Goaltenders are known as “the great equalizers” in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They give every underdog a chance at an upset. They give every favorite the cold sweats, knowing one bad round from their goalie could be their ultimate undoing.
As the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs arrive, which teams are in the best and worst positions with their goaltending?
Former NHL goalie Stephen Valiquette, CEO of Clear Sight Analytics and one of the sport’s foremost analysts on netminders, believes that goalies who let in a high percentage of low-danger goals during the season are the ones that have struggled in the postseason.
“What I look at the most entering the playoffs every season is: Which goalies are allowing the most low-danger goals? Now, the difficult thing about this for the general public is that in hockey, no one knows what a low-danger goal is. If a player walks into the slot, has a clear view at the goalie, tries to beat him clean, we might say that’s a great save. But guess what? He’s supposed to make that save, because everyone else does. And sometimes when the goalie get scored on, we’ll say a player had lots of time and space and other excuses, but it’s not like that: Every other goalie in the league stops that shot, and so should you,” said Valiquette.
The formula for a top goalie, according to Valiquette: They perform at league average on high-danger chances; they stop all the mid-danger shots; and only the worst allow too many low-danger goals. “That measures clutch. The goalies that are measured by the goals they allow, rather than the saves that they make,” he said.
“Low-danger goals are the difference-maker in the playoffs. When a goalie allows one, and the opposing goalie does not, his team loses 86% of the time. You just don’t win when your goalie lets one in,” said Valiquette.
The ESPN hockey staff and punditry — along with some outside experts — ranked all 16 teams based on the quality of their goaltending, from effectiveness to depth to the potential to win a series on their own. Valiquette wasn’t part of that ranking, but offered some valuable insight into what he sees from the Stanley Cup contenders this postseason. All stats via Evolving Hockey and Hockey Reference.
Here are the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoff goalie confidence rankings, starting with a winning hand in Vegas:
The stats: .919 save percentage (2nd in the NHL in 2021), 2.22 goals-against average (1st)
The skinny: Fleury has had a remarkable turnaround from his struggles last season, posting a .927 save percentage through 35 games and leading the league with 26.2 goals saved above average. Making that even more remarkable is the off-ice drama that surrounded the Knights’ goaltending position in the last year, with Vegas acquiring Robin Lehner at the 2020 trade deadline, giving him the crease in the playoffs and handing him a five-year contract extension while exploring a trade for Fleury. Lehner hasn’t been on his game this season (.913 save percentage), but he’s also been open with how challenging it’s been for him off the ice: Because of his bipolar 1 diagnosis, it has been recommended to him not to be isolated from others, something that was difficult during the pandemic.
Valiquette’s view: “Robin Lehner has struggled this season and Marc-Andre Fleury has played more than they wanted him too. Fleury would actually be my choice for the Vezina, over [Andrei] Vasilevskiy. They’re not defending as well this year as they did last year when [coach Pete] DeBoer took over. They rely heavily on goaltending, man.”
The stats: .908 save percentage (10th), 2.59 GAA (6th)
The skinny: Vasilevskiy should earn his fourth straight Vezina Trophy nomination this season and could win the top goaltender award for the second time. He was fourth in the NHL in save percentage (.925) and had 31 wins for the Lightning in 42 games played. He was third in goals saved above average with 23.8 on the season. Obviously, depth is an issue here, as Curtis McElhinney is not a championship-caliber goalie. As Vasilevskiy goes, so go the Lightning, and he went to the top of the mountain last postseason.
Valiquette’s view: “Vasilevskiy is elite everywhere. There, that’s Tampa. We don’t even have to waste time talking about them.”
The stats: .921 save percentage (1st), 2.23 GAA (2nd)
The skinny: Head coach Barry Trotz’s defensive system has always done well to insulate his goaltenders, but let’s not diminish Varlamov’s season as merely being a product of that. The 33-year-old netminder had a league-leading .929 save percentage in 36 games, winning 19 of them. His seven shutouts led all goaltenders, and he had 23.6 goals saved above average. Sorokin, the 25-year-old rookie seen as Varlamov’s heir, recovered nicely (.918 save percentage) after a tough start to his NHL career.
