Nothing can swing a playoff series quite like a red-hot (or ice-cold) goalie. When you’re charting the importance of a goalie, you don’t compare them to a two-way center or elite defenseman. Instead, you’re often asking how a goalie’s importance compares to, say, a quarterback.
Yet, for as important as goalies are, they’re extremely difficult to predict. Some may even call them “voodoo.”
Uncomfortably, you don’t necessarily “get what you pay for” with NHL goaltending. Even so, during the past two offseasons, it sure feels like the “floor” keeps rising on what you pay for NHL goaltending — whether that netminder’s track record is strong or not.
Among other things, these recent trends only make (relatively) reliable goaltending more precious, especially on team-friendly deals.
Even shots in the dark are costing at least $2.75 million per year
After wearing out his welcome with the Capitals, Vitek Vanecek received a new opportunity by way of a trade to the Devils.
For a goalie who experienced enough ups and downs to possibly be labeled something of a reclamation project, it’s striking that the Devils still paid up quite a bit for Vanecek: a three-year deal that carries a $3.4M cap hit.
At first, that at least feels a little steep. But then you realize that it more-or-less falls in line with the floor rising for the goalie market. Even goalies with limited track records mostly fetch $2.75M per year. Consider some of the mid-level signings:
- Vanecek: three years, $3.4M cap hit (Devils).
- Alexandar Georgiev: three years, $3.4M cap hit (Avalanche).
- Kaapo Kähkönen: two years, $2.75M AAV (Sharks).
- Anton Forsberg: three years, $2.745M AAV (Senators).
- Technically, the Maple Leafs traded for Matt Murray‘s contract from the Senators. It doesn’t feel unreasonable to throw him in this group, however, as he carries a considerable cap hit (about $4.7M) amid muted expectations.
[Related: 2022 NHL Free Agency Tracker]
Then, add in some weightier investments, such as Jack Campbell‘s contract with the Oilers, and the Red Wings’ proactive Ville Husso addition.
For some, it inspires a reasonable response: all of that spending makes the Capitals’ investment in Darcy Kuemper feel like a better “calculated risk.”
Overall, not a bad point. Yet, with Kuemper’s age (32) and his history of injuries — most recently an eye injury that forced him to work on tracking — there’s enough risk there that Washington could regret the move. (Injuries and health challenges often get worse, especially for big goalies.)
Instead, a different point lingered. The select few NHL teams with excellent goalies (or, let’s be honest, goalies they think are excellent) at value prices should thank their lucky stars.
And, in cases where those bargains are running out soon, they really might want to use that as motivation to go for it. Consider a team-friendly but short-term goalie contract the netminding equivalent to a rookie contract. You may only get one window where a difference-making person is making team-friendly money.
The $5M-ish Goalie Club: Shesterkin, Demko, Saros
Igor Shesterkin: $5.6667M cap hit for three more seasons (through 2024-25)
Personally, Igor Shesterkin was my pick for best goalie in the world in 2021-22. Hockey Viz’s goalie saving charts provide one way to measure Shesterkin’s historically great season. Saving close to 50 goals above expected is truly ludicrous, and you can still make a Hart Trophy debate for Shesterkin. Once he got over a few early struggles, he was spectacular during the playoffs, too.
Considering how much the Rangers leaned on him (and figure to keep leaning on him), he may slip next year. Perhaps you don’t think Shesterkin’s the absolute best goalie in the world, tabbing the reliable machine Andrei Vasilevskiy. That’s perfectly fair.
For the Rangers, that debate is mostly noise. He’s an incredible steal at a bit less than $5.7M per year, and in the meat of his prime at 26 years old.
One can only guess how much Shesterkin will cost in three years. For the time being, the Rangers should try to make the most of this bargain (not to mention whatever’s left of the peaks for Artemi Panarin and Chris Kreider).
Juuse Saros: $5M cap hit for three more seasons
For the past couple seasons, Juuse Saros has stood alongside Connor Hellebuyck and Andrei Vasilevskiy as a workhorse goalie who combines the quantity of all of those starts with the quality of making tough saves. Last season, Saros and Hellebuyck were the only two goalies in the league to make 1,900 saves and face at least 2,000 shots.
By Hockey Reference’s Goals Saved Above Average metric, Saros was in select company the past two seasons: 23.0 GSAA last season, and 20.9 in 2020-21.
That whole time, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Predators were riding Saros too hard. Whether it was fatigue or just bad luck, Saros suffered an injury at the end of the regular season, and was unavailable for the playoffs.
As it stands, there’s some room to worry about such a workload for a goalie who succeeds at least in part based on world-class athleticism.
