The best NHL goalies may be the most valuable men in all of sports, whereas the worst (understandably) end up the most despised.
A hockey goalie can either carry an average team or destroy a great one.
Compare the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins' teams of the 2010-11 season. A loaded Philadelphia Flyers squad had a much better offense and one of the league's deepest defenses.
However, the Bruins swept the Flyers, thanks to the superb play of Tim Thomas and the forgettable play of Philadelphia's goaltending.
Simply put, some starters are just better than others.
After recovering from issues with vertigo, Hiller is back in goal this season for the Ducks.
Though his play isn't exactly the cause of Anaheim's poor record, he certainly isn't helping the cause.
Hiller has given up four goals or more in one game on 12 different occasions this season—he has only played in 28.
The other team lights up the scoreboard nearly 50 percent of the games Hiller appears in.
What more can you ask from a goalie?
Tim Thomas is a prime example of what the position can do for a team.
Though Thomas' aggressive style would seem to present some exploitable weakness, nobody has been able to find it.
Thomas always manages to find his way in front of shots.
The Bruins have no problem in net.
The 2010 Vezina Trophy winner's worst single-season numbers since the lockout are a .906 save percentage and 2.73 goals-against-average—most teams would be satisfied with having him then.
When he plays his best, Ryan Miller can win games for the Buffalo Sabres.
The 2006 Vezina winner has maintained his status as one of the league's top goaltenders, with a .916 save percentage and 2.47 goals-against average this season.
At age 35, Kiprusoff still carries a heavy workload—he has started 29 of Calgary's 35 games.
Cam Ward established himself as a quality goaltender in his rookie season, winning the Conn Smyth and a Stanley Cup with the Hurricanes in 2006.
Since then, his play has him regarded as a top NHL goalie.
Last season, he made a league-leading 2,191 saves.
The Hurricanes' transparent defense is still allowing a ton of shots, and Ward has suffered with a down year.
He's posting a save percentage below .900 and a subpar goals-against average for the first time in his career.
He leads the league in losses and goals against, but his history of solid goaltending (especially in the playoffs) is nothing to ignore.
Chicago's Corey Crawford played just eight NHL games before taking away the starting goaltending job from Marty Turco last season.
He was a solid 33-24 with a .917 save percentage and 2.30 goals-against average.
This season, Crawford struggled to play consistently and was not used for six consecutive games in favor of Ray Emery.
Crawford gave up just one goal in his first game back, a win against Montreal.
The Colorado Avalanche picked up Varlamov before this season.
Varlamov was the backup in Washington to Michal Neuvirth in the 2010-11 season, but he posted a .924 save percentage and 2.23 goals-against average in 27 games.
Unfortunately, Varlamov has not prospered so much with the Avalanche.
Varlamov is being handily outplayed by backup Jean-Sebastian Giguere, who may take over the No. 1 spot if his quality play continues.
It's tough to place the blame of Columbus' terrible season on one player, but former Calder Trophy winner Steve Mason has not done much to help the team.
Mason has lost 15 of his 19 starts, has an abysmal .880 save percentage and 3.52 goals-against average.
That is particularly terrible, considering backup Curtis Sanford posted a .940 save percentage and 1.68 goals-against average in seven November starts.
It would be safe to assume Mason has lost his starting job, but Sanford has lost his last four starts, giving up a total of 17 goals.
Currently out with a groin injury, the Stars' 28-year-old Kari Lehtonen is having his best season to date.
Lehtonen has 13 wins in 18 starts, a .926 save percentage and 2.34 goals-against average.
The large 6'4" goaltender has perhaps flown under the radar due to never having played on a quality team or having a good defense in front of him.
Jimmy Howard is getting the job done very effectively in Detroit.
Since stopping the Red Wings' seven-game losing streak on November 5th, Howard is 16-5.
He has a .925 save percentage and 1.99 goals-against average.
