Being a successful goaltender is by far the NHL’s toughest job. There is almost zero room for error. Forwards and defencemen are one of many and can hide in the pack. A bad period or game can go unnoticed as others pick up the slack. A goaltender however, can cause a loss (optically) from just one bad goal. One second of poor judgement is visible for all and can be remembered for a life time. The forward who flubs a pass is forgotten, the goaltender who lets in a center-ice slapshot is immortalized.
The toughest postseason in sports - the Stanley Cup Playoffs - reduces the room for error to the slimmest of margins. Yesterday’s hero can be today’s goat. This postseason, Corey Crawford is the highest profile victim of those increased expectations. Even though he won a Stanley Cup for Chicago just two years ago it means nothing in the here and now. After two weak outings he was usurped by rookie Scott Darling. Just a week later, Darling, who pulled some heroics in Games 1, 3 and 4, was pulled in Game 6 after a shaky Game 5 and rough start in Chicago's series clincher. Crawford then came back in and shut the door to send the Hawks to the second round. The NHL moves fast and there is no time for loyalty or nostalgia.
If it’s so difficult for a goalie to even keep their job in the playoffs, anyone who manages to win a Cup must be incredible no?
Most of the time yes. It’s hard to imagine a team winning four rounds without their keeper being one of the very best every game, but it happens. Sometimes a squad has so much depth at forward and defence, they can afford to have a lesser ‘tender. If Philadelphia would have beaten Chicago in 2010, Michael Leighton would have easily topped our list. Of course he let in a bizarre shot from the short side to prevent that from happening, but he was only two wins away.
For this list we considered only those who played the majority (or the most important) of their team's postseason games. This isn’t a “worst backup goalies to win the Stanley Cup” list.
And of course it doesn’t mean the goalies on this list are awful. They won a Cup after all! We’re simply seeing who are the “least good”.
But that’s a terrible headline.
10. Andy Aitkenhead
Drafted by the Rangers, Aitkenhead shuffled around for a few years before winning a job. He didn't waste time as he led the team to a Stanley Cup in his very first season (although they beat the Leafs to win it, big whoop). That first season would end up being the peak of his career.
The next season his numbers dropped off dramatically, posting the fifth-best GAA in a nine-team league. Two years later he would lose his starting position and wind up out of the league. Apparently Aitkenhead had an unhealthy "obsession with his game" that caused the quick drop off.
So after three quick seasons and a Stanley Cup, the Glasgow Gobbler's NHL career was finished!
9 J.S. Giguere
Yes he played great in his two Cup runs, but he also has some terrible playoff hockey on his resume. Outside of his two best postseasons, Giguere has been over 3.00 GAA and below a .900 save %.
The championship Ducks team was a powerhouse that featured either Chris Pronger or Scott Niedermayer on the ice the majority of the time, making life very easy for a goaltender.
Like many others on this list, Giguere played his role well. His solid if unspectacular style was exactly what his uber-talented team needed. He just had to avoid any meltdowns along the way and Anaheim would keep rolling. Imagine a team with Getzlaf and Perry on the second line!
Giguere continued his solid and not spectacular career and has found his way onto our list.
By God, we have a Conn Smythe winner on our list!
8 Chris Osgood
Throughout the last two decades, no other Stanley Cup winner has received less respect. For years Osgood was called the worst goalie to win a Stanley Cup, until 2008 when he was renamed the worst goalie to win two!
Osgood was actually much better in 2008. Remarkably, he used the lockout year to completely revitalize his game, sharpening his skills and catching up to modern goaltending. He was actually tabbed as Hasek’s backup that year before taking over as number one and capturing his second Cup.
Osgood had some tough playoff years before his first Cup win. His gaff against San Jose in Game 7 in 1994 as well as an .860 Save % in the ‘96 Conference Finals against Colorado were particularly awful.
As Detroit geared up to win their second of back-to-back Cups, Osgood finally got his moment in the sun. Backstopping Yzerman, Larionov, Fedorov, Shanahan, and Lidstrom among others to a four-game sweep of the Capitals.
The turning point in the entire series happened in Game 2 when Esa Tikkanen failed to score. But it wasn’t a quick save by Osgood that stopped him, Esa faked a slapper and went right around a sprawled Osgood (who was a good five feet out of his net) only to miss the empty net!
7 Mike Vernon
Before there was Osgood, there was Vernon. Another two-time Cup winner who is rarely mentioned among the greats. For every giant leap forward there were a few missteps along the way that hurt his legacy.
Vernon was a part of a powerhouse Calgary Flames team (how often do you get to say that?). In the late 80’s, they captured two consecutive President’s Trophies and a Stanley Cup (their one and only). After the win, Vernon was in the good books around the league, and ended up on the surging Red Wings. This is when it started going downhill again.
When the underdog New Jersey Devils shocked the league by sweeping Vernon’s heavily favored Red Wings, his stock certainly dropped. Letting in four goals in just half of Game 3 was a tough pill to swallow for the fans. It wasn’t entirely his fault of course. The Devils’ infamous trap was terrifyingly effective and signaled a fundamental change in hockey. But the optics were still terrible.
When Vernon won his second Cup in ‘97, even he was surprised to get the start in net. “I have no idea why Scotty (Bowman) started me in the playoffs. I didn’t ask him. I haven’t asked him. But I was as shocked as anyone.”
