Ranking the NHL’s goaltending tandems used to be a predictable process: Pencil in the Boston Bruins, Vegas Golden Knights, Dallas Stars and whoever the Tampa Bay Lightning have playing with Andrei Vasilevskiy at the top, and then figure out the rest.
Unfortunately for us, and fortunately for the rest of the NHL, the 2021 offseason was like a goaltending Big Bang. Long-standing duos were broken up. Goaltenders were dispersed throughout North America like space dust, including all the way to Seattle, where a new planet, er, franchise was formed.
“Look at all the changes this offseason. It was a goalie carousel,” said Stephen Valiquette, former NHL goaltender and one of the sport’s foremost analysts on netminders as CEO of Clear Sight Analytics.
Here are the goalie tandem rankings for the 2021-22 NHL season. They were formulated through discussions with a variety of goalie experts — coaches, analytics gurus, former players — as well as through stats from sites like Evolving Hockey, Money Puck and Hockey Reference. We also spoke to Valiquette at length for his take on some of them tandems.
Keep in mind that these are a combination of past performance and projections for the 2021-22 NHL season, including preseason rankings from Clear Sight Analytics. Organizational depth is listed in parentheses where relevant.
As easy as it is for a goalie to play for coach Barry Trotz, it’s equally as hard to be seen as something more than a product of his system. His four-season run in Washington saw the Capitals finish second in the NHL in goals-against average (2.45) during his tenure. During his three seasons with the Islanders, they’ve led the league in team defense (2.46 goals against per game).
Varlamov led the NHL in save percentage (.929) last season among goalies with at least 30 starts, and tied Philipp Grubauer with seven shutouts to lead the league. Grubauer got a Vezina Trophy nomination. Varlamov did not. Nor did Sorokin get any Calder Trophy love, finishing 15th in the voting. Varlamov also didn’t crack the top 10 in our ranking of goalies as voted on by NHL players, coaches and executives last spring.
So we’ll give them their due here. Both would be solid goaltenders on another team. Within this system, they’re the NHL’s best tandem. Varlamov is an athletic veteran whose underlying numbers from Clear Sight Analytics had him as the NHL’s third best goalie last season. His 0.961 expected save percentage on unblocked shots was best in the league last season. Sorokin looked better and better as his rookie season went on, and with a season in the NHL (and living in the U.S.) under his belt, he’s going to have an outstanding sophomore campaign.
The Trotz System is the NHL’s most effective defensive scheme. His Russian netminders are the foundation on which it’s built.
I think Valiquette summed this up perfectly last spring, when we ranked the playoff goalie tandems: “Vasilevskiy is elite everywhere. There, that’s Tampa. We don’t even have to waste time talking about them.”
OK, we’ll waste a little time talking about them. Vasilevskiy has entered that rarefied air of being considered the league’s best goaltender while also leading the league’s best team, but not simply being considered great because his team is. Patrick Roy was like this. Martin Brodeur was like this. He’s been a finalist for the Vezina Trophy for four straight seasons, winning in 2018-19 and finishing second to Marc-Andre Fleury last season. No shade on Nikita Kucherov, but Vasilevskiy (.937 save percentage) was probably the MVP of their Stanley Cup run.
This battery has gotten better with the addition of Elliott, the 36-year-old coming off four seasons in the Philadelphia goalie meat grinder. Neither he nor Curtis McElhinney, last season’s backup, were great shakes in 2020-21: Elliott had a minus-12.1 goals saved above average while McElhinney was at a minus-10.7. But Elliott, a former NHL starter, didn’t exactly have players like Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh in front of him in Philly. He’ll be fine as a spot starter behind the Big Cat.
Ask the goaltending community and they’ll tell you that Grubauer is not a product of the Avalanche’s greatness in front of him. From a technique standpoint, he’s got a lot of fans. From an analytics standpoint, he’s ninth in goals saved above average (29.9) over the last two seasons. The only knock on him has been his play during pressure situations. He wasn’t great down the stretch for the Avs last season, and his playoff numbers haven’t always aligned with his regular-season success.
“I’m really high on Grubauer, and they’ve got really good depth in net,” said Valiquette.
That depth includes Driedger, the former Florida goalie who was right behind Grubauer in goals saved above average over the last two seasons (26.1), while adding nearly five wins to his team. Add in Daccord, and the place to beware the Kraken most is between the pipes.
