Grading every NHL team’s goaltending depth
Our multi-series talent tiers feature continues, now shifting to the goaltenders. Ever the mysterious (and unpredictable) position, we will evaluate the goaltending depth charts across all 32 teams.
As a bit of housekeeping if you are just catching up on the series. If you missed the prior articles, they are referenced below – please check them out.
Now, let’s talk about the goaltending evaluation process.
For starters, it is imperative to note we are evaluating the position at aggregate for each franchise. The position has changed dramatically in the past decade. Consider just some of the forces working together to alter how we evaluate the position:
1. Teams have had dramatic success finding talented goaltenders outside of North America; the increase in European imports has created more talent and depth at the position.
2. Workhorse goaltenders are increasingly harder to find. Last season, only five goalies cleared the 60-game threshold. Teams have recognized that rest, even for elite talents, increases durability and reliability. Having a rested elite goaltender heading into the postseason may be the biggest advantage a team can carry.
3. Franchises have been increasingly gun-shy about allocating big portions of their salary cap to one goaltender. (Similarly, they have also become gun-shy about using their most valuable draft picks to select goaltenders.) Teams are more likely to look for platoon options that may be friendlier on the cap, which also reduces single-player volatility risk.
Teams have been broken up into two categories which generally follow the league-wide trends:
1. Starter/Backup: In which an expected starting goaltender consumes the lion’s share of available starts. These teams will primarily be weighted on their starting goalie, secondarily weighted on their backup option expecting to see 20-25 games of play.
2. Platoon: In which a team can reasonably expect a rotation between the two goaltenders. The presumptive starter is weighted only marginally more than the presumptive backup.
For the measurements, we consider a goaltender’s stop rates and goals saved above expectations, which allows us to adjust for both shot volume and quality of shots faced.
To the tiers!
Tier 5, In Trouble: Arizona Coyotes, Buffalo Sabres, Chicago Blackhawks, and Vegas Golden Knights
Arizona: The Coyotes are punting on this season, so I don’t envy the job of Karel Vejmelka – freshly signed to a three-year deal – this season. Vejmelka was shelled behind a similarly porous Coyotes team in his rookie season.
Buffalo: The Sabres roster finally feels like it’s on an upward trajectory, but we aren’t there yet with the goaltenders. The future is one or both of Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Devon Levi. The present is a nightmare waiting to happen. And if you think 41-year old Craig Anderson won’t play, remember that stopgap Eric Comrie has never seen more than 19 appearances in a single season. This could be ugly.
Chicago: Petr Mrazek is coming off a hideous season in Toronto (89 per cent stop rate; -13 goals saved versus expected), and Alex Stalock hasn’t seen meaningful NHL action in three seasons. Stalock is also now 35 years of age and will be playing behind perhaps the worst team in hockey.
Vegas Golden Knights: Consider me part of the minority that believed it was time for Vegas to look for an upgrade on Marc-Andre Fleury, but Robin Lehner’s hip injury could not have come at a worse time. The Knights are desperately looking for stability between the pipes and Lehner (90.7 per cent stop rate; +9 goals saved versus expected) delivered in 44 starts last season. But the Knights won’t be able to tap into any of that this year, and the options behind him –Laurent Brossoit and Logan Thompson – are not viable for a playoff team. I anticipate Vegas will be in the trade market before the opening of the season. Perhaps a call to San Jose?
Tier 4, Underperform: Columbus Blue Jackets, Montreal Canadiens, Minnesota Wild, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, Seattle Kraken, St. Louis Blues and Toronto Maple Leafs
Columbus: There was, at one point in time, a lot of excitement behind the Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo tandem. But that duo torturing the Tampa Bay Lightning’s blistering offence seems like eons ago and, since then, the goaltending’s been quite subpar in Ohio. Over the past two seasons, the pair has been -40 goals worse than expected, and team save percentage is on par with the Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks. This group really needs a bounce-back season – especially Korpisalo, who is an unrestricted free agency at year end.
Montreal: Montreal remains in a precarious spot in net. Carey Price’s future is as muddy as ever, and the Canadiens are still trying to navigate what they have in starter Jake Allen. Allen has been great in stretches for Montreal when healthy, but it’s also been fleeting, and long-term injuries have created light usage rates in his first two years. Montreal knows they are going to struggle this year and staying competitive in games is going to largely hinge on what type of goaltending they get. Either way, it’s a season of monstrous importance for Allen in the final year of his deal.
Minnesota: Marc-Andre Fleury returns, and a frustrated Cam Talbot exits. The Wild are a better team with the skilled Fleury, 37, in net, but I’m still not sure this goaltending group is good enough to form a Stanley Cup contender in Minnesota. The Wild’s lineup is rife with exceptional defensive players, frenetic and effective at pushing attacking sequences to the perimeter. Yet, the Wild routinely look mediocre in goal prevention – 16th in goals against per-60 minutes, fifth in expected goals against per 60 minutes just last season – something Fleury himself recognized. It’s certainly something to monitor on one of the Western Conference’s most talented teams.
