After a brilliant season, the New Jersey Devils are now expected to contend for championships. They have their top forwards secured - and on reasonable contracts. They have top defensemen secured. They even have high-end young talent, with three yet to break into the NHL full-time. After two miserable seasons, Lindy Ruff’s systems have hit pay dirt and the core players support him big time for it. What more can this team have to truly Go For It and try to win the greatest trophy in all of sports?
The initial answer is goaltending. Akira Schmid was the hero against Our Hated Rivals in the first round, but the second round against Carolina outside of Game 5 left something to be desired. Vitek Vanecek’s entire playoff experience in New Jersey was like his previous playoff experience: hideous. The Devils have been linked to Connor Hellebuyck and John Gibson in rumors in this offseason. It appears the Devils are quite interested in upgrading the goaltending position. Why? The playoffs. Vanecek’s past is a concern and it is unknown if Schmid is for real or not. Getting a more known quantity, someone who has a reputation -well-earned or otherwise - may be the missing link to take the Devils from a team that could contend to a team that will contend. That is the logic behind such rumors. And I get it.
I do not agree it should be the move. At least not now. A look back at the goaltenders who have played for trophies in the playoffs - the Stanley Cup and the two Conference trophies - shows a wide array of goalies who have been fantastic, goalies who had fantastic seasons, goalies who have had more or less mediocre seasons, and even some goalies who were awful until the playoffs rolled around. I could leave it at that but its the dead part of the offseason, so this post is going to list each one from 2007-08 through 2022-23.
The Purpose and the Method
The purpose of this post is to show that having a great goaltender is, well, great, but it is far from a guarantee that the team will actually go make a deep run in the playoffs. I am defining a deep run as making it to the third round. If a team is playing for the Prince of Wales Trophy (Eastern Conference), the Clarence Campbell Bowl (Western Conference), or the Stanley Cup, then they had a deep run. In other words: the final four teams of each playoff year.
The goalies I am highlighting are the ones of record in those series. I have included others if they played important roles in their team’s playoff run. Call it the Tokarski Factor as Carey Price of Montreal was, by far, the leading goalie in Montreal’s playoff push in 2014. Price was hurt in Game 1 of the ECFs and Dustin Tokarski took over. I cannot ignore Price nor that other playoff teams have had to use more than one goalie in their push for success. So I am including them where necessary.
For those goalies, I am referencing four regular season stats from Natural Stat Trick: games played, save percentage, Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA), and GSAA/60. This is for all situations as goalies need to stop pucks in all situations. Between those three, we can determine whether that goalie was one of the best/better or not among their peers in that season. As such, I have ranks for each of those three; games played is there for context. The ranks are based on goalies who have played at least 30% of the season to account for 1A/1B and significant backups. Goalies who did not qualify have their stats but are not ranked.
I am also including the goalie who won the Vezina that season as well as a list of top 5 (or more if there is a tie) in the stat for that season that met the ice time requirement. This is to provide perspective of who was seen as the best both statistically and the GMs who voted for them. I also included where the playoff goalies finished in Vezina voting for that season to add to that perspective. Vezina votes can be found at Hockey-Reference.
To reiterate the purpose of this post: This post will highlight which goalies were the best ones in that season, which goalies actually went deep in the postseason, and show that being great in that season (or in multiple ones!) does not always lead to playoff success.
The Final Four Playoff Goalies & the Top Goalies from 2008 to 2023
Let us start with the first season in this set: 2007-08. You definitely know who won the Vezina that season.
This was Martin Brodeur’s fourth and final Vezina. And he ranked quite well. This was back when Jean-Sebastian Giguere and Tim Thomas were also dominant, Carey Price (who tied Marc-Andre Fleury in GSAA/60) and Ilya Bryzgalov was on the scene, and Dan Ellis and Ty Conklin were the surprises among the stats. The (43 G) you see in the top left corner refers to how many goalies qualified for the ice time requirement, so the ranks are out of 43.