The Avalanche had to scramble after Grubauer bolted for Seattle in free agency. The offseason goalie merry-go-round had seemingly stopped, and they were left having to surrender a sizable trade package to the Coyotes to secure Kuemper, who is one year away from unrestricted free agency. The 31-year-old has built a reputation through the years as a goalie that’s played better than the team in front of him in Arizona, with 57.2 goals saved above average since the start of the 2017-18 season (12th in the NHL). But he’s 23rd in that department over the last two seasons (20.4) and posted a .907 save percentage in 2020-21 — his lowest in five seasons. He gave up a few too many rebounds and didn’t make the low-percentage saves he had made in the past.
“I worry that he’s coasting on his reputation a bit lately,” said one goalie analyst.
The good news for the Avalanche is that this season doesn’t rest on Kuemper alone. Francouz didn’t play the 2020-21 season due to a lower-body injury. But his rookie campaign in 2019-20 was strong: 21-7-4 with a .923 save percentage. As a tandem, with the team in front of them, this could be one of the best.
There are a few tandems on this list where the whole is greater than the sum of their parts, but this isn’t one. There’s a legitimate argument that Hellebuyck is the best goalie in the NHL, with 26.9 goals saved above average and having added 4.8 wins to the Jets last season. There’s no argument that he’s got the highest work rate in the league at the moment, leading the NHL in games played for the last two seasons and both shots faced and saves for three straight seasons.
But Hellebuyck is walking across the Grand Canyon without a net: Comrie, who replaces Laurent Brossoit, is a 26-year-old journeyman with eight starts in his career. The Jets drafted him in 2013 and he was in their system for three years, so there’s obviously a level of trust that goes beyond the stats. You can afford to have a cheap, unproven backup when your Vezina-winning starter can play 82% of the time.
The Rangers shocked some people when they handed Shesterkin a four-year, $22.7 million extension, which was the richest ever for a goalie on his second contract. New York goaltending legend Mike Richter was not one of those people: “Shesterkin was good enough to give them the ability to think that it’s OK not to sign [Henrik Lundqvist],” Richter told the NY Post in August. “Those guys don’t come along much. So when you have them, you hold on to them, and that’s why it was a wise signing.”
According to Clear Sight Analytics’ numbers, Shesterkin, 26, and Georgiev, 25, combined for the second most goals saved above average in the NHL last season. There are a few concerns here — a lack of experience playing in meaningful NHL games, Shesterkin’s propensity for lower-body injuries — but this is a solid duo on which new coach Gerard Gallant can build.
Lehner showed up to training camp looking slimmer than expected, with coach Pete DeBoer saying, “He walked in the door [and] looked like a different guy.”
That’s good news for the Knights, theoretically, because the 30-year-old is now the man in the net, with Fleury gone. “Lehner can be a wild card sometimes. If he’s focused and has a chip on his shoulder, I love [Vegas],” said Valiquette.
Coming in to back up Lehner is Brossoit, a 28-year-old who previously played for Edmonton and Winnipeg. He had an .918 save percentage in 14 games last season with the Jets. “I love Brossoit. I really do, even going back to when he was struggling to get his footing in the league. He came up under a Western Canadian goaltending model I like,” said Valiquette.
Fleury’s career renaissance in Vegas was one of the best NHL stories of the last decade. From 2017-18 to 2020-21, he had 75.2 goals saved above average, and added 14 wins to the Knights in the standings, capping that run with his first Vezina Trophy last season. He immediately makes the Blackhawks a better goaltending team than they were in 2020-21 (.903 team save percentage). The question is how good does he need to be in order to make up for their defensive shortcomings?
“Am I betting on a career year from Fleury again? I don’t think so. Chicago’s one of the worst defending teams in the league. Plus, Lankinen didn’t finish well at all,” said one goalie expert.
The Panthers are a tough one to figure out because their best goalie is 20 years old and has four regular-season games to his credit. But that’s what they have in Knight: a phenom who could manage to take the crease from a player that’s 13 years his elder and …well, a lot wealthier, contractually.
