Written by: Stefen Rosner (@stefen_rosner)
As seasons come and go in the National Hockey League, we have noticed a change in the way teams are assembled. More noticeably over the last couple of seasons, the ability to create effective goaltending tandems has put certain teams in a substantially better position to make the playoffs. This past offseason we saw a handful of netminders relocate to new teams whether it was through free agency like Braden Holtby or via trade like Cam Talbot and Devan Dubnyk. At the time, some of these moves drew more questions than answers.
Every goaltender acquired this past offseason has had big shoes to fill, or skates rather. Whether their acquisition was meant to be a final piece for a franchise or a bridge to get their respective team to the next level, the pressure was on. When given expectations, the goal is to always shatter them and to never disappoint. To their team’s fault or their own, we have seen more of the new acquisitions fail to live up to the hype this season.
Since we are past the halfway point of this shortened 56-game regular season, let’s check in on how our padded friends have faired with their new teams.
Back in 2018, Braden Holtby was on top of the hockey world, as he and the Washington Capitals were Stanley Cup champions. His stick save in the final two minutes of game two will go down as one of the most unbelievable saves in postseason history.
The 2010s provided saves we will never forget, but there was one that stood out from the rest. In game two, of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, @Capitals goalie Braden Holtby made a save that will live FOREVER. Which save was your favorite? pic.twitter.com/5ZUMQDQ2Vd — NHL on NBC Sports (@NHLonNBCSports) January 16, 2020
While that was a thrill, his statistics during the regular season and in the playoffs were not spectacular by any means. Since 2018, the numbers for the Saskatchewan native have been anything but stellar. Last season in a contract year, Holtby put up a .897 save percentage (SV%) with a 3.11 goals-against average (GAA). These were his worst numbers over his 10 years in the league. With rookie netminder Ilya Samsonov having played well, (.913 SV%, 2.55 GAA), the time was indeed coming to an end for Holtby in Washington D.C.
On October 9th, Holtby and the Vancouver Canucks reached a contract agreement, a two-year deal worth $8.6 million. The Canucks had seen enough from their rookie netminder Thatcher Demko in last year’s postseason to let Jacob Markstrom walk. That meant they needed another starter to create their tandem. At the time, I thought this was a critical mistake for the Canucks because I believed we had seen the best of Holtby. There were more capable goaltenders for Demko to learn the NHL game from. Nevertheless, Vancouver took a gamble, a gamble that has not paid off this season.
Not that Holtby was brought in to be the number one guy, but he has given the Canucks minimal production this season. He has played in 12 of the team’s 36 games and owns an abysmal 3.57 GAA, with a .894 SV%, his worst mark to date. The good news is that Holtby has seen his goals saved above average (GSAA) go from a -16.8 last year to only a -6.5 this year.
Every statistic for a netminder is not solely based on their play alone, but the play of the team in front of them. The Canucks have allowed the second-highest amount of shots against per game, currently at 33.7, which means their netminders have had to work extremely hard game in and game out. However, Demko, the clear-cut starter, has put up much stronger numbers behind the same defense. He has a 2.77 GAA with a .917 SV% with a GSAA of 7.8.
Even with the defensive struggles, the Canucks only sit a point out of a playoff spot in the North Division. In order to stay relevant and in the hunt, Holtby will need to find a way to contribute down the stretch.
Former Canucks goaltender Jacob Markstrom took his talents 680 miles east this offseason as he joined the Calgary Flames on a six-year deal worth $36 million. Last season, Markstrom played in 43 of the team’s 69 games, as he posted a career-best .918 SV% and a 2.75 GAA. With a smaller sample size, Demko, mentioned above, struggled during the regular season (.905 SV%, 3.06 GAA), General manager Jim Benning would have to decide if keeping Markstrom (pending UFA) made sense long term.
Following the hiatus, the Vancouver Canucks impressed in the playoffs. They knocked off the Minnesota Wild in four games before they downed the defending champion, St. Louis Blues, in six games. After trailing three games to one against the Vegas Golden Knights, Markstrom was unable to play due to an undisclosed injury. In his absence, Demko shined, but ultimately the Canucks were eliminated in game six of the series. Demko was more than capable of being the guy in the pipes, as he posted a 0.64 GAA and a .985 SV% in his four appearances (three starts). Given the cap situation, Markstrom became expendable.
The Flames were in dire need of a true number one netminder. They’d been through the carousels of netminders with David Rittich, Cam Talbot, and Mike Smith over the last two seasons, and a strong presence in goal seemed to be that final piece this team needed to become a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. They threw money at the guy they believed could get the job done – Markstrom.
Unfortunately, as of March 24, the Flames have been a major disappointment. They sit in second-to-last place in the North Division, two points behind the Canucks. The 11-year veteran has put up his worst numbers in six years, with a .904 SV% and a 2.84 GAA in 24 games. His GSAA has taken a dramatic fall, from an 11.4 last season (career-high) to a -2.5. Markstrom has had four Really Bad Starts (Under .850 SV%) through 24 games, whereas last year he had five through 43 starts.
The season has been so bad that the Flames fired their head coach Geoff Ward and replaced him with two-time Stanley Cup winner Daryll Sutter back on March 4. Since then, Markstrom is 4-4-1, having shown little to no improvement. The blame should not be on Markstrom, as there were no signs that he would take another step at age 31. He was average last year, and the free-agent market was full of average netminders, so the plan seemed to be to get the best of the group. It was a chance they had to take to improve their team, but it has undoubtedly backfired, and now Flame fans need to look towards the future, as their 23-year old prospect, Tyler Parsons, waits in the wings.
