Connor Hellebuyck, Tuukka Rask and Andrei Vasilevskiy are elite netminders, no doubt. But how many of their peers can be counted on so consistently these days?
Connor Hellebuyck|Terrence Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Sure, you can talk about Jacob Markstrom’s heroics in Vancouver or Ben Bishop’s efforts in Dallas (and ponder what Darcy Kuemper could have done if he had been healthy all year in Arizona), but for the most part, goaltending has become a vexing position in the NHL.
If I had a vote, it would go to Hellebuyck in Winnipeg. Not only did he post incredible statistics – his 22.4 goals-saved above average (GSAA) was just a tick below Rask’s league-leading mark of 22.5 – but he had to be superhuman on a Jets squad that fielded a threadbare defense this season.
Overall however, we’re seeing a bit of a reckoning in the crease. Carey Price still has the mythical aura around him, but the Montreal star’s .909 save percentage and -1.31 GSAA confirms that shooters consistently found daylight against him. Washington’s Braden Holtby won the Vezina just a few years ago, but this season he was statistically one of the worst netminders in the NHL with a GSAA of -16.7. There’s also the benching of Henrik Lundqvist in New York, something that would have been sacrilege for Rangers fans just a few years ago (and maybe still is for a certain subsection of the faithful).
In Price’s case, he’s still the man in Montreal, but Holtby is already getting pushed out by Ilya Samsonov, while Lundqvist surrendered his throne to Igor Shesterkin. In Nashville, veteran Pekka Rinne can see Juuse Saros pulling ahead of him.
Now, a lot of this is simply veterans being replaced by youngsters and that has been happening in the NHL forever. But this era feels different. There seems to be a lot more volatility in the position and Pittsburgh may be a prime example: the Penguins saw Marc-Andre Fleury usurped by Matt Murray in the 2016 playoffs, but this year it was Murray who struggled and Tristan Jarry who had to come in and save the team’s bacon.
Even some of the big-name netminders still have Death-Star flaws in their games: Vasilevskiy’s playoff record is a roller coaster at best, while Sergei Bobrovsky had that same rep before he signed a mammoth contract with Florida – and he was just plain bad in the regular season this year. Maybe he’s reversing course and will be outstanding in the playoffs this time.
And it’s not like goalies are being rushed into the league. Jordan Binnington was practically forgotten about until he helped the Blues win the Stanley Cup, while Philadelphia tried to hold Carter Hart back, only to have circumstances intervene and Hart succeed anyways.
Perhaps we’re just in an era where goalie gear has been streamlined, shooters are smarter than ever before and crackdowns on obstruction and slashing have allowed forwards to make plays that netminders aren’t yet adept at stopping (cross-crease passes being an obvious candidate).
Whether Hellebuyck, Rask or Vasilevskiy end up winning the Vezina, the winner will be a great choice. Will these candidates still be at the top of their craft in a few seasons? That’s when we’ll see if the current trend of volatility continues or ends.