2010-2011 was supposed to be Jonas Hiller's breakout year in the NHL. While many of us were already aware of Hiller's ability to steal a game (see the 2008-2009 Sharks/Ducks Western Conference Quarterfinals), Jonas finally started to get the respect he deserved league-wide. Of the six goalies selected for last season's All-Star Game in Raleigh, only Hiller hailed from the Western Conference. And rightly so. Before the All-Star Game, Hiller had racked up 26 wins to go along with his .926 save percentage and 2.50 GAA. And then this happened:
While Hiller was diagnosed with vertigo symptoms (that I frankly still believe were really post-concussion ailments) that eventually kept him out for all but one more appearance, back-up Curtis McElhinney was called upon to steady the ship. While C-Mac had reliably backed-up Hiller a few times before the ASG, he failed spectacularly under the full-time load, going through a 4-game stretch immediately after the ASG where he gave up a combined 19 goals. McElhinney was promptly traded for Dan Ellis and the Ducks also signed the recuperating Ray Emery to a two-way deal.
Both Ellis and Emery served capably down the stretch, with Emery helping the Ducks to the fourth overall spot in the Western Conference by recording 7 wins in 10 appearances en route to a .926 save percentage and a 2.28 GAA. In the first round against Nashville, Emery's inability to move side-by-side was exploited by the Predators, who knocked the Ducks out in 6 games.
While this background may seem superfluous, it's a good indicator of how this season may play out. If Hiller is healthy (and all reports out of Switzerland over the summer and training camp so far would indicate this to be the case), the Ducks will be fine. Even though he probably won't live up to last season's Vezina-caliber pre-ASG numbers, Hiller's career NHL line of a .921 save percentage and 2.51 GAA portends good things. That said, even a healthy Hiller has never cracked the 60-game mark in an NHL season, so a capable back-up will be a must for the Ducks.
Although Emery was allowed to depart via free agency this summer (currently trying-out for the Chicago Blackhawks), the Ducks still have Ellis to fill-in when Hiller needs a break. In 13 games with Anaheim last season, Ellis performed admirably with a .917 save percentage and a 2.39 GAA. Holding onto Ellis was a wise play for the Ducks, as his starting experience in Nashville makes him a capable option should Hiller's vertigo symptoms resurface. In his pre-season appearances thus far, Ellis has provided more of what we expected from him last year: solid, steady goaltending that should keep the Ducks around in any games he appears in. He's not going to make the highlight saves that Hiller can, but he will also make the stops he should.
As some added insurance, the Ducks also signed back-up Jeff Deslauriers, who seemed destined to occupy the third spot on the depth chart and was likely headed to the AHL.However, his performance through several pre-season games has made the Ducks question just who will take that starting role with Syracuse. Deslauriers has looked very collected throughout the pre-season and owns a .927 save percentage through those games. In 58 NHL games, Deslauriers' .901 save percentage and 3.27 GAA are nothing to sneeze at, but scouts have always loved the potential to black-out the net that his 6'4" frame offers.
Should the Ducks need to reach even further for goaltending depth, Iiro Tarkki and Igor Bobkov are also available, with Tarkki likely joining Deslauriers in Syracuse and Bobkov set to play another season with the London Knights of the OHL. Neither goaltender has shown much in the pre-season, although Bobkov has had the better pre-season numbers with a .842 save percentage compared to Tarkii's .714 save percentage.
If Jonas Hiller is healthy and can man the crease for 55 to 65 games, the Ducks should once again be a playoff team in the Western Conference. If Hiller's vertigo issues flare up, or if he sufffers some other kind of injury, you can expect Anaheim to quickly make a move for additional goaltending depth. While Deslauriers and Ellis can be relied on if necessary, I would fully anticipate the Ducks to go after someone with a more proven track-record if Hiller figures to miss significant time. Personally, I can only hope that we see Darth Hiller between the pipes more often than not.