For all the change surrounding the sport’s most pressure-packed position, the old puck truism still holds -- there are times hockey could simply be called “goaltending.”
The perception around how to draft, deploy and pay goalies has undergone a fairly radical transformation in the past decade or so. The 70-game workhorses are essentially a thing of the past, replaced by batterymates who share the load. Twenty years ago, goalie was the one position little guys could still play. Today, we’ve got five-foot-nothing guys terrorizing tenders on the attack, but the barrier for entry for masked men has become, “You must be at least six feet tall to play this position.” (We see and love you, Juuse Saros).
While the odd hefty contract still gets tossed a goalie’s way, the accepted logic these days is, unless you’re sure you’ve got the modern-day Marty Brodeur in your midst, don’t sink too much money into the position because, let’s be real, nobody really knows how these guys are going to perform from one year to the next, anyway.
Still, through all that, the fact remains nothing can goose a team’s confidence like great crease play, just as nothing can cause 20 guys to simultaneously stare down at their skates in despair like too many squeakers through the pads.
If you look at the past three NHL Drafts, you’d be inclined to believe the pendulum is swinging back ever so slightly in terms of how teams value goalies. Consider that from 2011 through 2018, no goalies were selected higher than 19th overall. In each of the past three drafts, however, a tender was taken by pick No. 15. And the 2021 draft was the first since the 2006 event to see two goalies go in the top 20 (Sebastian Cossa to Detroit at 15, Jesper Wallstedt to Minnesota at No. 20).
And, hey, the guy with the best save percentage in the league right now -- Toronto’s Jack Campbell -- was taken 11th overall, higher than every active goalie save Carey Price and Marc-Andre Fleury. Of course, it only took him 10 years and three organizations to prove his worth as a top-flight starter.
Okay, I guess we really don’t know anything about this position beyond, if you find a guy who’s excelling there, ride it out and don’t ask questions. You can bet that’s the approach of numerous teams near the top of this week’s power rankings.
1. Carolina Hurricanes (12-2-0)
Is anybody happier with their off-season goalie shopping? Frederik Andersen is in the early Vezina conversation and fellow off-season UFA acquisition Antti Raanta looks capable of being his backup -- when he’s actually healthy, of course.
2. Florida Panthers (11-2-3)
Bob is back! I guess Sergei Bobrovsky just had to collect $23.5 million in actual salary the past two years in Florida before turning it on. The 33-year-old Russian has sparkling numbers this year and is being pushed by one of those recent high draft picks, American Spencer Knight.
3. Tampa Bay Lightning (8-3-3)
Andrei Vasilevskiy, surely the best-goalie belt holder right now, has allowed one goal in regulation time in five of his past seven outings. In the other two games, he completely fell apart and allowed two. The Bolts would love to get better play from backup Brian Elliott to spell ‘Vasy’ more frequently.
4. Washington Capitals (10-2-5)
Can Ilya Samsonov -- who earned his second shutout in four games on Wednesday night -- finally grab the bull by the horns? In all likelihood, he and Vitek Vanecek will go back and forth until it’s time to pick a playoff starter.
5. Edmonton Oilers (11-4-0)
No matter what they get from Mikko Koskinen and presently injured Mike Smith, you have to think Edmonton will be kicking goaltending tires ahead of the trade deadline.
6. Toronto Maple Leafs (11-5-1)
Welcome to the weirdest factoid of the season: The top three goalies in goals-against average (Campbell, Andersen and James Reimer) either play for the Leafs or played for the Leafs. The question in Toronto is whether backup Petr Mrazek can get and stay healthy, thus lightening the load on Campbell.
7. New York Rangers (10-3-3)
If you’re a Blueshirts backer, you’re surely getting ideas about Igor Shesterkin just grabbing the torch from ‘The King,’ Henrik Lundqvist, and providing New York with top-notch tending for the next decade. Alexandar Georgiev, though, has scuffled this season.
8. Anaheim Ducks (10-4-3)
You know the deal for John Gibson, who’s in the running to be Team USA’s Olympic starter: When healthy, like he is this year, he’s among the best there is.
9. Winnipeg Jets (9-3-3)
Speaking of Team USA, Connor Hellebuyck started slow out of the gate, but has been money in the bank in his past five outings. And pad-slaps to Eric Comrie, who rode the waiver wire around the league the past multiple seasons but has established himself as a great No. 2 in Winnipeg.
10. Minnesota Wild (10-5-0)
Minnesota’s quality start is decidedly not goalie driven. Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen have combined to provide the third-worst five-on-five save percentage in the league (.911).
