Scoring in the NHL is down and it’s been an issue that the league has been trying to address for many seasons. There’s a ton of explanations for this, but two of the more popular ones center around the NHL’s netminders. Some people say that goalies are just getting better and that after the crazy high scoring 80s and 90s, it makes sense that goalies would rise to the challenge. That very may well be true, as today’s goalies are faster than ever and save percentages have been higher league-wide over the past five years than ever before. The other explanation people latch onto? Goalies have been getting bigger and taller for years.
You look around the NHL and it’s not uncommon for some of the league’s best goaltenders to stand at almost six and a half feet tall. That was unfathomable only a couple decades ago, that a big, tall goalie would find success playing professional hockey at the highest level. But goalies have changed and the bigger a goalie is, the easier it is to cut down the angles and take away a shooter’s opportunities. That leads us to ask the question: how many NHL goalies rely on their size TOO much?
All of the goalies on the following list stand at least 6’4” and have have gotten their feet wet at some point or another in the NHL. We’re looking to see whether or not these goalies have all the skills to dominate at the NHL without their size or if they are too dependent on their size to truly be an effective goalie at hockey’s highest level.
15. Actually Good – Frederik Andersen
The 6’4” Leafs goalie came over to Toronto over the off-season in a trade with Anaheim and hasn’t been the most spectacular goalie since the start of this season, but he has produced average numbers on a Maple Leafs team that doesn’t exactly impress on defense. In response, Andersen has been one of the league’s most aggressive goalies so far in 2016.
Andersen attacks the shooter and takes away the angles with his size, and he’s proven that he can use his frame to get in front of even some of the most difficult shots. Andersen won a William M. Jennings trophy last season with the Ducks allowing the lowest goals against average in the league on a very defensively capable team, so it will be interesting if he can continue his success as his first season with Toronto wears on. You could definitely argue the jury’s still out on Andersen, but we’re sold on him.
14. Just Tall – Robin Lehner
Robin Lehner is getting his first full season as a feature goalie this year with the Sabres and he’s got a fantastic opportunity to take the reigns as Buffalo’s starter of the future. It might be too early to tell whether or not he has the potential to be a dependable starting goalie, but Lehner hasn’t done too much to impress the first few seasons of his career, including his time in Ottawa.
At 6’5” and 240 pounds Lehner is one of the league’s largest goalies. He plays like it too, relying heavily on the butterfly and his massive pads to take away the bottom of the net. Having said that, one of the biggest knocks against Lehner is his rebound control and that could be a fatal combination for Lehner. Making the first save isn’t enough if you consistently let up fat rebounds in front of the net. That could quickly become the book on Lehner and he may be short for this league if he can’t put his game together.
13. Actually Good – Steve Mason
The right-handed catching Steve Mason took a while to find his niche in the NHL, but it appears that the Flyers have finally provided Mason an opportunity to excel. People seem to forget that the 6’4” Mason won the Calder back in 2009 before he started to struggle with the Blue Jackets. Eventually, Mason fell out of favor in Columbus and he was traded to Philadelphia a few seasons back. He’s had success as the Flyers’ starter ever since.
At 6’4”, Mason’s size compliments his quick reflexes and some of the NHL’s best positioning. Mason has shown on occasion the capacity to let in soft goals, but that’s about the only knock on one of the league’s more underrated goaltenders. Mason is only 28, so if he continues to produce, there’s little doubt that he’ll continue to be a ‘big’ asset for Philadelphia down the road.
12. Just Tall – Kari Lehtonen
Kari Lehtonen is textbook when it comes to goalies who rely too much on their size. Lehtonen was drafted second overall back in 2002 and while he has been a consistent NHL goalie throughout most of his career, the Finnish-born tender has never really produced to the level of his draft position. After starting his career with the Thrashers, Lehtonen has spent the last half a decade with the Stars and most recently has played in tandem with Antti Niemi.
Lehtonen uses his size to play the angles on shooters, which is good. On the other hand, he’s slow and has difficulty getting over on passing plays where he overcommits on the shooter. That might be all Dallas needs right now. As long as Dallas gets mediocre goaltending more often than not they bring more firepower than the other team can muster. That’s not the point though; at the end of the day, one of Lehtonen’s only strengths is his size and there’s a good chance Lehtonen would be lost without it.
11. Actually Good – Martin Jones
The former Kings backup cashed in big last season when he signed with the Sharks for $3 million over the next three years. So far, Jones has been worth every penny of that deal. Signing Jones as a starter was a big risk for San Jose, but he’s been exceptional so far. Jones was a massive contributor during San Jose’s playoff run last season and continues to post solid numbers to start off this season.
