How fickle is goaltending in today’s NHL? The reigning Vezina Trophy winner, Pekka Rinne, got pulled three times in his last playoff series of the year. The starting Stanley Cup champion goalie, Braden Holtby, opened the post-season as a backup. Two of the top three Vezina finalists, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Connor Hellebuyck, weren’t full-time starters one season earlier.
If goalies entrenched within their teams’ long-term plans are tough to project, goalies changing teams are even tougher. Scott Darling, Steve Mason and Brian Elliott flopped in 2017-18 after being signed as UFAs, while Antti Raanta, a trade acquisition, and Marc-Andre Fleury, an expansion-draft claim, were stars.
Goaltending is a roulette wheel. Who spun it wisest this off-season? Let’s rank the netminders who changed teams and have a legitimate chance to start at least half their team’s games. I count four of them.
1. Philipp Grubauer, Colorado Avalanche (age 26)
After trading for him at the draft, the Avs gave RFA Grubauer a three-year, $10-million contract. It reminded me a lot of Andrei Vasilevskiy’s three-year, $10.5-million extension two summers ago. The money said, “You’re more than a backup,” and Lightning starter Ben Bishop’s days were clearly numbered as he entered the final year of his contract. Same goes for Semyon Varlamov, commencing the final year of his deal in Colorado and as injury-prone as Bishop.
Grubauer flamed out starting for Washington in Round 1 of the playoffs this past spring, but that was a small sample size. His career sample size is 101 games, over which he’s posted a .923 save percentage. The highest all-time SP among qualified NHL leaders is Dominik Hasek’s .9223, followed closely by Tuukka Rask’s .9221. That doesn’t mean Grubauer will become the all-time SP king, but it provides some light on how good he’s been as one of the league’s elite backups. In the case of Raanta, that foreshadowed elite production if given a chance as a starter, and Grubauer has the best chance of any new-team goalie to make a Raanta-like impact. Among the 51 goaltenders who logged at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5 last season, Grubauer had the third-best SP at .938. He had the second-best low-danger SP, 20th-best medium-danger SP and fourth-best high-danger SP. Grubauer trailed only two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky in goals saved above average (a crucial metric that tells you how many goals a netminder prevents compared what a league-average goalie would allow facing the same number of shots).
The athletic, explosive Varlamov wasn’t half bad last year, but Grubauer was flat-out one of the league’s best goalies, and his sample size of 35 games wasn’t peanuts. Bet on him to wrest the job from Varlamov during the 2018-19 season and become a star by 2019-20 at the latest.
2. Carter Hutton, Buffalo Sabres (age 32)
Hutton was as good as any goalie in the league last year on a per-game basis. Most of his advanced save statistics were as good or better than Grubauer’s. Hutton had the best goals-against average and SP in the league. Had he played 50 games instead of 31, he might have won the Vezina, but Hutton actually didn’t receive a single vote. It seems the league’s GMs consider him a fluke. He was a career backup relieving the struggling Jake Allen with a performance no one saw coming.
How unexpected was Hutton’s performance, exactly, and can he be counted on to replicate it with the Sabres? His career SP was .910 entering his breakout year, and he’d only ever played with great defenses in front of him. We don’t count his one game as a Blackhawk, but he was blessed with the Nashville Predators and then the St. Louis Blues. In his four seasons before last year, he had the 57th-best SP among 84 goalies with 1,000 or more minutes 5-on-5 and was 81st in goals-saved above average.
So it’s safe to say (a) Hutton was legitimately amazing last year and (b) he was pure backup material before that, so 2017-18 really did come out of nowhere. The good news for Buffalo: it didn’t take a ludicrous investment to find out if he’s for real. Three years isn’t an enormous term, and a $2.75-million AAV ties him with Elliott as the 33rd-richest. Darling got an extra year and 51 percent more money. If Hutton’s been a ‘C’ most of his career and was an ‘A’ last year, even a B-minus effort would make him an upgrade over what the Sabres got from Robin Lehner last year. The Sabres are desperate for some semblance of progress in the standings and hope Hutton gives them the stability necessary for that to happen, at least long enough to keep the crease warm for Linus Ullmark.