11. Colorado Avalanche (7-5-1)
The Avs ponied up to bring in Darcy Kuemper in the off-season and he’s been… perfectly fine. Realistically, the team would just like to see the oft-injured goalie make it through the season without any major dings.
12. Calgary Flames (8-3-5)
Jacob Markstrom has been a monster in Year 2 with the Flames and Dan Vladar is looking like a great summer pickup.
13. Philadelphia Flyers (8-4-2)
Carter Hart’s play has placed him firmly back in the conversation to represent Canada at the Olympics. Much more surprising than that, Martin Jones -- who has not posted a save percentage above .900 since 2017-18 -- has started out with a .931 mark in four outings.
14. Boston Bruins (8-5-0)
You knew the post-Tuukka Rask era was going to be a period of adjustment. Linus Ullmark, signed as a UFA in the summer, has been pretty flat, but youngster Jeremy Swayman has taken the reins of late and looked very solid.
15. Vegas Golden Knights (9-7-0)
Robin Lehner is looking more like himself after a slow start, as for the first time in a while, there’s a clear goalie hierarchy in the desert. Nobody has faced more rubber this year than Lehner, who’s seen 444 shots.
16. Columbus Blue Jackets (8-5-0)
It’s been a tale of two months. Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo combined to supply the fourth-best October five-on-five save percentage, but they’ve dipped all the way to 31st in November.
17. Nashville Predators (9-6-1)
While Preds fans surely poured one out for retired franchise legend Pekka Rinne, Juuse Saros has soared in his first season as the unquestioned No. 1.
18. New Jersey Devils (7-4-3)
It’s a small four-game sample size, but Mackenzie Blackwood has looked great since returning from a heel injury. The 24-year-old is another guy in the mix for Canada’s crease. Jonathan Bernier, meanwhile, continues to spend his early-30s being a serviceable backup.
19. St. Louis Blues (8-5-2)
Jordan Binnington has been okay in the Blues crease, but he’s likely a little overworked. That should change now that Ville Husso has returned from the COVID-19 list.
20. Los Angeles Kings (8-6-2)
America’s last Olympic goalie (at least when NHLers went) looks like he wants to be there eight years later, too. Jonathan Quick, at age 35, is having a throwback season, posting a .940 save percentage, while Calvin Petersen has had some ups and downs.
21. San Jose Sharks (8-6-1)
You know what Reimer’s save percentage in 16 games over two stops in San Jose is? Try .940. I guess this guy belongs in Northern California.
22. Detroit Red Wings (8-8-2)
Summer addition Alex Nedeljkovic has settled in, registering a .921 save percentage in his past seven games.
23. New York Islanders (5-6-2)
Ilya Sorokin has been spectacular carrying the water for a team that -- after a 13-game roadie -- will finally play its first home game on Saturday. And now that Semyon Varlamov is back from injury, the Isles should have one of the best tandems back up and running soon.
24. Buffalo Sabres (7-6-2)
Craig Anderson’s injury halted a nice run for him, but plucky Dustin Tokarski is still plugging along with a shiny .921 mark.
25. Pittsburgh Penguins (5-6-4)
It’s been a grind this year in Pittsburgh, but Tristan Jarry has done his part with a .917 save percentage. The club could use a little more out of backup Casey DeSmith.
26. Dallas Stars (6-6-2)
Braden Holtby started hot, cooled and now he’s hurt. The time is now for 22-year-old Jake Oettinger to step up.
OH MY FLEURY.pic.twitter.com/PupV4lBiUi
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) November 18, 2021
27. Chicago Blackhawks (5-9-2)
Marc-Andre Fleury had a really rough start in Chicago, but last year’s Vezina Trophy winner is putting it together with three straight wins and a .931 save percentage in his past seven games.
28. Ottawa Senators (4-10-1)
Matt Murray may be signed long-term, but Filip Gustavsson has to be the long-term hope for Sens fans. He’s shown flashes he can be the man.
29. Vancouver Canucks (5-10-2)
Things are sliding off the rails in B.C. and while Thatcher Demko and Jaroslav Halak have made more than their share of high-danger saves, the goalies can’t escape blame here.
30. Montreal Canadiens (4-12-2)
It’s already a lost year in Montreal, so -- with Carey Price and Jake Allen both currently out -- maybe now is the time to get prospect Cayden Primeau a string of big-league starts.
31. Seattle Kraken (4-11-1)
Remember when it seemed like goaltending would be a strength for this new squad? Seattle’s .863 five-on-five save percentage is the worst mark in the league and last year’s Vezina finalist, Philipp Grubauer, has an .877 save percentage overall.
32. Arizona Coyotes (2-13-1)
It’s not a lot to put your arms around, but Scott Wedgewood has looked sharp in four games since coming over from New Jersey on waivers.