“Goaltending is 75 per cent of your hockey team, unless you don’t have it. Then it’s 100 per cent.”
Like most great hockey quotes, that old classic came from former coach and broadcast legend Harry Neale. And as we’ve already seen this season, it still holds true for the modern game. A lack of goaltending cost Ken Hitchcock his job in St. Louis, torpedoed a Stanley Cup contender in Dallas, and is threatening to derail promising young teams in Calgary, Philadelphia and Winnipeg. Even a few bad games from a backup can leave a coach ranting and raving, as we found out a few days ago.
Goaltending is critical. It can also be frustratingly hard to find, let alone to lock up for the long term. If you’ve got a good one, you’d better find a way to hold onto him, because stability at the position can make or break a franchise’s Stanley Cup dreams.
So today, let’s go through all 30 NHL teams and ask a simple question: From worst to best, how good should everyone feel about their goaltending situation, not just right now but for the next five years?
The Hurricanes have had the worst goaltending in the league this year apart from Dallas, and their coach just finished throwing Eddie Lack under the bus and backing it over him a few times. When Cam Ward, who hasn't had a season north of .910 in five years, is your bright spot, you've got goaltending problems.
There is a decent prospect in the system in 2014 second-rounder Alex Nedeljkovic; in a perfect world, maybe he's ready to take over after Ward and Lack's deals both expire in 2018. But this looks like an area where GM Ron Francis is going to need to roll up his sleeves and get to work.
29. Calgary Flames
Goaltending situations don't come with many more question marks than the Flames'. They have a solid prospect coming in Jon Gillies, although he's battled injury and inconsistency. But both of their goalies are scheduled to hit the UFA market this summer, and it's quite possible that neither is re-signed before then.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, given how inconsistent play at the position has haunted the team all season. Chad Johnson was excellent at the start of the year and Brian Elliott has been better lately, but the Flames were rumoured to be in the market for names like Ben Bishop and Marc-Andre Fleury at the deadline, so a fresh start here seems likely.
Most teams on the low end of this list are here because they don't have a starting goaltender locked up for the long term. The Avalanche are here because they do.
Like just about everything related to this year's team, the Avalanche goaltending has been a disaster. Semyon Varlamov struggled and then got hurt, and was eventually shut down for the year. It marked the third straight year of declining play for the one-time Vezina runner-up, but he's locked up through 2019 on a big-ticket deal so the Avalanche might be stuck with him.
Maybe the expansion draft bails them out here, and Colorado can start fresh with Calvin Pickard or someone else. If not, they'd better hope Varlamov can get healthy and back to his 2014 form, because a $5.9-million backup would be one more problem for a team that already has plenty.
27. Dallas Stars
Jim Nill actually did it.
After watching a team that looked like a Cup contender go into last year's playoffs with substandard goaltending and pay for it, Nill defied all expectations by sticking with the status quo through the summer and into the season. We all assumed that the talk of staying the course was a bluff to drive down prices, and that he'd eventually pull the trigger on some sort of move. Nope.
Needless to say, it didn't work out, and the Stars' hopes paid for it yet again. If there's good news here, it's that the duo of Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen are both entering the final year of their deals, so a trade (or buyout) gets more realistic. Lehtonen was actually better than you might think this year, posting a reasonably decent even-strength save percentage that was blown up on special teams, but he also makes more money, so who knows which one goes. Maybe it's both.
Goaltending certainly isn't the only flaw this team is facing, but you'd have to think that this time Nill has to find a way to make a move.
Stop me if you've heard this before, but the Flyers' goaltending has been a mess. Steve Mason is a free agent this summer and seems unlikely to return, while Michal Neuvirth got an extension despite a poor season. Does that make him your starter going forward? If so... yikes.
It's not all bad news, as Carter Hart and Felix Sandstrom are both good prospects. But either is years away, and the team will need somebody to bridge that gap. Maybe Ron Hextall even moves one of his two prospects for someone who can help right now. (Although, uh, you might want to be careful with that strategy.) Either way, for now the situation is in major flux.
25. Arizona Coyotes
Mike Smith's breakout year came in 2011–12, when he posted a .930 save percentage and finished fourth in Vezina voting. But in five seasons since then, he's never topped .916, which is just a bit better than average. He's signed through 2019 on a big-ticket deal that would make him tough to move, so the Coyotes are probably stuck with him, for better or for worse.
24. St. Louis Blues
No team has had a more disappointing performance from its starter this year than the Blues, who put their faith in Jake Allen and almost had it cost them their season. He's been better lately, and is still young enough that he could regain his status as a legitimate NHL starter. With a four-year extension kicking in next year, the Blues had better hope so.
