“Defense wins championships.”
That’s a cliche you will hear when you watch pretty much any sport. Is it true? Sometimes, but really it depends on the year and the sport. Perhaps a more accurate phrasing would be “Defense can win championships”
Either way, hockey teams of the past have ridden a hot goalie all the way to the promised land. Most of us can remember when Jonathan Quick carried the Kings to a Stanley Cup in 2012, but we can also remember when Antti Niemi and Michael Leighton were the Stanley Cup Final netminders in 2010’s championship series.
No matter how important you feel goaltending is to an NHL team, I think we can all agree that having a good goalie can make a big difference for a hockey team. Sometimes, just knowing your goalie can bail you out on the reg is enough to boost a player’s confidence, which can be infectious throughout the room.
As we set to embark on the 2017-18 NHL season, I thought it a good time to take a look at the starting goalies for every team in the league and rank them from worst to best. Most clubs do have a clear cut number one heading into training camp, but as usual there are a few 1A/1B situations. Where did we rank your favorite team’s starter?
30 Jacob Markstrom - Vancouver Canucks
The Vancouver Canucks are heading into another rebuilding year, and are projected to finish in the bottom three of the NHL once again. It’s not like they’re simply a starting goalie away from being competitive, but let’s just say that Jacob Markstrom as their starter isn’t giving them any advantages.
Markstrom has been in a 1A/1B type of situation for the past few seasons in Vancouver, splitting time with the departed Ryan Miller. Now the crease is all his, as the Canucks signed career backup Anders Nilsson in the offseason. The crease is certainly Markstrom’s to lose for the first time in his career, but that’s not to say he’s safe. Nilsson has had a few solid seasons as backup (first in Edmonton, last year in Buffalo), and if Markstrom falters I wouldn’t be too surprised in new head coach Travis Green gave Nilsson some starts.
29 Steve Mason - Winnipeg Jets
Goaltending has been a bit of an issue in Winnipeg since long before the franchise made the move from Atlanta, and unfortunately 2017-18 looks to bring more of the same. It’s not that they’re going with the status quo (they really couldn’t afford to do that), but the offseason signing of Steve Mason is far from a sure thing to turn their fortunes around.
Mason won rookie of the year as a member of the Jackets back in 2009, but since then he’s struggled to cement his status as a number one goalie. He’ll get another opportunity to do so in Winnipeg, but there’s no doubt that backup Connor Hellebuyuck will be waiting in the wings should Mason stumble in the starter’s role.
28 Brian Elliott/Michal Neuvirth - Philadelphia Flyers
The first tandem to show up on the list—Philadelphia’s Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth—look to split the goaltending duties in Philadelphia for 2017-18. This is nothing new for Philly and its fans, as I’m pretty sure they haven’t had a clear cut starter since current GM Ron Hextall held the role back in the ‘90s.
I think it’s fair to estimate that Elliott will probably get about 45 of the starts, where Neuvirth will look to be between the pipes for 35-ish. Nonetheless, the fact that neither of these ‘tenders have successfully filled the role of starting NHL goaltender in their careers should be cause for concern in Philadelphia, where the defense corps probably ranks somewhere in the bottom half of the league.
27 Thomas Greiss/Jaroslav Halak - New York Islanders
Another tandem shows up on our list at 28, this one in the form of Islanders Thomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak. This pairing actually took a hit in the rankings just based on the fact they’re a tandem, as I think both of these goalies aren’t terrible—they’re just wild cards.
Greiss, for instance, has had very strong numbers over the last two seasons, albeit the sample size is the issue here. Halak and the Islanders had a bit of a falling out last season, but after a lengthy stint in the AHL, Halak returned at the end of the season to help the Islanders along on their late-season playoff push (in which they came up just short). While at mid-season it looked as though Greiss was the guy moving forward, Halak’s late resurgence clouds the question.
26 Antti Raanta - Arizona Coyotes
The Coyotes did a bit of re-shaping over the offseason, with perhaps the most significant move being the shipping out of Mike Smith to bring in Antti Raanta to mind the pipes. Raanta spent last season as Henrik Lundqvist’s backup, and he did such an admirable job that he earned himself a starter’s role in the desert.
It’s tough to say just how good Raanta is will be in a starter’s role, which is the sole reason he can be found this low on the list. The Coyotes are one of the more difficult teams to figure out heading into next season, as they seemed to be actively trying to improve the club over the summer, which is in stark contrast to the methods deployed in season’s past. With Raanta, Derek Stepan, and Niklas Hjalmarsson on board, is it perhaps time for the ‘Yotes to take a step forward?
