As I mentioned yesterday, I've been on a bit of a goaltending kick, and I finally worked up the ambition to do a full study of every NHL goaltender's even-strength save percentage since the lockout. Using even-strength save percentage helps account for shot quality; the penalty-kill fluctuates in ability from team to team and an outfit with a poor one can submarine an otherwise capable goaltender's statistics (one of the reasons I haven't given up on Devan Dubnyk).
I've split the goaltenders based on their average save percentage; the results are interesting, to say the least. I do believe that this list gives us our best idea to date of which goaltenders are the best at their position.
These ten active goaltenders (plus Dominik Hasek) have put up the best even-strength save percentage numbers over the lockout, and there's a lot to see here.
Tomas Vokoun is perhaps the most criminally underrated goaltender in the NHL. He's played for small-market, also-ran franchises (Nashville, Florida) and he's been nothing but successful everywhere he's played. I'd thought about bumping Dominik Hasek off of the list, but I kept him on to show that a) he still had plenty of game left, despite age and injury and b) how closely Tomas Vokoun matched him over the past three years of his career. He's the heir apparent to The Dominator. Just thirty-three, he still has time to get the respect he deserves.
Roberto Luongo and Martin Brodeur are the dominant French-Canadien goaltenders in the league right now, and there isn't much to say about either. Both get the respect they deserve (except for the occasional Damien Cox column that reminds you why he's such a nice fit in Toronto). Brodeur's a great goalie, and while I don't think his peak ability is in the same range as the greatest in the hiostory of the game, there's a lot to be said for just being very, very good all of the time.
Tim Thomas spent three years dominating the minors (between 2003-04 and 2005-06 he posted a .941, .946, and .923 SV% in the AHL or FNL) before he finally got a chance in Boston towards the latter half of 2005-06. In 2006-07 his save percentage dipped to .905, but we can see that this dip came from special teams; his even-strength save percentage stayed just fine. The Bruins seem to have lucked their way into an elite goaltender.
Jean-Sebastien Giguere is an interesting case, and given Hiller's performance he might be worth trying to acquire via trade, despite his hefty price tag. His father died in December; here are his season save percentage splits (note: not just even-strength, but all situations):
- October: .903
- November: .913
- December: .920
- January: .858
- February: .895
- March: .879
Obviously, I can't say with certainty what's going on in Giguere's head, but it seems completely reasonable to think that his father's death derailed his season. Without this season, he's averaged .933 post-lockout. If Anaheim trades him, some team will be getting an elite goalie.
Niklas Backstrom marks a bit of a drop-off from those first five, in my opinion. His track record isn't as long, and while he's been consistently good he's had slight dropoffs over the past two seasons and those are a slight cause for concern. He's a good goaltender but I'm really not sold that he's quite on the same level as the guys listed above.
Henrik Lundqvist and Kari Lehtonen are in the same range as Backstrom, with the caveat that Lehtonen is one of the most injury-prone players in the game and it's fair to wonder if the cumulative effect of those injuries won't drive down his results some time soon. Lundqvist hasn't been quite as good the last few seasons as he was immediately following the lockout. Cristobal Huet finds his average save percentage somewhere in this range too; the difference is that he seems to oscillate between good and great and finds himself somewhere in between. His contract isn't great but Chicago could have done worse.
The final name in this group is one that I personally find shocking. Unrestricted free agent Manny Fernandez was Boston's backup last year and was injured the year before that, so perhaps it isn't surprising that he's been ignored (I certainly didn't seriously consider him for a spot in Edmonton). Does Detroit have a backup yet? Also, they won't do it, but if Edmonton signed this guy (he's going to be cheap - his options range from limited to non-existent) I'd take back everything I said about the Khabibulin contract.
Unlike the guys in Group I, the players in Group II don't have much of a track record of playing more than 20 games; generally two seasons or less. They have put up good save percentage numbers though.
