The NHL season doesn’t start for another two months — not until October 4 — but with rosters mostly set by now, we can rank the 31 teams by positional strength in terms of forwards, defencemen and goaltenders.
These rankings, based on projected depth charts from Dailyfaceoff.com for the upcoming season, are sure to spark debate during the dog days of summer. It is always a fun exercise but, at the end of the day, this is one person’s opinion and not everybody will agree.
Please note, these rankings are only for the 2017-18 campaign and not for the teams’ future potential at each position. Several prospects are listed as roster extras, but their impact in the present is all that matters.
This is the third of a three-part series, ranking the teams’ goaltenders from worst to first.
31) Arizona Coyotes
ANALYSIS: Raanta could prove this ranking wrong and become the next Cam Talbot, but he hasn’t proven much to date and the Coyotes are really rolling the dice on him as their starter this season. Sure, Raanta has been an above-average backup behind Henrik Lundqvist — like Talbot was before him — but this will be the real test and not all backups are capable of handling the starting job. Raanta is 28 years old already, so he should be in his prime both physically and mentally, which makes him a decent gamble for Arizona. Domingue is an average backup with enough upside that he could potentially platoon with Raanta if need be, but even as a tandem, they don’t inspire much confidence. If either were to get hurt, Langhamer and Hill will be competing for a call-up opportunity. Rick Tocchet will be getting balder unless Raanta is the real deal.
30) Philadelphia Flyers
ANALYSIS: Is Elliott better than Steve Mason? That is the question facing Philadelphia and Ron Hextall must believe the answer is yes. Or at least that Elliott can work better with Neuvirth than Mason did last season. Elliott wasn’t the answer for Calgary last season, getting off to an awful start with the Flames and being relegated to Chad Johnson’s backup before rebounding in the second half only to fail again in the playoffs. Yet, the Flyers are putting their faith in Elliott this season and hoping he can be their 1A. Reality is, Elliott is more of a 1B — much like Neuvirth. Elliott has never succeeded in a starting role when he’s the clear No. 1 and it’s unlikely he’ll emerge as that in Philly. Neuvirth may prove to be the better option from the outset of the season, but he would obviously be a below-average starter too. If they both struggle and the Flyers aren’t in a playoff spot at Christmas, Stolarz could be handed the reins in the second half. He looked NHL-ready last season and could be Philadelphia’s future starter, but the Flyers do have a bunch of high-end goaltending prospects — including Lyon, Carter Hart, Felix Sandstrom and Matej Tomek. Philly should eventually rank a lot higher at this position, but the current tandem might cost Dave Hakstol his job by season’s end.
29) Carolina Hurricanes
ANALYSIS: Much like Raanta in Arizona, Darling is getting the chance to become Carolina’s starter after establishing himself as one of the league’s better backups behind Corey Crawford in Chicago. Darling turns 29 in December, so he’s the same age as Raanta with similar upside. Carolina gets the edge in these rankings because Ward is a Stanley Cup-winning veteran who can better support and mentor Darling in comparison to Raanta-Domingue. Ward is entering a contract year and is still only 33 years old, so he won’t be handing over the starting job without a fight. That could result in a goaltending controversy for Carolina, but Ward has always been a player of high character — a team player, if you will — so he’ll accept his role while providing healthy competition for Darling. As long as those roles are clearly defined and outlined by general manager Ron Francis, head coach Bill Peters and new goaltending coach Mike Bales, this partnership should bode well for the Hurricanes and be an improvement on recent seasons with Ward and Eddie Lack. Francis hiring Bales from reigning two-time champion Pittsburgh could also be a boon for Carolina. Nedeljkovic projects as the future starter and he’s close to being NHL-ready in the event of an injury.
