Goaltending. It's the most fickle position in the NHL but, also, the most important for success. If you have a netminder who's struggling, your Stanley Cup hopes are over before they even begin.
A top-end goalie can make all the difference in the world this time of year, and help a team overcome any other shortcomings on defence or offence. While the Tampa Bay Lightning have been stacked in their back-to-back championships, Andrei Vasilevskiy has given no crack for the opponents to get through. He won the Conn Smythe last season largely because of how unbeatable he was in elimination games.
One hiccup in those starts and any goodwill a netminder has built up could wash away.
Goalies will be a huge part of the storylines that are set to unfold in the NHL over the next two months and, whether or not one of them wins the Conn Smythe again in 2022, you can bet the team that lifts the Cup in June will have gotten some solid play in net.
So how should we rank the teams?
As we set to embark on the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, here are the goalie Power Rankings — an overview of who are the best bets to elevate their teams at the most important times.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning: Andrei Vasilevskiy
Vasilevskiy isn't going to win the Vezina this season. He may not even be a finalist. But there is not another goalie you can feel better about manning your net in the playoffs right now than the Lightning stopper.
His "normal" numbers this season are still outstanding compared to most goalies, but Vasilevskiy is not most goalies. In the past two playoffs, Vasilevskiy has maintained a .932 save percentage, 34-14 record and a sparkling 1.90 GAA. He's allowed more than three goals in just six of those 48 games and less than three goals in 28 of them.
Now, it is true that Vasilevskiy's regular season finish in 2022 wasn't the strongest (.902 SV%, 3.19 GAA in April) so we'll see if he can quickly turn it around. Not going to bet against it.
2. New York Rangers: Igor Shesterkin
The favourite for the Vezina Trophy in 2022, Shesterkin will get some Hart Trophy consideration as well. And while he started to wobble a little in mid-March, Shesterkin got back on track and earned three shutouts in April. He's peaked again.
Shesterkin's 44.81 Goals Saved Above Average (per Hockey-Reference) is far and away the best in the league this season and one of the best of the salary cap era. The only goalie to finish with a better mark in that span? Tim Thomas in 2010-11 during his Vezina performance.
Shesterkin is on his way to being a superstar in this league for some time and you could rank him No. 1 on this list without much argument. But his track record is not as proven as Vasilevskiy's and it's not as though the Tampa goalie had a bad season.
This will be the first real playoff test of Shesterkin's young NHL career. His first taste came in the 2020 bubble when he started Game 3 of the best-of-5 series against Carolina (the Rangers dropped the first two) and the outclassed Rangers' season ended in a 4-1 loss. Shesterkin stopped 27 of 30 shots faced.
The 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs could be Shesterkin's official arrival as a truly game-changing netminder. Do it in the regular season for attention, continue it in the playoffs and you start to build a legacy.
3. Calgary Flames: Jacob Markstrom
With a .922 save percentage on the season, Markstrom ranks third behind Shesterkin and Ilya Sorokin, but Markstrom's nine shutouts led the league. Behind Calgary's stout defence that limited opponents to the fourth-fewest shots per game and third-fewest expected goals against per game, Markstrom was a rock who added value on top of those numbers.
A late-bloomer who was a second-round pick of Florida's back in 2008, Markstrom has been a firmly established, consistent goalie for six years now and this has been the best one of his career. But between Vancouver and Calgary, Markstrom has played a total of just 14 post-season games and all of them came in 2020. So, for a 32-year-old, he's not all that experienced this time of season.
Still, in 2020 he battled for the Canucks past Minnesota and St. Louis until an injury in Round 3 to Vegas opened the door for Thatcher 'Bubble' Demko. Markstrom had a .919 save percentage in that run and his 5.47 GSAA was second-best of all goalies, behind just Demko.
4. Colorado Avalanche: Darcy Kuemper
When they lost Philipp Grubauer, the Avs traded a first-round pick and Conor Timmins to Arizona for Kuemper, a high price for an expiring contract goalie. A good goalie to be sure, but without security at the position beyond 2021-22.
So when Kuemper started soft it rang alarm bells. A .902 save percentage through the first two months of the season left Kuemper below league average. They were still winning plenty of games because of the offence, though.
Kuemper did eventually settle in and from the moment he returned from an injury in mid-December, he has been as advertised for the Avalanche. That Kuemper's season-long numbers stack up well and reflect someone who should be a Vezina finalist shows just how great he's been from that turnaround.