“Bob had been one of my favorite models to use, up until the last two years, as a coaching tool with young guys,” said Valiquette. “It was easy to see why he’s explosive and good with tracking. But now, he’s lowered his glove and I feel like he’s reaching back. But he’s a hard-working guy. Maybe the pressure of having Spencer there now allows him to stop worrying about his contract and focus on the game.”
Bobrovsky had a better second season in Florida than his first. If the Panthers can get both of them going behind a strong, Joel Quenneville-coached team, a top-10 tandem is an accurate projection.
Demko emerged from the shadow of Markstrom and delivered on the promise he showed in the bubble playoffs of 2020. His 23.7 goals saved above averaged were fifth in the NHL, and the 25-year-old finished with a .915 save percentage in 35 games played.
Behind him, the Canucks swap out Braden Holtby for Halak as the veteran presence. The 36-year-old should be a solid backup, but his numbers took a dip last season in Boston.
“Thatcher Demko is unreal. I really like him,” said Valiquette, who especially likes the fact that the Canucks and goalie coach Ian Clark were able to come to a new agreement. “I had one goalie coach say it to me this way: Ian Clark is a wizard. He can change you. Get you to buy in. He’s very demanding, but I’d say he’s probably the best goalie coach in the NHL.”
The Pekka Rinne Era is officially over in Nashville, and Saros has finally taken over “The Tonight Show” after guest hosting for five seasons. He showed he was ready for the big chair last season, with a stellar 23.9 goals saved above average and a 16-6-1 run through the last three months of the season that dragged the Predators to the playoffs. Rinne playing until he was 38 gave Saros the perfect amount of time to ripen on the vine.
We’re big fans of Rittich as a backup here, having previously been a “1-A” in Calgary from 2018-20.
For the sake of clarification: This ranking is for the regular season. Which means it’s assessing Price as the .909 save percentage goalie he’s been for the last four seasons, rather than “Playoff Carey Price,” who has a .928 save percentage in that same span.
Price is 41st in goals saved above average per 60 minutes (0.148) over the last two seasons, for goalies with a minimum of 1,000 even-strength minutes. Bringing Allen in as Price’s backup was one of GM Marc Bergevin‘s smartest decisions last season. He outplayed the Canadiens star for stretches last season, and started 48% of their games.
Ullmark made the best of a bad situation in Buffalo for six seasons. Sneakily, he was one of the league’s most effective goalies over the last two seasons, with 14.8 goals saved above average — the only regular Sabres netminder on the positive side of that metric in that span.
“Our model has really liked Ullmark over the years,” said Valiquette.
Ullmark signed a four-year, free-agent deal with Boston and joins 22-year-old Swayman in the crease, the latter of whom was 7-3-0 with a .945 save percentage in his first NHL season with the Bruins. It’s going to be an intense competition between the two, as coach Bruce Cassidy has called it a “month-to-month, performance-driven” contest.
Looming in the background here is Tuukka Rask. The 14-year pro and former Vezina winner had hip surgery for a torn labrum this offseason. He’s rehabbing it now and has stated a desire to return to the Bruins this season, even as he remains unsigned. “Can it get sticky? It could,” Cassidy said, via the Boston Globe, “and if it does get sticky, we have to do right by the guys who have signed here, and we’ll address it if it is.”
Talbot’s numbers were as scattered as a Minnesota snow flurry last season. He started 11 more games than he did in Calgary in 2019-20, but saw his even-strength numbers wilt under the workload. However, his rebound control was the best in the league last season, and overall he had 12.7 goals save above average in all situations. His .636 quality starts percentage was the best of his career. There were numbers that indicated he was playing at a near-elite level, and numbers that seemed to indicate the Wild’s goaltending wasn’t playing as well as the defense in front of them.
After getting rolled in the Vegas expansion draft, the Wild made it out of the Seattle draft without having to make a bad side deal to have the Kraken avoid Kahkonen. (Seattle opted for defenseman Carson Soucy.) The Wild like the young Finn a lot, and this tandem’s ranking has the expectation that he’ll improve on a rookie season that saw him play well below replacement level on a good defensive team.
When the Blues signed Binnington to a six-year extension in March — “through the meat of his career,” as GM Doug Armstrong carnivorously put it — they were paying for a known commodity in the regular season. He’s steady, if not the dominant goalie he was in his first season run to the Stanley Cup: Making the low-danger saves that he should, and playing consistently well in one-goal games, of which the Blues play their share. His mental toughness in the regular season makes his postseason struggles — he’s lost nine straight postseason games — all the more glaring.
