The Hockey News has published NHL player rankings at the start of every season for several decades. In the 2019-20 edition, curated by Ryan Kennedy, we must scroll to No. 14 to find the first goaltender: reigning Vezina Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy.
No goalie could sniff the top 10 because the position has become so fickle from year to year that it’s difficult to separate the best of the best from the rest of their peers. Vasilevskiy was a deserving Vezina winner, but he started just 53 games and didn’t lead the league in goals-against average, save percentage or shutouts. He led the league in wins, the stat that sways Vezina voters, a.k.a. NHL GMs, the most.
If we look at The Hockey News’ player rankings from the 1990s and 2000s, superstar netminders regularly appeared at or near the top of the list. In 1996, Patrick Roy and Dominik Hasek cracked the top 10. Hasek finished first in 1998. Martin Brodeur was a top-10 mainstay throughout the 2000s. As recently as 2015, Carey Price topped the list, fresh off his Hart Trophy campaign of 2014-15.
But just four years later, it feels like we’ll remember 2014-15 as the last season of The Superstar Goalie – the netminder popular enough to sell the most jerseys or appear on every kid’s bedroom wall. With all due respect to Vasilevskiy: how many kids’ rooms are plastered with posters of him right now?
Goalie dominance, and goalie superstardom, aren’t sustained today like they were in recent generations. Goalies have trouble even stringing together consecutive good seasons. Price hasn’t done it since his banner 2014-15, and only two goaltenders in the past seven seasons have been Vezina finalists two years in a row. In the past decade, Sergei Bobrovsky is the lone netminder to win the Vezina more than once. From 1989 to 2008, Hasek, Roy, Brodeur and Ed Belfour accounted for 15 of the 19 Vezinas handed out.
We can’t rely on any one goalie to rank with the best of the best NHLers every year anymore. Why? The most obvious answer is workload. When star goalies played 70-plus games a year, they were much more prominent contributors to their teams’ success. Hasek won consecutive MVP awards in 1996-97 and 1997-98. The No. 1 netminders were on the ice a heck of a lot more, in front of the camera more and earned icon status more often. Today, goalies play less. The past seven Cup-winning netminders played fewer than 60 games in the regular season, so the trend isn’t likely to reverse.
It’s not that goalies are necessarily “worse” and incapable of starting as many games as Brodeur did during his heyday. It’s that the position has changed. According to retired NHL goalie and TSN goaltending analyst Jamie McLennan, the crackdown on slashing and other stick infractions, which has opened up the ice and led to the most shots per game since the early 1970s, has forced goalies to adapt. They must move up and down and side to side so much more than even a few years ago. During a recent TSN broadcast, McLennan watched an overhead angle of Price. He faced fewer than 30 shots in that game, but McLennan counted more than 100 movements, up and down, side to side. “With the game being so fast and moving side to side, you forget, the goaltender, even if they’re not getting a shot, they have to mirror the puck,” McLennan said. “It’s really hard on the body as far as duress.”
The position is so demanding today that ‘1B backups’ are almost mandatory, and it’s tough to become an iconic goalie when you watch a teammate take over the crease for 30 games a year. Another reason why we don’t see consistent superstar play at the position from year to year: the shooters have the book on goalies more than ever. Not only does virtually every player have a shooting coach, but McLennan has spotted shooting coaches at goaltending seminars, collecting intelligence on what goalies are being taught.
Factoring in shrinking equipment as well, the deck hasn’t been this stacked against stoppers since the run-and-gun 1980s. The league-wide SP in 2018-19 was the lowest in 10 seasons. Sure, every goalie faces the same challenges, but it’s tougher to be the best of the best year in and year out now. Given what Vasilevskiy has already accomplished at age 25, he has the best shot, but whatever he does, he’ll do it playing 25 percent less than the stars of 20 years ago.