NHL goalies are some of the most powerful athletes in sports.
They can be the reason a goal is or is not scored, the deciding force between victory and defeat. They can rescue a teammate from a defensive miscue, or paper over holes in the lineup. They can be the reason a coach keeps his job or the reason he no longer has one.
Strong goaltending can infuse a team with confidence. Having weak goaltending is like building a contender on a foundation made of oatmeal.
Here is the NHL Goaltender Confidence Index, just under two months into the 2021-22 season. Along with the ranking, each team entry has analysis from former NHL goalie Stephen Valiquette, CEO of Clear Sight Analytics and one of the sport’s foremost analysts on netminders; and ESPN Insider Kevin Weekes, an 11-year veteran NHL goaltender.
Markstrom went from playing his way to a massive free-agent contract to becoming a potential free-agent bust to being a favorite for the Vezina Trophy in the span of three seasons. His resurgence this season is thanks to coach Darryl Sutter’s sturdy and supporting defensive system, helping Markstrom to a .937 save percentage, a 1.83 goals-against average and a league-high five shutouts. He is 10th in goals saved above average and has been exceptional at stopping high-danger scoring chances. His backup, Vladar, also has startlingly good numbers (.939, 1.78), which might take some shine off Markstrom’s performance as being the product of a system rather than someone transcending it.
Valiquette’s take: “I’m a huge fan of Markstrom. I’ll never forget [goalie coach] Dan Cloutier reaching out to me some years back and asking my company for help, because the Canucks wanted to get rid of Markstrom and he didn’t want to see him leave. We gave him the evidence he needed, and Markstrom stayed. Ian Clark came into Vancouver and completely refined his game. Markstrom’s a workhorse. Guys love him. But the thing about him this season is Darryl Sutter, right? He hasn’t faced the same difficulty of saves as [Igor] Shesterkin has because of that system.”
Vasilevskiy has a 12-4-3 record and a .927 save percentage. At this point in his stellar career, this is what’s expected of the 27-year-old four-time Vezina finalist: a metaphorical MVP performance in the regular season, followed by a documented MVP performance in the playoffs. Elliott has been an upgrade as the backup.
Weekes’ take: “Vasy, when he went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, was 20 years old. He was so chill, and that told me he was different. His goalie coach, Frantz Jean, would say the guy’s a unicorn — how his work ethic was better than even that of Steven Stamkos. The fact he’s gotten shutouts in all these elimination games has been Kobe-esque.”
Shesterkin, 26, has quickly established himself as the man in the Rangers’ post-Henrik Lundqvist world. His .937 save percentage in 18 games is the second best in the league for goalies with at least 10 appearances. He is 13-3-2 this season. He also is currently injured, and durability has been the only legitimate knock on his otherwise massive potential. Unfortunately, Georgiev (.876) has been one of the worst goalies in the league this season. Perhaps the Rangers should have traded him when his value was sky-high.
Valiquette’s take: “Igor Shesterkin is the best goalie in the league right now, based on the difficulty that he faces and the saves that he makes based on that difficulty. He pulls two or three saves a night out of his ass that would be goals. He’s literally stealing goals from other teams. There’s a different kind of pressure on goalies when it’s a game he’s ‘supposed to win’ and he low-key plays above expected in those games. He’s so good. Holy smokes.”
The Jets went out and got Hellebuyck some defensemen in the offseason, and there’s a chance that the leader in shots faced and saves made for the past three seasons may see a little less action. After an underwhelming first month, Hellebuyck bounced back closer to his expected form. Also expected: That the 28-year-old could be Team USA’s starting goaltender in Beijing. Comrie has been an above replacement level backup in six appearances.
Weekes’ take: “Comparing Hellebuyck and Vasilevskiy is like comparing a Ferrari to a Lambo. Like Vasilevskiy, Hellebuyck has a ton of belief in himself.”
Last season, Campbell was the beneficiary of a Maple Leafs team that really figured itself out defensively and played great behind it: 17-3-2 and a .921 save percentage. He’s built on that season in his first 20 games of the 2021-22 campaign: 13-4-2 overall with a .942 save percentage. He’s sixth in goals saved above replacement per 60 minutes for goalies with at least 10 appearances. In theory, Petr Mrazek will be his backup, but the oft-injured former Hurricane was already injured this season.
Valiquette’s take: “He’s a street hockey goalie. That’s meant to be a backhanded compliment, because I don’t think people can read off of him. He’s very reactionary. He’s unorthodox. Goalie coaches don’t like people like Jack Campbell because we can’t explain him. You know how else we couldn’t explain in the past? Tim Thomas, Martin Brodeur and Dominik Hasek. These guys do it their own way. The trajectory on Campbell … a lot of these kinds of goalies really find their games later on in their careers.