New Jersey: When teams bet on goaltenders like Vitek Vanecek, they are betting on a wide range of options. Vanecek, with such limited time in the NHL, has a higher theoretical ceiling and a lower floor than a goaltender with hundreds of games of play. You simply have much less to work with and have to rely a bit more on judgment. Which brings me to this note: Vanecek played the Devils six times when he was with Washington, stopped 91.8 per cent of shots, and won all six games. I think he made an impression.
Philadelphia: This is a make-or-break year for Carter Hart. After two promising seasons with the Flyers, Hart’s game has eroded as the lineup around him has deteriorated. The Flyers have virtually no hope of being competitive this season without Hart being one of the league’s best goaltenders, so there’s a lot of pressure to produce here. One note: Hart will get a bit of help this season behind John Tortorella’s constricting defence.
Seattle: The team needs a 180-degree turn from Philipp Grubauer, effective immediately.
St Louis: There is extraordinary pressure on Jordan Binnington to deliver behind an otherwise strong Blues lineup. The Blues committed long-term to Binnington, but it was Ville Husso who carried most of the weight for St. Louis last year.
Toronto: On the plus side, recently acquired Matt Murray played better for the Ottawa Senators down the stretch last season. But for an otherwise elite Maple Leafs lineup, staking your team’s Stanley Cup chances to large gambles on a volatile player like Murray and Ilya Samsonov (who was shelled last year) is an extraordinary risk. Toronto’s cap situation and a very limited supply of available goaltenders may have forced GM Kyle Dubas’ hand, but this is a scary group to bet on.
Tier 3, Solid: Anaheim Ducks, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Edmonton Oilers, Florida Panthers, Los Angeles Kings, Ottawa Senators and San Jose Sharks
Anaheim: No goaltender added more wins to his team’s ledger from 2016-18 than John Gibson. Gibson stopped 92.2 per cent of shots faced and erased a whopping 84 goals versus expected, 20 better than the next-best netminder (Sergei Bobrovsky). But from 2019-22 Gibson has a save percentage under 90 per cent and is a staggering 57th in goals saved versus expected (-2). To say he needs a bounce-back season in 2022-23 would be an understatement.
Colorado: The Avalanche are so deep and so talented that they need just average goaltending – and quite frankly they could get by with worse than that – to plow through the regular season. A platoon of Alex Georgiev and Pavel Francouz will be able to handle just that. Something to watch: Georgiev has seen his save percentage (largely a team-driven statistic) decline for four consecutive seasons. Do we see a rebound on an Avalanche team with a lot more structure up front?
Dallas: I think there is a real chance Jake Oettinger becomes a workhorse goaltender for Dallas in year three. The Stars dressed Oettinger 48 times last year – nearly double his rookie season, but still just 19th amongst qualified goaltenders. Considering their backup situation and how highly they think of the 23-year-old, we might see another sharp rise in Oettinger’s usage.
Edmonton: Out goes Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen, in comes Jack Campbell and Stuart Skinner. I asked on Sunday if consensus opinion was the Oilers had improved their goaltending situation year-over-year, and it wasn’t a trick question. Smith, rightly criticized for giving up poor goals from time to time, was quite good as an Oiler. Campbell is the better and certainly younger goalie, but last year’s results were mixed. The save percentage on an otherwise great Toronto team (91.2 per cent) was quality over 49 games, but Campbell was -8 goals versus expected based on the quality of shots faced. That’s a 14-goal swing to the downside from Smith (+7) last season. Campbell has shown much better in years past; we’ll see if he can erase last season as an outlier of sorts from the record.
Florida: The once-beleaguered Panthers goaltending situation has improved – not only did Bobrovsky turn in his best season with Florida last year, but former first-round pick Spencer Knight looked fantastic as a rookie. If competition breeds success, Paul Maurice’s job just got a lot easier.
Los Angeles: After a few seasons of underperformance, the Kings decided to slide Jonathan Quick into more of a platoon role last season with Cal Petersen. Maybe the rest helped. Quick’s stop rate (91.0 per cent) and goals saved versus expectations (+12) hit five-year highs, and he notably outplayed the younger Petersen, who starts his three-year deal this season.
Ottawa: This is an expected platoon that may not be a platoon by season’s end. Whereas Anton Forsberg’s career seems to be taking off, Talbot’s is sliding. Forsberg has been 30 goals better than expected relative to Talbot over the last two seasons, and last year played a career-high 46 games. I expect further entrenchment here from Forsberg, especially if he adds to last year’s 91.7 per cent stop rate behind a better Ottawa team.
San Jose: The Sharks must be fielding calls on their goaltenders right now. San Jose is in the throes of a rebuild with three NHL goaltenders – Kaapo Kahkonen, James Reimer and Adin Hill – expected to see time this season. Might we see one of these players shipped to an organization in need, perhaps Vegas?
