubauer, who delivered a .926 save percentage in 16 games, yet was returned to the AHL when Holtby and Neuvirth were deemed ready to play.
If Holtby doesn't recapture that confidence, the Capitals might need Grubauer to come back.
The Jets have Ondrej Pavelec under contract for three more seasons, after this one, a massive commitment for a starting goaltender that currently has a .901 save percentage and has only once in his career posted a save percentage above .906. If a team is ready to make a move in net, it sure ought to be the Jets, but it's going to involve some hard decisions on a 26-year-old that has been playing starter's minutes at a subpar level.
A saving grace for the Jets this season, then, has been 28-year-old Al Montoya, who is likely having the best year of his career, with a .925 save percentage in 16 games. If he could sustain anything resembling that level of play, he might overtake Pavelec, but if he could sustain that level of play, Montoya would likely have played more than 79 career games.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.