So I’m in this one league that drafts way too early each year. On top of that, it’s an email draft that typically takes up to 3 weeks to complete. And it’s deep. Very deep. Twenty teams, with 20-man rosters. So why do I torture myself year after year, with this slow-as-molasses-and-way-too-soon draft? Because it preps me for all the others I will take part in leading up to the season. They’re still playing World Cup games, for crying out loud. How is anyone supposed to be ready for this?
One of the best parts of this slow draft is – you guessed it – getting a handle on all the new goaltending situations. So consider this a Public Service Announcement for joining a Very Deep League and drafting Far Too Soon. We’re going to take a look at the pre-season goalie tiers, with one eye on the backups in each case.
One thing to keep in mind that has an effect on these rankings: With the combination of the World Cup and the new NHL “bye weeks”, the season itself is a full week shorter than usual, with the same amount of games to play. I’m sure the players will appreciate the 5-day rest, but it comes at the expense of more back-to-back games than ever before. And the position it has the greatest effect on is the goaltender. With more back-to-back games, we will be seeing more starts from the backup goalie than usual, and perhaps even more of a trend toward the committee approach than last year. That means that the true workhorse goalie will be slightly more valuable in drafts this year.
A word on the Committee approach
Just because several NHL teams will use that strategy this year, does not mean that you have to. Drafting both goaltenders from one team may seem like a sound approach, but essentially you are using up a roster spot for a marginal amount of games played. It’s also difficult to win with starts from just one team. What about when said team has a two-game week? Not to mention that you’ve got to be on top of things every game night, making sure you’ve got the right guy starting. Oy (as my Baba used to say!), the headache! Mixing in a third goalie usually just complicates things, because the schedules will inevitably overlap, and now you’ve got 3 goalies and can only start one. Let’s say you have two starting spots. It now makes slightly more sense, but still, you’re burning a roster spot for a small amount of starts. In essence, you are flipping a coin that you’ll get an extra win each week. Sometimes it will happen, others it won’t, and often it won’t make a difference in the final score. Meanwhile, you could have had an additional skater adding counting stats: Shots on Goal, Hits, PIMs, etc., depending on your league settings.
I think I’ve said enough. Just say no to committees. Now on to the rankings.
THE TIERS (Backup goalies in parentheses)
The Top 5
Being in the Top 5 is meaningful. These are the only – and I do mean ONLY – goalies that I will consider targeting with a top pick on this year. And only the top two would I take in the first round of a 12-team draft. This group has a few things in common. First, they are workhorses; The backup is not challenging to be the starter. Second, the team around them will make them better, both by scoring goals and providing strong defence. The bottom line is that you know what you’re getting, and there is a premium price to pay for that.
1) Braden Holtby (Philipp Grubauer), Washington Capitals
The best of the best. No questions here. Great surrounding talent at both ends of the ice means that he should be able to reach 40+ wins for the third straight year – though it will be hard to top last year’s insane total of 48.
2) Jonathan Quick (Jeff Zatkoff), Los Angeles Kings
Perhaps the most consistent of the bunch, also surrounded by a great defence. He’ll be hard pressed to hit 40 wins again, but should get enough starts to come close.
3) Corey Crawford (Scott Darling), Chicago Blackhawks
Last year he proved that he was better than we thought he was. He’s been under-rated for years. And he’s been very, very good for the same amount of time.
4) Cory Schneider (Keith Kinkaid), New Jersey Devils
The outlier in this group is Cory Schneider and his New Jersey Devils, who had trouble putting the puck in the net last year. But even so, add a half dozen wins and Schneider had elite numbers. This year, they’ve added offence in the form of Taylor Hall, and even if the loss of Adam Larsson has an adverse effect on his save percentage, it should balance out with a few more wins.
5) Martin Jones (Aaron Dell), San Jose Sharks
Can he do it again? I didn’t believe in him at the start of last year, and look where it got me. Well, I did okay without him, to be honest. But he sure showed me, didn’t he?
This elite tier includes two of the top goalies in the game, and you’d be lucky to have them on your team. But they won’t likely be on any of my teams, because I won’t use a top pick on them (but someone else surely will).
