Despite having professed my caution on a few occasions recently about getting too excited about the early career arcs of young NHL goaltenders, using Carter Hart of the Philadelphia Flyers as the most recent example, I’ll give Vancouver Canucks netminder Thatcher Demko the benefit of the doubt. For purposes of comparison, I will allow every goalie to remain on the arc they were on. We’re picking up where they left off. The only exception to this is at the other end of the age spectrum, when thinking about “old guys” like Mike Smith in Edmonton. When does the gas tank run dry?
Utilizing a combination of Corsi goalie ratings, “smooshed” mega-algorithms (one of my favourite terms – meaning I’m not focusing on any one numerical category, I’m using an aggregate), ancient knowledge, and team circumstance and psychology, I’ve come up with a ranking of the best netminders in the Pacific Division. Just for fun, instead of going down 1-through-8, let’s go in alphabetical order and allow for some surprises.
— Anaheim Ducks – John Gibson was dinged up early last season but survived to play 35 games for a team that’s completely in rebuild mode. Sometimes analytics can’t quantify “hung out to dry”. I’ve seen this guy at his very best in person, ice water running through his veins, stone-cold owning it, in leading Team USA to Gold at the 2013 World Juniors in Ufa, Russia while picking up tournament MVP honours. He has the stable demeanour, although he can come across as aloof. He’s definitely not a media darling. Is he driven at this point? Those are the intangibles that can’t be quantified, especially for men playing the most important position in team sports while collecting big paychecks. Patience is a virtue and absolutely necessary for this 28-year-old, especially since he’s only three years into an eight-year contract. He was very low on the aggregate and 25th in Corsi. Love the “flippers”, his leg-pad abilities, although he’s higher ranked with his glove/blocker. I’m wondering where his head will be. Putting him at number-6 in the eight team Pacific.
— Calgary Flames – Oooooo, touchy subject, and it will probably remain so through the length of Jacob Markstrom‘s six-year contract up the road in Alberta. Hey, the Canucks moved on from the now 31-year-old with other plans. Just don’t win the Vezina big guy. He has the size, 6’6″, is strong positionally in the butterfly, and remains agile. He was 9th in the Corsi last season but low in the aggregate, especially in categories focused on preventing goals unexpectedly. As in, not spectacular. But then again, spectacular isn’t necessary if you’re big, look even bigger, and can square up. From what I understand, the Swede has a solid, level head on his shoulders. The only concern is; which Flames team shows up on any given night. Sometimes it feels like Alice in Wonderland. Let’s put the former Canuck at number-3.
— Edmonton Oilers – This outta be fun. I remember standing at ice level in Boston once, watching Mike Smith close-up for a period-and-a-half and coming away very impressed. Let’s see, he was playing for Dallas, before the first knee injury, so this must have been about 2007. Talk about flippers – holy moly, fastest kick save in the West. He would have been about 25-years-of-age. After 3-and-a-half seasons in Tampa starting in 2008 he returned out west permanently. Last season, age 39, he kicked out a goals against average of 2.31 with a .923 save percentage. Damn! He’s funky, he’s a bit nuts, he’s competitive, and he’s scored a goal in both the ECHL and the NHL eleven years apart. His Corsi is awful but his flare for the dramatic almost makes up for it. If he can stay calm, in his crease or very near it, and his team improves defensively, uh oh, there’s no reason to believe this choo-choo train can’t keep chugging. One more year of fun? He has two left on his contract but he’s only making $2.2-million. Health could very well become an issue for a man who’s historically injury prone. Mr. Smith goes to number-5.
— Los Angeles Kings – Cal Petersen? Really. This $850,000 man over the $5.8-million two-time Stanley Cup champ’ Jonathan Quick? Does it matter? Given the rebuild, General Manager Rob Blake can afford to wait out year-nine of Quick’s ten-year contract and see what happens. I mean, the Kings are still paying ex-defenceman Dion Phaneuf for two more seasons. Things will clean up. For now, share the wealth between the pipes, what the heck. Petersen is finishing up his contract after this season, so Blake can kick this can down the road a wee bit. Now age-35, if Quick stays healthy and can finish out his career with the crown on this chest, who knows, maybe they hoist his sweater-32 to the Staples Center rafters. Either way, for now, 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B, whatever the goaltending combo or leader, let’s put the goalie, because of the situation, at number-7.
— San Jose Sharks – EEK! Adin HIll and James Reimer. OK. The Sharks needed a goalie this summer so they traded for one. They snagged Hill from Arizona. The big 25-year-old has played 49 NHL games. Reimer meanwhile, is Reimer. NEXT! (Number-8 either way).
— Seattle Kraken – Tough personal projection or arc to evaluate when you’re going from the President’s Trophy winners to an expansion team. That’s the situation for Philipp Grubauer. The German was outstanding this past regular season in Colorado with a goals against average under two, but his save percentage slipped 8-points when the playoffs rolled around. Is that his mental make-up under pressure? He previously had some horrendous playoff performances in Washington as well. Lucky for him we’re not looking at the playoffs. And lucky for him, unless they’re expecting a repeat of Marc-Andre Fleury and Vegas circa 2018, there really shouldn’t be a ton of pressure in Seattle. Just look at it this way. He’s a career 2.34 GAA + .920% goalie with upper-tier analytics who just signed a six-year contract at $6.8-million per season. He’s 29-years-old and I’m not ready to join the automatic-detractors just because of the franchise. Goalie stand-alone for me, not franchise, he’s number-2 in the Pacific.
— Vancouver Canucks – Thatcher Demko. Honestly, he’s primed for a full break-out. He has size, he’s athletic and agile, he never quits on pucks, he’s level-headed, and he’s positionally strong. He’s top-10 in the NHL in “goals saved above expected”. In other words, he can rob people; he can be streaky good. Many goals that should have gone in, didn’t. His generic numbers haven’t been great because neither have the team’s. Vancouver gave up scoring chances and goals at a pace near the top of the league. It made his .915-save-percentage better than respectable. The break-out concept is also tangible because the team’s break-out could come hand-in-hand, which is obviously the best-case scenario. The Canucks are shaking off a disastrous season with a moderate overhaul to add depth and create a new confidence level. Part of that confidence will come from having this 25-year-old manning the crease. The only drawback, and yes I’ll say it again, is the lack of predictability for young goaltenders around the NHL. He’s played 72 NHL games and he’s yet to find team success. That can be daunting in a pressure market. He does have peace-of-mind with the start of a five-year $25-million contract and he should have plenty to prove. By the way, aside from Quick, he definitely has the coolest name. The projection/potential element definitely plays a part in this as I’m putting the Vancouver Canucks goalie at number-4.
— Vegas Golden Knights – Robin Lehner. Let’s face it, dude has played with some bad to mediocre teams going through tough times. When’s he’s had at least a decent to very good team in front of him, he’s played a huge part. Think of the 2019 New York Islanders when he banged out a .930 save percentage and a 2.13 GAA. Yes, good defensive team. In his 22 starts with Vegas thus far his numbers have been ri-donkulously good. Again, very good team. How refreshing for him, after early runs in Ottawa and then Buffalo. This is a man who’s mentally strong. He’s been outspoken about his psychological issues and battles with depression, and he’s a stalwart analytically. The 30-year-old Swede has excellent size and great fundamentals. The one caveat to all of the above; he just replaced the franchise icon, and there are no shortage of Golden Knights fans who are upset about the way Fleury was shown the door. It could get a little steamy inside the fortress this season for Lehner. Meanwhile, I’m putting him number-1.
It’ll be fun to rank the Pacific Division goalie tandems before the start of the regular season and see how that changes the list. And it will.