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What will Al Montoya be?

Al Montoya is the first Islanders goalie to start three games in a row since ... well, just a few weeks ago. That was when Mikko Koskinen started three in a row after Kevin Poulin's knee injury in warmups necessitated Koskinen's emergency start, plus an emergency recall of Joel Martin, followed by the emergency trade for Montoya. Before that, for stability in the crease you have to go back to those heady days of late December when Dwayne Roloson would regularly reel off consecutive starts before his trade to Tampa Bay for Ty Wishart.

The point is Montoya has played well and stayed healthy in our delightfully minimalist sample size, and that's all well and good. In fact, as the Islanders' sixth goalie of the year and seventh to dress (including Martin), that makes us almost desperately appreciative. His numbers after five games sure don't hurt -- why, his .946 save percentage and 1.42 GAA are even an improvement on his already-shiny NHL career numbers of .925 and 2.08!

But that is precisely why all we can do is wait, and observe, before drawing any real conclusions. Montoya is 26 -- which is not young, but neither is it "finished" for a goalie prospect. (Miikka Kiprusoff, a very good goalie, got his break in Calgary at age 27; Johan Hedberg, a barely average NHL goalie, got his break in Pittsburgh at age 27, too.) Montoya's been in the AHL for several years with pedestrian numbers there, and 176 games in the AHL tend to be a lot more indicative than 10 games in the NHL.

Now, it's not unheard of for a goalie to toil in the AHL with numbers that don't make you smile, and be the victim of circumstances there before finding the proverbial new lease on life once he gets a promotion. Frankly, it wouldn't surprise me at all to discover Montoya is a better goalie than what he's shown in the AHL; because of the scarcity of job openings, goalies are in an even tougher psychological position than skaters. For a guy who was a top 10 pick, the letdown of toiling infinitely on the bus at the low end of depth charts can be even greater.

But it's more common for a guy to have a great early spurt -- Hedberg famously stabilized the 2000-01 Penguins with a 7-1-1 debut down the stretch, at a time when the Pens were just grateful for anyone who could stop a puck -- before proving to be just average-ish after all. As luck would have it, he's going through another nice spurt for the Devils right now -- but that doesn't change what Hedberg can give a team over the long term.

Montoya could very well prove to be the third- or second-best goalie to appear in an Isles uniform this year. [Faint praise alert.) Goodness, his even-strength save percentage is .957 right now! But we all know -- we sure should know -- that those percentages will fall back down to earth, unless we have Dominik Hasek's transubstantiated better self on in the form of a Chicago native and former Rangers first-round pick who just wandered from the desert and into our laps.

Where "earth" is in this equation is the question. That's when we'll learn more (but still not quite enough) about what Montoya can provide at the NHL level. If it's good, the Isles have an unexpected bonus injected into their goalie depth chart, maybe even a steady -- and healthy -- backup or 1A. If not, well at least they got a guy who can stop some pucks as they get through this injury plague down the stretch. Beggars can't be choosers.


For Goalies, Even One Season Ain't Much

That's the short of it. Goalies are crazy and unpredictable, I like to say. But more seriously, they are just hard to truly gauge even after a full season of work, because their numbers -- and "luck," some might say -- can fluctuate even in that sample.

For a great post on this (one I originally forgot to include in this write-up, until mikb prompted me), check out this quite readable one at Behind the Net:

We have 13 comps since 1995 - goalies who were called up and posted a .925 save percentage or better in their first 15 games.  But over their next 60 games, they posted a very pedestrian .906 save percentage, which would seem to be a huge disappointment for guys who started out so hot.  Given that the difference between an All-Star .920 goaltender and a replacement level .900 goaltender is one goal every other game, 15 games is not a large enough sample size to be confident in a goaltender's abilities - one out of every six .900 goalies will out-perform a .920 goalie over a 15-game stretch.

For another great post on this topic, check out this Broad Street Hockey FanPost on how much Flyers fans can truly "know" about Sergei Bobrovsky after three-quarters of a season. Just look at the examples in that post. As it points out, the goaltenders who make it to the NHL and stay are at the very thin end of the bell curve of the world's goalies. And the ones who stand out within that group are at a still-thinner edge.

By all indications from the past few years, Montoya is certainly not in the latter group. But if the Isles are lucky, he'll at least be in the former. We'll see. The Isles have 21 more games to try and find out.