28) Vancouver Canucks
ANALYSIS: With Ryan Miller moving on (to Anaheim), Markstrom will enter this season as the incumbent No. 1 in Vancouver, but the Canucks signed Nilsson to a contract that suggests he’ll be getting equal opportunity to become the team’s starter going forward. Make no mistake, that job is Markstrom’s to lose now, but Nilsson is no slouch and has outperformed both Cam Talbot and Robin Lehner for stretches in recent seasons. Nilsson has a little more job security now, even if settles into a backup or 1B role again. Vancouver is going with a Swedish tandem in hopes that Markstrom and Nilsson will work well together and push each other to be better. Smart strategy by Jim Benning, and it also allows Demko more time to develop in the AHL before being thrust into the NHL spotlight. Demko reminds scouts of Cory Schneider, so he has All-Star upside for the future. Bachman is a capable call-up, a veteran journeyman who could temporarily fill the void if Markstrom or Nilsson were to get hurt.
27) Winnipeg Jets
ANALYSIS: Much like last season, the Jets have depth in goal, but time will tell whether this group is any better. It should be, with Mason viewed as an upgrade on Ondrej Pavelec and Hellebuyck having another year of experience under his belt. How much of an upgrade will Mason prove to be? That answer could determine Winnipeg’s playoff fate, but Hellebuyck could also emerge as the Jets’ starter again — perhaps right out of training camp. This tandem could be a tremendous success or an epic failure, resulting in a recall for Hutchinson or even for Comrie. There is no sure thing in Winnipeg right now, but Hellebuyck should be the Jets’ go-to goalie of the future, if not the present.
26) Buffalo Sabres
Jason Kasdorf/Adam Wilcox/Jonas Johansson
ANALYSIS: Lehner is only slightly more proven than the starters behind him in these rankings, and new Buffalo GM Jason Botterill wasn’t ready to commit to Lehner long-term this summer. Instead, he got a one-year “show me” contract that could motivate Lehner to become a top-15 starter in the league or end his tenure with the Sabres. Lehner is the clear No. 1 in Buffalo, with Johnson returning after a year in Calgary to resume his backup duties. Ullmark appears to have starter potential and could be thrust into the No. 1 role at some point this season if Lehner struggles or gets hurt again. But if Buffalo is going to make the playoffs in 2018, the Sabres need Lehner to stay both healthy and consistent.
25) Calgary Flames
Jon Gillies/David Rittich
Tyler Parsons/Mason McDonald
ANALYSIS: The Flames, like the Flyers, are rich in goaltending prospects with a bright future between the pipes, but the present tandem is iffy at best. Smith was briefly a top-10 starter in his prime, but he’s well past that form now despite still being among the best netminders in terms of puckhandling skills. Stopping the puck on a regular basis and staying healthy are Smith’s weaknesses — as in consistency and durability — so Lack will likely see his share of playing time for one reason or the other. When Smith is on his game, he’s nearly unbeatable, but he’s been off his game more often than not in recent years. Granted, Calgary’s defence will be far superior to the group he had been backstopping in Arizona, but Smith is a goalie who tends to perform better when facing more shots. If the volume of rubber is lower in Calgary, Smith’s struggles might persist or even worsen. Are Smith and Lack an upgrade on Elliott and Johnson? Again, that’s iffy, but both will be seeking redemption with the Flames and could be considered bounce-back candidates. Lack had his woes with Carolina too, but he was decent for Vancouver during his time in the Pacific Division, so perhaps he’ll find his A-game against familiar opponents. If Smith and/or Lack aren’t the answer for Calgary, the Flames may look to the farm for help with Gillies and Parsons possessing starter potential, though Rittich may be more NHL-ready. It’ll be interesting to see how long the leash is for this new tandem, and whether we’ll see one of those prospects take over the crease as early as this season.
