It has often been said that goaltending wins championships in the NHL.
While some would argue it’s not entirely true, it’s difficult to dismiss the importance of stability between the pipes. With an 82-game regular season schedule – not to mention up to another seven weeks of hockey for teams who go all the way – steady and reliable goaltending can often be the difference between hitting the golf course early and hoisting Lord Stanley’s cup.
And although recent performances (Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings in 2012, Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins in 2011) have shone the spotlight on individual goalies, it is equally common for teams to rely on goaltending by committee. Given the frequency of injuries, confidence issues and stretches of poor play, teams have realized that having two quality netminders is always better than having one.
What makes a great goaltending duo in today’s NHL is not necessarily a shared workload, but a successful formula based on a team’s dynamics. While some teams have a 1A/1B situation, others opt to go with a bonefide starter and a backup. But even the goalie who plays only 20 or 25 games in a season is a valuable member of his team; a win is still a win, no matter who is between the pipes.
As general managers across the league have started to realize the importance of depth at the goaltender position, they have built their teams accordingly – and to varying degrees of success. The following list of the top 10 goaltending tandems in the NHL shows which GMs have gotten it right.
Note: Racked with injuries this season, the Minnesota Wild deserve an honorable mention. When starter Nicklas Backstrom went down with an injury early in the season, backup Josh Harding came in and played admirably. Then, when he went down, youngster Darcy Kuemper stepped in and did the same. On the verge of making the playoffs, the Wild recently traded for Ilya Bryzgalov, who has also shown success at the NHL level. Needless to say, Minnesota is stacked in the crease and will have some difficult goaltending decisions moving forward.
10. Corey Schneider and Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils
With the New Jersey Devils currently sitting a couple of points outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference, it’s easy to overlook the work of Schneider and Brodeur this season. But despite their team’s anemic offense (161 goals through 65 games), the duo has managed to keep the Devils in games – and even steal a few. While Schneider (12-13-9, 2.07 GAA, .918 save percentage, three shutouts) is clearly the goalie of the future in New Jersey, Brodeur (16-11-4, 2.54 GAA, .898 save percentage, three shutouts) has adapted well to his reduced role and his experience will likely prove invaluable should the Devils manage to squeak into the post-season.
9. Corey Crawford and Antti Raanta, Chicago Blackhawks
Even after leading the Chicago Blackhawks to their second Stanley Cup in three seasons and signing a six-year/$36 million contract extension, Crawford’s status as a bonafide No.1 goalie is questioned by media and fans alike. But the fact that he plays behind one of the NHL’s most explosive offenses shouldn’t be held against him; in four-plus seasons with the Blackhawks, the 29-year-old has gone 107-54-29 with a 2.37 GAA and a .914 save percentage. If Crawford should happen to falter down the stretch, however, Chicago has youngster Antti Raanta waiting in the wings. While the 24-year-old Finn’s ice time has been limited this season, he has played well when given the opportunity, going 12-2-3 with a 2.40 GAA, a .904 save percentage and a shutout.
8. Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastain Giguere, Colorado Avalanche
While their play may have fallen off a bit since their red-hot start in October, Varlamov and Giguere have been one of the most surprising tandems in the NHL this season. They are also one of the main reasons the Colorado Avalanche are currently sitting in a playoff spot with less than 20 games remaining. While the 25-year-old Varlamov (31-12-5, 2.47 GAA, .925 save percentage and one shutout) has carried the lion’s share of the workload, Giguere has shone when called upon, going 10-5-0 with a 2.57 GAA, a .915 save percentage and a pair of shutouts. With a Stanley Cup ring and a Conn Smythe trophy already under his belt (2007 with the Anaheim Ducks), Giguere’s experience will likely come in handy if the Avalanche hope to make some noise in this year’s playoffs.
7. Henrik Lundqvist and Cam Talbot, New York Rangers
It’s no secret in New York, or elsewhere, that when it comes to the Rangers’ goaltending situation, Lundqvist is the man. In six of his nine seasons with the Blueshirts, King Henrik has played at least 60 games and given his career numbers (300-191-61, 2.28 GAA, .920 save percentage, 49 shutouts), it’s easy to see why. But based on the stellar play of rookie goaltender Cam Talbot this season (11-5-0, 1.75 GAA, .938 save percentage, two shutouts), it has been easier for the Rangers to give Lundqvist the odd night off and get him rested up for a potential playoff run. If Talbot’s early success is any indication, the goaltending situation in New York could be one of the best in the NHL for years to come.