Jonas Hiller looks set to make Jean-Sebastien Giguere expendable in Anaheim. He had a nice career in Switzerland before coming over to North America and isn't a bad bet either. He's a lot cheaper than Giguere, but he's also a pending unrestricted free agent, so I wonder if Anaheim wouldn't be better off trading him.
I've made my skepticism about Scott Clemmensen known before. He's a career journeyman who never really did much even in the AHL, and I really suspect this past season was a one-off. I'm glad the Oilers elected not to pursue him this summer, although he's not an awful gamble as a backup. Brian Boucher is a similar player, albeit with a better long-term track record and a slightly poorer season last year.
There was a time when Ty Conklin was a rising prospect with the Oilers; in the final year before the lockout he handily outplayed Tommy Salo. He didn't do much during the lockout, got hurt early in camp, and spent the following season in the minors before earning another NHL shot with Pittsburgh. He was great in 2007-08, and decent last year and should be a good fit as a 1B goalie in St. Louis.
Craig Anderson will start for the Avalanche next season. It's a no-risk move for Colorado; they may get a starter on the cheap or he may help them acquire Taylor Hall. He's been very good in the AHL, so the only mark against him is that year in Chicago (2005-06). All of Chicago's goalies stunk that year, though; I have trouble believeing that the defense wasn't to blame.
I don't expect Pekka Rinne to repeat his excellent rookie season; his AHL numbers are middling and there simply isn't the kind of track record there to think he had even this year in him. Maybe it was a breakout year, but I'm not convinced.
I have to admit that Jonathan Quick is a very, very puzzling player by the numbers. He had a good run over 54 college games, followed by 38 mostly bad ECHL games, 19 good AHL games, and an NHL cup of coffee - the last three all happening last year. Last season, he played well. I like him, but I wouldn't make it an all-or-nothing bet like Los Angeles has done; a more certain backup than Ersberg would be a good thing here I think.
Finally, Steve Mason came out of nowhere last season and was superb; it's a rare goaltender who can turn even a strong junior record into a great NHL debut in his first year as a professional. It's always risky to gamble a team's spot on one season, but Columbus hasn't done that, wisely signing a very capable backup as an insurance policy.
This group has the rest of the above-average starters in the NHL; just a hair below Group I.
Miikka Kiprusoff wasn't an arbitrary choice for the cut-off point. His post-lockout seasons were tremendous; he was one of if not the best goaltender in the league between 2005-07 before taking a bit of a step back in 2007-08. This past year, he collapsed and Mike Keenan (among others) paid the price for it. I understand that Darryl Sutter isn't likely to call out his long-term investment publicly, but there's no doubt where the trouble was in Calgary last season, and I have to think he knows it. The question is whether Kiprusoff can bounce back; I wonder if a competent backup and some healthy competition might help. I may just jump off a bridge if Calgary signs Fernandez.
Marc-Andre Fleury has as good a chance as anyone on this list of climbing to the next level over the coming seasons. He only played 35 games in 2007-08, so it' fair to ask if that jump to .940 is an anomaly or a sign of things to come, but his past season was quite good and he's got a lot of experience for such a young goaltender.
Ryan Miller is a guy who most closely resembles Cristobal Huet from the top list; his highs haven't been quite as high though. I like him as a starter, but for a team like Buffalo to shell out money and term may not make a ton of sense cap-wise.
Rick DiPietro was clearly a downgrade from Roberto Luongo (thanks for that, Mike Milbury) and his precarious health alone makes the Islanders' long-term investment in him a mistake. That said, when healthy he's in the top-half of NHL goaltenders.
Ilya Bryzgalov and Chris Mason don't generally get much credit as top-flight goalies. Phoenix paid up to keep Bryzgalov after his breakthrough season but I think he's going to be an averagish starter for most of that contract. Mason got his money from Nashville and has been a nice pickup for the Blues; as long as he doesn't go into the tank again he could be up in Ryan Miller territory.
The Group IV guys are like the Group II guys above: youngish goaltenders who have had good results but don't have a long track record. Some of these guys will have nice careers, and others will drop off; the only question is which ones.