25 Semyon Varlamov - Colorado Avalanche
Okay, nothing went right for the Colorado Avalanche in 2016-17, and I mean nothing. Virtually every player on the roster had the worst season of their respective careers, and that includes starting goalie Semyon Varlamov. The former Vezina candidate struggled with injuries throughout the bulk of the campaign, and turned in a pathetic .898 save percentage in the games he did play.
Surely the Avalanche will be better in 2017-18 than they were in 2016-17, if only because it’s almost impossible to imagine them being worse. Varlamov has a history of being a reliable starter prior to last season, and he’s not very old, still on the good side of 30. I’m not predicting a playoff season for the Avalanche or anything like that—just an improvement on last year. Should be easy.
24 Jimmy Howard/Petr Mrazek - Detroit Red Wings
The third and final tandem to be included on this list is Detroit’s Petr Mrazek and Jimmy Howard. Prior to 2016-17, it looked as though young Mrazek was poised to take the starter’s reins from Howard, signaling a passing of the torch for the future. However, Mrazek struggled last season, and likely wouldn’t have even started the 44 games he did if not for an injury to Howard.
The veteran Howard, however, had a great season when healthy, annihilating Mrazek in every major statistical category (GAAs of 2.10/3.04, SV%s of .927/.901). Despite the recent performances, you’ve got to think that the Red Wings have a little more vested interest in the 25-year-old Mrazek than the 33-year-old Howard, but in the end the individual performances will dictate starts in 2017-18, as they should.
23 Mike Smith - Calgary Flames
The Flames are another team that’s had some goaltending issues of late. It’s fair to say that they would have probably won a game or two in their first round series against the Ducks last April if not for some abysmal performances from Brian Elliott. Those performances no doubt played a large role in Calgary’s decision to let the veteran walk. They promptly traded for another veteran in Mike Smith.
It’s assumed Smith will be the starter in Calgary, but I wouldn’t count out Eddie Lack, who they also acquired this offseason. Lack had a rough go at it in Carolina, but he’s still young and had a promising start to his career when in Vancouver. Smith will still start 50 of the games, but neither goalie will be a fantasy boon given the fact that they’ll be splitting starts—at least 75%/25%, methinks.
22 Robin Lehner - Buffalo Sabres
Robin Lehner started 58 games in 2016-17, almost doubling his previous season-high of 30 starts. The Sabres are one of those teams that seem like they’re on the brink of taking another step, and a good season from Lehner would be welcome help. He showed fairly well in his first season as bonafide starter, posting a save percentage of .920 and a 2.68 GAA.
The Sabres brought Chad Johnson back into the fold, who returns after spending one season in Calgary as a 1B to Elliott. Johnson is a more-than-capable backup who can step up if a starter falters, like he did for much of last season in Calgary (he started 36 games). Could Johnson do the same in Buffalo next season? It’s possible, but count on Lehner’s leash being longer than Elliott’s was last year.
21 Jake Allen - St. Louis Blues
I feel like I’m talking about Brian Elliott a lot, but I promise this is the last post that’s relevant to him. Since Elliott’s departure from St. Louis in the 2016 offseason, the crease in Missouri has belonged to Jake Allen. The early results have been mixed, but Allen did pretty much steal the Blues’ first round series from the Minnesota Wild, who outplayed St Louis by a wide margin.
Allen can certainly get hot, but that’s offset by cold stretches. That schizophrenic behavior in a goalie can be stressful at times, and it can also give starts to backups, in this case Carter Hutton. Hutton got a solid 21 starts last season, and I think it’s fair to expect about that many from him again in 2017-18.
20 Andrei Vasilevskiy - Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning are another club that is starting 2017-18 with a different look in the crease than they had a year ago. Last October it was still technically Ben Bishop’s crease, but the end of that era was clearly nigh. As such, he was dealt to L.A. at the trade deadline, and ever since the crease has belonged to Russian netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Vasilevskiy is still young, just 23 years old, and he showed well in his 47 starts in 2016-17, the first time he played in a substantial amount of games thus far in his young career. If Vasilevskiy is able to take another natural step forward in his game, this ranking could be criminally low. However, we’re still in wait-and-see mode from Vasilevskiy. So we will.
Another new face in a new town, here we have former Corey Crawford backup Scott Darling reporting to Raleigh. The Hurricanes have had goaltending issues for years now, and last season’s tandem of Cam Ward and Eddie Lack yielded disappointing results. The ‘Canes will go with Darling to start the year, and if he’s able to repeat his performance from 2016-17, Carolina will be happy.