24) Colorado Avalanche
ANALYSIS: Like Smith, Varlamov also had a run as a top-10 goalie before injuries and a case of domestic violence derailed his career in recent years. Still only 29, Varlamov could return to form this season, but staying healthy is probably his biggest challenge. He will also be backstopping one of the league’s worst defence corps behind a forward group that tends to cheat offensively. That is a bad combination for any goalie trying to bail out a last-place team, but Varlamov has (or had) the skill to flat-out steal games. Bernier is also a better backup than Lack if comparing Calgary to Colorado, with Bernier coming off a solid season in Anaheim where he had a stint as the Ducks’ starter prior to the playoffs. Of course, Anaheim has one of the league’s best defence corps, so this change of scenery could be a difficult adjustment for Bernier. It wouldn’t be shocking to see Bernier steal the starting role from Varlamov, and Jared Bednar may declare the crease open for the taking in training camp. This tandem could be decent together, but their numbers will likely suffer due to the Avs’ inferior defence.
23) Detroit Red Wings
ANALYSIS: Howard is back to being Detroit’s starter, as evidenced by Mrazek being exposed (and surprisingly passed over) in the expansion draft. The Red Wings appear to be challenging Mrazek’s mental toughness with some of the comments coming out of Detroit this offseason. Thought to be taking the torch from Howard a couple seasons ago, Mrazek has faltered and now seems to be on the outs with the organization. Coreau backstopped Grand Rapids to an AHL championship this spring and is ready for backup duty at the NHL level, which could prompt Ken Holland to trade Mrazek if he can find a suitor prior to the season. Regardless, Howard is expected to be between the pipes for Detroit on opening night in the new arena. Now 33, Howard was enjoying a resurgence before getting hurt last season and, once healthy, he was very solid for Team USA at the world championships as well. McCollum and Machovsky could be NHL-ready too — as older prospects — so there is a bit of a logjam in Detroit that Jeff Blashill’s staff will have to sort out during training camp.
22) New York Islanders
Christopher Gibson/Eamon McAdam
Ilya Sorokin/Linus Soderstrom
ANALYSIS: Last season was a strange one for the Islanders’ goaltending situation, with Halak entering as the starter and coming off a stellar showing at the World Cup of Hockey in backstopping Team Europe to the final. However, former coach Jack Capuano took a liking to Greiss and GM Garth Snow brought in Jean-Francois Berube as a third wheel. Halak couldn’t function with that crowded crease and his agent lashed out, with Snow responding by banishing Halak to the minors. He stood on his head for AHL Bridgeport and was supposedly close to being traded at the deadline, but when Doug Weight took over as coach, the Islanders turned back to Halak and his late-season heroics nearly got them into the playoffs. Still, there were rumours that Halak would be headed to Vegas as part of an expansion-draft deal, but that never materialized either and now it looks like he’ll be the Islanders’ starter again this season. Greiss is still in the fold, but Berube is gone, so that extra-body distraction should be a thing of the past. Halak and Greiss could work well together — they were a tandem for Team Europe too — as long as Weight has learned from Capuano’s mistakes. The Islanders are still deep in goal, with Gudlevskis a capable third-stringer and both Gibson and McAdam being decent minor-leaguers. Sorokin and Soderstrom are the future in net for the Islanders, but they are both staying overseas for another season and could star in the Olympics.
21) Ottawa Senators
ANALYSIS: Anderson is coming off an amazing and inspiring season — being a rock for both the Senators and his wife, who was overcoming cancer — but, like Ottawa in general, Anderson was likely overachieving. Guy Boucher’s defensive system and Erik Karlsson’s sudden commitment to shot-blocking certainly helped Anderson, with his teammates rallying around him. A repeat performance for Anderson and the Senators seems unlikely, especially with the departure of defensive ace Marc Methot. Condon is a decent backup — call him average — and Hammond is an overpaid third-stringer thanks to his improbable heroics a few seasons ago. In reality, this group is average top to bottom.
20) Florida Panthers
ANALYSIS: Luongo is aging (now 38) and has battled hip and core injuries over the last year, but he was an All-Star in backstopping Florida to a division title and playoff berth just two seasons ago. If healthy, Luongo could prove to be a top-15 goalie again this season, but that’s a pretty big “if” as of today. Reimer is a quality 1B goalie, who put up pretty good numbers in his half of last season after Luongo went down. Reimer made 42 starts to Luongo’s 40 and, although that was due to Luongo’s injury, they could share the workload again this season. Luongo is still the Panthers’ starter, but it could be a 50-32 type split in 2017-18. Sateri, returning from Europe, was signed as insurance in case Luongo is sidelined again. Montembeault is the prospect in waiting for Florida, but he won’t likely debut this season.