Valiquette’s view: “Statistically, the Islanders should win their series against the Penguins. They’re a top-five defensive team in the metrics that I value. Varlamov has been third in our rankings over the last month and a half for goalies that are playoff-bound. One of the guys that has been performing well despite the difficulty that he’s facing.”
The stats: .912 save percentage (4th), 2.39 GAA (3rd)
The skinny: Rask had a slightly down year from his recent averages, but still had a 15-5-2 record and a .913 save percentage. Halak wasn’t himself, either, with a .905 save percentage and just 2.7 goals saved above average. Fear not! Jeremy Swayman enters the chat with a .945 save percentage and with nine of his 10 appearances qualifying as “quality starts” by that metric.
Valiquette’s view: “Here’s the wild thing about the Bruins. If you look at Tuukka Rask, and then you looked at any combination of Halak, Swayman and [Dan] Vladar, you would think he doesn’t even play on the same team as those guys. Boston plays that much poorer in front of Rask than it does with anyone else in the net. It’s one of the most bizarre things in our data. Boston gives up way more [defensively] when Rask is in net. I still think he’s a top goalie. He had a terrific year. He’s middle to top in everything we track.”
The stats: .912 save percentage (4th), 2.75 GAA (13th)
The skinny: Saros had the kind of late-season run of which surprise MVP candidacies are made. He went 16-6-1 from March to the end of the season, with a .940 save percentage, willing the Predators into the postseason. He was also tops in the NHL in even-strength save percentage (.942). He has something to prove in the playoffs: In his first four postseason starts last summer in the bubble, Saros had a 3.22 GAA and a .895 save percentage against the Coyotes. Rinne finished the season in storybook fashion — a shutout over Carolina at home and having an emotional moment with fans — but despite winning four of five games down the stretch, Rinne was a sub-replacement goalie this season.
Valiquette’s view: “Saros is exactly like the Carolina goalies. In the last month and a half, he’s been unreal, but he’s also played in the best environment. He’s had that really easy sample size. Nashville and Carolina have defended best in that span, giving up the easiest array of chances against for their goalies. Saros has outperformed in that environment. He’s been outstanding, but in the easiest environment.”
The stats: .915 save percentage (3rd), 2.39 GAA (4th)
The skinny: The Hurricanes kept their three-headed monster together at the trade deadline, and it was a good decision. It’s a competent trio in back of one of the better defensive teams in the league. In Petr Mrazek (.923 save percentage), they have a goalie who can win a game on his own if necessary. In James Reimer, they have a steady veteran hand. In Alex Nedeljkovic, they have a 25-year-old rookie who burst onto the scene with a .932 save percentage and a 1.90 GAA in 23 games. Hmmm … the Hurricanes challenging for a Stanley Cup with a rookie goalie? Now, when did we see that before?
Valiquette’s view: “They’re fascinating because they don’t give up a lot. They’re very strong defensively. Yet their goalies are actually outperforming their environment. When you don’t face a lot, it doesn’t always mean their goalies will perform at expected. But they’re actually performing better than expected, facing very little. They play in a very controlled environment. It’s a very nice place to play goal. Now, I don’t think they’re the best goalies in the league. But they’re performing well with not facing a whole lot.”
The stats: .911 save percentage (7th), 2.73 GAA (11th)
The skinny: Connor Hellebuyck didn’t reach the heights of his Vezina-winning 2019-20 season, but the falloff wasn’t all that severe. He had a .915 save percentage in 44 games played, once again leading the league in appearances. His quality starts percentage (.545) dropped, but he was second in the NHL in goals saved above average (25.3), once again acting as the entire defense on some nights for Winnipeg while other goalies are just the last line of it. Brossoit is an underrated backup.
Valiquette’s view: “Hellebuyck has been really struggling with those low-danger goals against in the last month and a half. I’m really wondering about Hellebuyck keeping it together for a run.”