Crawford suffered an injury last season, meaning Darling had to step in and make 27 starts—more than he ever had before. He showed very well, finishing the year with a sparkling .924 save percentage and a record of 18-5-5. It’s obvious that Darling has the capability to win games with a strong team in front of him. The ‘Canes are no Blackhawks, but goaltending has been their Achilles heel for years. Is Darling the answer?
19 Roberto Luongo - Florida Panthers
This entry could almost be another tandem entry, as James Reimer could easily grab around half the starts in Sunrise this year if both goalies stay healthy. Nonetheless, I felt we all owe Roberto Luongo the respect of declaring the crease his. Luongo is a likely Hall-of-Famer, and when he’s healthy he’s still a pretty darn good option in net.
Luongo stated this offseason that he learned his lesson last year, and perhaps he wasn’t as prepared as he could have been for the grind of an NHL season at the age of 37. Now 38, Luongo knows it’s only going to take greater maintenance as the Father Time takes over, but if we’re to take him at face value, he’s up to the challenge.
18 John Gibson - Anaheim Ducks
I think it’s finally safe to declare the crease in Anaheim as John Gibson’s, although they did add veteran Ryan Miller as a safety net in the offseason. Miller’s still got game, but Gibson is the face of the future in Anaheim, and look for him to get the vast majority of the starts in 2017-18.
The Ducks have slowly but surely shown more and more faith in Gibson’s game, and he started a whopping 49 games in 2016-17, after starting 21 and 38 in the previous two seasons, respectively. He finished last year with a 25-16-9 record and a .924 save percentage to go with his 2.22 GAA. Goalies don’t tend to peak until their mid-to-late 20s, and that is great news for Anaheim, as Gibson celebrated his 24th birthday in July.
17 Ben Bishop - Dallas Stars
Another club that has had its fair share of struggles in the crease of late, the Dallas Stars hopefully found their answer in big Ben Bishop. They signed the goalie to a six-year deal back in May, meaning they’ve put all their eggs in the Ben Bishop basket for the foreseeable future. It’s not a bad bet—the guy is a two-time Vezina nominee—and at 30 years old, he has three or four peak years left in him.
The Stars bought out Antti Niemi and decided to stick with Kari Lehtonen as backup for at least one more year (his deal, which carried a $5.9M cap hit, expires at season’s end). Lehtonen is still a solid goalie, but with their contract terms in mind, there is little organizational motive to give Lehtonen any more starts than they need to.
16 Martin Jones - San Jose Sharks
The Sharks paid a pretty price to acquire Martin Jones from L.A. (via Boston) at the 2015 Entry Draft, and it was viewed as a bit of a gamble at the time. Jones has silenced his critics over the past two seasons with stellar goaltending for the Sharks, and he’s now heading into the third and final year of the three-year pact he signed with the club shortly after arriving in the Bay Area.
Assuming Jones turns in a similar performance in 2017-18, he’ll be due a raise by the Sharks at the end of the year, as his current cap hit is a modest $3M. Jones has been busy over the past few seasons, starting 65 games in each of them and piling up 72 wins in the process. It’s safe to call Jones a verified NHL starter, and at 27 the North Vancouver native still has some prime years left.
15 Frederik Andersen - Toronto Maple Leafs
Into the top half of the list we go, and Toronto’s Frederick Andersen kicks things off. Prior to his arrival in Toronto, Andersen played in a tandem role with John Gibson in Anaheim. The Leafs traded for Andersen in the 2016 offseason, sending over a 1st and 2nd round pick for the netminder. Although a steep price to pay, his first season in T.O. showed that Leafs brass knew what they were doing with this one.
Andersen went through hot stretches over the year, and when he wasn’t on fire he still provided the Leafs with a chance to win almost every night. With the youth and inexperience in Toronto, Andersen had to bail out his squad on many occasions over 2016-17, and even though he was playing in the shadow of Auston Matthews, he’s still my pick for team MVP of last season.
14 Craig Anderson - Ottawa Senators
Onto another Anderson, we have Craig at number 14. The Sens goalie had a difficult 2016-17 off the ice, as his wife was diagnosed with cancer in October. That can definitely mess with a guy’s head, especially a goaltender’s. However, Anderson once again had a remarkable season, still managing to start 40 games and registering 25 wins and a .926 save percentage.
Nothing seems to rattle Anderson, who has quietly been one of the most consistent goalies in the NHL over the past decade. Anderson started all 19 games for the Senators in the 2017 playoffs as well, falling just short of a Stanley Cup Final berth. Father Time is catching up with Anderson, who celebrated his 36th birthday last May, but for now he’s still a great starter in the world’s best hockey league.