Allen is talented, which makes this the sort of rating that could seem comically pessimistic even a few months from now. But based on this season it's hard to place the Blues much higher.
23. Ottawa Senators
The Senators' goaltending has actually been good this year — very good, in fact. But the future is hazy. Craig Anderson has one year left on his deal, and he'll turn 36 during the playoffs. Mike Condon's extension still isn't done, Andrew Hammond's NHL outlook is shaky at best, and Matt O'Connor hasn't lived up to expectations.
Another strong year from Anderson would give them time to sort it all out, but right now the position after next season is a question mark.
It feels like Jacob Markstrom has been around forever. The 27-year-old is in his seventh NHL season, none as a full-time starter. That will probably change next year, when he'll presumably be the No. 1 guy in Vancouver after Ryan Miller leaves as a UFA. Markstrom's career numbers suggest that's a crapshoot, although he's been reasonably good the last two seasons.
Thatcher Demko projects as the goalie of the future here; Markstrom's play will determine how quickly that future needs to arrive.
Heading into the season, it looked like the Red Wings were Petr Mrazek's team. But the youngster struggled, and veteran Jimmy Howard was enjoying one of the best of his career before he got hurt. Now the Red Wings have nearly $10-million worth of cap hit tied up in the position, and they're not sure who the long-term starter is. That's a better problem to have than not having any NHL-calibre goalies at all, but maybe not by much.
20. Winnipeg Jets
The Jets seemed like they were in decent shape heading into the season, with Ondrej Pavelec giving way to highly regarded youngster Connor Hellebuyck. But Hellebuyck struggled at times, and Pavelec's eventual return from AHL purgatory was a nice story that didn't really pay off with improved play.
This is still Hellebuyck's job to lose, and at 23 years old he should just be entering his prime. Seeing him establish himself as a legitimate NHL starter still seems like the most likely scenario. But it no longer feels like the sure thing it did a year ago.
Despite the whole Jaroslav Halak mess that they still need to figure out, the Islanders are in better shape than you might think. The Thomas Greiss extension kicks in this summer, so in theory it's his job now, and while he's never exactly been an elite player, he's been solid enough over the years. More importantly, the Islanders have a top prospect in KHL standout Ilya Sorokin on the way, although he may not arrive until 2018.
The jury's still out on Frederik Andersen, who's been up and down in his first season in Toronto. The Leafs committed to a five-year deal almost immediately after acquiring him, so they're probably stuck with him. Curtis McElhinney is a UFA after this season, and nobody in the system stands out as an obvious NHL prospect. Right now, the outlook is Andersen or bust.
17. Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres paid a high price to get Robin Lehner in 2015, and he missed most of last year with injury. But he's been pretty good this year, and at 25 there's plenty of reason to think he could be the long-term answer. He's certainly not a sure thing (he's yet to hit the 150-start mark on his career), and he'll need a new contract this summer. But for now Sabres fans can feel cautiously optimistic.
16. New York Rangers
It's all about Hank. Henrik Lundqvist is the league's highest-paid goaltender in terms of cap hit, and he's locked in through 2021. He's also 35 years old, and has shown signs of wear in recent years. If you're a Rangers fan, how confident are you that Lundqvist can remain in the elite tier for most of that contract? If he does, the Rangers are all set. If not, they might be in trouble.
15. Florida Panthers
The Panthers are going to be a fascinating team to watch at the expansion draft. Who do you protect: future Hall of Famer Roberto Luongo and his contract that sucks, or the cheaper option in James Reimer? You'd have to think the Golden Knights would jump all over Reimer; Luongo would make for a far more interesting call. The Panthers will come out of the summer with at least one good goaltender, but that's about all we know.
14. Boston Bruins
What's the deal with Tuukka Rask? The former Vezina winner looked great to start the season, but he's been under the .900 mark since the new year. He's still reasonably young – he turns 30 in a few days – so maybe we can chalk this year up as an extended slump and pencil him in for a return to the upper tier. With a contract that carries a $7-million cap hit through 2021, the Bruins had better hope so. Malcolm Subban's AHL inconsistency only adds to the uncertainty.
13. San Jose Sharks
Martin Jones has had two reasonably good years and looks like the long-term answer. With one year left before UFA, he'll need an extension this summer and money could be tight, but the Sharks will get it done.