Since Dec. 8, Kuemper ranks second in the league in save percentage (.929), first by shutouts (5), fourth by GAA (2.38) and fifth by shots faced. He's been 27-7-3 since that date, as the Avs shot up the standings and ran away with the Western Conference.
5. Minnesota Wild: Marc-Andre Fleury/Cam Talbot
Rather than trading for Fleury and then leaning on him as a No. 1, the Wild have split duties between their deadline pickup and the incumbent Talbot. By the numbers, Talbot has really stepped out of his lull that made the Wild feel they should get into the goalie market, and has actually shown a little better than Fleury down the stretch. Talbot hasn't lost a game in regulation since the trade deadline and has the advantage in save percentage (.925 to .911), GAA (2.25 to 2.74) and shutouts (2-0) since the trade deadline.
In all likelihood, one of these goalies will be leaned on more than the other come the playoffs, and we'd think Fleury will get the first shot. Of course, he's shared the post-season crease a couple of times in his career, both in Pittsburgh and Vegas. So Talbot might get a start here and there, especially if Fleury puts up a stinker at some point and gets a break.
Fleury's playoff credentials are well-known, but don't underestimate Talbot here either. In leading playoff roles with Edmonton, Calgary and Minnesota in 2017, 2020 and 2021 he has a combined .923 save percentage with six shutouts in 32 games. Whoever the Wild do end up riding with, the 1B option will be a pretty good one to turn to.
6. Carolina Hurricanes: Frederik Andersen/Antti Raanta
The William Jennings duo with the lowest GAA in the league this season, you might be asking why the Canes aren't higher in the goalie power rankings. Couple things. One, the preferred starter, Andersen, is injured and not ready for Game 1. Raanta started the final four regular-season games after Andersen was hurt, but there was reported optimism the latter could be back before long. With Raanta, the Canes aren't in horrible shape. He had a .912 save percentage this season and is as good a backup as you might hope for. He is also totally unproven in the playoffs and, obviously, their second choice for the job.
If Andersen does return in the series, the Canes will be backstopped by one of the best goalies in the league this season, bouncing all the way back from an injury-induced struggle in Toronto in 2020-21. Andersen had the sixth-best GSAA this season, the third-best save percentage, second-best GAA and a 35-14-3 record.
However, though he was among the more consistent goalies in the NHL through most of his five-year tenure with the Leafs, he does come with the stigma of having not won a series with that team. But how much was it really on Andersen? He had a .936 save percentage in the series loss to Columbus, and a .922 in the 2019 series loss to Boston (the Leafs scored three total goals in their last two losses of that one). If Andersen gets back in the net, he seems like a pretty good bet to be able to successfully backstop one of the best all-around teams going in the NHL, and one that has been searching for a sturdy starter for years.
7. Boston Bruins: Linus Ullmark/Jeremy Swayman
It's a good problem to have: Which goalie should start Game 1 for the Bruins?
Through December, the two goalies were pretty evenly performing against one another. Similar number of starts, similar GAA, similar save percentage. But after the calendar flip, Ullmark started to stumble a little and as Swayman got more starts into February he was starting to rise as the No. 1 standout. In January and February combined Swayman had a .947 save percentage to Ullmark's .899.
It seemed the playoff job was Swayman's lose.
Which he seems to have done down the stretch. Ullmark has risen again as the better option, with a .927 SV% and 1.96 GAA to Swayman's .894 and 3.01 through the final two months. And Ullmark is picking up steam, too, with a .943 save rate in April.
So, the answer to the question of who will start Game 1 is Ullmark, though don't expect Swayman to be nailed to the bench all post-season. While Ullmark was the targeted off-season pickup to replace Tuukka Rask if he didn't come back (or back him up if he did), Swayman has been a real nice story to come along and work his way into the picture. It was Swayman who got more starts this season, and it's Swayman finishing with the slightly better SV%, GAA and GSAA.
Neither goalie has started an NHL playoff game yet, but as they both look to prove themselves at different stages of their careers, they'll at least do so behind a team that can smother you with its defence. Boston held opponents to the fewest shots against per game at 5-on-5 and the lowest expected goals against per game. It's a good incubator for either to get comfortable in.
