Artrurs Irbe’s surprise appearance on the Sabres’ bench as their emergency goalie on Tuesday brought to mind his colorful NHL career, his adventurous puckhandling skills and that brilliant run he had in the 2002 playoffs for Carolina.
Based on that Cinderella performance, plus some of the other upsets he anchored as the backstop in San Jose, the now 47-year-old goalie coach for Buffalo sneaks onto our list of the NHL’s top 10 European goalies of all-time.
For the purposes of this list, we only considered players’ NHL careers (or their performances in best-on-best Olympic Games), hence no Vladislav Tretiak. We also discounted German citizen Olaf Kolzig, the South African-born netminder who grew up in Canada.
1. Dominik Hasek. By two country miles. Six Vezinas, two Harts, six first-team all-stars, a Stanley Cup and Olympic gold. Yawn.
2. Henrik Lundqvist. With 316 victories to date, Lundqvist would need to average about 30 wins per season for three years to usurp Hasek as the all-time winningest Euro goalie. That’s very do-able for the 32-year-old. His Vezina, first-team all-star and Olympic gold make him the most decorated Euro netminder behind Hasek.
3. Miikka Kiprusoff. The fabulous Finn won a Vezina and cult hero status in Calgary, particularly following the Flames 2004 run to the Cup final. He was consistently stellar under pressure, elevating is save percentage from a career .912 mark in the regular season to .921 in the playoffs.
4. Evgeni Nabokov. Second to Hasek in wins by European goalies (352), Nabokov’s longevity earns him a place among the top tier. He doesn’t have the individual accolades, but he was key player in San Jose’s consistently strong regular season finishes.
5. Tuukka Rask. Asterisk Rask, as he figures to climb this list in the coming years. Stuck for a while behind Tim Thomas, the 27-year-old already has 28 career playoff victories and a Vezina on his resume.
6. Nikolai Khabibulin. As Alex Ovechkin once famously said, “Cups is Cups. And Khabibulin is among a small handful of Euro goalie to earn a ring as the starter. He was a force for the 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning and his 333 wins rank only behind Hasek and Nabokov.
7. Pelle Lindbergh. The first Euro netminder to ever win the Vezina, in 1985, Lindbergh also led the NHL in wins that season with 40 and had a remarkable playoff run, eventually losing in the Stanley Cup final to Edmonton. He died the ensuing November, at 26, when he crashed his car into a wall.
8. Arturs Irbe. He was never the absolute best in a given season, but he made things exciting in San Jose, then got close to ultimate glory in 2002 for Carolina.
9. Ilya Bryzgalov. For all the noise that surrounded him late in his career, Bryzgalov had the chops to post 220 regular season wins and 20 more in the playoffs. The latter is just five fewer than Miikka Kiprusoff.
10. Pekka Rinne. It feels like the giant Finn should be higher on the list, but with no major awards or deep playoff runs, it’s tough to justify. Still, he’s helped a traditionally offense-challenged Predators team over-achieve often in his career.
Honoroable mentions: Sergei Bobrovsky, Kari Lehtonen, Roman Cechmanek, Semyon Varlamov