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Many Of The NHL’s Best Teams Are Still Getting To Know Their Goalies

One of the big themes of the NHL in 2021-22 has been change between the pipes. There was no shortage of goalies — some quite accomplished — on the move over the offseason: Among teams near the top of our final 2020-21 Elo rankings, the Colorado Avalanche (who lost Philipp Grubauer), Vegas Golden Knights (Marc-André Fleury), Carolina Hurricanes (Alex Nedeljkovic) and Florida Panthers (Chris Driedger) all said goodbye to their most productive goaltenders by goals above replacement from a year ago.

And that group doesn’t even include the New York Islanders, whose top goalie from last season (Semyon Varlamov) is currently on injured reserve, nor does it include the Boston Bruins (who didn’t re-sign longtime netminder Tuukka Rask over the summer — though it’s complicated) or the Stanley Cup-finalist Montreal Canadiens (whose postseason starter, Carey Price, is away from the team). Whether due to transactions, injuries or other circumstances, a truly impressive number of contenders are relying on new faces under their colorful protective masks.

Many of the top teams changed out their goalies

Top 10 NHL teams of 2020-21 according to playoff Elo, with top goalies ranked by goals above replacement, and 2021-22 starters

2020-21 season
Rk Team Elo Rating Top Goalie Still on tm? Current Starter
1 Lightning 1596 A. Vasilevskiy A. Vasilevskiy
2 Avalanche 1591 Philipp Grubauer Darcy Kuemper
3 Golden Knights 1584 M. Fleury Robin Lehner
4 Bruins 1566 Jeremy Swayman Jeremy Swayman
5 Hurricanes 1560 Alex Nedeljkovic F. Andersen
6 Islanders 1556 Semyon Varlamov Ilya Sorokin
7 Penguins 1552 Tristan Jarry Tristan Jarry
8 Panthers 1543 Chris Driedger S. Bobrovsky
9 Capitals 1543 Vitek Vanecek Vitek Vanecek
10 Maple Leafs 1541 Jack Campbell Jack Campbell

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

This wasn’t entirely unexpected. Because of how the contract timelines for several good goalies happened to fall — exacerbated by the NHL’s flat salary cap and the ripple effects of the Seattle Kraken expansion process — general managers had long targeted this past offseason as one for goaltender-shuffling. But even so, the volume and quality of the changes have been abnormally high. Of the 260.4 GAR produced by all goalies leaguewide last season, 16.6 percent came from netminders who are not currently with the same team today — the third-largest share of year-over-year goaltending turnover in any NHL season since the Original Six era ended (prior to the 1967-68 season).

All of the changes in net are particularly interesting because you might think continuity there would be important for teams seeking the Cup, especially if they had been leaning heavily on their goaltending to win. (The Islanders, Knights, Hurricanes, Panthers and Bruins all ranked among the top eight in goaltending GAR last season.) Goalies are, after all, some of the most valuable players in hockey when they play well, and deep playoff runs are almost always accompanied by good goaltending performances. Since 2005-06, 26 of the 32 Stanley Cup finalists ended the playoffs with a save percentage better than the league’s postseason average.

But goalies are also some of the most volatile players in hockey — to the point that teams looking to prevent goals might, paradoxically, be better served investing in defense and living with whatever the hockey gods send their way in net. And goaltending continuity may not be a prerequisite for title contention anyway. About a third of all Stanley Cup finalists since 2005-06 had a different primary goalie in their finals season than in the previous year.

All of those factors may have been skating through the heads of the teams now adjusting to different netminders this year. Among the aforementioned teams with new situations in net, the Avalanche (No. 1), Bruins (No. 2), Golden Knights (No. 3), Islanders (No. 7), Hurricanes (No. 8) and Canadiens (No. 9) were also among the top 10 defensive teams by GAR last season. To the extent goaltending and defense can be separated, clubs that are good at preventing scoring chances put less pressure on their goalies to perform like superheroes in order to have a shot at winning. And no matter who’s in net, that’s probably the more sustainable approach anyway.

With barely a week’s worth of games in the books since opening night, it’s much too early to judge the goaltending shuffle’s winners and losers. (Though some have already invited overreactions.) But the many changes at what is arguably the game’s highest-profile position are worth keeping tabs on throughout the season, as those goalies try to elevate their new teams — and their old teams try to prove they can get along fine without them.

Check out our latest NHL predictions.

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