6. Jaroslav Halak and Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals
When the Washington Capitals acquired Halak at this year’s trade deadline, their goaltending tandem immediately became one of the best in the NHL. While his role over the past few seasons hasn’t been that of a typical starter (playing anywhere between 16 and 57 games), Halak’s career numbers (140-81-26, 2.38 GAA, .917 save percentage, 29 shutouts) suggest that he is more than ready to be the man in Washington. And while Halak’s arrival may somewhat reduce the 24-year-old Holtby’s workload, he too has had a solid season (19-14-3, 2.98 GAA, .911 save percentage, three shutouts) and has proved in the playoffs that he can perform under pressure. Making matters even better – if not more confusing for the Capitals – is that third-stringer Phillip Grubauer also appears to have a promising career ahead of him.
5. Jonathan Quick and Martin Jones, Los Angeles Kings
One is a Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe trophy winner, the other a 24-year-old rookie with only 14 games of NHL experience under his belt. But together Jonathan Quick and Martin Jones are one of the toughest goaltending tandems in the NHL to play against. While we haven’t seen a lot from Jones this season, he did tie an NHL record by winning the first eight starts of his career. Combine that with his 1.88 GAA, .934 save percentage and three shutouts, and it’s no wonder the Kings felt he was ready to replace Ben Scrivens (traded to the Edmonton Oilers earlier this season) as Quick’s backup. Quick, as usual, has had a solid year as well, going 20-13-2 with a 2.02 GAA, a .916 save percentage and four shutouts.
4. Antti Niemi and Alex Stalock, San Jose Sharks
He may not be a household name yet, but Alex Stalock is quietly doing everything a backup on a strong team is supposed to – and then some. With a record of 10-4-1, a GAA of 1.85 and a .932 save percentage, Stalock’s play has allowed the Sharks to give Niemi the odd night off without having to worry. That’s not to say Niemi hasn’t remained one of the NHL’s busiest – and most consistent – goaltenders; the 30-year-old Finn is still on pace to play 64 games this season and his individual stats (31-13-6, 2.37 GAA, .912 save percentage and three shutouts) are on pace with his career averages. Heading into the playoffs as one of the favorites in the Western Conference, San Jose has to feel better about their goaltending situation than they have in years.
3. Jonas Hiller and Frederik Andersen, Anaheim Ducks
Whenever a team has a starting goalie as capable as Jonas Hiller, the backup is likely to spend a lot more time on the bench than on the ice. Injuries happen though, and in the case of Hiller, they have happened several times this season. Fortunately for the Ducks, 24-year-0ld rookie Frederik Andersen has come out of nowhere and is a big reason Anaheim remains atop the NHL in wins and points. With a record of 15-3-0, a GAA of 2.12 and a save percentage of .929, Andersen has performed so well, in fact, that former backup Viktor Fasth became expendable at this year’s trade deadline (traded to the Edmonton Oilers). Add that to the fact that Hiller is having arguably the best season of his career (26-9-6, 2.28 GAA, .917 save percentage, five shutouts) and the Ducks have to feel pretty confident going into this year’s playoffs.
2. Tuukka Rask and Chad Johnson, Boston Bruins
Some could argue that any goalie would succeed on a defensive-minded team like the Bruins, but Rask and Johnson have done far more than just succeed – they have excelled. Following up on his incredible playoff performance last season, Rask is ranked among the top 10 goaltenders in wins (28), GAA (2.15) and save percentage (.926), and first in shutouts (six). As for Johnson, he may get significantly fewer starts than Rask, but he makes them count. In 20 appearances this year (by far the most in his NHL career), the former fifth-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins has gone 12-3-1 with a 2.23 GAA and a .919 save percentage. And while they may not be quite as formidable as Boston’s Tim Thomas-Tuukaa Rask tandem a few years back, they have allowed an Eastern Conference-low of 143 goals in 64 games and will certainly be a force to be reckoned with down the stretch.
1. Ryan Miller and Brian Elliott, St. Louis Blues
A few weeks ago it would have been hard to imagine the St. Louis Blues improving their goaltending tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, but when they acquired Ryan Miller from the Buffalo Sabres at the NHL trade deadline, they did just that. While playing on the lowly Sabres has somewhat deflated Miller’s personal statistics this season (19-22-3 with a 2.61 GAA and a .924 save percentage), a fresh start with the stingy Blues will likely remind hockey fans just how dominant the 33-year-old American can be. As for Elliott, he has had yet another solid season between the pipes (15-5-2, 2.08 GAA, .917 save percentage, three shutouts), making it all but impossible for head coach Ken Hitchcock to keep him on the bench. If the Blues hope to finally make it over the hump and go deep in this year’s playoffs – which many expect them to – they will likely need their goalies to steal a game or two. With Miller and Elliott back there chances are they will.
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