19) New Jersey Devils
ANALYSIS: Schneider struggled last season, posting a career-worst .908 save percentage over 60 games, but his prior career average was .927 over the previous six campaigns. That ranks in the top 10 for that timeframe, so most expect Schneider to rebound this season and be in the .920s again. However, the Devils’ defence is downright awful on paper, so Schneider will likely continue to face higher-quality scoring chances than most of his peers. That discrepancy could keep Schneider in the middle of the pack statistically, even if his skill level is closer to elite. Kinkaid is an average backup, with Blackwood, Wedgewood and Appleby being decent prospects. Schneider is the undisputed starter in New Jersey and should be for the foreseeable future if he sticks it out there.
18) Toronto Maple Leafs
ANALYSIS: The Leafs targeted Andersen last summer and immediately signed him long-term, showing confidence in the former Anaheim platooner. Andersen got off to a painfully slow start with Toronto and had his share of injury issues but, when healthy in the second half of the season, he proved worthy of that contract and stole some games as the last line of defence for a young, offensive-minded team that surprisingly made the playoffs. Andersen should continue to grow into his starter role as the Leafs continue to grow into a Stanley Cup contender. It’s a good fit, but Andersen staying healthy is imperative to Toronto’s success this season since McElhinney is a mediocre backup. Sparks and Kaskisuo are AHL-level goalies, with NCAA prospect Joseph Woll looking like the future No. 1 for Toronto.
17) San Jose Sharks
ANALYSIS: Some pundits are higher on Jones, but he only had a .912 save percentage in 65 games last season in falling down to earth after backstopping San Jose to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final in his first year as a starter. His skill level is probably somewhere between those two extremes, but somewhere around the league average. Jones plays behind one of the NHL’s best defence corps, so that should help improve his numbers for 2017-18, but he does seem a bit overrated. Dell, on the other hand, is an underrated backup who could steal more starts from Jones this season after debuting with a .931 save percentage over 20 appearances as a late-blooming rookie last season. Dell is undersized by NHL standards and was never drafted, so he doesn’t have much of a pedigree, but he’s rewarding the Sharks for taking a chance on him. That tandem could combine to rank in the top 15 statistically this season, but don’t be surprised if Dell earns 30-plus starts. Grosenick has been really good in the AHL and Bibeau was above average for Toronto’s farm team too, so San Jose has pro depth at this position despite not having much in the way of drafted prospects in the pipeline.
16) Tampa Bay Lightning
ANALYSIS: Vasilevskiy has all the potential in the world — Vezina potential, no doubt — but he’ll need to start living up to the hype this season in his first full campaign as a starter. Steve Yzerman and Jon Cooper obviously believe in Vasilevskiy’s ability since they deemed Ben Bishop expendable in determining Tampa’s core going forward. That puts a fair bit of pressure on the budding Russian, but Vasilevskiy has been one of hockey’s top goaltending prospects for years and had been biding his time behind another Vezina-calibre netminder in Bishop. Now the Lightning crease belongs to him, so Vasilevskiy will try to embrace that challenge and make the most of his opportunity this season. Budaj worked his way back into the NHL with Los Angeles and kept the Kings in playoff contention while starting in place of the injured Jonathan Quick last season before getting swapped for Bishop in a shocking trade at the deadline. Budaj should be able to help mentor and support Vasilevskiy while also being a very capable backup when called upon. Leighton is another veteran journeyman, who will have a similar role in the AHL alongside a rookie pro in Ingram.