The Hurricanes’ decision to clear out their goaltending depth in the offseason has paid early dividends, as they have a slightly higher team save percentage than last season (.915). That’s mostly due to Andersen (.928), who is 11th in goals saved above average. Raanta, however, has been slightly below average this season, with a .904 save percentage in seven games.
Valiquette’s take: “Carolina’s goaltending is a product of the way they’re playing in front of them right now. But here’s the thing that people don’t understand: Just because you’re a really good team doesn’t mean your goalie can’t outperform what your team is allowing. Andersen’s playing great, while not facing a lot.”
The gang’s all here. Bishop is just starting a rehab stint in the AHL after missing all of last season due to injury. When he is ready, the Stars are going to have some decisions to make: Holtby (.927 save percentage) has had a resurgent season but is pending a free agent; Oettinger was seemingly the odd man out when Holtby signed but has been their best goalie in six games; and Khudobin (.873) is signed through next season but has been one of the season’s biggest disappointments in goal.
Demko has played at an above replacement level, but has mustered only a .908 save percentage and an 8-11-1 record through 20 games. Halak started the season 0-4-1. Granted, all of this came with a coach (Travis Green) who was fired and behind a defense built by a general manager (Jim Benning) who followed him out the door. Perhaps changes at the top mean better things for the Canucks’ talented goalies.
Weekes’ take: “Demko is a big part of this great generation of American goalies.”
There’s been a Quickening in Los Angeles. (Come for the “Highlander” references; stay for the goalie rankings.) The 36-year-old goalie is 5-5-3 with a .926 save percentage this season, playing some of his best hockey in years. Petersen was signed to a three-year deal ostensibly as his Quick’s replacement, so it’s no doubt frustrating that he has played below replacement so far this season for the Kings.
Weekes’ take: “I don’t know why people always try to write off Quickie. To me, in a lot of ways, Quick is this generation’s Grant Fuhr. He’ll say Mike Richter, because that’s his guy, but I think Grant Fuhr. He doesn’t always have to put up sparkling numbers. But Quickie will say it himself: It’s all about the wins, baby. He’s a consummate team player, battles his ass off in every drill and competes on every shot. Made himself into an elite goalie.”
There was some concern after last season’s playoff loss to the New York Islanders that Tristan Jarry wasn’t up to the task. The 26-year-old goaltender spent the first 20 games of the 2021-22 emphatically responding to that with a .934 save percentage, helping the Penguins — and their various lineup challenges — to a 1.92 goals-against average in his games. He’s third in goals saved above replacement per 60 minutes. DeSmith, who actually had better numbers than Jarry last regular season, has struggled to get on track.
Weekes’ take: “Not enough is being said about my man Andy Chiodo, the goalie coach in Pittsburgh. He had Jarry in the AHL and helped turn him into a pro. Jarry is a guy that hadn’t really struggled much at lower levels. With Chiodo coming in full time, he was able to reboot him. And now Jarry is in the Vezina Trophy conversation. I’m happy to see him get back to his form.”
Give Saros credit for answering a few questions already this season: Like whether he was ready to inherit the throne from Pekka Rinne, whether he was just playing for a contract last season and whether he could repeat that performance that earned him sixth place for the Vezina. The answers: Yes, no and eh, close enough, with a .921 save percentage. He has played 20 games, leaving little time for Rittich to find a groove. Ingram, their AHL goalie, saw some action when Rittich was unavailable.
Valiquette’s take: “Saros has been a hit this season, absolutely.”
Good news has been in short supply for the Islanders this season, but the continued success of Sorokin (.925 save percentage) certainly qualifies. Nine of his 15 starts hit the “quality start” threshold, and he is fifth in goals saved above average for goalies with over 10 games played. More troubling has been Varlamov, who is winless in six appearances (0-4-1) after finishing fifth for the Vezina last season. He hasn’t been a sub-replacement level goalie since the 2016-17 season in Colorado, but that’s where his game is now.
Valiquette’s take: “Sorokin has been very good, but the Islanders have really struggled despite being the hallmark of team defense. They lost puck-moving defensemen. They aren’t getting out of their zone. They had a bunch of injuries, players out with COVID. You feel for them.”
Binnington is 8-5-3 on the season and it’s been quite a ride. He has a .912 save percentage, but a quality starts percentage of just .375. He’s 16th among goalies with at least 10 appearances in goals saved above average per 60 minutes, but he’s only had five games in which he’s allowed two or fewer goals. Husso has been quietly good, with a .929 save percentage in six starts.