13 Henrik Lundqvist - New York Rangers
If we did this list five years ago, King Henrik would have factored in somewhere near the top of the list, but instead he’s dipped down to number 13. Make no mistake, Lundqvist is still a star in the NHL and will continue to be for a few more seasons yet. He’s battled injuries in two of the last three seasons, however, which could be a sign of his age catching up to him.
The most handsome player in the league is no doubt entering the twilight of his career at 35, but with four more years left on his deal don’t expect him to hang them up any time soon. The future Hall-of-Famer has piled up 405 wins, which puts him in 10th place all time. If he manages an average of 25 wins over the next four seasons (very manageable), he will pass everyone except for Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy—and, depending on how many more he adds to his current total of 453—Roberto Luongo.
12 Pekka Rinne - Nashville Predators
There have been rumblings of late that Father Time is catching up with Pekka Rinne, but if his performance is the 2017 playoffs is of any indication, he’s still an elite ‘tender. Rinne has had a great career so far, and with his Predators finally legitimate contenders, it’s safe to say he’s going to do everything it takes to stay on top of his game for at least a couple more seasons.
Rinne is closing in on the 300 win milestone, a marker that he’ll reach next season if he’s able to put up 31 wins. That would put him inside the top 30 on the all-time wins leaders list, among goalies like Mike Richter and Olaf Kolzig—pretty good company to keep. Young backup Juuse Saros could take some starts from Rinne over the next few seasons, but no doubt the elder Finn is still the clear no. 1.
11 Cam Talbot - Edmonton Oilers
The Edmonton Oilers had been so bad defensively for so long, it’s hard to tell if they suffered from bad goaltending or just porous defense that surrendered lots of high-quality scoring chances. In any case, the defense has improved and the goaltending has looked great ever since the 2015 summer arrival of Cam Talbot.
Talbot, acquired from the New York Rangers where he played second fiddle to King Henrik, was patiently waiting for an opportunity to take the starter’s reins—anywhere, really. When that opportunity arose, he capitalized. There were questions on whether or not he could handle a full-time starter’s role, but the fact that he led the league in wins and starts last season is answer enough for me.
10 Marc-Andre Fleury - Vegas Golden Knights
People will say I’ve ranked Marc-Andre Fleury too high on this list, but those people don’t know what they’re talking about. Admittedly, there was a time when Fleury was shaky when it mattered most, and the argument could be made that he cost the Penguins a few playoff rounds with his lackluster postseason performances from 2010 to 2014 or so.
That said, Fleury is still an elite goalie who just lost his cushy job in Pittsburgh to a young hot shot. He will be a clear cut starter in 2017-18, but for the first time in his NHL career it will not be for the Penguins. The three-time Cup champion will defend the crease in Las Vegas in 2017-18, and he’s taken on the unofficial role of “first face of the franchise.”
9 Corey Crawford - Chicago Blackhawks
I’ve always thought that Corey Crawford is a bit underrated in Chicago. With heaps of praise constantly piled on Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith, there’s nary a morsel left for poor old Crawford. Don’t worry buddy. I got your back. I ranked into inside the top 10 in the entire league!
It’s not a stretch. Yes, the aforementioned trio of players are all great, but so is Crawford, and he’s proven as much with a career .918 save percentage, and at least 55 starts in each of the past seven seasons (aside from the lockout-shortened 2012-13 year). The two-time Cup champ is the goalie of the Chicago dynasty, and even though a seat for him is likely not yet reserved in the Hall of Fame, he deserves more respect than he garners.
8 Matt Murray - Pittsburgh Penguins
Whereas many of you probably guffawed at Crawford’s ranking, saying it’s too high, you’re probably also wondering why I’ve placed Matt Murray so low on the list. Look, Murray is a solid goalie and has already won two Stanley Cups, despite only just completing his rookie season in 2016-17. That actually plays into why I rank him only 8th—I firmly believe it takes more than 1.2 seasons to establish yourself in this league.
Also, Murray somehow seems to escape the problem that has plagued Crawford—while Crawford’s teammates get the largest share of the credit, credit for Murray seems oddly aligned with that of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. This of course makes little sense, as those are two of the top three centers in the league.
7 Braden Holtby - Washington Capitals
This is another goalie who you might expect to find further up the ranking, but this is a competitive league and since Braden Holtby has such a great team playing in front of him, I find it difficult to gauge how good he really is. That said, the guy has provided brick-wall goaltending behind said great team for five straight years now, so he’s earned at least the #7 ranking here.
