The goaltending carousel didn’t disappoint. It was guaranteed to produce significant turnover this summer. Every star aligned. There happened to be half a dozen starting-caliber netminders becoming UFAs. The flat salary cap of $81.5 million forced certain teams, such as the Chicago Blackhawks, to move on from their starters rather than pay them what they were worth. And, after the post-season underlined the need for goaltending depth in today’s game, even the teams with good starters wanted quality backups.
Which team landed the biggest difference maker in goal? Per annual tradition, it’s time to rank the major off-season goalie grabs (with a mix of new analysis blended with tidbits of other recent analysis I did for several of the goalies on this list). I define ‘major’ in this context as any goaltender with a realistic chance to start at least half his new team’s games. Ages listed as of Jan. 1, 2021, which is the NHL’s far-fetched target date to start the 2020-21 season.
1. Jacob Markstrom, Calgary Flames (age 30)
The Flames are all-in on a win-now operation with GM Brad Treliving entering his seventh season as GM. They got strong goaltending from Cam Talbot last season after he took the job from David Rittich, and Talbot was great in the play-in series against the Winnipeg Jets, but he allowed four or more goals three times against the Dallas Stars in the Round of 16. Rather than spend a few million bucks on Talbot, who was mostly great last year but has been inconsistent year to year, the Flames opted to hand Markstrom a six-year deal with $6-million AAV. Since the Vegas Golden Knights re-upped Robin Lehner before he went to market, Markstrom was the league’s clear top UFA netminder. He was outstanding this past season, posting a career-best .918 SP and finishing fourth in the Vezina Trophy vote. As one of 54 goaltenders to play at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5, Markstrom managed the 16th-best SP despite facing the third-most shots per 60 and 10th-most high-danger shots per 60. He had the fifth-highest expected goals against per 60 in the NHL. He was a genuine horse for the Canucks. He finished 15th in goals saved above average per 60 at 0.20, one spot behind Andrei Vasilevskiy.
The big question in 2020-21 is whether that was simply a career year rather than a reflection of Markstrom’s true value going forward. In the three seasons prior to his 2019-20 breakout, Markstrom’s GSAA was 0.00, meaning he graded out as a league-average netminder – and his expected goals against per 60 was the only 42nd-highest in the league, so it’s not like he had a tougher workload then. That at least has to raise hints of suspicion as to the who the real Markstrom is. It’s not a guarantee that the Flames are getting a guy who will be a perennial Vezina threat, yet the money and term of his contract say they expect him to be.
2. Braden Holtby, Vancouver Canucks (age 31)
Paying Markstrom big-time starter money would’ve put the Canucks in a bind, because that type of investment would’ve forced them to make Markstrom the unquestioned No. 1 and block Thatcher Demko, who was sensational in the 2020 post-season after Markstrom got hurt. Demko flashed the ability that made him a top prospect out of Boston College when the Canucks picked him 36th overall in 2014. The ideal fit for a battery mate would be an experienced veteran good enough to push and mentor Demko and even start if Demko struggles – but not such a threat that he’ll nudge Demko aside.
Enter Holtby, the 2016 Vezina Trophy winner and 2018 Cup champ looking to revive his career after his play declined for the past several seasons in Washington. Can Canucks goalie guru Ian Clark fix him? Don’t bet against it.
There’s no denying Holtby’s game cratered the past few seasons, which produced the three lowest save percentages of his career. Over the past three years, 62 goaltenders logged at least 2,000 minutes of play at 5-on-5. Among that group, Holtby sat 50th in goals saved above average per 60 minutes; 50th in save percentage; and 54th in high-danger save percentage. On the other hand, he had the third-highest expected goals-against per 60 in the league over that span, meaning his workload was rated as the third toughest. Only four goalies faced more high-danger shots against per 60 over that span.
So is Holtby as washed as some believe he is? That’s debatable. The drop in his numbers coincides with a major decline in Washington’s defensive play. He’s also just 31 despite the fact it feels like he’s been around forever. Of the 87 goalies who played an NHL regular season game this season, 31 were older than him. So the signing could be sneaky good for Vancouver – especially because, on a two-year deal without a no-movement clause, Holtby is perfect expansion-draft bait for the Seattle Kraken.
3. Matt Murray, Ottawa Senators (age 26)
Murray is 26. He already has two Stanley Cup rings. Look at what guys like Dominik Hasek and Tim Thomas did when they didn’t become starters until their late 20s and early 30s, respectively. There’s so much time for Murray to turn things around. How young is he in goalie years? Consider that 73.6 percent of the stoppers who appeared in NHL regular-season games this past season are older than him. So he’s a good gamble for a Senators squad that doesn’t have a top-end goaltending prospect anywhere close to being NHL-ready.
