Talbot and Kahkonen lead top NHL goaltending tandems

The job of the NHL goalie is probably one of the hardest.

Braden Holtby said it himself last year, joking with a smile on his face after a long practice.

“It’s the worst position in sports,” he grinned.

With the shortened 2020-21 campaign coming down to the wire as divisional opponents become more familiar with one another, having more than one goalie to lean on isn’t the worst option. Here are some of the league’s top 1A/1B netminding duos.

Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen, Minnesota Wild

Kirill Kaprizov is perhaps the Wild’s biggest headline this season, but it’s hard to overlook their tandem in net. Veteran Cam Talbot and rookie Kaapo Kahkonen have somewhat quietly become a powerhouse between the pipes.

Before last year, Talbot struggled for a few years after leaving the Rangers for Edmonton. However, the 33-year-old is seeing a resurgence. He’s having the best season of his career since his 36-game campaign with the Rangers in 2014-15. Through 16 starts, he’s gone 9-5-1 with a .928 save percentage (fourth in NHL among goalies with at least 10GP) and 2.26 GAA.

“It doesn’t surprise us anymore,” head coach Dean Evason told reporters in regards to Talbot’s outstanding performance and top-notch saves. “It honestly doesn’t. It’s like, ‘Okay, Cam saved our bacon again.'”

Rookie Kaapo Kahkonen is also making his presence known in net. Through 18 games, the 24-year-old is 12-6-0 with a 2.34 GAA and .920 SV% (fourth among rookies). Kahkonen has also taken his game a step further and is entering the Calder conversation. He’s a calm and collected netminder beyond his years, and he also benefits from stellar lateral movement and agility that helps him control the game.

Sergei Bobrovsky and Chris Driedger, Florida Panthers

Another solid 1A/1B tandem is making all the difference in net as Florida defies expectations. The Panthers have gone from a hinge team to one of the top contenders in the Central Division, thanks to strong play up and down Joel Quenneville’s lineup.

Bobrovsky has started the most games for FLA this season, making 20 appearances in net overall. The former Vezina winner is 13-5-2 with a .903 save percentage and 2.91 GAA and can still be trusted to come up big in goal.

It’s Driedger’s play, though, that’s stood out more and has given the Cats the confidence to rely on two netminders. The 26-year-old played in just 12 games for Florida last season but has taken the next step to prove he can be a full-time NHL goalie — and even a starter. He’s 9-4-2 through 15 games this season and boasts a remarkable .927 save percentage and 2.19 GAA. Driedger also doesn’t shy away from highlight-reel plays and is excellent with the paddle, while also showing off excellent lateral movement and a great glove hand.

[MORE: Panthers should resist urge to move Driedger at deadline]

Alex Nedeljkovic, James Reimer and Petr Mrazek, Carolina Hurricanes

It’s currently Three’s Company in the Canes’ crease, and that’s more than okay with Carolina. Mrazek’s return from a broken thumb, which held him out for 31 games, is a huge boost to an already solid netminding situation. Mrazek’s posted three shutouts through his five starts this season, and despite a small sample size, his .968 save percentage and .74 GAA does speak to his ability between the pipes. He’s been great at handling rebounds and playing a shutdown game, and he’s not afraid to come up with major saves to boot.

Still, it’s Nedeljkovic that’s taken the Hurricanes by storm (no pun intended). The rookie has been dominant between the pipes with an 8-4-2 record, 2.12 GAA and .924 save percentage through 14 games. Not only are his numbers some of the best among the NHL’s freshman class, but he’s also one of the league’s top standouts so far. He has incredible athleticism and plays a quick game, and he’s showing progress when it comes to working on his positioning.

In Mrazek’s place, Reimer’s been as solid as he can be, going 14-4-2 with a .905 SV%. He’s been able to come up big from time to time and steal key wins for a Carolina team that’s taking over the Central Division.

[MORE: Q&A: Nedeljkovic discusses journey to NHL, key to goalie goals]

Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin, New York Islanders

The Isles continue to make a strong push for first in the East, and they can credit a lot of their success to their Russian duo in goal.