Carey Price headlines the group, although I do think he's going to climb into Group I or at least Group III in the coming years. His play this past season wasn't nearly as bad as a quick glance at his overall save percentage would seem to indicate; his save percentage while short-handed dropped from .885 to .843 and that worked out to an 11-goal shift. He's going to be just fine, although he's cursed to live in a city where every peak and valley will be scrutinized and I hope he has the mental toughness to handle it.
Josh Harding is in all likelihood going to be dealt somewhere by Minnesota; he's a fine emerging goaltender with an ice minor-league track record but he's not exactly a sure thing yet. For a team with a capable backup he might be a very nice gamble - particularly if he can be signed to a relatively cheap deal. I also really like Jaroslav Halak and he, like Harding, has a good track record going into the NHL and should be a good gamble for someone.
Dan Ellis suffered the fate of so many Nashville goaltenders this past season: he was usurped by his backup. It happened to Mike Dunham, it happened to Tomas Vokoun, and Ellis himself did it to Chris Mason; it seems fair to say that Nashville has a better idea than most teams about goalies. Ellis is still a very good goaltender and another year or two could solidify his reputation as an above-average starter.
Yann Danis is a guy to bet against. New Jersey signed him cheaply and so we'll probably never get a chance to see if he's for real or not, but his minor-league track record suggests that he isn't. He's one of the older goalies in this category but is a good example of how a minor-league guy can step up and surprise.
Brian Elliott has had a very nice run the last few years; his college numbers and AHL numbers are very good and would seem to indicate that his performance this past season isn't an aberration. Ottawa brought in Pascal Leclaire as insurance but I would be very surprised if Elliott doesn't win out over the next few seasons (particularly given Leclaire's injury woes).
...and this is the rest of the league's most-used goaltenders. There's a variety of guys in here, ranging from career 1B goalies, good starters who have recently performed at a high level, good starters who have had a bad season (or two), kids, and guys who shouldn't be in the big league at all.
Mathieu Garon, a guy who every so often threatens to take over a starting role somewhere, sits at the top of this list. His supposedly dreadful season this year doesn't show up on this chart - and there's a good explanation for that. His short-handed save percentage went from insanely, Vezina-trophy calibre good (.908) to dreadful (.821). I've harped on the Oilers' penalty-kill collapsing this past season due to personnel changes (Reasoner, Stoll, Greene) and while I think that's part of the answer the truth is that the biggest reason for the shift lies right here, with the goalie.
Mikael Tellqvist would rank quite high aside from a dreadful 2006-07; it's really too bad he's had so much difficulty finding an NHL job. He's certainly a better bet than a guy like Curtis McElhinney or Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers. Martin Gerber is KHL bound after a lousy season, but like Tellqvist he's definitely better than some current backups.
Ray Emery has been brought back to North America to audition for the Flyers' starting job; aside from the fact that he was the second-best goalie on his KHL team (behind Vitaly Kolesnik, look it up) this past season I see no reason to think that it won't turn out OK. His personality will certainly be a fit and he should be good enough that he won't get pilloried in the press. Still, he probably wasn't the best possible choice.
Mike Smith had an incredible year last season on a wretched Tampa Bay Lightning team; honestly he deserved Vezina consideration, although his name never really came up. There are, however, two causes for concern: his wretched 2007-08 performance and the fact that he's recovering from post-concussion syndrome. His career is going to be an interesting one to watch.
There are a set of three guys who really belong higher on the list. Evgeni Nabokov is not an elite goaltender, but he is above average and only his 2005-06 numbers keep him from posting a comparable save percentage to those guys. He also deserves credit for posting those numbers as a starter (i.e. over more games). Marty Turco is a similar sort, except that his miserable season was this past year. I don't see any reason to think that he can't bouce back to provide average to above-average goaltending for the Stars. Lastly, Martin Biron has had three average or better seasons along with one bad one (the bad year coming in a season where he was traded from Buffalo to Philadelphia) and he was a very nice signing by the Islanders.
