It’s getting chillier out which can only mean one thing: the NHL season is right around the corner.
After two wonky seasons, 2021-22 is shaping up to be a full 82-game slate (knock wood, please) chock full of the slickest goals, the flashiest saves and countless big-time moments. But, before things get underway, and as the league hits the reset button, it’s the perfect time to sort through the rosters and select the top goaltenders, defensemen and forwards.
The 2021 offseason flew by but not without a flurry of masked men shifting squads. Marc-Andre Fleury headed to the Windy City via a (surprising to all, including Fleury) trade. Everyone thought Philipp Grubauer was sticking around Denver but left for the Pacific Northwest with Darcey Kuemper taking his spot. The Hurricanes and Maple Leafs essentially swapped goalies, albeit through free agency: Petr Mrazek headed north while Frederik Andersen went south.
Taking into account recent numbers and who could be primed for a star-making season, Sporting News breaks down the top-10 netminders in 2021-22.
Honorable mention: Carey Price (Montreal Canadiens), Jakob Markstrom (Calgary Flames), Darcey Kuemper (Colorado Avalanche), Jordan Binnington (St. Louis Blues), Cam Talbot (Minnesota Wild), Mike Smith (Edmonton Oilers)
Note: Tuukka Rask’s status for the upcoming season is still TBD, therefore, he has been left off this list as he recovers from hip surgery.
Top 10 goaltenders in 2021-22
10. Frederik Andersen, Carolina Hurricanes
Andersen struggled in 2021, and after watching the Amazon docuseries, “All or Nothing: Toronto Maple Leafs,” it may not just have been about the knee injury. Last season he posted a career-worst 2.96 goals-against average and .895 save percentage alongside a 13-8-3 record. Not stellar numbers for a guy who was an all-star in 2020. The Maple Leafs’ staff lost confidence in the Danish star and a change of scenery should help spark Andersen as he’s slotted in as the No. 1 guy in Carolina. It also won’t hurt that the Hurricanes posted the fifth-fewest goals against per game last season thanks to a solid defensive core led by Lady Byng winner Jaccob Slavin.
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9. Thatcher Demko, Vancouver Canucks
The American netminder’s skill and deft continues to grow year-over-year. In 2020, “Bubble Demko” was a star in net for the Canucks as he boasted a 0.64 GAA and .985 save percentage during the Summer of 2020. The 2021 season wasn’t anywhere near as pristine but there were stretches. In March he went 8-3-0 with a 2.15 GAA, .937 save percentage and one shutout. After coming back from a bout with COVID-19, he lost four but then stopped 132 of the last 140 shots he faced for a .943 save percentage to close out the season. At just 25, if he consistently showcases his high level of skill, it’ll be a strong year for him that could include a red, white and blue jersey too.
8. Juuse Saros, Nashville Predators
Since the start of the 2018-19 season, Saros has posted a .930 save percentage at 5v5 (per Natural Stat Trick, min. 2000 TOI), the sixth-best in the NHL over that span. Last season he finished tied for fourth with a career-best in save percentage (.927) and firmly took over the No. 1 spot in Tennessee. (Pekka Rinne also retired this summer.) He also had career highs in wins (21) and GAA (2.28) and should only build on those numbers in 2021-22.
7. Igor Shesterkin, New York Rangers
Speaking of 5v5 numbers since 2018-10, Shesterkin is parked right below Saros at .929 (granted he’s played just 47 games to the Predators netminder’s 107). One number he leads the pack in for that time span: High Danger Save Percentage (.871). That number is better than guys like Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tuukka Rask and yes, Henrik Lundqvist. Now that the King is officially retired, it’s time for Shesterkin — who has always been his heir apparent — to shine.
6. Robin Lehner, Vegas Golden Knights
Last season, Lehner combined with Marc-Andre Fleury to snag the William M. Jennings Trophy after allowing the fewest goals. It wasn’t the first time Lehner’s name appeared on the trophy; he won it in 2019 with Thomas Greiss on Long Island. Now, after some shuffling around the last few years, Lehner is firmly planted in Nevada as the No. 1 guy. In 19 starts in 2021, he went 13-4-2 with a .913 save percentage (his lowest since 2017-18’s .908 in Buffalo). The postseason was nothing to write home about but after a season where he battled a concussion, he’s ready to go.