Varlamov has been outstanding since coming to the Island, putting up a .914 save percentage in 45 games last season. This year, he’s continued that level of success with a 15-7-3 record, 2.26 GAA and .916 SV% through 25 games. He has a great glove hand and moves well laterally, and his fast reflexes and decision-making makes him a solid netminder and is helping him rise to new heights.

“He’s endeared himself to everybody with his personality and play,” bench boss Barry Trotz said of the 32-year-old last season.

In addition to their veteran, New York also has a solid second option in freshman Ilya Sorokin. His highly-anticipated transition to the NHL has been smooth so far, and he’s living up to the hype as he continues to grow his game and show flashes of promise. He’s 9-3-1 through 13 games, boasting a 2.21 GAA (third among rookies) and .914 save percentage (seventh among rookies).

As the Islanders look to make another deep run following their journey to the Eastern Conference Final in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, they at least know they’re covered in the crease.

Anton Khudobin and Jake Oettinger, Dallas Stars

After an impressive run to the Stanley Cup Final last season, Dallas is currently struggling to climb in the Central. However, their goaltending is giving them a boost and the opportunity to steal wins night in and night out.

Oettinger is among the biggest narratives to follow for the Stars, going 6-4-6 with a .918 save percentage (T-5 among rookies) and 2.24 GAA. The 22-year-old has great skill and size in the crease and is a quick learner that’s been able to take on major responsibility.

Khudobin hasn’t been in top form this season, going 7-9-4 with a 2.48 GAA and .908 save percentage, but he’s been able to do what he can to keep the Stars in it. “Dobby” continues to shine with his personality, but he’s still showing flashes of the greatness that helped lead his team to new heights in 2020.

Darcy Kuemper, Antti Raanta and Adin Hill, Arizona Coyotes

Like Carolina, the Coyotes also benefit from having three netminders, and that insurance will go a long way as they battle in a tough West Division. The team has not only relied on Kuemper, who is coming off a stellar campaign last season that helped Arizona to the playoffs for the first time since 2012, but also Raanta and Hill.

Kuemper’s taken his game to the next level over the last couple of seasons and continues to prove his worth in net. Through 18 starts, he’s 7-7-2 with a .914 save percentage and 2.41 GAA. The 6-5 netminder has tremendous size and ability and plays the butterfly position to a tee. He benefits from a terrific glove hand and strong lateral movement. Not only that, he handles the puck well and has great reaction time to boot.

Raanta’s also been strong with a .913 save percentage through 11 games. He’s made some unorthodox saves over the course of the season and can handle a heavier workload with a calm demeanor. The same can be said for Hill, who’s been able to come in and relieve some of the pressure for Arizona with a .909 save percentage combined with promising potential and a versatile skill set.

The Yotes defense will have to improve in front of the crease as both netminders work to keep Arizona in the hunt, and they will also be the key to the team making a deep run if they in fact do qualify for the postseason.

[MORE: Your 2020-21 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek, Washington Capitals

The Caps faced a rather unexpected situation in net this season. The plan was for Ilya Samsonov to take the reigns, with newly-signed goaltender Henrik Lundqvist taking on more of a backup and mentorship role while also getting playing time. However, things took a turn after a heart condition held out Lundqvist for the entire season. That’s when Vitek Vanecek got the unexpected call to rise to the occasion – and he hasn’t disappointed.

Through 23 games, Vanecek leads all rookies with wins (15) and ranks in the top-10 with a .907 save percentage and 2.71 GAA. It was a long journey from the AHL to the highest level, and he’s arguably among the top reasons the Capitals are the top team in the East. The Czech netminder shows off quickness in the crease and a terrific glove-hand, and his ten-bell saves and performance has forced the Caps to rely on a two-goalie system.

“[Vanecek’s] given us the opportunity to win hockey games from the start of the year… he’s given us a chance,” head coach Peter Laviolette said.

While Samsonov’s 2.87 GAA and .897 SV% appear lackluster, it doesn’t speak to the quality of his play in net since returning from a bout with COVID that had him struggling to walk and breathe. His stellar lateral movement and positioning have helped keep Washington in a number of games, and he’s lost just two games in regulation this season.

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