In terms of the final four goalies, the legitimately good ones in 2007-08 were Fleury and, yes, Philadelphia’s Martin Biron. Fleury, albeit with just 35 games played, was quite good when he could play. Biron was either within or just outside of the top-ten. Alas, both fell short. Marty Turco, who had past seasons of success, was more or less mediocre in 2007-08. He was good enough to take Dallas to the WCFs. Chris Osgood won it all with Detroit after having a season of respectable but not great numbers compared with his peers. Osgood would be my prime example of a decent-to-worse goalie being enough for a powerhouse Detroit squad to go all the way. Especially in 2008-09.
Osgood was legitimately one of the worst goalies in 2008-09. Out of 45 goalies, he ranked 44th. He got his act together for the postseason as Detroit battled their way all the way to the end. Detroit fell one game short of a back-to-back Cup. But Fleury and Pittsburgh prevailed. Fleury played in more games but was more or less a decent goaltender in 2008-09. The conference losers had better netminders. Cam Ward and Nikolai Khabibulin were legitimately great in that season. Chicago was platooning Khabibulin with Cristobal Huet who was not so great but the Blackhawks had the goods to go to the third round anyway.
The best goalie in 2008-09 begins and ends with Tim Thomas, who was a monster in the net. He led in the statistical categories. And you can see a big change in the others who finished in the top five in those three stats. You see Tomas Vokoun, Craig Anderson, Ryan Miller, Roberto Luongo, and Niklas Backstrom make an appearance. Spoiler: Only three of them is going to be colored gold, silver, or bronze in a future chart. And not in 2009-10.
Chicago gets their Cup, which has now been tainted, in 2010. Antti Niemi was the goalie for their playoff run and he was...well, just above mid in the season. His amount of work looked fantastic to the duo that Chicago beat in the finals. Philadelphia Goaltending has been such a meme, but the Flyers made it all the way to the SCFs with Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher. Despite both having rough seasons. There were two top-ten goalies in that season in the final four and both lost out in their conference finals. Jaroslav Halak, then younger and the ire of Capitals fans, was very good in 2009-10. Evgeni Nabokov showed he still had something good left in his tank for a San Jose team that epitomized having everything but the thing to get over the top.
In terms of who were the best goalies, Ryan Miller prevailed for the Vezina. Halak and Nabokov ranked well but the standouts included Vokoun again, Jimmy Howard, and an emerging Tuukka Rask. You see, Tim Thomas sat this season out. He would return though. Boston would appreciate it.
Pictured: the best case scenario. The best goalie in the NHL in 2010-11 won the Cup in 2011. It took 7 games in the Finals and it yielded a lot of sad riots of sore losers in Vancouver. But Thomas was the man in 2011. A worthy Vezina winner and a Cup. The goalie of record who lost, Roberto Luongo, also had a dominant 2010-11 season. A legitimate stud for the Canucks. Alas, Vancouver fell short once again. As for the conference losers, Mike Smith missed the 43 goalie ice time cut but his numbers were awful. Dwayne Roloson was mediocre for the first of many Tampa Bay appearances in this post. Chicago’s Niemi played in more games and was just outside of the top ten in two stats. He was good. If you want to support that getting one of the league’s best goalies will lead to playoff success, then 2011 is a good example as any.
I would pay attention to those other names that finished top five in these categories. This is the first appearance of Pekka Rinne, Semyon Varlamov, and Jonas Hiller. Ward and Price make some re-appearances. This is the last one for Cam Ward as Carolina will struggle to make the playoffs in the 2010s. Price, well, you will see him again. But first, we must revisit some pain for the People Who Matter.
I have defended Martin Brodeur during what has been an obvious decline. I did not want to believe it. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say it: Brodeur was Not Good in 2011-12. He certainly improved in the playoffs. Yet, his worst quartile performance sticks out like a sore thumb with the other final four goalies. Mike Smith was a boss for Arizona. I want to say this was the last time the Coyotes could be called Good. Henrik Lundqvist appears, won his first Vezina, and carried Our Hated Rivals into the ECFs. He became a victim of Adam Henrique’s greatest moment in hockey. It is what it is. The winner was the man behind the buzzsaw that was the 2012 playoff run of Los Angeles: Jonathan Quick. I was surprised to learn that he was this good in the season. Somehow, Los Angeles did not succeed as much as they should have with Quick being this dominant in the net. No matter, he took it up a level to lead Los Angeles to their first ever Cup. I too wish Mark Fayne hit the net in Game 1 and that Dainius Zubrus did not fall in overtime in Game 2. It was what it was.