3. Petr Mrazek, Carolina Hurricanes (age 26)
It can’t get any worse than Darling and Cam Ward were last year, right? Mrazek will get every opportunity to win the Hurricanes’ starting job. He ranked near the bottom of the league in many metrics last year but was still better than Darling, who was statistically the NHL’s worst goalie, dead last in 5-on-5 SP and 49th out of 51 in goals saved above average. At -0.95 in goals saved above average, Mrazek was close to a league-norm performer.
Mrazek debuted with the Detroit Red Wings in 2012-13, and from that season until 2016-17, when 90 goalies played 1,000 or more minutes 5-on-5, he ranked 18th in goals saved above average. Then again, Darling and Thomas Greiss were even higher. Some stoppers look great as backups but aren’t cut out to be No. 1s and get exposed with career-high workloads.
Mrazek, though, doesn’t really fit into that category. He profiled as a starter coming up, and his best season, 2015-16, coincided with his biggest workload at 54 games and 49 starts. He was a Vezina candidate in the first half that year before slipping after the all-star break but still finished with a 2.33 GAA and .921 SP. He’s had more good seasons than bad ones and is just 26. Last year, which ended with a crash in Philadelphia, looks more like the anomaly than the trend compared to the rest of Mrazek’s seasons. It’ll really be time to worry if he doesn’t bounce back this season, but there’s still hope for him.
4. Robin Lehner, New York Islanders (age 26)
Lehner, a mammoth, 245-pound swallower of pucks, looked like the long-term answer in Buffalo’s net a year ago after posting a .920 SP but bombed out this past season. He’s known for his emotional volatility, something that worked great for Ed Belfour but doesn’t help most goaltenders, and the Sabres clearly aimed for a culture change this off-season. That’s why they dealt Ryan O’Reilly and chose not to qualify Lehner as an RFA.
Lehner wasn’t quite as bad as his surface numbers – the 3.01 GAA, the .908 SP – suggest. He was 30th in the 51-goalie sample in 5-on-5 SP and 18th in low-danger SP. That’s below average but not hopeless. At the same time, he can’t blame his bad numbers on being shelled, as his ratios of shot quality skew strongest to low-danger. More than half the shots he faced last season were low-danger – a higher percentage than most goalies faced. And Lehner has been weak in medium- and high-danger chances when tested the past couple seasons. A good scoring chance tends to beat him. That’s not what you want in a starter. Now he joins an Islanders team that just allowed the third-most shots per game by any team in the past 20 years – and then lost John Tavares and Calvin de Haan.
The good news: coach Barry Trotz’s teams tend to be sound defensively, suggesting the Isles will improve at least a little bit in shot suppression, and his regular goaltending coach, guru Mitch Korn, may end up joining the Isles to mentor Lehner. This is the teacher behind Hasek, Rinne and Holtby, and Lehner arguably had a bigger pedigree than each of them as a prospect. So there’s talent to mold there.
THE ‘BACKUPS OR MORE?’ TIER
These new-team goaltenders each have potential for sneaky-big workloads:
1. Jonathan Bernier, Red Wings – Nothing special at this stage of his career, but he’s good enough not to lose a team games. Should share crease with Jimmy Howard. But why did Wings give Bernier a three-year deal with a $3-million AAV?
2. Mikko Koskinen, Oilers – Tough to project him coming over from KHL, but he was amazing there, he’s a behemoth, and Cam Talbot needs a lot more rest.
3. Chad Johnson, Blues – The new Hutton? There’s a good chance Allen remains a rollercoaster. Johnson was pretty bad last year, though.
4. Cam Ward, Blackhawks – Insurance for Corey Crawford’s brain health, but Ward was a nightmare in 2017-18.
Advanced stats courtesy of corsica.hockey