Weekes’ take: “I think Binner should be the Team Canada starter. He’s always been a guy who know who he was before the world knew. He told me at a barbecue once that he was going to make the league — ‘I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready,’ he said. Within a year, he was in the league and the rest is history. Binner’s a guy that gets charged up by the fans. That’s part of the reason his team struggled in the bubble. But he looks like himself again.”
Samsonov has put together one of the gaudiest win/loss seasons in the NHL, improving to 11-1-1 on Monday night. But that’s more a product of the Capitals’ team defense than anything else: Some of his underlying numbers aren’t stellar, but Samsonov (6th, 28.36) and Vanecek (1st, 26.07) are among the league leaders in fewest shots faced per 60 minutes at 5-on-5.
Weekes’ take: “Based on age and speed and stuff, I didn’t see this coming from the Capitals. All glory to them for what they’re doing. They’ve been really good defensively.”
Canadiens fans have the utmost confidence in Price, who has missed the entire season after entering the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program in the preseason. Yes, the disparity between his postseason performances and his regular-season stats remains distinct, but Playoff Carey Price (.919 career postseason save percentage) is as good as they come. Allen (.907), Montembeault (.897) and Primeau (.877 in two games) have suffered behind one of the league’s most disappointing teams and have all played below replacement.
Weekes’ take: “I love Price. He’s a generational guy. I guess we’ll see where he is healthwise and where he is mentally and emotionally. Plus, where their team is. That’s a steep fall from last year, to put it mildly. But I would never bet against a guy like that, I’ll put it that way.”
There have been times when it appeared that Bobrovsky (.920 save percentage) and Knight (.908) were in one of those body switch movies, given the respective expectations for their seasons. Bobrovsky has returned to Vezina form, acting as a strong last line of defense for a team that loves to push the offensive pace but that can sometimes leave its goalie out to dry; he is ninth in the NHL is high-danger shots faced per 60 minutes. Knight was expected to challenge for the Calder Trophy and the starter’s job this season, but Officer Bobrovsky remains on the beat.
Weekes’ take: “It’s been great to watch, but I’ve always been a Bob booster, going back to his days in Philly. I told Jarmo Kekäläinen and John Davidson that this guy’s the man when he was in Columbus. He’s a hockey guy 24/7 and does different stuff to keep himself in shape, including gymnastics. Full credit to [goalie coaches] Francois Allaire, Robbie Tallas and Roberto Luongo for getting him to this point in Florida.”
Despite being a Calder Trophy finalist last season, Nedeljkovic is still technically a rookie and has been arguably the best one between the pipes (.920) this season. Greiss has faced slightly tougher chances on average than Ned and has been slightly below average as compared to the rookie. Despite Jonathan Bernier moving to the Devils, this is exactly the same team save percentage the Wings finished with last season
Weekes’ take: “I heard about Nedeljkovic well before he made the NHL. I feel that Carolina botched Nedeljkovic by letting him go. He players bigger than his size. Him and Greiss are a nice combo in Detroit.”
With Marc-Andre Fleury gone, this is Lehner’s team. He played 19 games with a .910 save percentage, and .474 of his outings have been quality starts. We’ve yet to see him play behind a full lineup due to injuries — including Jack Eichel not suiting up until 2022 — but his underlying numbers have been strong despite the Golden Knights not having been as stout defensively than in previous seasons. Lehner has faced the third-most high-danger shots per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, and he has the 31st-best high-danger save percentage (.799). Brossoit has been very strong in spot starts.
Valiquette’s take: “Lehner’s been sneaky good this year. They’ve giving up a ton and he’s keeping them afloat. He faced more scoring chances than most goalies in the league.”
The Sharks made wholesale changes to their goaltending in the offseason, and Reimer and Hill arrived just in time to see San Jose dramatically improve its defensive game (top 10 in expected goals against). There has been a large disparity between the two goalies, as Reimer (.934 save percentage) has excelled while Hill (.901) has played below replacement level. But combined, they’re an improvement over what’s been there in recent years.
Valiquette’s take: “Reimer is having a year, isn’t he? There’s a significant gap between him and Hill as far as expected goals. Reimer’s had an easier environment than Hill this season, though.”
History is repeating for the Wild. For the second straight season, Minnesota is an incredible defensive team based on the analytics (third in expected goals against per 60) that isn’t seeing those same results in traditional stats (20th in goals against per 60). In other words, Talbot (.915 save percentage) has been OK, Kahkonen (.895) has been below average and the Wild are near the bottom third of the league in team save percentage.