15) Minnesota Wild
ANALYSIS: Dubnyk has been Jekyll and Hyde, which makes this ranking more difficult than most. He was in the Vezina conversation through the first half of last season — certainly a top-10 goalie — but Dubnyk hit the skids in the second half and got badly outplayed in a first-round playoff exit for Minnesota. So which Dubnyk will show up to start this season? The top-10 goalie or the bottom-10 goalie? He’s been both throughout his career, so splitting the difference seems the safest bet. Skill-wise, this ranking might be a bit low for Dubnyk, but he doesn’t have much of a supporting cast in Minnesota either. The Wild are going to have an open competition for the backup role between Stalock, Svedberg and Michalek, but none of those three would rank in the top half of the league’s No. 2s. Stalock may have the edge there, especially being a local product, but Dubnyk will be Minnesota’s workhorse for better or worse.
14) St. Louis Blues
ANALYSIS: Allen is the goalie that outdueled Dubnyk in the postseason, otherwise those rankings would be reversed. Granted, a seven-game series shouldn’t determine an overall ranking, but Allen’s playoff performance definitely boosted the Blues here — probably a handful of spots. Now, Allen has to pick up where he left off in the regular season and be more consistent throughout his second campaign as St. Louis’ clear-cut starter. Like Stalock or whoever emerges as Minnesota’s backup, Hutton won’t pose much of a challenge for playing time, so the Blues will go as far as Allen can take them again. That may or may not mean another playoff berth in 2018. Chances are, if St. Louis stays in the playoff picture, Allen will justify this ranking. If not, the Blues might start taking a look at Husso and/or Binnington as their future starter.
13) Vegas Golden Knights
ANALYSIS: Fleury was also terrific in the playoffs, even if his performance was overshadowed by Matt Murray’s return from injury in leading Pittsburgh to a second straight Stanley Cup. For the first two rounds, Fleury was the Penguins’ go-to guy and he arguably outplayed Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky and Vezina runner-up Braden Holtby. Fleury has fully embraced the move to expansion Vegas and seems stoked about backstopping an underdog instead of a favourite going forward. Fleury will be the Golden Knights’ best player in their inaugural season and certainly their key to any success — no matter how big or small. Pickard was surprisingly exposed by Colorado and George McPhee snapped him up to serve as Fleury’s understudy. This tandem has top-10 potential between them, but expansion teams typically struggle in the standings, so the Vegas ranking reflects that. Lagace and Dansk are both decent prospects, but neither of them will be bumping Fleury or Pickard from the NHL roster any time soon.
12) Los Angeles Kings
ANALYSIS: This is where things get really interesting and the debates will definitely heat up. The top 12 are kind of a cut above — the elite level, if you will. Quick has a wonky groin, which is concerning for his athletic style that relies heavily on Gumby-like flexibility. Quick has always made saves that he has no business making, but he’s one extended stretch away from another extended stay on the IR. Quick has a lot to prove this season, not only that he’s healthy to start, but that he can stay healthy while playing the way he plays. That will be easier said than done, but Quick possesses elite, top-10 skill. Kuemper needed a change of scenery from Minnesota and he finally got it. Not that long ago, Kuemper was believed to be a budding backup — like Raanta and Darling this year, or Talbot and Jones before them — but Kuemper’s development sort of stalled with the Wild and there isn’t much hype around him anymore. His signing with the Kings hardly moved the needle, but Kuemper is still only 27 years old and could quietly exceed expectations in L.A. while helping limit Quick’s workload this season. Campbell and Petersen are legit prospects, both possessing NHL upside, if not starter potential.
11) Dallas Stars
Philippe Desrosiers/Landon Bow
ANALYSIS: Some might argue this ranking is too high, but Bishop has been in the Vezina mix multiple times with Tampa Bay and Dallas has all the signs of a team on the rise — largely because of Bishop’s addition. Many are pegging the Stars as a potential Cup contender this season thanks to shoring up their goaltending. The Finnish tandem of Lehtonen and Antti Niemi wasn’t working, mainly because of consistency issues and past playoff failures. So Jim Nill targeted Bishop and got his man, acquiring the towering goalie from Los Angeles and signing him ahead of free agency. Bishop would have had several suitors as a pending UFA, but he liked what he saw in Dallas and was sold on becoming the Stars’ starter. Lehtonen is still there, but clearly in a backup role going forward. As backups go, Lehtonen should be one of the league’s best. McKenna could be called up if either gets hurt, but the depth chart is pretty set in stone in Dallas for a change.