You can sense a pattern that the top guys in the stats from each season can change dramatically. Not only did no one repeat, we get the first appearances of Brian Elliott and Cory Schneider. You will see both later, though.
In the first of a few sub-82 game seasons, the lockout-shortened, 48-game 2013 season ended with Corey Crawford taking it all while having a good season. Tuukka Rask had an even better season with Boston, but did not win it all. A good effort for Rask, to be sure, but this was Chicago’s time to shine. The conference losers are more interesting to highlight. Quick and Los Angeles return only for Quick to have a terrible season after an awesome 2011-12. Pittsburgh made it to the ECFs with a tandem of Vokoun - who finally got some playoff success - and Fleury having fairly consistently OK seasons. Good-ish. A bit better than decent. Again, Boston prevailed.
This shortened season featured the ascent of Sergei Bobrovsky, who legitimately was a stud in 2013. This season also saw Lundqvist continue his great form, Anderson glow up, Schneider appear again, and even had a Niemi cameo. Although he was with San Jose with the time so it was not like it led too much.
Jonathan Quick is a great example of how the position of goaltending can be filled with variance that makes a huge difference in performance. Quick was awesome in 2011-12, bad in 2013, and aggressively mediocre in 2013-14. And Los Angeles won a Cup, went to the Western Conference Finals, and won another Cup, respectively. New York fans have to gnash their teeth a bit as Lundqvist, who had a very good but lesser season by his standards, dragged the Blueshirts to the Stanley Cup Finals. That same New York team had the fortune of not needing to face Carey Price in the Eastern Conference Finals. Dustin Tokarski did the best he could in a difficult situation (and his performance was not that bad) but there was a reason why he played in just 3 games in the season. He was a depth guy asked to do more. And Montreal fans were certainly frustrated that Price got hurt during what would have been an amazing 2013-14 campaign. The other conference loser was Crawford, who was a bit above decent for a strong Chicago team.
As far as the best goalies, Minnesota backup Josh Harding was great but due to a lack of games played, the Vezina went to Tuukka Rask easily. And it was a fair decision given he was dominant as a starter. Price was legitimately great too; I’m surprised he finished fourth in Vezina voting in 2014. You can see Varlamov is back to being among the best and you see two new names: Anton Khudobin and Ben Bishop. Speaking of Bishop:
This season was Bishop’s first appearance in the playoffs. After a mediocre season - ranked around the middle in all three categories - he stepped it up enough to help lead Tampa Bay to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 2004. Alas, this would be the furthest Bishop would go in the postseason. He can at least feel good about prevailing over Lundqvist, who had another top-ten(ish) season for New York. He can at least find solace in Crawford having a legitimately great season for Chicago as he backstopped the B’Hawks to a third Stanley Cup in that decade. The other member of the final four was a young Frederik Andersen. He got hot for Anahiem after a meh regular season.
In terms of the best goalies of that season, Carey Price got his Vezina and fully earned it too. Say what you want about the GMs voting but so far most of these selections have been easy to justify. Price was the best in a season where Devan Dubnyk, Schneider, Steve Mason, Cam Talbot, and Braden Holtby stood out. Crawford just missed out but I am sure he is more than fine with that given he earned his second ring in three seasons. I would call Crawford great in this season.
By the way, I forgot to mention that Bishop’s backup in 2014-15 was a young Russian named Andrei Vasilevskiy. It would not take long for Vasilevskiy to get some more minutes.
The theme for two of these final four teams is injuries. Fleury got hurt and so Matt Murray, who did great in limited action was forced into the fire called the playoffs. It worked out as he helped Pittsburgh win their first Cup since 2009. The Pens prevailed over the Lightning for the Prince of Wales Trophy. That Lightning team was driven in large part by an awesome season by Ben Bishop, an awesome playoff run from Bishop, and then an injury that forced Vasilevskiy to jump right in. Vasilevskiy was not Vasilevskiy yet, but he did his best. On the Western side, Brian Elliott had a fantastic campaign in a tandem with Jake Allen. Think Ullmark-Swayman if Swayman was a little worse. Both fell to Martin Jones, who had a season best described as “ehh” with the Sharks. Those Sharks teams were good and this was their shot at the Cup. But Murray was better - as were the Penguins.
