Editor’s Note: Statistics for Henrik Lundqvist in this article do not include the 2014-15 season.
When the Shot Quality Project debuted on Sportsnet.ca during the 2013–14 NHL season, it turned heads in the hockey community with both the size of the undertaking and the fact that it undercut traditional stats.
Since then, writer Chris Boyle has spent hundreds of hours tracking thousands of shots to break new ground on how best to analyze and grade goaltenders. When he first got his hands on some of the information detailed below, he casually kicked around the idea of coming up with a formula to compare goalies across eras. We were, to say the least, intrigued.
One of the difficulties in any assessment of the greatest goaltenders ever is the lack of save-percentage data prior to the 1980s. Rankings involving goalies from previous decades have relied on team results and reputations forged by storytellers. But two books took on the task of filling the gaps by collecting old data from historical scoresheets to determine save percentages. The Hockey Compendium: NHL Facts, Stats, and Stories fills in data from 1954–55 to the final years of the Original Six era, and Goaltenders: The Expansion Years (1967–1979) takes care of the rest.
Armed with that data, I created league averages from 1954–55 onward and adjusted for individual eras. That allowed me to come up with a baseline season for a league-average goalie: 25-25-10, .898, 3.02. With that, I had a level playing field on which to measure 59 years of NHL netminders.
I weighted my research toward save percentage, but also accounted for on-ice success, longevity and innovation. Initial research had Ken Dryden so far ahead of the field that he was Gretzkyesque. I evened the statistical playing field by comparing the eight-year (the length of Dryden’s career) statistical primes of each goaltender. I also adjusted for shootout victories, which have inflated win totals over the past decade.
1. Ken Dryden
(Era adjusted, eight-year prime averages, based on a 60-game workload) The biggest knock on Ken Dryden has always been that his record was the result of playing behind a great team. One way to expose team effect is to assess all the goaltenders on a given squad. Reigning Vezina Trophy winner Tuukka Rask’s career save percentage is .003 better than that of his backups. Dryden was .019 percentage points better than his backups during his eight-year career, putting an end to any Chris Osgood–level criticism.
Dryden produced an astronomical save percentage during his career—.024 above league average. To put that into perspective, in 2013–14 numbers, that’s a .938 on average (Rask’s was .930 last season). During the 1975–76 season, Dryden registered a .927 when the league average was .890, the equivalent to .945 last season.
Couple the stats with on-ice results and it’s clear that Dryden is, without a doubt, the greatest goalie of all time.
2. Patrick Roy
Both Patrick Roy and Dominik Hasek were contenders for the No. 1 spot but statistically couldn’t match Dryden’s dominance. Instead, they battled to be the best of their generation.
They registered almost identical numbers, and while Roy played on better teams during his prime, he still produced .020 above his backups, slightly trailing Hasek’s .025. When comparing their on-ice accomplishments, Hasek outdistanced Roy in individual awards, but Roy’s playoff accomplishments cancel out Hasek’s Harts. In effect, during their primes, they were statistical equals.
But Roy gets the nod by a razor-thin margin. The defining factor was innovation. He is godfather to the current generation of goalies — The Windows 1.0 to today’s 8.1 version.
His technical innovations led to the equipment alterations and new skating techniques that have made goaltenders more dominant today than ever.
3. Dominik Hasek
The Buffalo Sabres are retiring the Dominator’s number this January, a well-deserved tribute for one of the greatest to ever play the position.
4. Jaques Plante
Plante does not match the statistical greatness of the top three, but, like Roy, he had a major impact on the game with technical and equipment innovations.
He will always be known for being the first to regularly wear a mask, but he also changed the way the game was played with his propensity for leaving the net, playing the puck and communicating with defenceman being pressured on the forecheck. Plante also registered the greatest save percentage in history with a .944 (.041 above league average) in 40 games with the Leafs as a 42-year-old in 1970–71.
5. Bernie Parent
The argument can be made that, at his best, Bernie Parent was the greatest goalie ever.
During the 1973–74 season (which didn’t have overtime), Parent had a record of 47-13-12 and a .933 save percentage against a league average of .896. With the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy included, it’s the most impressive campaign by any goalie in 59 seasons.
He followed that up with a 44-14-10 record and a .918 save percentage (.028 above average) in 1974–75, adding another Cup and Conn Smythe for good measure.
6. Tony Esposito
“Tony O” dominated the early ’70s. He was the undisputed goaltending champion of 1970 and ’71 before getting overshadowed by Parent and Dryden. Esposito also helped popularize the butterfly and made equipment tweaks that advanced the position.
7. Glenn Hall
There’s a big statistical gap between Hall and the top 6, but he originated the butterfly.
Plus, his numbers must have suffered from the grind of playing every single game for seven straight seasons. That’s an absurd accomplishment.
8. Martin Brodeur
Brodeur is considered the best goalie ever by some thanks to longevity. But his statistical prime doesn’t hold up to his peers’ (Roy and Hasek) and his most impressive stats (wins, shutouts) are heavily team-influenced.
9. Ed Belfour
During their primes, Belfour and Brodeur were almost statistical equals. Belfour was better in his later seasons, but his late NHL debut, at 23, cost him a spot or two.
10. Henrik Lundqvist
This final spot was a titanic struggle. Billy Smith lost out because Chico Resch and Roland Melanson essentially matched his numbers from 1975–84, while a late start to Johnny Bower’s career hurt him. I’ve watched the overlapping primes of Lundqvist and Roberto Luongo and, though they’re nearly statistical equals, “the King” takes it.