Take a straw poll of six random hockey fans, ask them which NHL goaltender they think is the best of all-time, and you might get six different answers. That doesn’t happen if you ask them about the best defenseman or best forward – Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky are hands-down winners.
But best NHL goalie? Come, sit down, we need to talk. This might take some time.
So much of your answer depends upon your perspective. If you’re a numbers person, you’re going to pick Martin Brodeur, the runaway leader in wins and shutouts. His 691 NHL regular-season victories are an astounding 140 more than runner-up Patrick Roy. In fact, Roy’s 551 wins are closer to ninth-place Tony Esposito than leader Brodeur.
If you’re about peak performance, Dominik Hasek is your man. He won the Vezina Trophy six times in an eight-year stretch and the Hart Trophy twice. Working against Hasek is the fact he wasn’t an NHL starter until he was 28 and his 735 career NHL games are 531 fewer than Brodeur.
If your answer is Roy, it’s because you believe the most in a goalie who was not only exceptional during the regular season but found a way to raise the bar in the playoffs, winning the Cup four times and the Conn Smythe Trophy three times.
True students of the game answer Terry Sawchuk to that question, even though we’re closing in on 50 years since he last strapped on the pads.
Some will answer Jacques Plante, who was not only a goaltending legend but one of the game’s great innovators.
You might even hear the answer Glenn Hall. Who can forget his streak of 502 consecutive games or the fact he was the league’s top goalie seven times? That’s more than anybody. That first-team all-star nod trumps the early Vezina Trophy, which back then went to the busiest goalie on the team with the best goals-against average.
You can make a case for any one of these goalies at the top of the NHL crease pecking order. Here’s how we set about naming our No. 1 and establishing our top-100 goalie ranking.
• In 1997, The Hockey News turned 50 years old, and we selected a revered committee of 50 hockey experts to vote upon the top 100 NHL players of all-time. Because of the depth of knowledge on our panel, it is considered the authoritative ranking and is quoted on countless occasions. The quantity and quality of our 50 voters made that list more credible than any imaginable ranking going forward. That’s because many members of that panel played or watched or followed the NHL first-hand as far back as the 1930s and ’40s. And they weren’t too far removed from the days of original NHL stars of the 1920s and late teens. So it would be foolhardy to start a ranking over again. The top six goalies in that top-100 ranking were Sawchuk (ninth overall), Plante (13th), Hall (16th), Ken Dryden (25th), Bill Durnan (34th) and Roy (35th).
• In 2010, we put together a panel of 10 experts tasked with updating the 1997 list to include players who were active in the 13-year gap. The goaltending position saw a wave of three stoppers rise to the stratosphere during that period. Roy, who was 12 years into an 18-year career when we determined the 1997 ranking, rose from being the No. 6 goalie to No. 2 behind Sawchuk. Brodeur had just four NHL seasons under his belt in 1997 and the 13 seasons since leading up to 2010 moved him to No. 3. Hasek, who was six seasons into a 15-year NHL career in 1997 and ranked 19th among goalies, moved up to No. 5 in 2010, behind Plante but ahead of Hall. One thing we absolutely didn’t do in 2010 is change the order of players who were already retired when the top 100 came out in 1997. That would defeat the efforts of our earlier esteemed panel.
• In 2018, we’ve updated the goalie ranking, again to consider stoppers who have been active since 2010. But we’re not messing with the order of retired goalies determined by our 1997 and 2010 panels. There’s nothing anyone on this year’s panel could have said to shift the order of those goalies. Brodeur played another four seasons after our 2010 ranking, but they were four of his weakest seasons, so our panel didn’t see merit in bumping him from No. 3 to No. 2 ahead of Roy. And Hasek was retired by 2010, so his standing at No. 5 stays put.
And this leads us to our 10-member panel this year…
• It starts with six members of The Hockey News editorial team. Between editor-in-chief Jason Kay, senior editor Brian Costello, senior writer Ken Campbell, associate senior writers Ryan Kennedy and Matt Larkin and features editor Sam McCaig, that’s 140 years of journalism experience, including more than 110 years at The Hockey News.
• Bob Duff has been a sports journalist since 1983 and is the author of many hockey books, including Without Fear: The Greatest Goalies of All Time (with co-author Kevin Allen), published in 2002. Goaltender is Duff’s position of expertise.
• Hockey historian James Benesh, who specializes in comparing and ranking players across eras. He was our project consultant on last year’s special magazine, The Top 50 Players of All-Time by Franchise.
• Doug Norris has been the man behind hockeygoalies.org for more than 20 years and is active on hfboards.com with ranking projects. He has a great mind for historical rankings and an affinity for goaltenders.
• Philip Myrland writes The Contrarian Goaltender blog, where his articles are full of strong analysis and compare historical and modern goalies. He has also participated in goalie rankings at hfboards.com.
The 10 members of this committee did their own individual ranking using their own criteria that revolved around “who’s better.” Statistics were the biggest part of this comparison analysis – advanced stats in the past decade, save percentage in the 50 years before that, and goals-against average while keeping an eye on team situation prior to save percentage. Other factors that were strongly considered were peak value, longevity, durability and consistency, awards voting (particularly for goalies who eluded our eye test. What observers thought at the time was crucial and not subject to revision), ultimate team success and a healthy dose of subjectivity. Why the latter? Because it’s become clear in the past decade that while save percentage is the most individual of the goalie stats, high SPs clearly follow some coaches around more than some goalies.
One other voting criteria we gave due consideration was to make sure all eras were fairly represented. The increased number of teams the past 50 years (the past 25 years especially) has led to a larger number of NHL goalies and a greater number of good or great NHL seasons put up by them – and the career wins list is full of mostly modern goalies. But it would be wrong to establish a top-100 goalie list made up of 80 or 90 percent post-expansion players. So our panelists were encouraged to separate the league’s history into equal-sized eras to make sure each was fairly represented.
We also considered three goalies whose lengthy careers spanned part of the early years of the NHL but also the other leagues that were just as competitive, as well as the NHA, the forerunner to the NHL. Georges Vezina, Clint Benedict and Hap Holmes are the three who made our top 100. And we also ranked the top 10 goalies in non-NHL (pg. 138) and international competition (pg. 140).
As for active goalies, panelists were asked to reasonably forecast how the remainder of their careers play out provided they have an expansive track record. So we’re saying stoppers such as Carey Price and Jonathan Quick will continue to play well for several more seasons. But goalies such as Connor Hellebuyck, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Matt Murray haven’t had enough runway to be considered. The reasoning for allowing pre-NHL data to be included at the beginning and this slight projection at the end? Because we wanted to avoid this being a list of “top 100 goalies whose careers started after 1917 and ended before 2019.”
Of course, this list is sure to change as soon as a few seasons from now. For example, if Pekka Rinne were to hold off his battle against Father Time and post another four or five outstanding seasons that include a Stanley Cup or two, a couple more Vezinas and a bunch more 40-win seasons, you can be sure a top-100 goalie list in 2023 slots him much higher than the No. 48 spot he occupies now.