Valiquette’s take: “I love Minnesota as a team. I had an NHL coach tell me the two best teams in the West were Minnesota and Vegas. The Wild play the right way for modern hockey. Maybe my most favorite team to watch. Cam Talbot isn’t rated poorly. They might not need a world-beater in net anyway.”
Swayman (7-4-1, .918 save percentage) has been fine, although not as good as he was in last season’s 10-game sample when he posted a rather unsustainable .945 save percentage. Ullmark, who was signed away from the Sabres with a four-year, $20 million deal, hasn’t hit his stride quite yet, with a negative goals saved above average, ranked 45th in the league. Perhaps that’s why the Bruins are having Rask, an unrestricted free agent who underwent offseason hip surgery, practice with the team. He was an emergency backup goalie in their practice on Monday, which we admit is a step up from the college goalies and beer leaguers who usually fill the role.
Valiquette’s take: “I think Ullmark and Swayman are NHL goalies. Ullmark’s always quietly been near the top of everything that we look at, from quality saves to stolen games. The knock on him is that he gets hurt. I think Boston is really thinking about whether they have to bring Rask back. One of the weird things about Boston was how they played completely different in front of Tuukka Rask than in front of anybody that backed him up. Someone like [Jaroslav] Halak would have the easiest amount of shots, while Rask would have the most difficult.”
For years, the default setting was that if the Ducks were winning, it was going to be on the strength of Gibson’s goaltending. Like in 2017-18, when he practically carried the team to a 101-point season and a playoff berth. Anaheim has been one of the Western Conference’s biggest surprises, holding down third place in the Pacific Division. But that’s been on the strength of its offense (3.32 goals per game) rather than a slightly below average defense in front of Gibson (29th in goals saved above replacement) and Stolarz, who is carving out a nice career as his understudy.
Valiquette’s take: “I saw NHL.com had Gibson as a Vezina [Trophy] candidate. I don’t know where that came from. Gibson’s a first-shot goalie. He’s really interesting. Every rush play, he’s got the shooter. If you make a pass on Gibson on a rush play, you’re probably scoring. That’s just what it looks like, and the data backs it up. He’s performing below league average right now.”
Elvis has left the building with 10 wins in 14 starts this season, with a strong .920 save percentage. Merzlikins has faced more high-danger chances on average than Korpisalo and also has been better in stopping them than his crease mate. Korpisalo, meanwhile, has been a mess analytically: the second-worst goalie in the league in wins above replacement, on average. He is all but gone, in the last year of his contract and on the trade block. Rookie Tarasov, who might end up being the best goalie in the franchise, has looked strong since hitting the NHL roster.
Weekes’ take: “I’ve been a big Elvis guy since he came over to the NHL. I love his game: a lot of upside and a lot of skill. He’s fun to watch and very competitive. I’m actually shocked no other team made a strong play to get him.”
There are nights when Blackwood can handle the Devils’ defensive challenges — he faces the most shots per 60 minutes (36.05) than any other goalie at 5-on-5 — and nights when he looks overwhelmed by it. The 25-year-old has faced the most high-danger shots for any goalie with at least 10 appearances this season, and his high-danger goals-against average (2.08) is the highest in the league. Both Blackwood and Bernier have played well above replacement level this season on a team that’s 24th in expected goals against at 5-on-5 and 22nd on the penalty kill.
Weekes’ take: “Overall, I think they’ve been good. I’ve done a bunch of their games. Blackwood can be incredible. Bernier has been good. But I think the biggest thing for the Devils is that as a young team, you’re trying to stitch things together. And that can be hard for a goalie on a rebuilding team; there are moments when you’re great, and then you let in a stinker, the team lets down. But it’s the second-youngest roster in the league, and they’ve been competitive.”
Smith, 39, has been limited to three games this season due to injury. Koskinen (.911 save percentage) has played slightly below replacement in 15 games, but rookie Skinner (.921) has been a pleasant surprise, placing just outside the top 20 in goals saved above average. The Oilers are a team that can score its way out of any problem. They’re also a team that defends better than they’re goals-against average (3.04) would indicate, which is a symptom of inconsistent goaltending.
Valiquette’s take: “Definitely a team that, as the season goes on, will be looking for help from the outside.”
Getting the Blackhawks back to respectability was a tougher lift than even the reigning Vezina Trophy winner could manage. Fleury (.913 save percentage) has had his moments and has certainly seen his fortunes improve after coach Jeremy Colliton and his porous defensive system were removed. But there’s going to be a lot less talk about Fleury resurrecting Chicago’s playoff hopes than there will be talk about if he is willing to move to a contender for another Stanley Cup run. Lankinen (.890) has been a below-average goalie facing the fifth-fewest high-danger shots per 60 minutes of any goalie in the league.
