5 NHL Playoff Teams with Big Decisions to Make in Net
NHL teams are changing the ways they think about goaltending.
Look at how the Vegas Golden Knights conducted business in the crease during the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs. Robin Lehner, ostensibly the team's chosen goaltender, gave way to Marc-Andre Fleury for one game in each of the team's three playoff series, including Game 1 of the Western Conference Final. On all three occasions, Fleury was getting the nod off the heels of a Lehner victory.
Goaltending coaching has historically been an afterthought, particularly in minor league and youth circles, where young goaltenders were often left to their own devices. The widespread advent of credible goaltending specialists at all levels who are employing an academic approach to understanding and professing the technical aspects has deepened the pool of competent goaltenders. Furthermore, the increasing athletic demands of the position and a greater understanding of sports science have led to an emphasis on load management.
The resulting phenomenon is that the traditional starter-and-backup goaltending hierarchy is losing rigidity. Most teams expect to rotate goaltenders throughout the season and are increasingly allotting playing time based on performance rather than reputation or incumbency.
Ultimately, once the playoffs begin, each team has to make a choice for which one to give the nod to, at least to start. For the Tampa Bay Lightning (Andrei Vasilevskiy) and Winnipeg Jets (Connor Hellebuyck), that decision is self-evident. For other teams, it is a lot more complicated.
Here are five NHL playoff teams with a crowded crease and decisions to make before beginning their pursuits for the Cup.
Heart problems sadly ended Henrik Lundqvist's season in Washington before it could even begin, leaving an unexpected void in the Capitals' net. Ilya Samsonov thus entered 2021 as the team's presumed top goaltender. The 2015 first-round pick has a strong KHL resume and performed well enough in 2019-20 for the organization to feel ready to move on from Braden Holtby.
Samsonov struggled for much of the 2021 season. Per Evolving Hockey, he sits in the bottom third of NHL goaltenders by Goals Saved Above Expected. Instead, rookie Vitek Vanecek has started the bulk of games this season. Vanecek himself has performed below NHL average, letting in roughly eight more goals than expected, but he's been just adequate enough to not undermine the talent in front of him. The Caps have won in 21 of his 36 starts on their way to a second-place finish in the East.
Over the past month, Samsonov has begun to realize his potential and has strung together some impressive performances. Vanecek, meanwhile, has struggled. Will the Capitals put more stock in Samsonov's talent and recent play or Vanecek's yearlong track record of unenthusiastic palatability? Head coach Peter Laviolette acknowledged he needs to make a choice for Game 1 against Boston but that he will constantly re-evaluate as the playoffs endure.
If there were any team primed to make a change in the crease after last season, it was the Carolina Hurricanes, who were seemingly a capable goaltender away from joining the top tier of contenders. Though management explored multiple possibilities, including acquiring Fleury, they came away empty-handed and began the season with Petr Mrazek and James Reimer as their returning duo.
Mrazek suffered a thumb injury early in the season, giving taxi squad goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic an opportunity. Previously a top prospect who thrived for Team USA at the 2016 World Junior Championship, Nedeljkovic's development has since been a slow burn. Even establishing himself at the AHL level has been a grind the past three seasons.
Nedeljkovic has played well enough to not only stick around following Mrazek's return but outright steal the starter's job. Per Evolving Hockey, in 23 games Nedeljkovic has saved 12.91 goals above expected, second-best among NHL goaltenders this season. The American started the season on waivers and will end it with a viable argument for the Calder Trophy. Bet on the Hurricanes going with Nedeljkovic initially, though with Mrazek and Reimer on standby, his leash may not be long.
Toronto Maple Leafs
When Frederik Andersen is on his game, he's been among the better goaltenders in the NHL. His past few seasons in Toronto have been plagued with inconsistencies. This has put the Maple Leafs in a difficult spot, where he's just good enough to make finding a superior goaltender difficult but not quite established enough to inspire full confidence.
Andersen has had an up-and-down season and missed time with a lingering lower-body injury, thereby paving the path for another American late-bloomer. Former first-round pick Jack Campbell, seemingly a bust in Dallas, moved on to Los Angeles and then Toronto, where he's revitalized his career. Campbell achieved an 11-game win streak through April. His play has since returned to earth, while Andersen has recently returned from injury just in time for the start of the playoffs.
Don't forget 2020 NHL All-Star Dave Rittich, acquired at the deadline from the Calgary Flames as insurance for the injured Andersen. In Toronto's best chance at ending their Cup drought since 2004, the decision in goal might be what makes or breaks the effort. No pressure.
Sergei Bobrovsky is an Olympian and NHL All-Star who has won the Vezina Trophy twice. He's on a $70 million contract. Chris Driedger, 26, joined the Panthers' minor league affiliate on an AHL contract in 2018 and has bounced between the AHL and ECHL for most of his pro career. Easy choice between those two, right?
Right, but not intuitively. Bobrovsky's performance with the Panthers has not matched his reputation. Per Evolving Hockey, only five goaltenders have given up more goals above expected than him over the past two seasons. Driedger, meanwhile, performed well in a cameo last season and even better this season, posting a .927 save percentage over 23 games (Bobrovsky sits at .906).
Yet the best option may be Spencer Knight. The 13th overall selection in 2019 was heralded as a special talent in his early teens and he has since lived up to the billing, having dominated at the junior and NCAA level. The Panthers recently signed him out of Boston College and put him right in the mix. He has begun his NHL career with a 4-0-0 record and .919 save percentage.
Having only turned 20 in late April, it would be audacious to hand Knight the keys in the playoffs. On talent, though, he is the best of the bunch and has thrived in big games before, including at the 2021 World Junior Championship. With these three goaltenders, Head coach Joel Quenneville will have to choose between the past, the present, and the future.
Vegas Golden Knights
It ends where it began: Vegas. Lehner was the better goaltender last season, leading to his wrangling of the starting job from Fleury's grasp and a whole lot of drama. Despite battling injuries, he has produced yet again this season. Any NHL head coach would sleep easy knowing that Robin Lehner is backstopping the team's playoff run.
Still, it seems like Marc-Andre Fleury may have taken back the top spot on the depth chart. The Golden Knights failed to offload the three-time Stanley Cup champion in the offseason, which has become a serendipitous outcome for the West Division contenders. Per Evolving Hockey, Fleury ranks first among all NHL goaltenders by Goals Saved Above Expected, saving roughly 19 goals for the Knights. He will undoubtedly be in the Vezina conversation.
Unlike most teams, the Golden Knights' burden is deciding which great goaltender to ride. Fleury is the favorite to at least begin the postseason in the crease, but like last season, don't be surprised if duties are shared. When you have the rare luxury of possessing two No. 1 netminders, why not ignore convention and use both?