Every major hockey media outlet, including The Hockey News, established the Winnipeg Jets and Tampa Bay Lightning as top contenders for the Stanley Cup this season. Analysts point to their depth of offensive talent, relative youth and the high tempo of play each team employs. Another factor enhances the high expectations for the Jets and Lightning: they both have one of the top young goalies. Connor Hellebuyck in Winnipeg and Andrei Vasilevskiy in Tampa Bay enjoyed splendid seasons in 2017-18 and elevated their performances in the playoffs. Both teams advanced to the final four. Neither team’s demise in the conference final was due to goaltending difficulties. Hellebuyck and Vasilevskiy are big, athletic, smart and competitive. Every NHL team would be pleased to have either. But if you could only choose one to take a run at the 2019 Stanley Cup, who would you pick?
Siberia and suburban Michigan have not been traditional breeding grounds for NHL goalies. Their pre-draft careers were also unlikely. Vasilevskiy was drafted in 2012 after playing junior in isolated Ufa, Russia. Hellebuyck was selected in the same draft from the Odessa (Texas) Jackalopes of the NAHL. After developing in the AHL, both goalies became NHL regulars in 2016-17. They’re both entering their third full NHL seasons. Their statistics are similar in terms of games, wins, goals-against average and save percentage.
Further to their similar careers, Hellebuyck and Vasilevskiy are only one year apart in age, one inch different in height, and their weights are identical. However, their playing styles are dramatically different. Hellebuyck’s style is based on anticipation and size. He plays a “vertical” game, moving laterally to emphasize his size and intimidate opponents. He relies on positioning to make the save, rather than reflexes and reactions. Vasilevskiy’s style is based on quickness and agility. He plays a “horizontal” game, moving rapidly from post to post in a crouched position. His leg action is the key. He seeks to take away the bottom of the net and dares opponents to shoot at openings in the upper part of the net. He relies on quick movements with his upper body and glove to make saves. Very few goalies have the ability to eliminate the bottom of the net as effectively as Vasilevskiy.
Every goalie’s style leaves him vulnerable to certain types of shots. Hellebuyck is as technically sound as any goalie. He is big, plays square to the puck and keeps his body erect. His footwork and athleticism are good but not great. Look back to last year’s playoffs and the opening month of 2018-19. He can sometimes give up goals that seem to “go right through him.” He’s in proper position but doesn’t react to the shot. His footwork to move his big body is not fluid, and he is vulnerable between the legs. Vasilevskiy goes from post to post better than any goalie, and his reactions to shots are probably the best. At times he guesses and begins lateral movement too quickly. This leaves the upper part of the net on the short side unguarded. The worst goals allowed by Vasilevskiy can arise from this situation, but they occur less frequently than Hellebuyck’s weak goals.
Hall of Fame icon Glenn Hall describes rebound control as “the difference between stopping a puck and making a save.” Other than preventing the original shot from entering the net, rebound control is the single most important element in goaltending. Instructors tell goalies to make themselves “big and soft.” Hellebuyck and Vasilevskiy are top-end performers in this area. Very few goals are scored on them because of bad rebounds off initial shots. When their teams are under significant pressure, they have the ability to smother difficult shots in order to get a stoppage in play.
All the physical talent in the world goes for naught if a goalie does not have the proper mental makeup. Goaltending has to rank among the most psychologically challenging positions in sports. How do netminders respond in big games? In particular, how do they respond to the important situations in those games? No goalie is perfect. What is their response to a bad goal? The Jets and Lightning owe much of their success to the play of Hellebuyck and Vasilevskiy in big games throughout 2017-18. Both were “tigers” when the game was on the line. Both were even better during last season’s playoffs. Neither goalie was perfect. Their ability to respond positively to the rare bad goals that they allowed spoke volumes about their fierce competitive instincts.
This comparison is not close. Hellebuyck is above average in every goaltending category, including skating and puckhandling. So is Vasilevskiy. The difference is that Vasilevskiy has some outstanding physical attributes. His leg movements are as quick as any goalie I have ever seen. I love to watch him warm up. His leg exercises remind me of a young Vladislav Tretiak’s. No other big goalie has ever been as quick in the lower body. The reactions of Vasilevskiy with his catching hand and upper body are also exceptional. Because of their size and positioning, Hellebuyck and Vasilevskiy may on many occasions be equal in defending original shots. The athleticism of Vasilevskiy makes him better able to defend rebounds and multi-shot barrages.
This is an interesting comparison. I have nothing negative to say about either goalie. Both are above average in every major category. In order to be an elite goalie in today’s NHL, you need a combination of size, athleticism, hockey sense and competitiveness. These attributes allow a goalie to establish proper positioning, fight to find pucks, react quickly to shots and control rebounds. Hellebuyck meets all these criteria. He has all the attributes to be an elite NHL goalie. He’s good enough to be a cornerstone on a Stanley Cup contender. Vasilevskiy can match Hellebuyck in all major categories, and he can exceed him in one. Vasilevskiy is the most athletic goalie in the NHL. His quick reactions, especially with his legs, are unmatched. His performance in last season’s playoffs was the most dominant of any goalie. He stole several big games for his team. His high-level play in goal masked a subpar performance by a talented Tampa Bay team. In a world of “good, better, best,” Hellebuyck fits into the “better” category. He can be the No. 1 goalie on a Stanley Cup champion. Vasilevskiy’s athleticism makes him the “best.” He can steal games which his team has no business winning and be the principal figure in winning the Cup. Vasilevskiy is my first choice for a goalie in building a 2018-19 Stanley Cup champion.
This story appears in the January 7, 2019 of The Hockey News magazine.