Tier 2, Outperform: Boston Bruins, Calgary Flames, Carolina Hurricanes, Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, Vancouver Canucks
Boston: The Bruins goaltending factory continues unabated, this time with a former fourth-round pick in Jeremy Swayman. The Bruins were comfortable giving Swayman significant ice time last year (41 games played), and Linus Ullmark (who has three years remaining on his deal) is a reliable platoon option for Jim Montgomery. I expect Swayman and Ullmark to trade ice time most of the season.
Calgary: People are writing off the Flames too quickly this season. Yes, losing Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau hurts. But the Flames still have one of the best defensive groups in the league, and backstopping them is Jacob Markstrom, who just finished off a career season (92.1 per cent stop rate; +16 goals saved versus expected) in Darryl Sutter’s repressive system. Maybe Calgary doesn’t have the same offensive firepower this year, but this is a team that finished second in goal prevention, and I expect great play again this year. It starts in net.
Carolina: This tandem was good enough for Tier 1 consideration, but we are just a year removed from both Frederik Andersen (then in Toronto) and Antti Raanta (then in Arizona) struggling. But if Andersen and Raanta are as good this year as they were last year, the Hurricanes will be one of the toughest outs in the league. Remember: no team conceded fewer goals (200) than Carolina in 2021-22.
Detroit: The Red Wings went after Ville Husso and signed him to a three-year, $14-million dollar contract to shore up their goaltending position ahead of Alex Nedeljkovic. Husso was outstanding for St. Louis last year – in fact, only three goaltenders in the entire league (Igor Shesterkin, Ilya Sorokin and Andersen) erased more goals versus expected on a per-game basis. It’s very promising, but it’s also true we have just 57 games of data on Husso as a player. Much like Vanecek in New Jersey, the range of outcomes here is quite high.
Pittsburgh: Another fantastic platoon, and one that’s going to force some tough decisions to be made across the rest of this lineup. Tristan Jarry’s contract ($3.5-million AAV) expires at the end of this season, and he will be due a substantial raise.
Washington: The big goaltending bet of the off-season was made by the Capitals, locking in Darcy Kuemper for five seasons. One thing about Kuemper: he is arguably the most consistent and reliable goaltender of the past five seasons, rarely fighting through big slumps or periods of underperformance. That’s precisely what you want to see when you do commit a large portion of the salary cap towards a goaltender.
Vancouver: Great goaltending behind a harrowing blueline. Can Thatcher Demko and Spencer Martin (who had a cup of coffee with the Canucks last season) be the stabilizing force for a Canucks lineup that’s going to need all the help it can get when it comes to goal prevention? We have seen Demko thrive in difficult situations in the past, but no goaltender can survive long term against flurries of shots from the interior, a specialty of the Canucks defence.
Tier 1, Elite: Nashville Predators, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Winnipeg Jets
Nashville: I wrote the workhorse goaltender was disappearing from the NHL, and while true high-end goalies are still capable of picking up a significant amount of starts. That’s certainly the case for Juuse Saros, who saw 67 games of action – most in the league – last season. Fun fact: Saros has been in the league for six seasons now, and not once has he conceded more goals than expected, based on shot volumes and the quality of shots faced. That’s the mark of an elite goalie.
New York Islanders: I would say this is the best platoon in hockey. Ilya Sorokin is one of the league’s best goaltenders and will get the majority of starts, but Semyon Varlamov’s presence on this roster gives Lane Lambert plenty of optionality when dealing with the schedule and managing rest. Varlamov played 31 games last year and stopped 91.2 per cent of shots faced. Considering how many teams around the league are still searching for one goaltender, the Islanders having two rostered is an impressive luxury.
New York Rangers: Igor Shesterkin winning the Vezina Trophy last season was well deserved. Shesterkin was a human eraser and the biggest reason why the Rangers were so indomitable in the Eastern Conference last year. Shesterkin is estimated to have saved 37 goals from the Rangers ledger last year, based on the shot profile faced. In the past two years, that number has only been topped twice: by Bobrovsky in 2016-17 (+45), and Price in 2014-15 (+39). Good company.
Tampa Bay: For a moment, and it was a fleeting moment, I considered the Lightning for the Tier 2 category. Not because of Andrei Vasilevskiy, who still may have the best argument of any goaltender in the league he’s the apex predator. But Vasilevskiy won’t start in 20 to 25 games again this regular season, and that means turning to 37-year-old Brian Elliott a fair bit. Elliott was okay in Tampa Bay last season, but we are one year removed from an epic flame-out with the Flyers in 2020-21.
Winnipeg: No goaltender over the last three seasons has saved more goals versus expected (+48) than Connor Hellebuyck, who has made a career out of making an otherwise heinous Winnipeg Jets defence look average. But seriously, can Hellebuyck get a little more help this season? If not at even strength, then at least on the penalty kill?
Data via CapFriendly, Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Hockey Reference, HockeyDB