8. Toronto Maple Leafs: Jack Campbell
Which version of Campbell will the Leafs get? Will it be the goalie who, from the season start in October through the end of December, led the league with a .937 save percentage? Will it be the goalie who, from Jan. 1 through early March, had an .882 save rate that was second-worst among all starters in the league? In April, playing nine games back from a rib injury, Campbell has a .915 save rate. So maybe the answer is "somewhere in the middle" of the two extremes. The Leafs would be happy with that outcome.
Campbell wasn't to blame for last season's elimination. He had a .934 save rate in that seven-game series against Montreal and allowed more than two goals just twice. If Campbell can do that again it should, in theory, be enough to help a team with the second-best offence through.
9. Florida Panthers: Sergei Bobrovsky/Spencer Knight
It might be weird for the NHL's leader in wins to be ranked all the way down at No. 9 on this list, and even weirder for the need to pair him with his backup. But Bobrovsky is not known for his consistency and is backing into the post-season with an .888 save percentage in April. He won eight of those nine games he played in the month, which indicates how his win total has an awful lot to do with the absolutely bananas team in front of him.
The Panthers finished the season as the first team in 26 years to average over four goals per game of offence. They won just shy of 40 per cent of the games they trailed after two periods, also among the three best in the past quarter century. If the Panthers win, the story is going to be about their goal scoring keeping up its pace in the post-season.
On defence, the Panthers are ninth in shots-against per game, but 20th by high-danger chances and 14th by expected goals per 60. There will be pressure on whoever starts.
Bobrovsky will get the net in Game 1, of that there is no doubt, but what needs to happen to turn to Knight? He's only got a .905 on the season, so while he is still the celebrated "goalie of the future" here and a nice security blanket in theory, Knight isn't there yet.
10. St. Louis Blues: Ville Husso/Jordan Binnington
This one has goalie controversy written all over it. Binnington had an opportunity open in 2018-19 for him to take the starter's role, and he jumped right into it, leading the Blues to their first Stanley Cup with incredible numbers. He was the runner-up for the Conn Smythe Trophy to Ryan O'Reilly.
In the two years that followed Binnington was good, though his totals were declining slightly. This season they fell off to an alarming degree, all the way down to a .902 save percentage and a ballooning 3.10 GAA. In January an opportunity opened up for Ville Husso to take the starter's role...and he jumped into it.
Since Jan. 1, Husso has 31 starts to Binnington's 19 with vastly better numbers in every regard. Husso was a little shaky in March and could have lost the crease then, but Binnington was still struggling as well. Husso has improved again in April to quell any concerns.
Still, here is the situation: Husso is a UFA at season's end, while Binnington will have five years remaining on a six-year contract paying $6 million against the cap. You certainly don't start a goalie in the playoffs for contract reasons, but also consider that Binnington did put together a couple good starts in April. At the very least, it might give more confidence to Craig Berube to turn back to Binnington a bit quicker if Husso falters.
As far as the potential for goalie controversies this post-season, the Blues rank right up there.
11. Pittsburgh Penguins: Casey DeSmith
Goaltending was chiefly to blame for scuttling Pittsburgh's playoff hopes last spring. Tristan Jarry allowed four goals or more in four of his six games and finished with an .888 as the Pens were eliminated by the Islanders. There was some question, then, if they needed to address the position in the off-season. That didn't happen, and then Jarry rebounded to post a pretty darn good 2021-22 campaign, with career-bests in wins and GAA. If Jarry were the Game 1 starter for Pittsburgh, they would be slotting a few places higher on this list.
But Jarry is out, week-to-week with a broken bone in his foot. And so the duty falls to Casey DeSmith, a 30-year-old with 46 games played over the past two years and zero Stanley Cup Playoff experience. Not all is lost, though.
DeSmith got better as the year went along and, from Feb. 1 through the end of the season, he had a .927 save percentage in 16 games that ranked tied with Ilya Sorokin for third-best in that time. Jarry, for good measure, was a .911 in 22 games during that span.
12. Edmonton Oilers: Mike Smith/Mikko Koskinen
The wildest of wild cards, what do the Oilers netminders have in store for us this year?
Let's start with the fact that Mike Smith will get the start in Game 1 and it will be his net until he falters and needs a break. The Oilers crease was sort of a hot hand situation this season, though Smith missed large chunks early due to injury. The 40-year-old has big-game potential and has carried a team to the conference final before — but that was over 10 years ago now with the Coyotes. Can he be The Guy for the young Oilers now?