5. Philipp Grubauer, Seattle Kraken
It was a shocking move when it was announced. Everyone expected Grubauer to re-sign with the Avalanche. Instead, he took his talents to the Land of Starbucks and grunge.
“Once the [free agency] window opened, Seattle called and it was a no-brainer for me to join a club that’s brand new, to be part of something and make history like [the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017] did, to be the first guys who they sign with this team,” Grubauer said after inking his six-year, $35.4 million deal.
How his numbers will look is anyone’s guess since it’s a brand-spanking-new team in front of him but he does bring along an impressive resume. Last season he went 30-9-1 with a 1.95 GAA, a .922 save percentage and seven shutouts to earn a Vezina Trophy finalist nod. Of course, in front of him, he had the likes of Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar. Grubauer is a guy who has a career .920 save percentage so he’s certainly no slouch, and neither are the guys playing in front of him now — led by 2019 Norris Trophy winner Mark Giordano. The big question is just how they’ll all gel.
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4. Marc-Andre Fleury, Chicago Blackhawks
If the Grubauer signing was shocking, the Fleury trade was earth-shattering. Now isn’t the time to delve back into how this was horrifically handled by the Golden Knights (click here for that) but to showcase why the Blackhawks did everything right. Yes, Fleury is on the other side of 35 (he’ll turn 37 in November) but he just won the Vezina Trophy — his first, to boot — after notching a 26-10-0 record with a 1.98 goals-against average, a .928 save percentage and a 20.1 Goals Saved Above Average. Only four guys in the league had a GSAA over 20 and only seven (with 30+ games played) were in double digits. Per Hockey Reference, he had 26 quality starts, which was good for a .722 quality start percentage — second-best in the league among guys who went into the paint for at least 20 games. Basically, Fleury is like a fine wine and just getting better with age.
3. Semyon Varlamov, New York Islanders
Sporting News’ dark horse to win the Vezina, Varlamov has the advantage of playing under a system that stresses defense. It has boosted his numbers and he finished last season with a league-best (among goalies with more than 25 starts) .929 save percentage, 74.3 Quality Start percentage and 21.97 GSAA, per Hockey Reference. He tied Fleury with seven shutouts and had the third-best goals-against average (2.04) in the NHL. He’ll split time with Ilya Sorokin (who will surely be on this list in the years to come) which will keep him fresh for what Island’s faithful are hoping is a long playoff run.
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2. Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets
There is no one on this list — neigh, no one in the NHL — who carries the load more than Hellebuyck. Between 2018-19 and the 2021 season, Hellebuyck led the NHL in ice time at 9,577:31 minutes, which was almost 1000 more than the guy in the No. 2 slot (Andrei Vasilevskiy, 8,852 minutes). He also faced the most shots in each of those three seasons for a grand total of 5,182 shots against, stopping 4,751 of them. That’s a lot of rubber but he also had the fifth-best save percentage (.917) and third-best GSAA (39.19), per Natural Stat Trick, during that span. In 2020, he snagged the Vezina after going 31-21-5 with a .922 save percentage and six shutouts and finished fourth in 2021. It’s fair to say that, basically, how Hellebuyck goes is how the Jets go and it’ll be interesting how he does after carrying the load for so long.
1. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning
Not a shocker here. Vasilevskiy is the best goalie in the NHL — and that’s not bulls— (see: Nikita Kucherov). Sporting News’ pick to win the Vezina, the Russian netminder is coming off a season where he was the runner-up for the top prize but won his second consecutive Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe. Last season he went 31-10-1 (Tampa Bay won 36 games in total) with a .925 save percentage, five shutouts and a 20.96 GSAA. Yes, he’s played a lot of hockey in the last two years but the 27-year-old is in his prime and there’s no stopping him now.
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