Jones is 6’4” and definitely uses his height to his advantage, but it’s unconventional how athletic he is for such a tall goaltender. Jones is smooth positioning himself in the crease and when he is out of position, he seldom gives up on a play and is acrobatic enough to recover more often than not. At just 26 years old, Jones still has a lot of room to grow and if he continues to play like he did last season, the Sharks are likely set between the pipes for years to come.
10. Just Tall – Eddie Lack
After coming over to the Hurricanes last season, Eddie Lack showed a lot of promise as a backup goalie for Carolina and seemed set for a chance to potentially take over as the Canes goalie of the future. He’s certainly struggled so far. After a decent start, Lack just barely posted a save percentage over .900 last season and while it seems like Lack has potential to be a great NHL goalie, he’s been shockingly inconsistent over the past couple seasons.
Lack has an astonishing amount of agility for a 6’4” goalie and his size definitely helps take away a large portion of the net. Having said that, until Lack can prove to be a reliable goaltender, it really doesn’t matter. He has played poorly in limited time to start the 2016-17 season and, at this rate, it may be a tall order for Lack to remain a goalie in the NHL.
9. Actually Good – Connor Hellebuyck
Connor Hellebuyck has probably played the least time in the NHL out of everyone on this list, but it’s time NHL fans started taking notice of the Jets’ prospect. At only 23 years of age, Hellebuyck shows plenty of promise and has already been one of the most talented goalies in Winnipeg since the franchise moved from Atlanta. Hellebuyck already appears to be the feature goalie for the Jets a dozen or so games into the young 2016-17 season and has helped Winnipeg get off to a decent record to start the season.
Scouting reports by The Hockey News say that Hellebuyck has “ideal size” for a goaltender at 6’4” and 207 pounds and it’s difficult to dispute that. While it remains to be seen that he can be a consistent and proven first-string goalie over the course of an entire season, Hellebuyck might be the NHL’s most promising young goaltender and it will be exciting to see if he can live up to expectations on a young Jets team.
8. Just Tall – Mike Smith
Mike Smith is a veteran goalie who has spent the past six years playing for the Arizona Coyotes. He’s as reliable as they come, but hasn’t impressed in over half a decade on a Coyotes team that looks younger and more promising every season. The main knock on Smith is his durability; he plays well but he’s certainly injury-prone and that’s an issue on a team that’s looking to depend on reliable goaltending to aid in the growth of their young stars.
Smith is one of the best puck-handling goalies in the league and that’s easily one of his greatest strengths in net. Beyond that, there isn’t all that much to get excited about regarding Mike Smith. He’s 6’4” and covers most of the net, but he doesn’t have great agility or reflexes and he’s not getting any better. Smith isn’t the worst goalie, but Arizona knows what they’re getting; he’s a big goalie who will do the best he can to get in front of as much rubber as he can.
7. Actually Good – Matt Murray
Murray exploded onto the scene in 2016 as the premier goalie for the Pittsburgh Penguins during the playoffs, where he helped lead the Pens to a Stanley Cup. At only 22, Murray is the youngest goalie on this list and one of the youngest goalies currently playing in the NHL. Heading into this season, Murray is still backing up Marc-Andre Fleury in Pittsburgh. He was sensational last season posting a .930 save percentage in 13 games during the regular season on top of his performance in the playoffs, following up on some spectacular AHL stats. His chance as a starter will likely come sooner, rather than later.
At 178 pounds Murray is one of the league’s most slender goalies, but plays very big in net in spite of that. In addition to great agility at 6’4”, he has already shown the potential to come through in the clutch between the pipes, as seen in his playoff performances in the past. With a sturdy frame and ice water through his veins, Murray’s got all the potential in the world.
6. Just Tall – Darcy Kuemper
At 26, Darcy Kuemper is entering his fourth season serving as a backup for the Wild. He’s averaged about 25 games a season since he got to the NHL and has posted mediocre numbers when he’s gotten a chance to play; numbers you’d about expect from an average NHL backup. Kuemper’s young so there’s the chance that he could get better down the road but he hasn’t made any major improvements in his game the past few years.