Edmonton's defence took a notable turn for the better when Jay Woodcroft took over behind the bench mid-way through the season, and that will make things at least somewhat easier on the netminders. Smith wrapped with a .951 save percentage in April and had a better GSAA on the year than the likes of Minnesota's Cam Talbot, Pittsburgh's Casey DeSmith and their first-round opponent, fellow greybeard Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings.
Ideally, the Oilers can ride Smith and not have to turn to Koskinen, who was fine but not spectacular this season. He filled the gaps when injuries required, but a season-long .903 save rate and a minus-6.11 GSAA is not the sort of tender you want to lean on come playoff time. Can Smith play up to what's required and stay healthy for a long run?
13. Los Angeles Kings: Jonathan Quick
This was supposed to be Cal Petersen's crease. The only reason it seemed Quick was even still around is because his $5.8 million cap hit (that runs through next season) was not attractive to the many cap-strapped teams in the league. But, though Quick isn't back to his peak years when he was one of the top goalies in the league, flashing around the crease like a bolt of lightning and winning a Conn Smythe and a couple Jennings Trophies, he did rebound to have his best season since 2017-18. It didn't look like the 36-year-old would ever get back to that (Petersen, in the meantime, finished with a save rate below .900).
Does Quick, then, have another playoff push left in him? The first-round challenge against Edmonton's stars is a heavy lift. The Kings are a decent enough defensive team, but not excellent, though we wonder how the matchups will go with Anze Kopitar and Phillip Danault down the middle.
14. Washington Capitals: Vitek Vanecek/Ilya Samsonov
The Capitals didn't really hide the fact they were trying to upgrade their goalies at the trade deadline. They were in on Marc-Andre Fleury, who didn't want to go to a Penguins rival. There was no other deal to find and so the volatile Vanecek/Samsonov duo finished the season, though not really in great form.
From the trade deadline through the end of the regular season the save percentages of both goalies were atrocious. Vanecek (.876 in his last 10 games) seems to be the likely starter, but don't be surprised if the Caps have to quickly turn to Samsonov (.881 in his last 10 games). On the season as a whole Vanecek holds the statistical advantage, but his numbers were truly average and unspectacular. And now these two go up against the best offence the NHL has seen in 26 years in Round 1. Good luck.
15. Dallas Stars: Jake Oettinger
The Stars came into the year with so many goalies. Braden Holtby, the off-season pickup, began as the starter. Anton Khudobin got a few looks. Cap and waiver reasons were keeping Jake Oettinger in the minors, but by November he was working his way into the picture. Injuries derailed everyone else and now Oettinger is the undisputed starter, with Scott Wedgewood as the backup.
Oettinger is the promising goalie of the future everyone saw coming here and the 23-year-old started well enough. His best month was was February when he peaked to a .937 save percentage, but the optimism that he could be the next game-changing goalie waned down the stretch. In the last two months of the season he had a .905 save rate that was outmatched by Wedgewood. With a playoff spot on the line, though, it should be pointed out that Oettinger finished with three strong starts against Seattle, Vegas and Anaheim (all non-playoff teams).
16. Nashville Predators: David Rittich/Connor Ingram
A real tough break for the Predators in the last week of the season. Juuse Saros is so important to what the team does and, if he was going to start Game 1 for them, Nashville would be a top-five team in this ranking. No goalie had played more games than Saros when he went down, and only Connor Hellebuyck had faced more shots on the season.
But an injury to Saros on Tuesday of last week against Calgary has thrown the team's playoff hopes in the air. He missed the final two games of the regular season, and though the team remains "hopeful" he'll be back for the playoffs, it doesn't sound promising that it'll come right away.
Without Saros, the Predators will turn to the combination of Connor Ingram and David Rittich. They both got a start in the last two games — Rittich allowed four goals on 42 shots to the Avalanche and Ingram five goals on 27 shots to Arizona. That loss cost the Preds their hold on the first wild card spot and a Round 1 date with Calgary instead of the Colorado matchup they wound up with.
Rittich was Toronto's third-stringer in case of playoff emergency last season and has almost no post-season track record. Ingram had three NHL starts this season — one in October, one in November and the final game of the regular season. And that's the extent of his NHL experience.
So the Preds have gone from a proven workhorse and a Vezina-type netminder to lots of uncertainty. It's a big hit and, facing the Avs, will be a massive challenge to contend with.