6) Carey Price (Al Montoya), Montreal Canadiens
Carey Price was arguably the premiere goalie in the league when a knee injury sidelined him last November. The injury lingered and eventually cost him the whole season. On one hand, the extended recovery time is good news, and there is no reason why he shouldn’t be able to reclaim his title this season, BUT … You’re still rolling the dice on him re-injuring the knee. I won’t be taking him with my first pick, and someone else most certainly will.
7) Ben Bishop (Andrei Vasilevskiy), Tampa Bay Lightning
Ben Bishop is also an elite goalie, but his future is uncertain. In fact, so uncertain that it’s plausible he gets traded sooner rather than later, due to the emergence of Andrei Vasilevsky. Bishop should be dependable no matter where he plays, but with an early goalie draft pick, you don’t want that sort of uncertainty.
The Hanson’s are the kind of players you’d rather have on your team than play against, right? Same goes for these goalies. You’d do very well with one of them as your starter, but there is still a question or two lingering in each case.
8) John Gibson (Jonathan Bernier), Anaheim Ducks
Gibson and Allen (below at #9) occupy a similar spot in my heart as well as my rankings. In each case, they have shown that they can carry their team for prolonged stretches. But neither has had the opportunity to carry their team as a starter, and that’s an important distinction. The season is a marathon, and not every goaltender is cut out to be a workhorse-type. My heart says reach for these guys, they’re going to be worth it. But as much as I love the upside of them to belong in the top 5, I don’t trust them enough to rank them there yet.
9) Jake Allen (Carter Hutton), St. Louis Blues
10) Henrik Lundqvist (Antti Raanta), New York Rangers
Why so down on The King? It’s not that I’m that down on him. I just don’t see him as, y’know, elite, anymore. If you look at last year’s overall numbers, it’s difficult to see what the problem is. He’s a workhorse and a near lock for 30 wins every year. But last year his play was wildly inconsistent. If you had him on your team, you were tearing your hair out one week and praising Lundqvist the next. Partly to blame was a less than stellar defence, which explains why the GAA crept up a bit from his norm, but the Save Percentage taking a dive is more worrisome. He’s most certainly got a few good years left, but I worry that more inconsistency is in his future as well. Call it a hunch, but I’ll take the potential upside of Gibson or Allen over the maddening hot and cold streaks that he gave owners last season.
11) Matt Murray (Marc-Andre Fleury), Pittsburgh Penguins
While I’m not typically a fan of the tandem approach, if there is one pairing that may be worth your while, this is it. Sure, Murray needs to prove that he’s not a fluke, but he’s got the pedigree that says he will continue to play at a high level. Don’t be surprised if they get close to equal the number of starts, which makes owning only one of them the more frustrating proposition. At some point in the season, one will most likely get traded. It’s not a sure thing, but it’s logical. And much like the situation in Tampa Bay, the older, more expensive player (Fleury) will go somewhere else to be a starter. And then, what will you have? Yes, that was rhetorical, but if you answered anyway, with “Two starting goalies!”, well then huzzah for you!
12) Tuukka Rask (Anton Khudobin), Boston Bruins
The defence just isn’t as strong as it was when he got the starter job, and it bumps him down a few notches.
13) Devan Dubnyk (Darcy Kuemper), Minnesota Wild
Somewhere in the NHL rulebook, there is a clause that says any goalie who plays for the Wild shall put up good stats. How else do you explain Dubnyk’s numbers?
14) Petr Mrazek (Jimmy Howard), Detroit Red Wings
This very well could continue as a committee, but Mrazek has the upper hand.
In this tier, we have some serious talent, but something is just not quite right. The net is too crowded, or there is a bad injury history – something makes you hesitate. There are gems in the bunch, but which ones will they be?
15) Pekka Rinne (Marek Mazanec), Nashville Predators
The talent is there. Consistency is simply not.
16) Roberto Luongo (James Reimer), Florida Panthers
Keep an eye on Luongo’s hip injury, as Reimer may head into the season as the starter. If he plays well, he could even force a committee.
17) Robin Lehner– (Anders Nilsson), Buffalo Sabres
Boy, if Lehner could just play for more than 5 games in a season without getting injured, eh? For the potential upside, I love the discount you get when picking Lehner. He’s that guy you pick every year and he always gets hurt. But one of these seasons he’s not going to get hurt, and then won’t you be sorry you didn’t draft him!
