Earlier this month, sportsnet.ca ranked the top 30 backup goalies in the NHL and now it’s time to move on to the starters.
They’re kind of a big deal, right?
Throughout history, we’ve seen the great value of the goaltender position and the potential risk when you don’t have a capable starter (Philadelphia, cough cough).
Corey Crawford, Jonathan Quick, Tim Thomas, they’ve all been essential components in Stanley Cup victories the last few years.
While ranking the backup goalies, we learned how much the Toronto fan base loves James Reimer and how stupid I am for predicting Jonathan Bernier to be the Maple Leafs starter.
Well, cue the hate mail once again.
With that mind, we break down all the starting goaltenders by tier and rank the top 30 guys we expect to be in the crease at the start of the NHL season.
TIER 1: THE ELITE
Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers – Since the mid 2000s, Lundqvist has been the most dominant goalie in the league. The big Swede has been in the Vezina conversation every season and is the biggest reason the Rangers are now a perennial playoff team. Lundqvist has been excellent in both the regular season and the playoffs and we see no reason why he shouldn’t remain at the top of this list.
Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings – Picking between Lundqvist and Quick is like splitting hairs. We just find it hard to rank any player over King Henrik – considering what he’s done for such a long period of time. That’s no knock against Quick, who’s been just as good as Lundqvist the last few seasons and even won a Stanley Cup.
Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators – Barry Trotz has always tried to build his teams around great goaltending and Rinne is the ideal goalie for his system. The Finn has been phenomenal for most of his tenure in Nashville. Rinne is big, fast and has great instincts. Not to mention he plays on a team that can’t really score. He had a bit of a down year in 2013 but we still think he’s shown enough over his career to be considered elite.
TIER 2: TOP OF THE LINE
Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins – Personally, I’d rather Andrew Raycroft but what the heck do I know anyway? The Bruins absolutely stole Rask from the Leafs a couple years back and now have one of the best young goaltenders in the NHL. Behind Zdeno Chara and that blueline, Boston has been a friendly place for goaltenders and Rask has put up numbers similar to Tim Thomas – who played like a star before his mysterious exit last season. The Bruins were smart to lock him up to a long-term deal.
Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators – Anderson has been a revelation since coming over from Colorado. We’re not sure what Paul MacLean has done but somehow he’s turned Anderson into a top-flight goaltender. He might’ve won the Vezina if not for an injury last year as Anderson put up insane numbers with a 1.69 goals-against average in 23 games.
Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens – Is he the dominant player from the regular season or the lacklustre guy we saw in the playoffs? Price has many questions to answer entering next season after fading down the stretch in Montreal. When he’s on, he’s been at the top of his game and he’s done it over several seasons. The talent is clearly there and we think a possible Olympic job could help him return to his elite form again next season. Even with all those mini forwards up front.
Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings – When Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski were manning the back, many thought Jimmy Howard was just benefitting from a strong defence. But that obviously wasn’t the case as the American goalie was able to put up similar stats even with a depleted group. Howard is very legit and he should be in this tier for years to come.
Antti Niemi, San Jose Sharks – Since his days with the Chicago Blackhawks, Niemi has quietly been one of the better goalies in the league. He had his best year last season in San Jose where he posted career-bests with a 2.16 goals-against average and .924 save percentage. At 29 years old, he is right in the prime of his career and should have the Sharks right into contention in the West once again.
TIER 3: PROVE IT, AGAIN
Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets – So this is what happens when you leave Philadelphia? In his first year in Columbus, Bobrovsky was the best goalie in the NHL, earning his first career Vezina Trophy. His work was so impressive that he almost carried the Blue Jackets into the playoffs. A feat that we didn’t think was possible. He still can’t be considered amongst the elite until he repeats that type of performance.
Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks – OK I get it. He just won the Stanley Cup but we’re still unsure how good of a goaltender Crawford is. He played very well throughout the regular season and got even hotter during the playoffs but we’d like to see Crawford do it over a full season before anointing him a top-of-the-line type player. We think Crawford is ascending and will get even better with more experience but we just need to see it again.
Mike Smith, Phoenix Coyotes – Goalies seem to love playing in Phoenix. Mike Smith was a fringe player/journeyman backup before replacing Ilya Bryzgalov in Phoenix. It’s hard to comprehend but Smith has played at an all-star level the last two years – and it was no surprise that even a team as poor (financially) as Phoenix is rewarded him with that mega extension this summer. Now that he got paid, we’ll see if he can maintain the production.
Brian Elliott, St. Louis Blues – Thanks to Ken Hitchcock’s friendly goalie system (even Roman Cechmanek was once good for him), Elliott has put up stellar numbers since coming to St. Louis. Not bad for a former ninth-round pick, huh!? Still, the question remains if Elliott is actually good or simply a product of the system. The difference has just been so drastic from his days in Ottawa and Colorado.
TIER 4: CAN THEY STILL DO IT?
Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks – So does anyone believe Mike Gillis actually wanted Luongo as his No. 1 this year? I sure don’t. Luongo has all the talent in the world but his tendency to falter in big games and that whole Cory Schneider situation has hurt his reputation around the league. Not to mention his contract that "sucks." Luongo still has what it takes to be an elite goalie. Now he needs to show it over the course of a season. Well at least he has the best Twitter account in the league.
Cam Ward, Carolina Hurricanes – Ward was the toast of the league after leading the little-known Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup. Oh yeah, that was in 2006. Nowadays, Ward can still play at a high level but consistency has remained the issue. Whether it’s been injuries or just playing on poor teams with leaky defences, the Canadian netminder hasn’t been the elite goalie we remember from that one Cup run.
Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins – Oh god. This guy. A few years ago, we thought Fleury was on the verge of what looked like a Hall of Fame career but now he’s barely even good enough to start in the playoffs. Fleury has been top notch during the regular season but he’s most resembled a sieve when the games have truly mattered. It’s no surrpise Canada left him off its Olympic camp roster. He’s been a major part of the Penguins’ playoff exits since their Cup victory.
Ryan Miller, Buffalo Sabres – At one point, Miller looked like the most dominant goalie in the NHL. He was basically Quick before Quick. But a few hits to the head and playing in Buffalo has largely stunted his growth. Now Miller is entering the last year of his contract and his future with the Sabres remains completely unclear. Well there are still some positives – at least he doesn’t play in Philadelphia... yet.
Jonas Hiller, Anaheim Ducks – It’s tough to know what to make of this guy. In flashes, Hiller resembles the goalie who lit the league on fire earlier in his career with Anaheim. Now, he appears to be set up for a time split with Viktor Fasth, whom the Ducks re-signed last season. We think Hiller has similar talent to the players in this tier but needs to show he can do it throughout an entire season (only played 26 games last year). He’s still just 31 and has lots of time to become that elite goalie once again.
TIER 5: RELIABLE VETS
Evgeni Nabokov, New York Islanders – The Islanders got much-needed stability last season from Nabokov, who showed he can still play at a high level. Despite his age (37), it was no surprise they brought him back for next season as he proved to be an ideal stopgap option for the club. And hey, at least he’s cheaper than Rick DiPietro.
Niklas Backstrom, Minnesota Wild – Backstrom is getting a little long in the tooth but still remains a fairly solid No. 1 option when healthy. The health issue is a major concern, though, as Backstrom hasn’t played more than 51 games in a season the last three years. At the same time, his numbers do remain solid for a team that looks like it could be a perennial playoff contender for the foreseeable future.
Kari Lethonen, Dallas Stars – Lethonen never reached his potential after the Thrashers (remember them!?) picked him No. 2 overall but the Finn has developed into a respectable player since coming to Dallas. Lindy Ruff relied on good goaltending during his best years in Buffalo and Lethonen will get the chance to have an even better year in 2013-14.
Martin Brodeur , New Jersey Devils – Truthfully, I’m not even sure Brodeur is the best goaltender on his team at this point. We think Cory Schneider should be the full-time goalie but if Brodeur plays 50 per cent of the games, we expect that he can still hold down the fort. He is obviously far from the goalie he used to be but he is good enough to keep the Devils afloat... for now.
TIER 6: ON THE RISE
Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals – It was a bit of a surprise that Holtby was invited to Canada’s Olympic camp but the Capitals netminder is considered one of the better young goalies around the league. He was at his best during the Caps’ playoff run with Dale Hunter and needs to put together another solid season before he can move to the next level on this list.
Ondrej Pavelec, Winnipeg Jets – There are many problems with the Winnipeg Jets but you can’t blame the goaltending situation. At just 25, Pavelec has been reliable between the pipes for the last two seasons. Pavelec should be able to show further growth if they can surround him with a better defensive group.
Devan Dubnyk, Edmonton Oilers – Behind a horrendous defence, Dubnyk was still able to put up pretty solid numbers last season. He’s entering the prime of his career at age 27 so the Oilers need him to take the next step as they try to develop into a playoff team. It says a lot that Edmonton didn’t bring in any real competition for the top job. Jason LaBarbera isn’t scaring anyone.
Jonathan Bernier, Toronto Maple Leafs – Many in the Kings organization believe Bernier has the talent to be a star but that’ll be much tougher to accomplish in Toronto. He was never able to pass Jon Quick on the depth chart (nothing wrong that) and should get the opportunity to compete with James Reimer for the No. 1 job. We think Bernier has the upside that Dave Nonis and Randy Carlyle are looking for at the position.
TIER 7: MUCH TO PROVE
Semyon Varlamov, Colorado Avalanche – The Avalanche paid a huge price to land Varlamov from Washington and it has yet to pay any major dividends. With Patrick Roy taking over in Colorado, they’re hoping to see the potential he displayed early in his tenure with the Capitals. It’s now or never, kid.
Ben Bishop, Tampa Bay Lightning – Bishop showed flashes with St. Louis and Ottawa but has yet to show he can handle the job as a No. 1 netminder. The Lightning are hoping they have better luck with Bishop than they did with Anders Lindback – who looked completely lost last season. It never hurts to have a goalie who stands six-foot-seven.
Jacob Markstrom, Florida Panthers – Markstrom is considered one of the top prospects in the NHL. He’s still very young (just 23 years old) but needs to show he can play at the top level. He’ll be thrown into the fire this season now that the team has moved on from Jose Theodore.
TIER 8: QUESTIONABLE FITS
Ray Emery, Philadelphia Flyers – Sorry Ray but it’s hard to imagine any goalie having success in Philadelphia these days. Emery was a very solid backup with Chicago and we feel he’s best suited for that role. You’re going to miss Duncan Keith.
Karri Ramo, Calgary Flames – It’s going to be a long year in Calgary and their goaltending situation doesn’t give you much confidence. It seems like Miikka Kiprusoff isn’t coming back so they’re left with Ramo and average backup Joey MacDonald. Jay Feaster may need to suit up in net by mid-season.