Husso, 26, was a sub-replacement-level goalie in 17 appearances last season. It was his rookie season, so we’re not trying to judge too harshly. But where have you gone, Jake Allen?
The world is separated into two types of people: Those who believe Hart’s horrific third season in the NHL (.877 save percentage, league-worst minus-16.7 goals saved above average) was an aberration, and those who believe the Flyers’ tandem being ranked this highly is an absolute joke.
Well, much like Harvey Dent, we believe in Carter Hart. And Valiquette agrees.
“I think his struggle last year was mental,” said Valiquette. “Maybe the stress got to him or the load got to him or it was too much, too soon. It’s all consuming and eventually you implode. If we were talking about Carter at this time last season, we were talking about a potential Vezina candidate. His game didn’t fall apart. It was mental. And he pulled himself out of it at the end of the year.”
As for Jones, we’ve got two words for you: Kim Dillabaugh.
“Amongst the goalie coaches community, we all think he’s brilliant,” said Valiquette of the Flyers goaltending coach. “He had Jones in Manchester [AHL affiliate] when Jones was with the Kings. And when Jones was in Manchester, he was explosive and instinctive and athletic. Kim cleaned him up a little bit there, and I think Kim’s really going to help him [in Philadelphia]. Which is key, because Hart needs a safety net like Matt Murray needed a safety net with Marc-Andre Fleury in Pittsburgh.”
The Hurricanes stunned the NHL by making wholesale changes to their crease, allowing Petr Mrazek and James Reimer to walk as free agents and trading Alex Nedeljkovic to Detroit. Replacing them are Andersen, whom Carolina has been interested in acquiring for some time, and Raanta, an effective goalie for the Coyotes on the occasions that he was healthy.
“I like Freddie a lot,” said Valiquette. “His only thing is that he gives up goals when up by a goal or tied score, and that’s happened in the playoffs the last few years. But he’s a terrific goalie who can get super hot and steal [games] in the regular season. Carolina is really good defensively. So was Toronto last year. Truth is, I think Freddie is better when he faces a lot of crap being thrown at him, and steals a game facing 40 shots.”
It’s unbelievably sad that Matiss Kivlenieks is no longer with us. The 24-year-old, who died in a tragic accident during the offseason, would have been a factor for the Blue Jackets this season, both with his play and in their evaluation of their own goaltending depth.
For the first time since 2014-15, someone other than John Tortorella will be coaching the Blue Jackets, and no one named Seth Jones will be patrolling their blue line. How that impacts the overall team defense is anyone’s guess. What we do know: Merzlikins was the better goalie of these two last season, with a .916 save percentage and 7.1 goals saved above average. Korpisalo did nothing to build on his awesome postseason in 2020, finishing with a minus-10.7 goals saved above average and costing his team nearly two wins.
While Merzlikins signed a five-year extension, Korpisalo is in his walk year — with 22-year-old blue-chip prospect Daniil Tarasov waiting in the wings.
Campbell put up solid traditional stats (.921 save percentage and a stellar 17-3-2 record) behind an underrated defensive team in Toronto. Mrazek arrives from Carolina, taking over for Andersen. The Leafs actually finished sixth in the Clear Sight Analytics preseason goalie rankings, mostly due to Mrazek’s occasional goals-saved-above-average streaks. “You know him over the years: He gets on a roll and he can run hot. But he can run equally as cold,” said Valiquette.
Toronto has itself a good regular-season tandem, but Valiquette thinks that’s the limit.
“That’s not a Stanley Cup-winning tandem. I’d imagine that Toronto goes along with this as long as it can, and then makes a change before the playoffs,” he said.
Another goalie expert we surveyed felt that No. 19 was a reach. “I’m not a fan of Toronto tandem at all,” he said. “Campbell concerns me after 30 games, and Mrazek is a guy that always seems to get hurt at inopportune times.”
Petersen is one of the NHL’s quiet success stories, turning 35 games of .911 save percentage hockey last season into a primary starter’s job with the Kings and a three-year, $15 million contract extension through 2024-25. He had 18.8 goals saved above average last season and added 3.5 wins to the Kings.