18) Kari Lehtonen (Antti Niemi), Dallas Stars
A true committee, you’ll get a healthy amount of wins – if you own both goalies.
19) Sergei Bobrovsky (Curtis McElhinney), Columbus Blue Jackets
Here’s another guy I like to bounce back. Notice the trend here. Later in the draft, I’d much rather take a shot at a high upside, bona fide starter, than the consistency of the Stars or Isles committee approach. Reading between the lines: The fact that the Blue Jackets have not gone out and gotten a better backup tells me that they have full confidence in Bobrovsky.
20) Jaroslav Halak (Thomas Greiss), New York Islanders
Sure, Greiss played well last year when Halak got injured. But let’s not kid ourselves. This is Halak’s gig to lose. His upside is limited however, due to the fact that he’s not as good as we thought he was.
21) Brian Elliott (Chad Johnson), Calgary Flames
The Flames went from having the worst goaltending last year, to nabbing the goalie with the top save percentage last year. Elliot is poised to succeed in Calgary, but expect him to share the load somewhat, as he has only ever topped out around 50 games started in a season.
22) Steve Mason (Michal Neuvirth), Philadelphia Flyers
Mason and the rest of this tier belong in their own little “They might be a good goalie but it’s so hard to tell in front of this bad defense”). Plus, Neuvirth thinks he’s Ken Dryden for a few weeks every year and takes away the starting role for short stretches.
23) Semyon Varlamov (Calvin Pickard), Colorado Avalanche
We’re still waiting for the ‘return-to-Vezina-form’ thing to happen. Call it a hunch, but I don’t see it happening with this team. When he’s good, he is very, very good. But when he’s bad… he’s like Grant Fuhr in the 80s. He would win a lot of high scoring games, because he was able to shut the door when it mattered, but unfortunately the damage was already done.
24) Craig Anderson (Andrew Hammond), Ottawa Senators
I would call Anderson “serviceable”. He hit 30 wins last year, so you certainly could do worse. He’s creeping up there in age, and has an injury history. He has certainly proven that he can be a top goalie in this league, but with this young Sens team, the stars are not exactly aligning to make that happen again anytime soon.
25) Mike Smith (Louis Domingue), Arizona Coyotes
Smith played well down the stretch last year, but so did Domingue. Not that anyone is saying so, but don’t be surprised if they each get their share of starts this season.
You Miss 100% of the Shots You Don’t Save
I think this tier speaks for itself.
26) Cam Talbot (Jonas Gustavsson), Edmonton Oilers
If/when the Oilers actually turn the corner, look out, Cam Talbot is going to be quite valuable. The over under on that happening, however, is in the year 2029. In all seriousness, his overall numbers are deceptive. He showed last year that he can take over a game at times, which is exactly what the Oilers need.
27) Fredrik Andersen (Jhonas Enroth), Toronto Maple Leafs
If you’re a Leafs fan, you’re about to throw an egg at me, I know. Sorry, but I just don’t buy it. Maybe in a keeper league.
28) Ondrej Pavelec (Michael Hutchinson, Connor Hellebuyck), Winnipeg Jets
The situation in Winnipeg is just so muddled. Pavelec and Hutchinson are both wildly inconsistent; Hellebuyck is knocking on the door, but Pavelec’s big contract says that he’ll get the starts as long as he’s healthy.
29) Ryan Miller (Jakob Markstrom), Vancouver Canucks
Ryan Miller has successfully lowered my expectations so that any bit of success from here would be good value. Markstrom deserves mention also. At some point, he’s going to get the opportunity to take the starter’s reigns. He’s a great speculative endgame play to keep in mind for keeper leagues.
30) Cam Ward (Eddie Lack), Carolina Hurricanes
So many Vezina/Conn Smythe/Stanley Cup winners fall down this list. Ward, who has been there, done most of that (hey, two out of three ain’t bad), is not as sharp as he used to be. And though the team brought in Lack with hopes for more, ultimately he disappointed, too. You can safely steer clear of this situation entirely.