Canada’s goaltending picture for the 2022 Beijing Olympics on the men’s side looked pretty foggy a year ago, then it was crystal clear as recently as July, and now it’s back to opaque. It all comes down to Carey Price’s status.
Before the 2021-22 Stanley Cup playoffs, Price was fresh off his third subpar regular season in a four-year stretch, and Marc-Andre Fleury had delivered what ended up being a Vezina Trophy season. That left the door open to a competition for Canada’s No. 1 job in 2022. By the time the Montreal Canadiens’ miraculous run to the 2021 final concluded, however, Price had erased any doubt that the Olympic starter’s chair still belonged to him. But now, with Price having entered the NHL player assistance program indefinitely, it’s anyone’s guess if he’ll be back in the NHL this season, let alone ready for the Winter Games.
While awaiting news on Price, Canada received an exemption and was permitted to submit six goaltenders among its list of Olympic candidates by the Oct. 15 deadline while the other 11 nations submitted five.
Many of the other Olympic squads have locked-in choices to start in goal. The Olympic Athletes from Russia, Slovakia and Germany, for instance, have already selected goaltenders among the three names they had to submit earlier this month for the first roster deadline: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Jaroslav Halak and Philipp Grubauer, respectively. With Canada’s goalie situation in flux now, let’s rank the six candidates they’ve submitted for Beijing – a list not publicly reported but confirmed by The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun.
1. Marc-Andre Fleury
The case for: He’s the most experienced netminder available, sitting third on the NHL’s all-time wins list. He’s the most recent Vezina Trophy winner. His athleticism should play well when reading the play east to west on the international-sized ice surface. Everyone loves the guy.
The case against: He doesn’t exactly have, uh, juice so far this season. The Chicago Blackhawks’ horrifically inept defensive play could make ‘Flower’ look bad all year long. If you believe in juju: his last international work as a starter didn’t end well. It was 2004, when he banked an own goal off defenseman Braydon Coburn to help clinch world junior gold for Team USA.
Outlook: No one should hold the Blackhawks’ poor play against Fleury. He showed as recently as last season how elite he can be with a proper team in front of him, and that’s exactly what he’d have with Canada. He’s a virtual lock to make the team as one of their top three netminders, and, if Price doesn’t make the trip to Beijing, Fleury likely gets the first look as a starter based on seniority.
2. Carey Price
The case for: Let’s be clear: the job is his. He was untouchable in net for Canada at the 2014 Olympics and 2016 World Cup, posting save percentages of .972 and .957, respectively. He showed in the 2021 playoffs that he remains the picture of calm and efficiency in high-stakes games.
The case against: There’s simply no telling whether he’ll be ready to return to hockey by the time Canada finalizes its team in January. An unknown situation pertaining to one’s mental health isn’t something you rush. Even if Price returns to the Canadiens this season, it’s possible he won’t be ready for the added burden of travelling to China for a do-or-die tournament on top of his Habs responsibilities.
Outlook: A healthy Price who declares himself available still gets Canada’s No. 1 job, period. But it’s entirely possible he skips the tournament. Having already won gold in his career, it’s not like he’d be missing out on a bucket-list item. He could decide it’s more prudent to stay close to home.
3. Jordan Binnington
The case for: The icy-veined Binnington backstopped the St. Louis Blues to a Stanley Cup as a rookie in 2018-19. The GM of that team, Doug Armstrong, had enough long-term faith in Binnington to sign him to a six-year, $36-million extension last season, and Armstrong happens to be Canada’s GM for the 2022 Olympics. There’s no rule against playing favorites when picking teams for the Winter Games.
The case against: Binnington has been merely good and not great since that legendary freshman campaign. From the start of 2019-20 through the first couple weeks of the 2021-22 season, among 69 netminders who have logged 1,000 or more minutes at 5-on-5, he sits 26th in goals saved above average per 60 according to naturalstattrick.com. That makes him a clear NHL starter but a rather unspectacular performer overall.
Outlook: Binnington has a pretty high floor at this stage of his career and, given how talented Canada’s skater group will be, a goalie you can depend on to be good, not great and rarely terrible might make sense. He’s unlikely to lose Canada games. Given he has the trust of the team’s GM, it would be a mild upset if Binnington isn’t one of the three netminders named. The last time a Team Canada GM went against a player on his own NHL team who was on the roster bubble, it caused a rift that culminated in that player being traded a few months after the Olympics. Read: St-Louis, Martin.
4. Darcy Kuemper
The case for: The most recent goaltender to backstop Canadian NHLers to gold in a major international tournament is Kuemper. He did so at the 2021 World Championship. As an Arizona Coyote, he repeatedly showed the ability to elevate weak teams, and now, in Colorado, he’ll gain experience that will better simulate playing best-on-best for Canada on a stacked team that won’t require him to stop 40 pucks nightly to win games.
The case against: Kuemper doesn’t have the (NHL) accolades and experience to match the names ranked above him on this list. He also hasn’t established himself as a durable workhorse No. 1. He has eclipsed 29 starts once in his career. Will his body be up to the task of logging a full season as Colorado’s starter plus pausing for gruelling travel and high-pressure games at the Olympics?
Outlook: Kuemper’s work at the worlds puts him on the radar for sure, and he could easily play his way onto the team in the coming weeks and months with the Avs, but he carries some health red flags. He’s thus a better bet to make the team as a backup than starter.
5. Carter Hart
The case for: Before last season, most prognosticators would’ve assumed Hart, a rising prodigy, was a shoo-in for the Olympic roster and possibly even a challenger for the starting job. With his poised, intelligent game, he seemed like a perfect successor to Price. Hart has the talent and pedigree to be a star for years to come.
The case against: Last year’s implosion forced all of us to recalibrate our expectations for Hart, who, at 23, it still a baby in goalie years. It’s his fourth season in the NHL, yet he’s two years younger than Binnington was as a rookie. Hart is still figuring out how to repair his game, so he’s difficult to trust as a starter for Canada at the moment.
Outlook: Hart arguably has the widest range of outcomes among Canada’s Olympic netminding candidates. He could play his way onto the team and is talented enough to challenge for starting duty if Price isn’t around – or Hart could continue to struggle and slide completely off Armstrong’s radar by January.
6. Mackenzie Blackwood
The case for: He’s a big, rangy goaltender with impressive raw talent and a legendary mentor that believes in his star potential in Martin Brodeur. A major knock on Blackwood’s Olympic potential was the fact he wasn’t vaccinated against COVID-19, but he has reportedly received his first shot now and should be fully vaccinated in time for Beijing.
The case against: Blackwood has shown flashes so far in his NHL career but hasn’t delivered an extended period of dominance as a true No. 1. The Devils have brought in veterans to share the workload – Corey Crawford last year before he suddenly retired, then Jonathan Bernier this season – implying they don’t think Blackwood is ready to be a true bellcow. It thus tough to imagine Canada betting on him at the Olympics just yet.
Outlook: Blackwood is obviously the biggest underdog of the six, but there is still a scenario in which he makes the team. If Price declines his invite, Kuemper gets hurt and Hart’s funk continues, Blackwood might get a look as Canada’s No. 3.