12. Edmonton Oilers
After almost a decade of seeing season after season waylaid by shaky goaltending, the Oilers went out and gambled on career backup Cam Talbot in 2015. It's paid off; while Connor McDavid rightfully gets most of the attention, Talbot's steady presence has been almost as important to the team's emergence as a contender.
He's signed through 2019, and while with just 164 career starts it's always possible that he's not quite what he seems, the Oilers are in far better shape then they're used to.
Not too many teams can trade a Vezina runner-up and still look good, but that's the Lightning for you. Andrei Vasilevskiy has earned his shot as the unquestioned starter, and it's possible that Peter Budaj sticks around as the veteran backup. Kristers Gudlevskis has seen his stock fall over the years, but could still figure into the future.
Vasilevskiy is far from a sure thing, but he's headed in the right direction and is under team control for years to come. The Lightning's post-Bishop era would seem to be in good hands.
Sergei Bobrovsky has to perform like an all-star to justify his cap hit. He didn't last year, which had the deal looking like a major miscalculation. But he's been great so far this season, posting his best numbers since his Vezina win back in 2013, and youngster Joonas Korpisalo has looked like a capable backup if not more. Bobrovsky's contract doesn't leave much margin for error, but for now the Blue Jackets are in decent shape.
The vaguely weird short-term addition of Bishop aside, the Kings are locked in with Jonathan Quick through 2023. That may or may not be a good thing – the debate over whether Quick is an elite goalie or just a merely good one playing in a great system has been roaring for years. But one way or another, this is his team... assuming he's healthy.
Pekka Rinne is signed through 2019 on a deal that carries a big cap hit. Probably too big, given his performance over the last two years, but that's the risk you take when you go long-term on goaltenders.
The good news is that the Predators appear to already have their goalie of the future on the roster in 21-year-old Juuse Saros, and should be able to make the transition into a post-Rinne world fairly seamlessly. The question is whether that time comes in 2019 or someday sooner.
In theory, the Devils are all set; Cory Schneider hasn't had his best year, but he owns an excellent track record and is signed through 2020. One caveat: At some point, you wonder if the rebuilding Devils will decide it might make sense to move Schneider while his value is still high. If that day comes, prospect Mackenzie Blackwood is waiting in the wings.
When Corey Crawford signed a six-year extension back in 2013, it was fair to ask if the Blackhawks were overreacting to one strong playoff run from a player who'd been around league average up until that point. But Crawford's largely lived up to the deal, and with three full seasons left the Hawks are reasonably set at the position with a guy they can trust. They'll need to figure out what to do with Scott Darling, who hits UFA and may not be interested in settling for backup duties again.
We still don't know exactly how the Penguins will handle their expansion draft dilemma. With Fleury still on the roster, in theory it's still possible that they could lose Matt Murray to the Golden Knights.
In reality, that's not going to happen, and a trade or a buyout will be in Fleury's future. If we assume that this is Murray's job in the long term, then the Penguins are in good shape, even if there's some work to do over the next few months to get there.
At 23, John Gibson is in his NHL first season as an undisputed starter, and he's playing well. Ideally you'd like to see a little more from a young goalie before you call him a sure-thing, and the Ducks will need to sort out the backup situation after this year. But with Gibson locked up at a very reasonable price through 2019, the Ducks are in good shape here.
When somebody eventually writes a book called "Goaltending is voodoo," Devan Dubnyk will probably be on the cover. Dubnyk's journey from decent starter to Edmonton scapegoat to journeyman backup to (almost) out of the league entirely to repeat Vezina candidate is Exhibit A in the case that this position is just plain weird and nobody really knows how it works.
Should the Wild feel completely safe knowing they have him locked in on a reasonably cheap deal through 2021? Maybe not, but they'll take it.
When he's healthy, Carey Price is probably the best goaltender in the world, and at 29 he should maintain his elite status for at least a few more years. You could make a case for the Canadiens to be at the very top of this list, but they fall just short based on Price's contract situation; with just one full year left, he's eligible for an extension this summer.
He's not going anywhere, obviously, but he won't come cheap, and it's possible the Habs are forced to sign a deal that they'll eventually regret. That's a concern for down the road, though. For now, and for the next few years, they're all set.
They've got the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, and he just might win it again this year. Braden Holtby has established himself as one of the very best in the league, and at 27 years old he should have plenty of strong years left. As an added bonus, Holtby is under contract through 2020 on a sold value deal. Oh, and the Caps also own one of the league's top goaltending prospects in 2015 first-rounder Ilya Samsonov.
There are no sure things in this league, especially at this position. But the Capitals are in the best shape of anyone, and should stay that way for a long time.