Pop quiz hot shots: What’s the most overpowering weapon a team can have as they enter the Stanley Cup Playoffs? It’s not a well-oiled power play. It’s not a neutral zone trap. It’s not even Connor McDavid. If you said scorching hot goaltending, you’re absolutely correct. And, you can leave work early for the day.
Time and again, we’ve learned that a team’s hopes in hoisting Lord Stanley’s mug is about as good as their goaltending. A hot netminder can not only steal games, but he can steal series’ and even the Cup itself. Sure, Andrei Vasilevskiy (25 GP, 18-7, 1.90 GAA, .927 SV%) was phenomenal in last year’s playoffs, leading the Tampa Bay Lightning all the way to the giant silver jug, but his squad was also the second best in the entire league over the course of the regular season (which was cut short due to the pandemic). Had the extra 12 games had been played, there’s a case to be made that they could have chased down the Bruins for the President’s Trophy. He also had the Conn Smythe-winning defenseman Victor Hedman directly in front of him.
The point is, Vasilevskiy didn’t “steal” the Stanley Cup for the Lightning in 2019-20. That team flexed their muscle as a complete unit. The season before that (2018-19) was a far better example of some Stanley Cup thievery, when a rookie named Jordan Binnington came out of nowhere to lead the unlikely St. Louis Blues to the championship over the heavily-favored Boston Bruins in a grueling seven-game final series. Unlike the Lightning above, the Blues came in with only the 12th best record in the league, so they were underdogs to even make it out of the second round, let alone hoist the Cup. However, a goalie with mojo (even a rookie) can be all the difference.
So how do we assess “goaltender confidence” exactly? Further, how to we quantify such an assessment. Well, let’s start by creating some very general rules.
- We’re only measuring the expected playoff starters, based on the goalie with the higher number of games started during the regular season (although some situations were very close to an even split). However, if the coach has named a specific starter for Game 1 of the opening series and if it differs with the guys with the most starts, we’re going with that guy. In reality, backups should only end up seeing the ice due to injury, or the starter being pulled.
- There are four elements, based on a specific statistics and calculations (described below). Each category will produce a score.
- All four elements are then added together to give one comprehensive overall score, which is ordered form lowest (least confidence) to highest (most confidence). This gives us ranking of sorts.
- This whole exercise is subjective and the factors are determined by what I personally think are relevant to assessing a team’s confidence between the pipes.
Let’s introduce the specific elements and their measurements. Please keep in mind, this is NOT an exact science, but rather, an imperfect blending of statistics and imagination. If you’re still with me, rest assured that numbers “never” lie.
- Team Defense (DEF): How good is the defense that plays in front of him?
- Measurement: How many shots the defense allows per game
- Calculation: 100 – Average shots allowed per game
- Regular Season (REG): How well did the goalie perform during the regular season?
- Measurement: Average minutes elapsed between goals allowed
- Calculation: Time on Ice / Goals Allowed
- Playoff Experience (EXP): How much experience does he have winning games in the playoffs?
- Measurement: Playoff winning percentage
- Calculation: (Career Playoff Wins / Career Playoff Games Started) * 100
- Momentum (MOM): How well has he performed in his last 5 games played?
- Measurement: Average minutes elapsed between goals allowed (last 5 games)
- Calculation: Time On Ice / Goals Allowed (last 5 games)
To demonstrate, let’s use two non-playoff goaltenders to compare as an example of the calculation. First, I’ll sacrifice my own Detroit Red Wings, as they are certainly NOT a playoff team this season (or the last five seasons, but who’s counting?). They finished with 48 points and didn’t even sniff a wild card spot. Strategically, I’ll then grab the Dallas Stars, who just narrowly missed out on a playoff spot by a mere 4 points. So we have Thomas Greiss (DET) and Anton Khudobin (DAL) respectively. Here’s how their numbers played out:
These numbers do make some sense. While the Red Wings were the worse team of the two and have the less adequate defense, Greiss played extremely well down the stretch in his last five games, giving up only five goals in 274 minutes on the ice, which translates to allowing a goal every 56.8 minutes. That number is actually pretty outstanding. Khudobin had the better overall team, but struggled down the stretch by giving up 16 goals in only 263 minutes, translating to a goal allowed every 16.4 minutes, which is basically one goal every period. Thus, we can make the case that although the overall numbers between the two were close, momentum is a critical factor here in tipping the scales in favor of Greiss as the hotter goalie. Alas, if the two teams were entering the playoffs, the Wings might have the right to feel more confidence in their guy between the pipes. The whole thing is a loose philosophy, but something fun to consider.