Quick is … quick. The 35-year-old Conn Smythe winner is a model of inconsistency and was not very good at even strength last season (.898). But there are still some nights when that scrambling goalie who makes miraculous saves shows up. Just not enough of them to compel another team to take on the remaining two years of his contract, despite the Kings’ efforts to deal him this offseason.
As hockey fans, we spend a lot of time talking about young offensive stars whose careers are withering away on terrible teams. Perhaps we should spend more time talking about Gibson, 28, who has spent the last three seasons outside the playoffs on Ducks teams that have posted a combined .455 points percentage. (Hashtag: #SaveGibson.)
Gibson continues to outkick his coverage as an Anaheim goalie, having posted only one middling season analytically (2019-20) while well into double-digits on goals saved above average in his other recent campaigns. He’s in the third season of an eight-year deal he signed in 2018. Hopefully the Ducks given him a team worthy of his talents before that term ends.
Stolarz has only 34 games played since entering the league in 2016-17, but we figure on Gibson starting 60-plus games anyway.
There was speculation that GM Ron Hextall might make dramatic changes in goal after last season, following Jarry’s playoff meltdown and because Hextall would seem rather particular about who’s in his net. But the Penguins ran it back with Jarry and DeSmith.
These two were fine from a traditional stats perspective (.908 team save percentage, ninth in the NHL) but less so analytically (26th in goals saved above average per Real Clear Stats). DeSmith, it should be said, was the better goalie last season, but Valiquette is optimistic that a reunion between Jarry and Andy Chiodo, his goalie coach in the AHL, could do wonders for him. “Andy’s one of the hardest working guys in the league, and the smartest. I bet you Jarry has a much better season under Chiodo,” he said.
Please note that this ranking is no way connected to our lingering bitterness that the Penguins opted out of a possible Marc-Andre Fleury reunion tour.
It’s a tale as old as time in the NHL: a goalie signs a free-agent blockbuster contract and then immediately discovers their mobility to make saves has been hindered by the weight of it.
Markstrom signed a six-year, $36 million deal prior to 2020-21, and his numbers plummeted after finishing fourth for the Vezina Trophy in his walk year with Vancouver. But he wasn’t a disaster for the Flames — especially since he was facing an offensive barrage in the North Division on a disappointing team. His underlying numbers remained on the positive side, too.
“I love Markstrom. I love how much he plays and I think he’s going to thrive under [coach Darryl] Sutter,” said one goalie expert we surveyed, “but he’s got absolutely nothing behind him.”
Said another goalie expert: “I like Markstrom in Calgary but I wonder about that tandem. I’d think Darryl rides Markstrom hard. Will be interesting to see how he responds. That could be a disaster there if he’s not healthy. So they could be lower.”
Clear Sight Analytics has the Devils ranked No. 10 overall in the preseason, in combined goals saved above average. As a tandem, these two do have promise. Blackwood had a struggle last season after a bout with COVID, and the Devils struggled last season overall in goal, finishing with a .891 team save percentage, 30th in the NHL. Bernier is a solid fix for that, having braved the net in Detroit for three seasons. He’ll push Blackwood and replace him if necessary.
The Devils also improved their defense corps over last season, and their goaltenders should benefit from it.
“I think Blackwood is a stud, and I’d have that tandem around 20,” said one goaltending expert.
The Stars are a tough team to figure out because of their depth chart.
Is Bishop ever going to play again? He believes so, having missed 18 months after two knee surgeries. His goal is to return this season. If that happens, well, the Stars just added a three-time Vezina nominee to their crease.
Oettinger, 22, looked good in 29 appearances last season. Khudobin, 35, remains a battler, even if his stats took a tumble last season (.905 save percentage). “I really like Khudobin. He’s the competitor. Whatever it takes, he’s going to get it done,” said Valiquette.
But Holtby, who signed a one-year deal as veteran insurance due to Bishop’s injury … just doesn’t seem like Holtby anymore. “When I watched him last year, he didn’t seem like a hungry goalie anymore,” said one goalie expert. “You hope this isn’t a swan-song contract.”
The Capitals hope to see this duo together more than they did last season, when Samsonov was recovering from an offseason injury and then had two bouts with the COVID protocols to limit his season to just 19 games.