After a string of respectable-to-dominant Vezina winners, we have the first dubious winner in Holtby. He got this because he won 48 games and GMs, understandable to their position, care a lot of about team wins over individual performances. Despite Bishop - an actual starter - and Elliott in a tandem being superior to Holtby, the GMs were entranced by the W’s. Not that it helped Washington any in the 2016 postseason. Holtby would even have a better 2016-17 - and not win the Vezina that season.
Once again, Matt Murray drove the Pittsburgh bus to Titletown. Fleury was a part of this playoff run but, once again, Murray had to take over. Murray earned his shot for more playing time in 2016-17 after the Cup in 2016 and fully justified it with a top-ten quality season. Fleury’s season was, well, not good. Whereas Murray dispatched San Jose’s closest chance at the Cup in 2016, he did it in 2017 to Nashville. Juuse Saros was a backup to Pekka Rinne, who was Nashville’s main goalie. Rinne had an OK season, if a bit down by his standards; but he got the Preds closest to the prize. Alas, this would be Rinne’s only appearance in the final four part of this post. This final four also features the only appearances of Craig Anderson - who was fantastic in his 40 games played with Ottawa - and John Gibson - who was a stud for Anaheim, well ahead of the decent backup of Jonathan Bernier. Those who want Gibson in New Jersey to get the Devils over the top would be hoping that Gibson can regain his form from seven seasons ago. I have my doubts! But this was a fairly strong set of performances in the final four from the goalies.
The Vezina was clearly won by Sergei Bobrovsky. This would be his second and, like his first, entirely deserve as he dominated. He bested everyone. Anderson, Holtby (who had a far better season in terms of stopping pucks), Dubnyk, a rare Anders Nilsson sighting, Gibson, Price, and Scott Darling. Holtby, in particular, would go onto better things.
By better things, I mean winning the Cup. Not that Holtby played well along the way. Sure, he got it done in the postseason but his season was plain rough. Imagine if Brodeur won it all in 2012 or Osgood did in 2009; that would be akin to what Holtby did in 2018. And it was nearly lost to a familiar face in Fleury. He was expansion fodder, Las Vegas picked him up, and Fleury had a real good season among a Golden Knights campaign loaded with goalie injuries. He played over half a season, did very well in a legitimate return to form, and was a game away from a third straight name on the Cup. The other members of the final four were excellent. Vasilevskiy was a bit overrated in Vezina voting, but he had good numbers. This was Connor Hellebuyck’s only appearance in the final four and he had a great season in his own right. Again, the hope that the Devils would go over the top with Hellebucyk presumes he can perform like he did six seasons ago. I have my doubts about that. Still, outside of Holtby, this was a strong quartet of goalies.
The Vezina winner went to Pekka Rinne, which was a fair but somewhat questionable choice. The other statistically superior goalies either did not play a lot (see: Carter Hutton) or did not succeed enough in the season (see: John Gibson’s 26-22-8 record) to warrant recognition or both (see: Roberto Luongo).
He is a meme but I was surprised to learn how legitimate Jordan Binnington was in 2018-19. Sure, with 32 games played, it was still a risk to see how leaning on him would go. But he clearly performed great with that limited number of those games and he kept it going while singing Laura Branigan songs to the Cup. Shame about everything afterwards. And shame for Rask. He had a mediocre season, got a run going in the playoffs, and fell short once more at winning the Cup. Alas. Rask at least has a history of having better seasons. The other three goalies, not as much. Petr Mrazek has also mediocre in a tandem with Curtis McElhinney with Carolina. OK, Mrazek was just above mediocre and McElhinney was a bit below it. Both looked like world beaters compared to Martin Jones. He had a terrible 2018-19 season. And with a sub 90% save percentage in the playoffs, it may be fair to state that the Sharks pretty much got to the WCFs despite Jones. One has to wonder what could have been for the Sharks in the 2010s if they did not have Martin Jones tending their net.