Kuemper stands tall at 6’5” but isn’t very effective challenging shooters, limiting how effectively he can use his size. Scouting reports also suggest he’s a little too quick going down to the butterfly, meaning it’s easy to beat Kuemper high even with his great size. Unless he can learn to utilize his height, it seems unlikely Kuemper will improve enough to supplant Minnesota’s current starting goalie…
5. Actually Good – Devan Dubnyk
Moving onto the other half of the Wild’s goaltending tandem this season, Devan Dubnyk stands an inch taller than Kuemper at 6’6” and he’s easily one of the league’s best tall goalies. Dubnyk has been involved with the NHL for the better part of a decade, but it wasn’t until two seasons ago when he was traded to Minnesota that Dubnyk started to shine. Since the 2014-15 season, when Dubnyk won the Masterton Trophy for his sensational play during the second half, Dubnyk has posted consistently good numbers for the Wild.
There are some knocks against Dubnyk’s mobility in the crease, but he still can and often will steal games for the Wild, so it hasn’t troubled him too much since he came into favor for Minnesota. Even at 30, there are certainly some facets of his game that can still improve, but Dubnyk has been one of the best up-and-coming goalies over the past few seasons and there’s little doubt he’s putting his size to good use.
4. Just Tall – Jacob Markstrom
Jacob Markstrom is one of the league’s tallest goalies at 6’6” and his height is probably what makes him most identifiable out on the ice. His play certainly hasn’t done anything to get him attention yet. Markstrom just missed being a first round pick when he was drafted 31st by the Panthers back in 2008. Once he was traded to the Canucks in 2014 things got a little better for Markstrom, but not much. He currently sits as a backup behind Ryan Miller and despite Miller’s age, he doesn’t seem like Vancouver’s goalie of the future with Thatcher Demko waiting in the wings down in the minors.
It’s tough to watch Markstrom play without noticing how massive he is in goal, but it’s also easy to notice how quickly Markstrom can lose his positioning when he isn’t focused. Size doesn’t do much if you aren’t in front of the net and even the tallest, quickest goalies need to be in front of the net if they’re going to play well. I’m definitely simplifying the problem here, but the fact of the matter is Markstrom’s positioning is an issue and until he resolves it, he’s slated to be a career backup goalie.
3. Actually Good – Pekka Rinne
Despite being one of the league’s more inconsistent goaltenders, there’s little doubting Pekka Rinne’s size helps contribute to his ability to hang with the best goalies in the league. The 34-year-old has spent his entire career with the Predators and has been Nashville’s starting goalie since 2008. Needless to say, whatever Rinne’s been doing is working. He will take on an even greater role this season as Nashville begins to look more and more like a Stanley Cup contender.
Rinne is 6’5” and, when he’s on his game, he plays like the best goalie in the league on top of his size. Rinne is one of the NHL’s most flexible goalies and the Finland native is one of the best game-stealers in all of hockey. Having said that, if Nashville plays like they did last season, Rinne’s just got to be solid in net and play to his potential. The Predators will be dangerous this summer if he does.
2. Just Tall – Jonas Gustavsson
At 6’4”, Jonas Gustavsson might not be the towering goalie you would expect to claim a spot this far down the list. However, it’s very difficult to discount his nickname as The Monster and it’s even harder to ignore the fact that his only real asset in the NHL has been his size. Gustavsson has hopped around the NHL for eight seasons now and during that time the Maple Leafs, Red Wings, Bruins, and now the Oilers have all realized that his save percentage isn’t nearly as big as his stature.
At 6’4”, Gustavsson’s size is impressive but doesn’t even rank around the tallest goalies in the NHL, which makes it all the more concerning that many consider it the strongest part of his game. His agility isn’t off the charts, he goes down into the butterfly too early often, and he’s known for letting up dangerous rebounds. You should take The Monster and his tale as a cautionary one; just because you’re a big goalie doesn’t mean you’re a good goalie.
1. Actually Good – Ben Bishop
Ben Bishop is the quintessential tall goalie and much of the discussion surrounding NHL goalie equipment over the past two years focuses on him. The argument people are making is that Bishop’s pads are too big or the net is too small, and things need to change in order to increase scoring. At the end of the day, however, the reality is that the 6’7” Bishop is just a really, really good goalie. He’s posted sensational save percentage numbers since he got to Tampa Bay back in 2012 and has been a key contributor for the Lightning during the playoffs the past two years.
Obviously, Bishop’s size is a major factor. But he’s also the NHL’s most agile tall goalie and has fantastic ability handling the puck. There isn’t a part of Bishop’s game that isn’t rounded out. In fact, Bishop could realistically be eight inches shorter and still be one of the NHL’s top ten goalies. Call it icing on the cake that Bishop stands head and shoulders above every other goalie in the NHL.
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