The stats: .905 save percentage (15th), 2.43 GAA (5th)
The skinny: Grubauer is in a contract year and certainly played like it. The 29-year-old arguably had the best season of his career, with a .921 save percentage and 29 wins in 38 games for the Avalanche. He was 15th in goals saved above average (13.1). His season was interrupted in April when he entered the COVID protocols, and he’s been off his game a bit since. The real question facing the Avalanche: Were he to be injured for the second straight postseason, can any of the goalies behind him help the Avalanche win a Stanley Cup? (Spoiler: Not likely.)
Valiquette’s view: “Grubauer is another one who’s performed like crap for the last month and a half. I like Grubauer. I want to believe in him. But I think a lot about this, too: When you’re going down the stretch and the games start to matter and you don’t play well, are you shying away from putting yourself in that position where a player like Binnington is comfortable but maybe Grubauer is not?”
The stats: .910 save percentage (8th), 2.70 GAA (9th)
The skinny: The Panthers created a Goaltending Excellence Department this season, just in time to see two excellent goalies help bolster Bobrovsky. Driedger had a .927 save percentage and a 2.07 goals-against average in 23 games. Knight, 19, went 4-0-0 and posted a .919 save percentage. Bobrovsky, signed through 2026, had a .906 save percentage in 31 games played, and was sub-replacement (negative-2.5 goals above average).
Valiquette’s view: “Why hasn’t Bobrovsky been able to find it? It’s wild. He’s given up nine screened goals in the last month and a half and 18 over the course of the season. Which is really brutal.
“What happens most with goalies is that there’s a switch that goes off when they’re screened. They don’t see the puck for a split second, panic ensues and they get down. Bob has a low stance. He’s close to going down all the time. He makes himself so small behind the screen. It’s bad because if he fought just a little bit longer above the screen, he’d get just a few more feet of the release. He’d be able to pick it back up. But at the bottom of everything, based on what he’s facing and what he’s giving up, it’s just shocking to me.”
The stats: .907 save percentage (12th), 2.59 GAA (7th)
The skinny: Andersen finally returned to the Leafs this week, having been out of the lineup with an injury since March 19. He struggled before that absence, posting an .897 save percentage and just a .409 quality starts ratio. Instead, the first-place Leafs were buoyed by Campbell, the 2010 first-round pick who has really found his game in the last three seasons. This season, he had a .923 save percentage and a 2.11 GAA for the Leafs, going an outstanding 17-2-2. Rittich was acquired from the Flames as insurance. The Leafs have become a top-tier defensive team. Their goaltending isn’t quite on the same level.
Valiquette’s view: “Toronto has the total package of defense and skills, but it’s just hard to accept that this was a real season that they played. To me, the North Division was just so weak. I don’t like it as far as measuring a team through a season without having that big adversity. But on paper? Toronto’s winning the Stanley Cup.”
The stats: .910 save percentage (9th), 2.74 GAA (12th)
The skinny: Signing Talbot was one of the best moves any team made last offseason. He has a .916 save percentage in 32 games, with 13.2 goals saved above average. The Wild will depend on Talbot, as Kaapo Kahkonen’s game has fallen off late in the season after being in the conversation for top rookie goalie earlier in the campaign.
Valiquette’s view: “Minnesota was playing as one of the best defensive teams in the league last year, but didn’t make the playoffs because goaltending wasn’t in line with what they were doing as a team. This year, Talbot is performing just outside the fringes of the upper echelon. He’s been outstanding. Playing above expectations. Things could get in line for them. I wonder if they can pull this out.”
The stats: .899 save percentage (21st), 3.04 GAA (21st)
The skinny: The Blues handed Binnington a six-year contract extension in March because they felt they knew what they had in him. To that end, his campaign this season resembled that of last season. The 27-year-old goalie, who led the Blues to the Stanley Cup in 2019, had a 17-14-8 record, the most overtime or shootout losses for any goalie this season. He had a .911 save percentage and 15.8 goals saved above average. Not top tier, but also not bad. No, bad would be Husso, who was sub-replacement (negative-5.8 goals saved above average) this season as a backup.
