#2: Johan Holmqvist
The best players you've never heard of
Team: Tampa Bay Lightning
Pos.: G - Ht.: 6-3 - Wt.: 195
Hometown: Tolfta, Sweden
Key stats: Chances are, given his play as of late, you've now heard of him. Lately, he's been lights out and stolen the starter's role from Marc Denis by winning eight of his last nine starts. Holmqvist had a 2.69 goals-against average and .902 save percentage heading into last night's 3-1 win over the Ottawa Senators, but it's his 7-3-0 record which has really begun to endear him to coach John Tortorella.
James on Johan: An experienced goaltender internationally given Sweden's dearth of candidates in recent years (something that's changed now that Henrik Lundqvist is on the scene), Holmqvist was expected to battle veteran Sean Burke for the backup role behind Denis, but it ended up not being a particularly close contest. Holmqvist, 28, is a veteran of the Swedish Elite League, where he began playing as an 18-year-old with Brynas, but spent the years from 2000 to 2004 between the AHL and NHL.
His stint with the Houston Aeros, the affiliate franchise of the Minnesota Wild, was particularlly promising, as Holmqvist led his team to a Calder Cup title in 2002-03 and won the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the playoff MVP. Failing to crack the Wild's goaltending tandem the following season, Holmqvist played 59 games in the AHL as the starter and posted pretty solid numbers behind what was a fairly mediocre club. Returning home during the NHL lockout to rejoin Brynas, it wasn't until the 2006 World Championship in Riga, Latvia, that he caught Tampa Bay scouts' attention. Holmqvist took over the starting role for Sweden and led the team to the gold medal, the country's first in eight years. The Lightning then signed him on the first day of unrestricted free agency.
I'm surprised he's only listed at 6 foot 3 as he looks quite large in goal, and Lightning goaltending coach Jeff Reese has him playing a great style for a big man. I'm honestly surprised Holmqvist never made more of an impact in his time with the New York Rangers organization, as he's looked terrific this season.
Pub for Johan:
"It was important for Holmer to allow us to see this and gain some confidence in him," Tortorella said.
That process actually began in training camp, and Tortorella compared Holmqvist's practice habits with those of Dominik Hasek, whom Tortorella had as an assistant with the Sabres.
"He works at a level in practice that I haven't seen many goalies work at," Tortorella said. "It's exciting to watch him practice because I don't think he's far away from being a very, very good goalie. ... I know he wants to play, but he's handled himself well with his teammates and his practice habits have been outstanding."