10) Edmonton Oilers
ANALYSIS: Talbot and the Oilers have taken a big leap in these rankings from prior to last season, when most would have listed Talbot outside the top-20 starters. Now some, even outside of Edmonton, will be saying this ranking is too low. Talbot broke Grant Fuhr’s single-season wins record and was in the running for the Vezina — though not a finalist — but now he has to prove he’s not a one-hit wonder. Last season was only Talbot’s second as a starter and the first produced mixed results, with a mediocre first half followed by a strong finish that culminated with backstopping Canada to gold at the 2016 world championship tournament. That proved to be a sign of things to come, with Talbot taking full control of the Oilers’ crease from Day 1 last season. Now, Brossoit is the unproven goalie in Edmonton, entering his first full season as an NHL backup — having struggled at that level in the past before shining in very limited action as a call-up when Jonas Gustavsson was demoted last season. At the same time, Ellis was shining in the AHL and showing he might have NHL upside too. Pasquale is more of a journeyman and Starrett is still a project, but Talbot should be the man in Edmonton for the foreseeable future.
9) Anaheim Ducks
ANALYSIS: This ranking could be controversial too, since Gibson still has a lot to prove despite outlasting Andersen in Anaheim and defeating Talbot in the second round of this year’s playoffs. Gibson was another one of those top goaltending prospects — like Vasilevskiy in Tampa Bay and Allen in St. Louis — so he has Vezina potential, but Gibson needs to put together that calibre of campaign to fully warrant this ranking. Helping Anaheim crack the top 10 is the fact that Bob Murray has built an impressive depth chart. Miller is a proven veteran who posted Vezina-worthy seasons in his younger years — winning the award in 2010 — and held off Jacob Markstrom as Vancouver’s starter the past few seasons. Miller is still very capable and could be considered the league’s best backup — based on these depth charts — but he’ll no doubt push Gibson for playing time this season. Berra and Tokarski both have NHL experience on their resumes and Boyle is coming off a pretty impressive pro debut, but the Ducks are set in goal with Gibson and Miller.
8) Chicago Blackhawks
ANALYSIS: These next four — Nos. 8, 7, 6 and 5 — are interchangeable, but is Crawford suddenly underrated? This ranking suggests maybe, yet the NHL Network took it a step further by snubbing him from their recent top-10 list. That is a real head-scratcher — especially since Martin Jones made the cut (at No. 9) — but Crawford has never got the credit he deserves for backstopping the Blackhawks to two Stanley Cup championships in a three-year span (2013 and 2015). Now, with Chicago possibly trending down and no longer considered a Cup favourite, Crawford seems to be plummeting down these rankings as a result. From a pure skill standpoint, Crawford might still rank in the top five. However, these particular rankings are taking into account the teams’ entire goaltending depth charts — with an emphasis on the starters — and Chicago just isn’t at the level it used to be. Forsberg is a very unproven backup (in comparison to Scott Darling) and Berube is still a third-stringer heading into the season, according to Stan Bowman and Joel Quenneville. Chicago’s defence has been downgraded and the forwards aren’t as deep either, so the Blackhawks will need Crawford to carry them this season instead of vice versa.