Now, let’s get to the real stuff. Ranking the playoff teams in order of least goaltender confidence to most goaltender confidence, based on the above scoring method. Drumroll please…
16. Pittsburgh Penguins
Although the Pens tied for first in the East with the Caps. expected starter Tristan Jarry didn’t exactly have a stellar season. His 25-9 record speaks more to the strength of this team, than his individual play. The killer within these elements is Jarry’s inexperience in the playoffs, where he has started only a single playoff game in his four-year career. Carrying similar playoff experience (zero games) with slightly better numbers, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Pens turned to backup Casey DeSmith if they get down quick to the Isles in the first couple of games.
15. Washington Capitals
The Caps are a very, very good team. And deep. However, they’ll be starting rookie Vitek Vanecek against the Boston Bruins, who’re not exactly “8th seed” material. Vanecek had a good enough season, but it’s unlikely that he’s the next Binnington. Similar to the Pens, the lack of playoff experience (and experience in general) is what murders them in these projections. They can’t exactly feel bulletproof with their situation, as their alternative option is 39-year old Craig Anderson.
Update: Vanecek left Game 1 against the Bruins with a lower body injury and his status is up in the air for Game 2.
14. Carolina Hurricanes
This is a unique team at goaltender. They used three goalies somewhat evenly throughout the season. Alex Nedeljkovic and James Reimer started the bulk of the games, while Petr Mrazek was limited. I think we can agree that it’s not Reimer who’ll be starting next week, so let’s assume it’ll be the rookie, Nedeljkovic, who was fantastic this season, out of nowhere (15-5, 1.90 GAA, .932 SV%). The #14 ranking isn’t that the Canes goaltending wasn’t solid in 2020-21, but it’s another case of a rookie potentially playing his very first playoff minutes. At least they have not one, but two capable backups if things go haywire. This team is so offensively gifted, it might not matter who’s in there.
13. Florida Panthers
Sergei Bobrovsky has been around for a while now and is battle-tested for the most part, but he didn’t exactly have a sparkling regular season, despite Florida’s success. He actually didn’t post a single shutout all season. As well, he struggled mightily down the stretch (a couple of four-goal games) and is coming into these playoffs a little shaky. Throw in the fact that’s he’s facing the defending champion Lightning and there’s reason to be nervous if you’re the Panthers.
12. Nashville Predators
Juuse Saros continued his primary goaltending duties this season and while the Preds defense was prone to giving up a high volume of shots, Saros was excellent (including a .927 SV%). However, where he pales in comparison to veteran backup Pekka Rinne is playoff experience, where he’s started only four games in his career. If Nashville wants to win the series against the tough Hurricanes, Saros will need to thrive. If not, Rinne will be beckoned.
11. Toronto Maple Leafs
To say that the Leafs goaltending situation has been chaotic all season long, might be an understatement. Frederik Andersen is expected to be the postseason starter, though he missed a huge chunk of the season, and has played only ONE game since March 19 (in which he allowed four goals). Jack Campbell, with literally zero playoff experience, might actually be the better option. He did have a very impressive regular season. Even though the Leafs D doesn’t allow a ton of shots, they can’t feel overly enthusiastic about Andersen and his rustiness in facing their ultimate rival.
10. Minnesota Wild
Cam Talbot had a solid enough regular season, as did the Wild, but he’s coming in having been brutalized in his last five games, allowing 20 goals on 136 shots (a goal scored every 15.4 minutes). He has some playoff experience, which helps, but he’s also set to face the Golden Knights, who got him for eight combined goals in two games last week. Backup Kaapo Kahkonen has exactly zero playoff experience. Minny’s in a real tough spot here.
9. Montreal Canadiens
I mean, Carey Price. What do you even say? When he’s healthy, he’s still one of the most reliable netminders in the league. He can steal games, and series’. Even though he played sparingly and had a slightly down year by his standards, you know he’ll raise his game in the playoffs and if nothing else, give the Leafs a tough out. The Habs to have a formidable defense in front of him as well. One area that Montreal likely does not have any concern, is in net. Price is almost an exception to these rankings.