In terms of the Vezina, Vasilevskiy earned his first. A bit controversial in my eyes since Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner straight up had better seasons than Vasilevskiy. But Tampa Bay won 39 games with Vasilevskiy whereas Dallas and the Islanders did not win 30 games with Bishop and Lehner respectively. I think that was the major difference. Still, Bishop was still cooking, this was Lehner’s massive comeback season, and at least Vasilevskiy was near the top of the stats along with the likes of Thomas Greiss and a Jack Campbell appearance.
What’s better than a Vezina? Winning the Cup. The 2020 playoffs was the most unique. The 2019-20 season ended early with about 68-70 games played for most teams. The Return to Play tournament was held months later in a bubble that few liked but most understood there was no other option. It featured 24 teams instead of 16 and play-in rounds outside of the top four finishers. There were some big upsets. But you cannot deny the goalies involved in the Finals were not worthy. Vasilevskiy was good but not dominating in the season, but he absolutely showed his form in backstopping the Bolts to a Cup. Anton Khudobin was on fire in the season and he still was burning opponents in the bubble. The other conference finalists were more of a mish-mash. The tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Griess from Long Island worked out despite mid-tier seasons from both. Varlamov was the heavy-lifter. Lehner went to Las Vegas, had a great season, and had to carry the load too - which was good as Fleury was not at all good in the season. Both Long Island and Las Vegas fell short and so it went in the isolated bubble.
The Vezina for this season was given to Connor Hellebuyck. He was great. I think Tuukka Ras was better. (Khudobin was not going to win it with just 30 games played.) That is just my call. You can see more contemporary names among the statistical leaders. Darcy Kuemper staked more of a claim in 2019-20. Allen returned to strong numbers. Bishop, Elvis Merzlikins, and Pavel Francouz also made appearances.
In the 56-game season in 2021, the isolation gave way. We had plenty of familiar faces in the postseason. Vasilevskiy, once again, took Tampa Bay to the Cup. Even better, he was one of the best goalies in the league as he did so. The conference finals losers were the same, albeit with some differences. Varlamov still led the way for the Isles and for good reason; he was legitimately a top-five goalie. Ilya Sorokin was called upon to take some playoff games and as suggested by his 22 games played, he was more than capable in them. For Las Vegas, it was the same tandem but the performances were different. Lehner fell closer to the middle of the goalies that qualified for this season. Fleury was far, far better. He was a top-five goalie as well. The one surprise was Carey Price. He was bad in the season and Montreal barely made it in. Then Price and Montreal went on a miracle run all the way to the Cup Finals. Another example of a team making a deep run in spite of how their goalie performed in that season. Clearly, it has happened more often than I thought.
Fleury also won the Vezina in this season, which confuses me. It was not that he was bad. But Varlamov and even Juuse Saros were better. You cannot pin this on wins as Vasilevskiy won more games and Fleury did not win 30 like the Lightning goalie did. I wish I could recall the rationale. It was not as bad as Holtby in 2016, but this was a dubious choice. It was certainly a great comeback season by the veteran goalie, though. It was also seen as a breakout season for Juuse Saros, Alex Nedeljkovic, and Chris Driedger. Only one of those remained legit.
Back to an 82-game season and you may have noticed that tandems have become more and more common place. A tandem effectively won the Cup for Colorado in 2022. Kuemper was a #1A and a very, very good one at that. A legitimate top-five goalie in the season. Pavel Francouz missed the cut off for ice time, but his numbers were respectable for a backup/1B-ish goalie. Neither were amazing in the postseason but they were enough for Colorado to march their way to their first Cup since 2001. Colorado can feel extra proud in denying a three-peat to Tampa Bay. Vasilevskiy was just about top-ten goalie in the season and performed as such in the postseason. The conference finalists were no joke. A 39-year old Mike Smith was above decent in the season as Connor McDavid practically willed Edmonton to a WCF. He could not have been a long term answer but he was not a liability in Edmonton. The ECF loser was Igor Shesterkin, who legitimately was the best goalie in the league. Fittingly, he lost like the last Ranger goalie who won the Vezina and went deep in the playoffs: an exit in the ECFs while Mike Smith bows out in the West. Coincidence? I think so.