7) Boston Bruins
ANALYSIS: Besides Miller, who is now a backup or platooner at best, the rest of the Vezina-winning starters rank in the top seven on this list — starting with Rask, who proved last season that he still belongs in the elite group. If not for Rask, the Bruins wouldn’t have made the playoffs. Sure, Brad Marchand was lighting it up at the other end, but Rask was a wall and a workhorse for Boston. He needed to be both too, and will likely have to make 60-plus starts again this season as the Bruins try to settle on a backup for the future. Khudobin is below average as a veteran and prospects McIntyre and Subban should be NHL-ready by now, so that might be one of Bruce Cassidy’s more important decisions out of training camp and as the season progresses. Subban has long been considered a top goaltending prospect, but the fact he wasn’t picked in the expansion draft suggests his stock could be slipping. Thus, Rask remains the man in Boston.
6) New York Rangers
ANALYSIS: Lundqvist hasn’t always been a top regular-season goalie — though he did win the Vezina in 2012 — and often saves his best for the playoffs, but he’s still a lock in the top 10 on any list ranking the league’s netminders. Lundqvist is 35 now — three years older than Crawford and five years older than Rask — so he could start slipping at any time, but so far, so good for the most part. Lundqvist has earned a reputation as a big-game goalie throughout his career, even though he doesn’t have the Cup rings to match Crawford and Rask. The Rangers could go either way this season — up or down the standings — and Lundqvist’s play will likely determine that direction. The Rangers’ defence looks much improved from this time last year, so that should bode well for Lundqvist’s regular-season statistics too. Pavelec is getting a fresh start in New York after getting out of Winnipeg as a free agent. It’ll be interesting to see how Pavelec performs in a new environment, whether he rebounds or appears washed up this season. Halverson has NHL upside despite a tough transition to the pro ranks last season, and Shesterkin might end up being Lundqvist’s successor whenever he comes over from Russia. Georgiev, another less heralded Russian, will be playing in North America this season after signing with the Rangers as an under-the-radar free agent.
5) Nashville Predators
ANALYSIS: Rinne was arguably the best goalie in this year’s playoffs — certainly a Conn Smythe candidate through three rounds before the potent Penguins got to him in the Stanley Cup Final. Rinne really struggled during the games in Pittsburgh and was better back in Nashville, but his post-season body of work as a whole bumped the Predators up these rankings. Rinne will also be 35 in November, so he might not have many elite years left in him, but his present form is almost as good as anybody — despite no Cups or Vezinas on his resume. Nashville already has its heir apparent waiting in the wings, with Saros entering his second campaign as Rinne’s understudy after posting a .923 save percentage over 21 appearances as a rookie last season. Lindback is returning to the Preds in a depth role, with Mazanec and O’Connor also destined for minor-league duty in 2017-18.
4) Pittsburgh Penguins
ANALYSIS: In the “what have you done for me lately” world of professional sports, Murray and the Penguins should perhaps be ranked No. 1 here. It doesn’t get any better than consecutive Stanley Cups, and Murray was between the pipes for both those championships in each of his first two NHL seasons. Let that last part sink in for a minute — two seasons, two Stanley Cups. Murray didn’t come out of nowhere either, emerging from junior as a top prospect and posting a .941 save percentage over 40 AHL appearances as a rookie pro three seasons ago. Murray is a legitimate talent and undeniably deserving of a top-five ranking right now — even if he’s still lacking experience in comparison to the rest of the top 10. After being bought out by Dallas, Niemi signed with Pittsburgh to serve as Murray’s backup. They do have one thing in common, with Niemi also winning a Stanley Cup as a rookie with Chicago in 2010. However, Niemi hasn’t achieved much success since and his struggles with the Stars in recent years have relegated him to a No. 2 now. Or maybe even a No. 3, with the Penguins perhaps preferring to start Jarry over Niemi should Murray get hurt this season. Jarry and DeSmith were both really good in the AHL last season and Gustavsson has been shining in Sweden, so Pittsburgh has some depth developing between the pipes too.