Vanecek stepped in and stepped up, going 21-10-4 in 37 games with a .908 save percentage, finishing sixth for the Calder Trophy. He was selected in the Seattle expansion draft and then traded back to the Capitals after a week, which is either an indication of the Kraken’s goalie depth or a nifty bit of goalie laundering by Washington.
Said one goalie expert: “I want to like the Washington tandem, and for some reason I feel they perform well this year. It’s just a hunch, but Samsonov has gone through constant issues the last couple years and I feel this is the year he gets his act together. If so, I think they could be mid-teens.”
Some aren’t so optimistic: “I don’t think he has a presence in the net. He doesn’t look to me to be that guy,” said another goalie expert. “And Vanecek moves way too much for an NHL goalie. I don’t like the Caps at all.”
Every goaltending expert we spoke with for this ranking remains baffled by the Oilers. Baffled that this duo is back for a third straight season. Baffled that they’re actually not that bad — a .910 team save percentage in the offensively explosive North Division in 2020-21, good for 8th in the league. Baffled at how Smith, now 39 years old, continues to defy the odds with performances like his .923 save percentage and 21-6-2 record last season.
But at least one expert thinks the magic is going to run out. “I expect a significant regression for them,” he said.
The success or failure of this tandem comes down to two basic questions: Can the Red Wings continue their year-over-year improvement as a defensive team, and were the Hurricanes right or wrong about Nedeljkovic? The Canes didn’t think he was worth a contract extension for three months of light-out, Calder Trophy-nominated hockey. The Red Wings were willing to give him two years and $6 million for it.
Greiss is one of the NHL’s best complementary goalies, playing to his fourth above-average campaign in the last five seasons. He had the misfortune of losing eight overtime or shootout games, tied for most in the league last season. This tandem could look better than expected if the defense can help them get their goals-against average under 3.00.
By swapping out Martin Jones and Devan Dubnyk, the Sharks made additions by subtractions. Given their salary cap restrictions, getting Reimer and Hill in as the new tandem isn’t a bad bit of business.
Reimer has had only one sub-replacement campaign in his last four seasons, although his quality of play has had an every-other-year oddity to it. (Let it be known that he’s “due” for another solid one for San Jose this season.) But it’s Hill on whom a few of the goalie experts are rather high. He showed flashes for the Coyotes in his 49 games in the NHL, and quietly had a better season than the much more heralded Darcy Kuemper last season.
Murray said he put on around 13 pounds in the offseason — 7,500 calories per day, on trainer’s orders — to bulk up his frame. So he’s now the big presence in goal that the Senators need, literally, if not figuratively. Whether crushing carbs translates into better success is anyone’s guess, after two sub-replacement seasons in a row with the Penguins and Senators. The 27-year-old has a new goalie coach in Zac Bierk, who appeared to get results late last season, but Murray has a long road back to respectability: His low-danger save percentage above expectation was third-worst in the NHL.
Forsberg has shown some competence in limited NHL action. Perpetual goalie of the future Filip Gustavsson remains in the mix.
“You know who the surprise is going to be this season? Craig Anderson,” one goaltending expert told us. “The team is going to be horrible, but he’s going to pull a rabbit out of his hat on a lot of nights.”
That’s conceivable, seeing as how that’s been Anderson’s M.O. for most of his career. The 40-year-old goalie was apparently retired (per his former team, the Capitals) before being compelled out of his easy chair to play in back of the Sabres, of all teams.
Dell had one above-average season in San Jose (2019-20), and that’s it.
Both goalies are placeholders for Luukkonen, the 22-year-old goalie of the future that the Sabres aren’t rushing to the big stage. If he earns a place in the NHL roster, this tandem could move up a smidge.
We’re all about the positive here in the goalie tandem rankings, so let’s take a moment and be happy for Hutton. The guy went 1-10-1 last season, his third season watching pucks fly by him while with the Sabres. Yet he managed to find another NHL starting gig at age 35. He’s paired with Korenar, a goaltender who has done absolutely nothing to indicate he belongs on an NHL roster this season.
The Coyotes have positioned themselves to be as terrible as possible to secure a high pick in next summer’s top-heavy draft. This tandem is part of that plan, to put it kindly.