But gamble is the word. Murray certainly is one, especially on four-year pact paying him $6.25 million per season, making him the game’s seventh-richest netminder. The names above him on the list: Carey Price, Sergei Bobrovsky. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Marc-Andre Fleury, Tuukka Rask and John Gibson. That’s the standard to which Ottawa wants Murray to play.
And he was nowhere close to it this past season. Among 54 goalies who played 1,000 or more minutes at 5-on-5, Murray sat 49th in GSAA/60; 50th in SP; 26th in high-danger SP; 52nd in medium-danger SP; and 39th in low-danger SP. Most concerning: it’s not like Murray got shelled on a bad defensive unit. He faced the third-fewest shots per 60 and had the ninth-lowest expected goals against per 60. Now he joins a rebuilding Senators team that won’t do nearly as good of a job keeping pucks away from his net. He was much better the season prior when he saw a lot more work on a less-stingy Pens team, however, so he could be a goalie who gets into more of a rhythm when he’s busier.
And he also hasn’t necessarily peaked yet. As a former NHL goaltender told me recently, many goalies feel like they don't reach their pinnacles until their 30s, as they’re just so much wiser and better at preparing for opponents physically and mentally. Murray, then, has so much upside left that it’s understandable why Ottawa is taking this chance.
4. Cam Talbot, Minnesota Wild (age 33)
The Wild are the best shot-quality suppressors in the NHL. In back-to-back seasons, they’ve they allowed the fewest scoring chances and high-danger chances of any team and held the lowest expected goals against per 60 at 5-on-5. Even league-average goaltending would’ve put them in a comfortable position, but they haven’t gotten it, so they moved on from Devan Dubnyk to add the veteran Talbot.
So will he be a great fit? Here’s the thing: like Murray, Talbot tends to excel when busy. He faced the fifth-most 5-on-5 shots per 60 in the league during his solid 2019-20 campaign with Calgary. On paper, he looks like a nice upgrade for Minnesota, but will he be as effective in the environment that provides goalies with the least action of any in the league?
5. Thomas Greiss, Detroit Red Wings (age 34)
Greiss belongs on the shortlist of best 1B goaltenders in the NHL over the past several seasons. From 2017-18 through 2019-20, 77 goalies played 1,000 or more minutes at 5-on-5, and Greiss ranked 27th in GSAA/60 among them and saw the 16th most shots against per 60. He’s a clear upgrade over Jimmy Howard in Detroit’s net, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Greiss get a starter-sized workload or at least a 50/50 split with Jonathan Bernier. Greiss’ numbers will likely dip now that he’s away from coach Barry Trotz and the Mitch Korn/Piero Greco goaltending tree, in which every Islanders goalie posts great numbers, but Greiss will help Detroit nonetheless.
6. Devan Dubnyk, San Jose Sharks (age 34)
Sharks starter Martin Jones was once again the league’s worst goaltender this past season, statistically. One of the only stoppers to post numbers almost as poor: Dubnyk. From his resurgent 2014-15 season through 2018-19, he was second in the NHL in starts, third in wins and sixth in shutouts, but that outstanding career renaissance ended in 2019-20. His .890 save percentage was his lowest since 2009-10, his first season in the league. Among 53 goalies who logged at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, Jones ranked dead last in GSAA/60, but Dubnyk was third last. It's possible serious health problems involving Dubnyk's wife were the cause of his down year, as they did force him away from the team for multiple periods of time, but it's also possible Dubnyk was merely declining at 34. He’ll get every opportunity redeem himself, supplant Jones and earn the lion’s share of starts this season.
THE ‘BACKUPS OR MORE?’ TIER
1. Corey Crawford, Devils – Crawford was one of the best goaltenders in the league last season. So was Mackenzie Blackwood from December onward. It’s thus unlikely Crawford unseats the Devils’ emerging No. 1, as that would be counterproductive. But can Crawford push Blackwood and deliver 30 starts as an excellent 1B? Absolutely.
2. Jake Allen, Canadiens – Paying $4.35 million per season for Allen and then extending his contract is betting big, but Carey Price has led the league in minutes two straight years and needs quality help. Allen had a great defense in front of him in St. Louis, but the Habs are a good defensive team too.
3. Henrik Lundqvist, Capitals – Maybe The King is cooked at 38. But he had porous team defense in front of him in Manhattan this past season. No goalie in the NHL had a more difficult workload in terms of expected goals against per 60, so perhaps he rebounds a bit on a better team in D.C.
Advanced stats courtesy of naturalstattrick.com