Weekes’ take: “You’re not playing in Vegas. You do have Seth Jones, but you don’t have Shea Theodore or Alex Pietrangelo or Zach Whitecloud. You’re in Chicago, but you don’t have in-their-prime Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Plus, Fleury is playing in a different building, in a different city. He’s talked about how the move to Chicago is still very unsettling for him.”
Kuemper has given the Avalanche nothing but concerns in his first season in Denver. Through 15 games, he has a .903 save percentage, playing below expectations. Less than half his starts have met the “quality start” threshold. The good news is that help is on the way for the Avalanche, as Francouz continues his conditioning stint in the AHL to work back from lower-body injuries that have sidelined him all season. The bad news is that for a team with legitimate designs on winning the Stanley Cup this season, Colorado’s goaltending is still a question mark, post-Philipp Grubauer.
Valiquette’s take: “People have said Kuemper is getting by on his reputation right now, as his game fell off in Arizona. I’m interested to see how he works out there. He’s faced 358 scoring chances. He should have given up 37 goals, and he’s given up 40.”
The coaching change in Philadelphia hopefully will coincide with some defensive support for its goalies. No one faces more high-danger shots than Jones (10.77 per 60 minutes), and Hart isn’t far behind in fifth (10.28). Both goalies have played above replacement level this season, with Hart (.911 save percentage) bouncing back to competence after the nadir of his career last season. Although the less said about this play, the better.
Weekes’ take: “They’re very fortunate that they have Carter Hart there. But the Flyers don’t have a strong track record of handling young goalies.”
The best-laid plans of a tanking team can go awry when goalies start making saves. Wedgewood, formerly of the Devils, is 3-4-1 with a .921 save percentage in nine appearances for the Coyotes, good for 15th in goals saved above average. Vejmelka has only two wins and an overtime loss in 15 appearances, but those wins were a 37-save performance at the Kings and a 46-save shutout of the Jets, one of the most delightfully inexplicable results of the season. They’ve helped move the Coyotes out of the basement in team save percentage — although they remain 32nd in standings points percentage, which is really what matters this season.
Weekes’ take: “Wedgewood’s played fairly well there. Maybe to date the best opportunity that he’s had. I’m happy for him. I like the way he’s playing right now. But I love Vejmelka’s game. He’s done a really nice job. They’ve been competitive. The biggest challenge for them, or any goalie there, is that they know by design it’s a rebuild.”
Before his injury, Anderson did what Anderson does: Look like the best goalie in the NHL for five-game stretches, as he was 4-1 with a .939 save percentage in October. Alas, no one else has come close to that effectiveness in his absence. The Sabres acquired Subban (.760 save percentage) when Tokarski was put on the COVID-19 list. Dell has been terrible. Luukkonen is the future, whenever that might arrive.
Valiquette’s take: “Why did they let Linus Ullmark go? Or why didn’t they trade Ullmark before he walked? That was weird. Really weird.”
The Senators have been defined this season by their terrible goaltending, lowlighted by the continuing implosion of Murray’s career. The former Stanley Cup winner with the Penguins was put through waivers down to the AHL after starting the season 0-5-0 with an .890 save percentage. Of the two goalies still with the Senators, the 23-year-old Gustavsson (.899) has been the slightly better one, which is a bit like winning an auto race between cars with four flat tires. But it’s not as if either gets much defensive support, as Gustavsson (second) and Forsberg (third) face among the most shots per 60 minutes in 5-on-5 play.
Weekes’ take: “I’m surprised about Murray. I always had my eye on him, going back to when he played in the Soo [Sault Ste. Marie]. I know he went through a lot with his dad passing. I know that was heavy on him. I’ve always felt like he needed some more good muscle on this frame, to make him more durable and powerful. Clearly, you don’t lose your skill overnight.”
Goaltending was assumed to be the Kraken’s greatest asset in their inaugural season. Instead, after 24 games, Seattle ranked last in the NHL in save percentage. Grubauer (.891 save percentage) has struggled under the weight of his free-agent contract, with a quality starts percentage of .278 in 18 starts. He was yanked in the first period against the Penguins on Monday in the nadir of an awful season. Driedger has been limited to five games, unable to stay in the lineup.
Valiquette’s take: “Here’s what I noticed when Seattle played the Rangers early this season: Grubauer isn’t coming to a complete stop. His game would be: Track pass, complete stop, make save and then move again after making that save. In that game against the Rangers, he wasn’t setting his feet before he made his first save and then was scrambling after his second and third. They haven’t been that great in front of him, but he’s been dreadful. It’s almost like he’s forgotten what worked for him.”