3) Columbus Blue Jackets
Elvis Merzlikins/Matiss Kivlenieks
ANALYSIS: Not surprisingly, the top three in these rankings were this year’s Vezina nominees, but the trophy winner as the league’s best goalie last season is No. 3 here. That being Bobrovsky, who was largely responsible for the Blue Jackets exceeding most everybody’s expectations by making the playoffs, let alone winning 50 games and topping 100 points in the regular-season standings. To think many had Columbus pegged as a lottery team prior to last season, Bobrovsky made those predictions look foolish as the campaign progressed — highlighted by the Blue Jackets’ 16-game winning streak that stretched from Nov. 29 to Jan. 5. Bobrovsky is the only active NHL goalie with two Vezinas, winning twice in the last five years (the other in 2013), so a case could be made for the Russian to be No. 1 right now. But Bobrovsky has had his share of injuries in between those Vezinas and has struggled with consistency at times too — both issues perhaps related to being overworked in Columbus. Enter Korpisalo, a promising-yet-underrated backup who could lessen the load on Bobrovsky this season. Korpisalo secured that role partway through last season by outplaying Curtis McElhinney and Anton Forsberg, who are no longer with the Blue Jackets. Columbus also has a couple of intriguing, lesser-known Latvian prospects in Merzlikins and Kivlenieks to keep an eye on for the future, but Bobrovsky is only turning 29 in September and Korpisalo is 23, so the Blue Jackets’ crease will be in good hands for the foreseeable future.
2) Washington Capitals
ANALYSIS: Holtby won the 2016 Vezina — when he tied the NHL’s single-season wins record (equalling Martin Brodeur’s mark of 48 from 2006-07) — and was a strong candidate again this year. Holtby has backstopped the Capitals to consecutive Presidents’ Trophies as the league’s top regular-season team but hasn’t been able to beat the Penguins in the second round of the playoffs the last two years. Holtby is still in the heart of his prime — turning 28 in September — and a Stanley Cup ring could help him get to No. 1 in these rankings, though Washington’s roster isn’t as good on paper heading into this season. So Holtby will need to be even better for the Capitals to come out of that Metropolitan Division bracket in the 2018 postseason. Also holding Holtby back from No. 1 here is the fact he’s been backing up this No. 1 for Canada at all the recent international events, including the Olympics and World Cup. Sorry for the spoiler — obvious as it might have been. Before we get to that guy, Grubauer deserves his due as one of the league’s best backups. The German, who turns 26 in November, will likely be next year’s Raanta or Darling (or Talbot or Jones) since Grubauer is slated for free agency in 2018 and will almost certainly want his chance to become a starter elsewhere. Depending how this season goes — and how Vanecek and Copley are doing in the minors — the Capitals might trade Grubauer at some point to cash in an expiring asset. That would be risky, even though Holtby has been durable to date — with 40-plus appearances the past three seasons and no real injuries of note. Vanecek or Copley would need to prove capable of stepping in should Holtby get hurt in order for Brian MacLellan to move Grubauer ahead of the deadline. Copley is four years older than Vanecek (25 to 21) and had better numbers in the AHL last season, so he’s probably next in line for backup duty with Washington.
1) Montreal Canadiens
ANALYSIS: Now a $10-million man and the league’s highest-paid goalie for the upcoming season, Price has proven to be worth his weight in gold. Quite literally, by backstopping Canada to consecutive Olympic golds in 2010 and 2014 as well as the 2016 World Cup just prior to last season. Price then proceeded to put his injury concerns behind him in becoming a Vezina finalist again this year by leading the Canadiens to an Atlantic Division title after they missed the playoffs without him the previous campaign. Montreal’s success is more dependent on Price than any other team-goalie scenario in the league, making him a perennial MVP candidate as well. Price has yet to win a Stanley Cup, but he’s the only active goalie to win a Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player — capturing the double, including the Vezina, in 2015. The Canadiens’ depth chart in goal is somewhat irrelevant with Price only turning 30 this month, but Montoya and Lindgren are adequate backups for the next couple seasons as Fucale and McNiven continue to develop in the minors. One of them — Fucale or McNiven — could take the torch from Price down the road, but that won’t be happening any time soon.
11 August 2017 | 3:14 pm