Pascal Leclaire is not, despite Pierre McGuire's statement to the contrary, "the best goaltender Ottawa has ever had". He may not even be the best goaltender on the team. He had one good season, one very good season, one lousy season, and a miserable, injury-filled year in 2008-09. He's struggled with chronic ailments and while his erratic performance may be attributable to those injuries there's no reason to believe he'll ever be healthy enough to be a reliable starter.
I've said a ton in the past few weeks about Nikolai Khabibulin. On the positive side, at age 36 he's coming off of a remarkable bounce-back season that saw him post numbers that rank him among the league's top goaltenders. The flip side of that is that for two seasons prior he was decidedly average - which I would guess is his true range from here on out. Surprisingly he played in the RSL during the lockout; I say surprisingly because 2005-06 was a miserable season for him.
The much-maligned Manny Legace had a season to forget last year; the question now is whether the wheels have fallen off entirely or if this was a one-off. Given the league goaltending situation (too many goalies, not enough spots) I doubt we'll get a chance to find out and his NHL career may be over.
We find Dwayne Roloson near the bottom of this list, and I have to confess that I've been biased in his favour by sentiment, a good performance in 2008-09, and his combative attitude. Despite his performance this past season, for the years previous he was sub-average and the Oilers made the right decision to move on.
Alex Auld probably deserves to be a bit higher here; one bad season has torpedoed his average and he's been very decent in the other three years. I've always liked the guy, and Dallas did an ice job to get him without giving up much (6th round pick) and provide Marty Turco with some insurance and maybe even a little competition for the starting job. Tobias Stephen simply wasn't enough of an option last year.
Jason LaBarbera and Peter Budaj have similar track records, except that nobody was silly enough to believe that LaBarbera could be a starter without giving him a significant safety net. These guys are cheap and easy to replace, and Budaj's been fortunate that the Avalanche are so committed to him.
Chris Osgood and Vesa Toskala are a little better than okay during good seasons and worse than that otherwise. Both are coming off bad seasons, although Osgood turned in a strong playoff that had him in the running for the Conn Smythe. John Ferguson Jr. had something of a reverse-Midas touch when it came to goalies; for that reason alone I'm sure Tuukka Rask is going to have an NHL career.
Johan Hedberg is reason #895 why Don Waddell should not be allowed to run an NHL franchise.
Antero Niittymaki was undoubtedly frustrating for Flyers fans but he's a nice bet by the Tampa Bay Lightning. He's coming off a fine season and his average has been torpedoed by one bad year and opne mediocre year. This is exactly the kind of cheap backup that smart G.M.'s take chances on. Erik Ersberg, not so much; his AHL and SEL record isn't terribly strong and in his first extended NHL action he was just OK. Lots of goalies can be just OK - it's better to bet on one capable of doing more than that.
Cam Ward parlayed a nice Stanley Cup run in 2005-06 into a starting job that he wasn't yet ready for. He came into his own this past season and is on a steady upward curve that should land him somewhere in the top-15 NHL goaltenders.
Karri Ramo is a guy who I would put pretty good money against ever developing into a legitimate starting goaltender. He had one nice season in Finland, and outside of that his numbers at every level have been ugly. I'm not a big fan of sinking development time and money into goalies, and this is a worse example of it than most.
Jose Theodore won the Hart and Vezina trophies in 2001-02, but he's been lousy every season since the lockout. Washington shouldn't have signed him; there are plenty of mediocre goalies who are capable of being better than average available for far less money. It takes years to burn a reputation like Theodore's; he's gotten most of the way to doing it now.
Joey MacDonald, Andrew Raycroft and Patrick Lalime are minor league goalies. Raycroft in particular (ranked as the 17th best goalie in the NHL at one point during this stretch by THN) has never done anything outside of his rookie year and has miraculously gotten chance after chance. MacDonald has always been an AHL goalie, but I think Garth Snow knw from Day 1 that he wanted John Tavares and running MacDonald out as a starter was the best way to do that. Lalime used to be more but at this point in his career he should be considering what he'll do after hockey.