Vernon would win the Conn Smythe that year, but we all know how legendary those Detroit teams were. They were so good that they easily won a Cup the next season as well.
Vernon is a very good goalie who played for some fantastic teams and got the job done. But he’s still on our list!
6 Mike Richter
Richter’s legacy has benefitted greatly from several factors. Being the best American goalie of his era on a stacked Rangers team and a surprising (yet extremely talented) Team USA certainly raised his profile. But looking back deeper in his career reveals he was closer to ‘good’ than ‘elite’.
The ‘94 Rangers featured a legendary roster including seven members of the last Oilers’ Cup team. Alexei Kovalev, Brian Leetch, and Sergei Zubov among others filled out the dominant squad.
Team USA may have shocked an arrogant Canada, but is it really surprising that a roster featuring Brett Hull, Tony Amonte, Jeremy Roenick, Chris Chelios, Brian Leetch, and many more would be competitive?
Richter is definitely a big-game goalie the same way Grant Fuhr confidently backstopped so many talented teams. But with his only two major accomplishments tied so close to Hall of Fame rosters, he doesn’t have the body of work to get off our list.
5 Marc-Andre Fleury
This generation’s Chris Osgood? Fleury has developed quite the reputation of regular season hero, postseason zero over the years. His great save at the end of Game 7 to win his first and only Cup was a thing of beauty, but the years after have not been as pretty.
When the Penguins first won it all after back-to-back finals appearances, many thought they could have a dynasty on their hands. Fleury was a part of that young core that looked destined for greatness; but what happened?
Fleury has remained good-to-excellent in the regular season but has yet to truly steal a series and also has produced some absolute disasters. The complete disintegration of his game against the New York Islanders was comically bad (unless you’re a Pens fan). If a charity donated food for every Fleury gif made, we could end world hunger.
If the cap continues to rise and the Penguins can afford some more depth, we could still see Fleury rebound for another championship. But until then, here he shall remain.
4 Antti Niemi
Niemi came out of nowhere to lead the Blackhawks to their first modern-day Stanley Cup. Backstopping a powerhouse team, critics pointed to goaltending as Chicago’s one weakness.
Four rounds later he was a champion, but the critics remained. Even his own team didn’t seem to believe in him as he was made a cap-casualty of the stacked team.
Niemi had some strong moments in those playoffs and obviously played well enough to win, yet we haven’t seen any real postseason success since his days in the Windy City. He garnered a Vezina-nomination while playing in San Jose, but today’s Shark fans are already running him out of town.
Niemi has had some fantastic moments, but simply doesn’t have the body of work to compete with the other champions.
3 Corey Crawford
The consensus was that Chicago had so much talent they could win without Niemi; and that’s just what they did! Crawford joined a very similar squad and they captured another Cup soon after the first.
This time however, they stuck with their man, awarding Crawford a massive contract worth $6 million annually. But for a team that is constantly sacrificing players to stay under the cap, is ANY goalie worth $6 million?
Chicago had to dump quality defender Nick Leddy to stay cap-compliant and their defence has suffered for it, especially in this postseason. Ironically, Crawford’s salary has cost him the defensive help he needs. After two poor starts he was unceremoniously replaced by yet another Chicago rookie, Scott Darling against Nashville.
Crawford has shown holes in his game (glove hand) already (Game 4 of the Finals) and will need a big bounce-back to make it off our list.
2 Frank McCool
First off, if that wasn’t a cool enough name, he also had the nickname “ulcers”.
The ulcers were what saved Frank from military duty and subsequently gave him a shot in the NHL. McCool was one of many that filled in during the war, taking goaltender Turk Broda’s spot on the Maple Leafs.
McCool actually had a heck of a year. He played in all 50 games, leading the league in shutouts and winning rookie of the year. He saved his best for the playoffs as they upset the Montreal Canadiens en route to a finals matchup with Detroit.
McCool dominated the series, posting shutouts in the first three games before going on to win the Stanley Cup! So why is he on this list?
Well, the aforementioned war depleted rosters and the level of hockey was far below NHL standards of the time. McCool’s three shutouts sound impressive, but Detroit’s goalie “Apple Cheeks” Lumley also recorded back-to-back shutouts in the same series. “Ulcers” and “Apple Cheeks” aren’t two of the greatest goalies of all time, they were just a product of their era.
McCool held out the next season and once the real NHL’ers returned from the war he never got back to his former heights. He was out of the league soon after.
One great year in the NHL-lite simply doesn’t compare to goalies who truly competed against the world’s best.
1 Cam Ward
The Carolina Hurricanes are a strange squad indeed. Big things were expected after their franchise’s (including the Whalers) first Cup win. A Conn Smythe goaltender and a young franchise center in Eric Staal seemed like ingredients for a competitive team for years to come. But somewhere along the way this team lost their mojo. Was Rod Brind’Amour that good? What did he put in those magic protein shakes anyway?
Ward, like Fleury, has had a rollercoaster career since his Cup win. He fluctuates drastically from Vezina-quality to complete disaster year after year.
To make things worse, Ward picked this season to play fantastic enough to pull the Hurricanes out of McDavid/Eichel contention!
Ward is just 31 this year, but at the rate Carolina is going, it doesn’t look like he’ll have much of a chance to improve his legacy.