8. Winnipeg Jets
Connor Hellebuyck is an absolute workhorse. He logged the most minutes (2,603) of any goaltender on this list. His regular season was certainly solid, but he was extra hot as the season winded down, pitching two shutouts in his final four games. The Jets will have the utmost confidence in their guy when they visit the Oilers in the first round. Though Connor McDavid can ruin just about anyone’s confidence.
7. Edmonton Oilers
Speaking of the Oilers, they’ll likely be starting grizzled veteran Mike Smith against the Jets in round one. While they played Smith and Mikko Koskinen very evenly during the regular season, Koskinen did not have a good year. Smith was quietly very good during the regular season (21-6-2, 2.31 GAA, .923 SV%). With the way McDavid and Leon Draisaitl can put up points, and having the Tyson Barrie-Darnell Nurse combination on the blue line, I don’t know that the Oilers are fretting too much about the netminding. Besides, they’re quite used to being criticized about their goaltending.
6. St. Louis Blues
Jordan Binnington has done it before. And by “it,” I mean has stolen a Stanley Cup. The Blues are in a similar position that they were that championship year by cruising under the radar. He’s another workhorse like Hellebuyck and has experienced ultimate playoff success, which is the perfect breeder of confidence for both himself and his team. He’ll be counted on to be extraordinary against the President Trophy-winning Avalanche in the first round.
5. Tampa Bay Lightning
Andrei Vasilevskiy has done it all. And now, he has a Stanley Cup to pair with his Vezina Trophy. He’s been arguably the best all-around goaltender in the league the past several seasons. He had another phenomenal regular season and owns a .623% playoff winning percentage. He definitely was a little shaky down the stretch, allowing 15 goals in his last five games (and nine in his last two). Though it’s a mini slump, there’s no wavering in confidence with this guy, who’s proven himself on the grandest of stages.
4. Boston Bruins
At age 34, and though a little banged up during the season, Tuukka Rask has seen it all. He had an excellent regular season, has 51 career playoff wins (WHAT?), and played very well down the stretch. Plus, he plays behind an elite defense that allows the second fewest shots in the league. There are no questions, nor lack of confidence, from this Bruins team about him in net. This team (especially with Taylor Hall fitting in ever so nicely) could be poised to win the whole damn thing.
3. Colorado Avalanche
Many of you might ask: Who the hell is Philipp Grubauer? Well, he’s just the guy that posted this ridiculous stat line during the regular season: 30-9-1, 1.95 GAA, .922 SV% and 7 shutouts. SEVEN. I’d say those are video game numbers, but you can’t even realistically achieve those in a video game. He was fantastic and a big reason the Avs finished with the best record. Though it’s limited, he’s also won 13 of his 22 career playoff starts. His defense also allows the fewest shots in the league. A sizable amount of people have picked Colorado to win it all, with Grubauer elevating his name into the mainstream.
2. New York Islanders
Seems like a pretty high ranking for Semyon Varlamov and the Islanders, but he was sneaky awesome this season (2.04 GAA, .929 SV%, 7 shutouts in only 35 games) and certainly has a bulk of successful playoff experience. I also think the Islanders are sneaky good in the East. And he comes in scorching hot, allowing just seven goals in his last five games (including two shutouts). Him and the Isles are peaking at the right time.
Update: It was just announced that Varlamov will miss Game 1 and rookie Ilya Sorokin will start in his place. Though this would impact the ranking, it’s likely a one-game absence. Varlamov will still be in there over the course of the playoffs, health depending.
1. Vegas Golden Knights
It’s no surprise that Vegas tops this list for two reasons: First, they “tied” for the league’s highest point total (edged by the Avs on regulation wins), so they’re an elite team overall. Second, Marc-Andre Fleury, in his 17th season, was absolutely remarkable all season long (1.98 GAA, .928 SV%, 6 shutouts). He is Hall of Fame bound, without question. Fleury has 81 career playoff wins, which is 30 more than the next guy (Rask). To top it off, he comes in on fire, allowing only seven goals in his last five games (allowing a goal every 43.6 minutes). Vegas has all the confidence in the world in this ageless veteran. A remarkable career, and definitely not done yet.