It seems with every season, the public opinion concerning goaltenders swings like a pendulum between two schools of thought: (1) You need an "elite" goaltender to win the Stanley Cup; (2) NHL teams should save their cap room for forwards and defensemen. The pendulum seems to swing to whichever side of the argument won the Cup the previous season. After Antti Niemi, an undrafted free agent, raised the Cup as goaltender of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, the word was that teams should seek cheaper options. Then Tim Thomas, an elite and highly paid netminder, led the Bruins to victory in 2011.
Where does the conversation sit now? With Jonathan Quick's incredible regular-season and playoff performances for the Los Angeles Kings, it's becoming more difficult to argue that great goaltenders are easily replaced.
Maybe the shortened 2013 season will shed more light on the debate. Each goalie's impact on his team will certainly be under the microscope in a 48-game season that could distort numbers based on hot and cold stretches. It could also allow a team to play its starter nearly end-to-end.
The following list of top 10 projected goalies, as generated by the VUKOTA projection system of Hockey Prospectus, shows the depth of talent in the crease around the league today, as well as the goaltenders who are most likely to be difference-makers in 2013. Included for each netminder is his projected number of appearances, save percentage and his value as measured by goals versus threshold.
Note: Thomas would have ranked seventh, but he is sitting out this season.
1. Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings
39 games, .921 save percentage, 11.9 GVT
After three years of hovering around average, Quick took a giant leap forward in 2011-12. In a whirlwind Cup run that saw Los Angeles go from an 8-seed to the top of the hockey world, Quick became a household name after allowing only 1.41 goals per game in 20 playoff games while posting an incredible .946 save percentage. His outstanding regular season was overshadowed by the Kings' struggles to score, but he earned his due in the playoffs. Now the question is whether he can carry over 2011-12 into 2013. It would be impossible to keep up his playoff pace, but Quick's talent mixed with a defensive-minded coach and an outstanding group of teammates suggest that he could have another big season and solidify himself at the top of the "elite" category.
2. Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers
35 games, .921 save percentage, 10.7 GVT
It was only a matter of time until "King Henrik" won a Vezina Trophy. Finally, in 2011-12, he was given the award after winning 39 games and adding a .930 save percentage -- which was tops in the NHL among goalies with more than 50 starts. It's truly amazing how consistent Lundqvist has been since earning the starting job in New York in 2005-06. He's been an above-average to elite goalie in every season and has played more than 60 games every season since 2006-07.
3. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators
35 games, .921 save percentage, 9.7 GVT
Two seasons in a row, the Predators' goaltender has been a Vezina finalist. With fine back-to-back seasons, he proved that he can be a consistent top NHL netminder after up-and-down stints prior to 2010-11. The 30-year-old goalie has risen to the top despite some disadvantages compared to Quick and Lundqvist. His team ranked 20th in the NHL in (fewest) shots allowed, while the Kings and Rangers ranked fifth and sixth, respectively; the Predators also were not particularly strong in puck possession, as the Kings and Rangers were. Things won't get any easier for Rinne, however, with half of Nashville's elite top pairing, Ryan Suter, skipping town to sign a mega-contract with Minnesota.
4. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens
34 games, .920 save percentage, 9.3 GVT
Price probably deserves some type of medal for playing in goal for one of the league's worst teams and still coming out with an above-average save percentage. In fact, he has posted consecutive strong seasons, playing more than 65 games in each. Unfortunately for the 25-year-old, the best years of his career are being spent on a team that is in complete rebuild mode. No matter his performance, Price will likely either be overlooked or unfairly scrutinized.
5. Mike Smith, Phoenix Coyotes
36 games, .919 save percentage, 8.3 GVT
If there were ever a perfect example for how much a coach's system can affect his goaltender's success or failure, that example would be Smith. Prior to his season under Dave Tippett (and goaltending coach Sean Burke), the 6-foot-4 goalie had performed at replacement level with the Stars and Lightning. Under Tippett, he played at Vezina Trophy level. While he wasn't a finalist, his .936 even-strength save percentage (Lundqvist's was .933) combined with his 67 games played should have made him a contender. In fact, he was not only the top goaltender by GVT in 2011-12, he was the top player overall. The question now is whether Smith and Tippett can continue to be a match made in heaven and keep the Coyotes in playoff contention.
6. Cory Schneider, Vancouver Canucks
24 games, .924 save percentage, 8.0 GVT
After an impressive 2011-12 campaign, Schneider more or less made the highly paid, highly successful Roberto Luongo expendable. Even if he continues to perform at an above-average level, the 26-year-old will face immense pressure to continue the outstanding performance he put forth in 33 games last season. It won't be an easy task. Schneider had an unsustainable .959 power-play save percentage in 2011-12.
7. Cam Ward, Carolina Hurricanes
31 games played, .919 save percentage, 6.7 GVT
Ward has been super-consistent over the past five seasons -- always remaining above average but rarely among the elite goalies in the NHL. Last season was no exception as he posted a .915 save percentage on a very bad Hurricanes team. This season, the 28-year-old has the talent around him that he has needed for several seasons. The Canes traded for one of the best lockdown forwards in the NHL in Jordan Staal and added a dominant puck-possession player in Alexander Semin.
8. Kari Lehtonen, Dallas Stars
31 games, .918 save percentage, 6.6 GVT
One of the more underappreciated goaltenders in the NHL, Lehtonen posted his highest career save percentage in 2011-12. After several years of battling injuries, the Finnish netminder has played 128 games in the past two seasons. He won't be able to count on much defensive help this season, however, after the Stars traded away Nicklas Grossmann and dealt shutdown forward Steve Ott for offensive-minded center Derek Roy.
9. Semyon Varlamov, Colorado Avalanche
27 games, .917 save percentage, 6.2 GVT
Varlamov is still aiming to prove he can repeat his 2010-11 performance that landed him a full-time starting gig with the Avalanche. Some bad luck may have kept him from being one of the better NHL goalies last season. While he had a solid .923 even-strength save percentage, the Avs' goalie had only an .854 power-play save percentage. Expect that figure to rise this season and his overall numbers to do the same.
10. Jaroslav Halak, St. Louis Blues
27 games, .917 save percentage, 5.6 GVT
There's being a good part-time goalie and there's being a part-time goalie under coach Ken Hitchcock. The combination of Halak's skill -- which he displayed most notably during the 2009-10 playoffs -- along with a group of strong defensive forwards and Hitchcock's trap system led to an out-of-this-world save percentage figure last season. Halak and "Hitch" made for a nice fit, as the Blues finished with the second-best record in the West. The only question surrounding Halak's future is whether he can surpass his career high of 57 games played.
A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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