Shesterkin’s Vezina win marks the first dominant statistical season by a goalie to win the GM’s votes since Bobrovsky in 2016-17. This season marked great ones for Ilya Sorokin, who took over for Varlamov on Long Island; Jakob Markstrom in Calgary; Frederik Andersen re-appearing as a Hurricane; and Kuemper and Saros sharing similar results. One of those names would appear in the final four in 2022-23. And it would be Andersen.
Another tandem taking Lord Stanley’s Cup. Las Vegas was hit hard in the crease with injuries. Adin Hill and Laurent Brossoit were far from the team’s first choices when 2022-23 began. Hence, they played only because they had to. When the playoffs came, they were it. Hill may have goalied the Devils harder than anyone this season but his season was good. Brossoit’s 11 games were good. Hill got hot in the playoffs and took over a struggling Brossoit and went all the way to the Cup. To do it, they prevailed over Bobrovsky and Alex Lyon. Bobrovsky, at this point, became a punchline with his eight-figure salary yielding decent to poor numbers. Far from the goalie who legitimately earned two Vezinas. He did not even start in the postseason, Alex Lyon did. You know the story, though. Bobrovsky went in the Boston series, he got crazy hot, and cooled off right in time for Las Vegas to rip and tear into him like he was a cacodemon. The tandem trend continued with Carolina, who used Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta. Injuries to both necessitated plenty of Pytor Kochetkov in the season, but the Canes’ efforts just needed decent goaltending and both Andersen and Raanta provided it. They were good in the postseason until the Canes ran into an unsolvable problem: a liquid-hot goaltender. The only sole goalie in the final four in 2023 was Jake Oettinger in Dallas. He had a great season. His playoff was pretty bad but he established that he would be the main goalie in Dallas from here on out. The season commanded it.
In terms of the top goalies, this was Linus Ullmark’s season. Like Shesterkin 2021-22, Ullmark fully earned this Vezina just by being better than everyone else. That he got it with 49 games played shows that even the GM votes understand the trend of goalies. Of course, disputing a goalie’s greatness with a near 94% save percentage is silly regardless of its 49 or 59 or 69 games played. The other goalies to dominate statistically: Sorokin, Hellebuyck, and Saros return with a debut of Filip Gustavsson in Minnesota and Ullmark’s partner Jeremy Swayman. I can understand that Hellebuyck’s most recent season adds credence to the idea that he can get a team over the top. The 2023 Winnipeg Jets playoff “run” suggests otherwise. But he was great.
After going through the goalies that went to the conference finals or beyond in the playoffs, their selected stats from the regular season, and put them along with those who won the Vezina and finished top five (or so) in those stats, here is my main conclusion: No, a team does not need to have one of the best goalies in the league to actually win the Cup or go to the Stanley Cup Finals or even to get to the conference finals. The common thread is that the majority of the teams that made it that far did so by having a superior team with a goalie playing well or better regardless of their season’s performance.
The most common name among the final fours from 2008 to 2023 is Marc-Andre Fleury. He made it 7 times. The man has had great seasons, bad seasons, mediocre seasons, seasons where he was a starter, and seasons where he was not. He kept getting there because the teams he was on were legitimately that good. Most of them were when the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang were dominant and the Penguins were operating on levels few could stop. Las Vegas hit the ground running in the NHL and Fleury was a part of that too. This is not to say that Fleury was a passenger or did not contribute. Rather that the teams that continually make it deep in the playoffs are strong teams outside of the net. As long as the goalie is good enough to make it work for the team, then the run can happen.