Let’s get to the more positive stories, shall we? After he shined with the New York Rangers back in 2013-14, Cam Talbot has been incapable of filling a no.1 netminder role. He bounced from the Edmonton Oilers to the Philadelphia Flyers (four games) and then to the Calgary Flames.
Although the sample size with the Flames was not big, he posted a .919 SV% and a 2.63 GAA in 24 starts. That tied his best marks since the 2016-17 season. The Minnesota Wild, a team that had just moved Devan Dubnyk, needed a goaltender to partner up with Alex Stalock. General manager Bill Guerin took a flyer out on the 33-year old Talbot, with a three-year, $11 million deal.
This season, Talbot has been a great fit. The Minnesota Wild are 20-10-1, which is good for third place in a tough West Division. Talbot has played to a .919 SV% and has seen his GAA improve to a 2.50, his lowest since 2016.
His partner, the 24-year old Kaapo Kahkonen, has played quite well (2.29 GAA, .921 SV%), which has allowed for Wild head coach Dean Evason to use both of his netminders close to a fifty-fifty split as of late.
Besides Kahkonen’s strong play, Talbot has missed time this season due to COVID-19, which attributed to his games played total.
As mentioned above, Talbot was not brought in to be the number one. He was brought in to be part of a tandem, and despite his partner changing, he has been effective.
You thought I was going to stay positive, didn’t you? I will end on a good note, I promise. Now, let’s turn our attention to the dumpster fire in San Jose with the Sharks.
When the Sharks were on the search for a goaltender to bring in to give Martin Jones a run for his money (or pressure to be better), they elected that Devan Dubnyk was the way to go. General manager Doug Wilson sent a fifth-round pick in 2022 to the Minnesota Wild for Dubynk and a seventh-round pick in 2022. It was not much for a former world-class netminder and if the trade panned out, it could have been a game-changer for the struggling franchise.
Unfortunately, that belief was strictly that. He had lost the starting job in Minnesota to Stalock after he played to a .890 SV% with a GAA of 3.35. Dubnyk, who seemed to be on the decline, was now asked to elevate his game behind the team that allowed the fifth-highest goals-against per game last season. The chance of him revitalizing his career with this hockey club was not realistic.
The 12-year veteran has been better this season, but not by much as he sits with a .899 SV%, with a 3.19 GAA. His GSAA is in the negatives at -3.8, an improvement on his -16.2 we saw a year ago. Given the one-year left on his contract, Dubnyk will not be back with the Sharks. If the goal here was to get Jones going, that surely has not been the case as Jones owns a .897 SV% with a 3.30 GAA.
So yes, Jones has been even worse than Dubnyk.
Dubnyk, once acquired by Minnesota back in 2014, truly found his game. He was an All-Star, but more importantly, he had given his team a chance night in and night out to win.
At age 34, with what seems to be back-to-back horrible seasons, you cannot help but wonder if this is the end of the road.
Out of all the goaltenders that joined new teams, Jake Allen has been exceptional with the Montreal Canadiens. General manager Mark Bergevin sent a 2020 third-round and seventh-round pick to the St. Louis Blues for the 30-year old netminder and a 2022 seventh-round pick. It has paid off, as Allen has posted a 2.34 GAA and a .920 SV% in 11 games played.
The biggest issue for the Montreal Canadiens was Carey Price‘s workload. If Bergevin could add a reliable backup netminder, in theory, that would pay dividends for Price and ultimately this franchise. So he did just that. Unfortunately, Price has taken a step back this season, as he has posted a 2.71 GAA with a .903 SV% in 20 games. He has been on the decline since 2018 and the window for the Canadiens to win a cup is closing rather quickly.
Allen’s play has been good enough to keep the Canadiens relevant in the North Division, as the team currently sits in the fourth seed.
Allen lost the starting gig in St. Louis in 2019, as Jordan Binnington catapulted the Blues from a bottom-feeder into a Stanley Cup champion. The performance displayed was historic, and it would be near impossible for the eight-year veteran to win back the crease. During the 19-20 season, Allen played in just 24 games. This was his lowest mark since his rookie campaign back in 2012-13. It seemed that the lesser workload was beneficial, as he bounced back with a 2.15 GAA and a SV% of .927. Those numbers put him back on the map, but it was his play in the playoffs that made him a hot commodity. Binnington looked lost in net, and Allen stepped in, and in the five games he played (four starts), he posted a lethal 1.89 GAA and a .935 SV%.
The Canadiens knew what kind of goaltender they had acquired and Allen has been as good, if not better than advertised.
Goaltending is one of the more stressful positions in all professional sports. While a player has to have the physical capabilities to be successful a the NHL level, the mental game is just as important. The majority of the netminders above have been unable to shake off past struggles. For Braden Holtby and Devan Dubnyk, their past has carried over to their new teams, and while I am not in their head, the regression we have seen can be attributed to that. Goaltenders like Allen and Talbot have been able to overcome their recent struggles, which has translated to success on the ice.
For all the struggling netminders in this piece, it is not too late for them to leave their mark. The ones that have played well look to keep it up. Depending on where their respective teams are in the standings, the past means nothing. It is what these players do from here on out, game-in and game-out, that will be remembered as we get closer to the playoffs.
What do you think? Comment your thoughts below.