For the past three seasons, specifically, Holtby’s game has taken another step. He was the busiest goalie in the league in 2014-15—considered his breakout season—when he started a whopping 72 games. The Caps lightened his load slightly in the following years, but he still saw action in 66 and 63 games, respectively, and he’s won over 40 games for three straight seasons.
6 Cory Schneider - New Jersey Devils
The Devils’ best player is situated in their crease, and that’s really too bad for Cory Schneider. I wouldn’t call myself a fan of the goalie, but as far as careers go, his has unfolded in a somewhat weird fashion. He spent his early years (entering his prime) playing second fiddle to Roberto Luongo in Vancouver, and when he finally got the opportunity to man a crease as the undisputed #1, it was for one of the worst teams in the NHL.
Now at 31, his prime is passing him by and it looks as though his window to be “the guy” on a good team has almost closed. That’s too bad, because Schneider posted save percentages ranging from, .921 to .937 from 2010-11 through 2015-16. He suffered a bit of an off-year last season, finishing with .908, but 2017-18 will tell us if that was a blip or the start of a regression.
5 Devan Dubnyk - Minnesota Wild
Into the top 5 we roll, and we start things off with Devan Dubnyk. No other goalie on this list has had a career trajectory as unpredictable as Dubnyk’s. Heck, he got nominated for a Vezina Trophy just one season after being relegated to fourth-string goalie during the 2014 postseason. That was quite a turnaround, ad his play since has shown it was not a fluke.
Full disclosure, Dubnyk did struggle through the last quarter of 2016-17, so it’s possible the grind started catching up with him. He was the front-runner for the Vezina before his performance in the final 20-odd games took him right out of the running, but he still finished the season with a sparkling stat line, posting a .923 save percentage and racking up 40 wins for the first time in his career.
4 Tuukka Rask - Boston Bruins
Over the past few seasons, the departures of guys like Dennis Seidenberg and Dougie Hamilton, coupled with the natural aging of Zdeno Chara, have made the Bruins once-enviable blue line much weaker. That said, their last line of defense (Finnish goalie Tuukka Rask) remains as strong as ever. The 30-year-old has owned the Bruins’ crease since the departure of Tim Thomas, and he’s not close to finished.
The upcoming year will be Rask’s 30-year-old season, and judging by his stellar performance last season there’s no reason to expect a regression quite yet. Goalies stay peak well into their 30s, and with the Bruins window to win quickly closing (if it hasn’t already), expect Rask to be hungry for that second Stanley Cup—which would be his first as a starter.
3 Jonathan Quick - Los Angeles Kings
An early season injury (first game, actually) took Jonathan Quick out for most of the 2016-17 season, so perhaps ranking him 3rd overall in the NHL is giving him a little too much credit. That said, Quick has given no indication that he’s no longer an elite goalie in this league, and he looks forward to returning to form with a fresh start in 2017-18.
Quick, 31, has of course already achieved all there is to achieve in the NHL (aside from the Vezina Trophy that’s eluded him thus far), winning two Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe to go with them. The Kings are another one of those teams whose window to win is rapidly closing—if it hasn’t already—and Quick will be determined to bring his club back to the top in 2018.
2 Sergei Bobrovsky - Columbus Blue Jackets
Sergei Bobrovsky’s career has thus far featured a (un)healthy mix of top-tier play and injuries. Last season would definitely fall into the former category, as he led the Blue Jackets to the team’s best season in franchise history. Columbus finished with the fourth most points in the NHL, but thanks to the league’s rather illogical playoff seeding, they were forced to face the defending champs in round 1—without home ice advantage.
It ended as one might expect, as the Penguins dismantled the Jackets in five games. At the NHL Awards ceremony in Vegas, though, Bobrovsky was handed the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie. He was also a Hart Trophy candidate, but finished third in that category behind superstars Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby.
1 Carey Price - Montreal Canadiens
While the gap is closing, Carey Price’s tenure as the league’s top goaltender carries on. Price had his best year in 2014-15, when he had one of the best seasons of any goalie in NHL history. Price took home all of the individual hardware that season, claiming the Jennings, Vezina, Hart, and Lindsay Awards in a performance for the ages.
The following year was derailed by injury, but Price returned to top form in his comeback year in 2016-17, earning another Vezina nomination and getting the offensively impotent Canadiens into the playoffs on his back. I don’t think the Canadiens added enough this offseason to become legitimate contenders, but if Price does what he can, the Habs could compete for the division title once again.
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