We can see this with other examples. Los Angeles was a real problem for the NHL from 2012 to 2014 despite Quick having three very different performing seasons. Chicago’s championship seasons ranged from having great goaltending to having just OK goaltending. Vasilevskiy, perhaps one of the more consistently great goalies currently in the NHL, was not always a top ten goalie when he was going deep in the postseason with Tampa Bay. Something the Bolts were doing when Vasilevskiy was a backup to Ben Bishop too. There have been some fantastic performing goaltenders going the final round - Thomas in 2011, Quick in 2012, Vasilevskiy in 2021, Kuemper in 2022. There have been some hideous seasons by goalies who went that far too: Osgood in 2009, Brodeur in 2012, Jones in 2019, Price in 2021. Just as there have been final fours were three goalies who were marvelous in the season and the playoffs like 2021, there have been final fours that left something to be desired like 2019. And season performance does not always lead to playoff performance either. Just look at this past year. Vasilevskiy and Hellebuyck were creamed this year, Oettinger’s numbers dropped off a cliff in the playoffs. A Sergei “Mid-”rovsky was the one to turn into an inferno to carry Florida to the Finals. The main takeaway for me is that building a great team with a quality goaltender or a goalie capable of getting hot is far more likely going to win in the playoffs than a high quality goaltender carrying a lesser team. (Want another example of that? The Devils just beat one in the first round in 2023.)
The reason for this, I think, comes down to just how much variance there is in the position. The goaltending position appears to be on a knife’s edge where a goalie can have legitimately wonderful numbers one season, more-or-less average numbers the next, poor ones after that, and all with a goalie that really has not changed all that much. Maybe the team in front of him changed. Maybe the goalie did not make an adjustment they should have and the rest of the league seemingly knows it. Maybe there was an injury that changed more than it seemed. Analysts tend to throw up their hands when it comes to goaltending, unable to figure it out like forwards or defensemen. When you see someone who has been consistently great like Vasilevskiy or Bishop or Rask just vary in terms of performances from season-to-season, it is baffling. More so when you see someone like Bobrovsky show up to have a dominant season, go quiet, and then blow up once more out of nowhere.
This is not to say that NHL teams do not or should not try to figure it out. But it is to say that the position is such a roll of a dice that it is hard to look at someone like Hellebuyck and be confident that he’s done all of these great things in Winnipeg so he will instantly come to New Jersey and be good. It might happen! But it also might not. And a trade to get him - or any other name brand goalie - and eventually pay him is a big, big risk. Especially where there is recent history that the top tier goalies are not always frequent visitors to the conference finals and beyond.
By all means, the Devils should consider improvements. That is part of the job. And I could see how one would think that a goalie like Hellebuyck would be an upgrade over Vanecek or Schmid. My main point is that it is not necessarily going to get the Devils to where we want them to be. If that is what is truly driving the desire to go out and get a new goalie in Newark, then that reality has to be understood. It has to be understood when considering the costs to get that new goalie, too. Tom Fitzgerald has had a great offseason and has built a great team. I do not want him to fly too close to the Sun thinking he needs a new, great goalie for playoff success that tends to go with great teams and not always with Great goalies.
Therefore, I would not want Hellebuyck (and absolutely not Gibson) at this point. History shows the Devils make a deep playoff run just as well with who they have in the net. Largely because they have a strong team in front of the net. The offense is potent and loaded with scoring talent. The defense is sensible and can even grow given their younger players. The tactics fit the personnel, leading to a lot of strong 5-on-5 play. These are aspects that can and do win playoff games - something the Devils did do in 2023 even in the face of a superheroic performance from Shesterkin. Why trade assets and commit future cap space for a goalie who is not going to ensure further success that the team is already capable of today? Should Schmid and Vanecek struggle mightily during 2023-24, then sure, look and make a deal. Right now, I do not think it is a smart move for the Devils to take.
Now that you read through how I see the Devils’ situation with goaltending. I felt I had to go through the goalies who made it to the final four of the playoffs from 2008 through 2023 as well as the top goalies in those seasons to show how varied success looks like and how varied the quality of a goalie in that season did with respect to how far they went in the playoffs. It is that random and even when you see a common name or two, how they did from season to season can be quite different. Those are real facts to consider when committing to a goalie or trading for someone with reputation or recent success. It is enough risk to make me wary of the idea unless the current goaltending is that bad. Which, honestly, the Devils do not have bad goaltending. Anyone who remembers 2021-22 knows what that looked like and Vanecek and Schmid (aside from his 6 games in 2021-22) are not that.
What do you make of all of this? What common threads do you see among the goalies who made it deep in the playoffs as well as who were the top goalies, statistically, in those seasons? Which names were you surprised to see in this post at all? Who would you consider to be a reliable name and did the data show that in this post? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this look at goalies in the comments. Thank you for reading.