The 27-year-old is in his third season as a starter after taking the job away from Chris Osgood.
The 38-year-old Nikolai Khabibulin is still a quality starting goaltender in the NHL.
Khabibulin is bouncing back from a dismal 2010-11 season, in which he recorded a .890 save percentage and terrible 3.40 goals-against average.
This season, those totals have improved to .932 and 2.00, respectively—both among the NHL's league leaders.
The Florida Panthers are managing just fine without Tomas Vokoun.
Jose Theodore has not exactly been the most consistent or reliable goaltender during his career.
The 35-year-old has been particularly unimpressive since the lockout—in short, two lackluster seasons with the Colorado Avalanche were backed with two even more lackluster playoff performances with the Washington Capitals.
Theodore is leading the successful Florida Panthers to the playoffs, sporting a .923 save percentage and 2.31 goals-against average, some of the best marks of his career.
The struggling Los Angeles Kings do not have to worry about their goaltending situation—the 25-year-old Jonathan Quick has been a quality starter for the past four seasons.
He is tied for the NHL lead with four shutouts and is on his way to posting career-highs with a .927 save percentage and a 2.17 goals-against average.
A strong point of Quick is his ability to handle a heavy onslaught—he's had 12 games this season with more than 30 saves.
Niklas Backstrom has consistently been an excellent goaltender since his 2006-07 rookie season, in which he posted a .929 save percentage and 1.97 goals-against average over 41 games.
The 33-year-old's career numbers are an impeccable .918 save percentage with a 2.41 goals-against average.
This year, Backstrom is doing great yet again, helping the Wild to one of the NHL's best records.
Carey Price is a streaky goaltender this season—he never seems to have a bad game or a good game unless another one follows.
In October, he ended a five-game losing streak by winning four consecutive games.
He then gave up six goals on 41 shots over a span of two games.
He followed that stretch with two 30-plus save games, then two shutouts.
It's no surprise that the 6'5" Pekka Rinne is one of the NHL's top goaltenders—when he stands in the net, there's practically no room to shoot.
Rinne has made more saves than any goalie in the NHL thus far, with 853 over 31 games.
Last season, Rinne recorded a 2.12 goals-against average, and his .930 save percentage was second to Tim Thomas—Rinne probably would have won the Vezina without Thomas blowing away the NHL.
Martin Brodeur will be remembered as one of the greatest NHL goalies of all time, but he is not that great any more.
Brodeur's play has declined over the past two seasons, and if it weren't for his name, he would struggle to keep his place as a starter.
In fact, Brodeur is being outplayed by backup Johan Hedberg—Hedberg has a significantly better record, save percentage, goals-against average and has two shutouts to Brodeur's none.
Sometimes other teams can shoot entire players past Montoya.
The New York Islanders have dressed five different goaltenders this season.
Seemingly, 300-year contract holder Rick DiPietro or former Vezina nominee Evgeni Nabokov would be the starter.
However, it is Al Montoya who has played the most games on Long Island.
Despite Montoya's somewhat impressive numbers, the 26-year-old has been inconsistent.
He's had six starts in which he's only given up one goal, but he's also been lit up for four goals or more on five separate occasions.
Montoya is inconsistent and lacks NHL experience.
It is truly incredible that Henrik Lundqvist has not won a Vezina Trophy yet.
The 29-year-old has never had a save percentage less than .912 and has never had a goals-against average above 2.43.
Among goalies who have started at least half their team's games, his save percentage of .934 is third in the NHL and his goals-against average of 2.03 ranks fifth.
Craig Anderson had an incredible hot streak for the Ottawa Senators after being traded to the team in February, 2011.
Then it ended, and Anderson found himself as an under-performing starter on a team that somehow manages to be challenging for the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot.
If Anderson can find his game again, the Senators could be going to the playoffs.
Speaking of under-performing, $51 million is not quite buying the Philadelphia Flyers what they thought it would.