Valiquette’s view: “Binnington has been the best goalie in the NHL over the last month and a half. I like to look at when goalies give up a goal. Whether it’s up a goal or down a goal or tied, how they perform. Every year, Binner has been in the top five in all of those situations. Mentally, he’s the toughest goalie in the NHL right now. He’s peaking right now, for sure.”
The stats: .897 save percentage (25th), 2.93 GAA (19th)
The skinny: Price is expected back for the playoffs after being out of the lineup since April 19 with an injury. Perhaps he’ll be up to the task at hand, which is being something more than “Carey Price In Name Only.” He had a .901 save percentage this season in 25 games, down from a .909 last season. It was Jake Allen who bolstered the Habs this season, outplaying Price but not exactly contending for the Vezina, either (.907 save percentage).
Valiquette’s view: “Montreal hasn’t gotten credit for playing well defensively in the last two years because it’s very difficult to tell when the scores are high. They haven’t had goaltending, man. They haven’t. Carey Price has been in the bottom five in every category this season. Allen has been slightly before league average.
“So what do you want to go for? The guy that’s been called the best goalie in the NHL that’s not playing at form, and roll the dice and hope he gets hot like he did in the bubble? Or a guy that plays at league average, behind a defense that doesn’t give up a whole lot?”
The stats: .908 save percentage (11th), 2.77 GAA (14th)
The skinny: The post-Matt Murray goaltending world for the Penguins saw Jarry and DeSmith both put together aggressively average seasons. Jarry was the more dependable of the two, with a .632 quality start percentage; DeSmith was the more effective of the two, with a .912 save percentage to Jarry’s .909, and 8.8 goals saved above average. Neither should feel all that good about their long-term status with the team now that Ron Hextall, who has no ties to either of them, is the Pittsburgh GM.
Valiquette’s view: “Jarry has had his challenges this season. He got up and then he came back down again. I wonder about this with goalies all the time: Do some of them play better as an underdog? I just wonder how he performs when the pressure is on. He’s among the goalies that have struggled the most the last month and a half. The low-danger goals are high on him as well.”
The stats: .911 save percentage (6th), 2.72 GAA (10th)
The skinny: The Oilers had a lot of critics when they brought back Smith. He quieted many of them with a season that may get some Vezina attention: a .924 save percentage, 2.28 GAA and 20-6-2 record in 31 games. The 38-year-old had 14.6 goals saved above average on a team that was sneaky good defensively this season. While Smith thrived, Koskinen — whom many believed should have been the primary starter — floundered. He was a sub-replacement backup for the Oilers (negative-1.2 goals saved above average).
Valiquette’s view: “Yeah, so it should definitely be Smith. [Laughs] Smith has been top-five in everything from March 27th to now. Mike’s been tops. He’s been right there. He runs hot though — an adrenaline goalie, too. But he’s older and he’s learned how to use his high emotion better. Remember his run in Phoenix? It was full adrenaline. He used to remind me of a young Ron Hextall, smashing the post with his stick and stuff. Mike can keep that adrenaline in reserve and release it when he needs it.”
The stats: .900 save percentage (20th), 2.88 GAA (17th)
The skinny: We should be talking about Henrik Lundqvist here. About how the veteran star goalie could help win his first Stanley Cup as the Capitals netminder. But a heart condition sidelined Lundqvist for the season, and possibility his career. Full marks to Vanecek, a rookie who played 37 games with Lundqvist out and Samsonov in and out of the lineup this season. Vanecek had a .908 save percentage in playing the ninth most minutes in the NHL in 2021. Samsonov, who was expected to inherit the crease from Braden Holtby after the latter grabbed his guitar and walked to free agency last offseason, was sub-replacement in his 19 games this season (.902 save percentage).
Valiquette’s view: “Washington is in trouble. Vanecek is a high-adrenaline goalie that’s just running out of gas. He gave up 10 low-danger goals in the last month and a half. He and Samsonov are the two goalies who have struggled the most in that span among playoff goalies.”