An inconsistent season from Bryzgalov led to the 31-year-old saying he was at the "lowest point of (his) career."
Bryzgalov can play like one of the league's best goalies when he comes ready to play, but on some nights he is nothing special.
Ilya Bryzgalov's stats with Phoenix, December 31, 2010: 29 games played, 13 wins, 14 losses, .916 save percentage, 2.64 goals-against average, two shutouts.
Mike Smith's stats with Phoenix, December 25, 2011: 28 games played, 15 wins, 13 losses, .920 save percentage, 2.52 goals-against-average, two shutouts.
Bryzgalov picked up his play in the second half of last season, but still, Smith has done just fine replacing the player who was regarded as the driving force behind the Coyotes' success.
If the 29-year-old Mike Smith was not in his first season as a true starter, he would be rated higher. However, Smith has yet to play more than 42 games in a single NHL season.
It is unclear how he will handle the load of a starter until deeper in the season.
Since the Penguins drafted Fleury first overall in the 2003, he's developed into a quality starter.
Since the start of the 2006-07 season, Fleury is recording a .912 save percentage and a 2.56 goals-against average.
Antti Niemi has proven himself to be a quality goaltender in his short NHL career thus far, having won a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks as a rookie.
Niemi can win the Sharks games.
In this season alone, he's won games against the Bruins, Blackhawks and Red Wings (twice) by stopping 37-of-39, 34-of-34, 30-of-32 and 40-of-42 shots, respectively.
He boasts a career save percentage of .916 and a goals-against average of 2.35.
To think, the Colorado Avalanche let Elliot walk this summer.
Still, nobody expected Elliot—not even the Blues—to play as well as he has.
Elliot has started more games than Jaroslav Halak and is doing much better.
His 1.55 goals-against average is first in the NHL, and his .943 save percentage is tied with Tim Thomas for tops among starters.
Another team who should be questioning their goaltending situation are the Tampa Bay Lightning.
They let Mike Smith leave in the offseason in favor of Mathieu Garon.
Now the Lightning find themselves following up an Eastern Conference finals appearance with the third-worst record in that conference.
The backup-caliber Garon is living up to his expectations this season as an insufficient starter.
Reimer started to make his case as a quality goaltender in his first season.
At the age of 22, the rookie was effective in 37 starts—he won 20 games and recorded a .921 save percentage.
Reimer has struggled at times this season after returning from a concussion but is a quality starting goaltender and a promising option for Toronto's future at the young age of 23.
Nominated for multiple Vezina trophies and even the Hart Trophy once, Roberto Luongo is a goalie that can only be showed up by the likes of Tim Thomas.
Luongo may have struggled with consistency early in the season, but he's picked his play up recently.
He is 7-2 in his last nine starts, and even the losses were good performances—he gave up one goal on 30 shots against Columbus, and stopped 38-of-40 against Detroit.
The Capitals got a bargain on Tomas Vokoun this summer at $1.5 million.
Vokoun spent the previous four seasons attempting to carry a terrible Panthers team far beyond their capabilities.
Now Vokoun has the opportunity to win with a team that's placed No. 1 in the Eastern Conference for two consecutive seasons.
The season started with a six-game winning streak. Then, much like the rest of the team, Vokoun showed signs of struggle and inconsistency.
Vokoun's play has picked up with new head coach Dale Hunter's appearance.
Young and bulky (he weighs 220 pounds), Pavelec is establishing himself as a quality starter at age 24.
However, the Jets' young goalie has shown inconsistency issues this season.
He'll give up five goals over three games then surrender eight in two.
Earlier in December, Pavelec followed a one-goal, 39-save performance against the Bruins by giving up seven to Detroit. In his next game, he gave up one goal on 35 shots to the Wild.
Pavelec is unpredictable, but if he can become reliable on a nightly basis he'll be one of the NHL's better goalies.
B/R Featured Columnist Jason Sapunka is available on Twitter.