Much like Hellebuyck, it’s impressive to note that value the Predators already extracted from their goalie bargain. Saros is a steal at $5M, still young at 27, and cheap for three years. Really, his ascent to the elite makes the Predators’ rebuild phobia easier to stomach.
Canucks found themselves a gem with Demko
In many of these cases, NHL teams are reaping the rewards from drafting and developing their own goalies. For all that’s gone wrong with the Canucks, they have some promising young core pieces, and Thatcher Demko may just provide the most bang-for-the-puck. (Though Quinn Hughes is a nice value, especially in a defenseman market that went pretty bonkers last summer.)
Demko’s merely 26, and if he’s truly as elite as he looks, his deal may end up being more valuable than others. That’s because his $5M cap hit lingers for four seasons (through 2025-26), one more than Shesterkin.
Demko stands with Vasilevskiy and Saros as a young goalie who maybe faced too much of a workload. As time goes on, that’s something for the Canucks to think about.
Most of all, they should avoid wasting a great opportunity where Demko’s getting paid less than he’s worth.
Short-but-sweet NHL goalie bargains
Connor Hellebuyck: $6.166M for two more seasons
You could argue that the Jets already got their money’s worth for Connor Hellebuyck’s six-year, $37M contract. He’s been one of the truly great workhorses in the NHL, propping up some abysmal Jets defenses.
But the Jets could end up haunted by the thought that they wasted having one of the best goalies in the world at such a team-friendly $6.166M cap hit. (The Jets have also not-quite fully exploited the value they’ve enjoyed with the likes of Mark Scheifele.)
At 29, Hellebuyck could very well deliver far above his cap hit for these remaining two seasons. With Rick Bowness being fixated on defense above anything else (at least in Dallas), it may be a more nurturing situation.
Really, though, this contract is part of a fascinating window for Winnipeg. Scheifele’s only under contract for two more seasons, and Pierre-Luc Dubois could set things up to walk as a free agent around that time.
If things don’t work out, that Hellebuyck contract could be a key part of a Jets rebuild. Either way, it’s already been a bargain for Winnipeg, and could very well be extremely fruitful for two more seasons.
Ilya Sorokin: $4M for two more seasons
For those who pay attention to stats along the lines of Goals Saved Above Average/Expected (there are quite a few variations of the general idea), two names rose as 2021-22 went along: Ilya Sorokin and Ville Husso. In Sorokin’s case, he built a credible argument to end up a Vezina Trophy finalist.
#Isles Mathew Barzal on Ilya Sorokin: "There hasn't been enough Vezina talk, really."
Barry Trotz: "He's absolutely correct on that."
Says Sorokin won't get votes b/c Isles aren't playoff-bound. Adds narrative in NY is Igor Shesterkin. "Our guy is right there."
— Andrew Gross (@AGrossNewsday) April 16, 2022
Amusingly, the biggest nitpick of the Islanders’ savvy, projection-based investment with Sorokin is that the savings are a bit brief. The 26-year-old’s $4M cap hit only runs for two more seasons.
Two other factors loom. For one, it remains to be seen if Barry Trotz’s departure makes life tougher for Islanders goalies. Beyond that, there’s the other Islanders goalie: Semyon Varlamov carrying a $5M cap hit dilutes some of the bargain of having a possibly elite young goalie at $4M.
To play “4D Chess” for a second: perhaps Varlamov eats up enough starts to limit Sorokin’s volume, and then the Islanders might extend Sorokin for another value contract? Maybe that type of thinking slips toward Charlie Kelly’s mailroom conspiracy board, but if nothing else, it’s at least a short-term boon for the Islanders.
Premium prices probably justified
Andrei Vasilevskiy: $9.5 million AAV for six seasons (through 2027-28)
Over and over again, I wonder if the Lightning will finally lean on Andrei Vasilevskiy so much that he “breaks.” Year after year, he defies those worries.
With Vasilevskiy, you wade through certain layers of nitpicking. Close to the time he signed his big, current deal, people pointed out that he mainly saved around the number of goals he was expected to. When wading into “best in the world” debates, one might point to relative hiccups, like so-so numbers in the Maple Leafs series.
Yet, as a whole, Vasilevskiy pulls off the remarkable feat of being a bargain at $9.5 million.
By racking up all of those miles — not just heavy in the regular season, but with three straight Stanley Cup Final appearances — I still wonder if the bottom might fall out. Such a thought could make that lengthy, $9.5M investment go “Just About Bob.”
Of course, there’s an obvious distinction even if Vasilevskiy starts to shew closer to Sergei Bobrovsky. The Lightning have already won two Stanley Cups with him.
And would it be that shocking if he just kept chugging along? I’d love to see Tampa Bay find a way for more backup help, but if that never happens, Vasilevskiy is still (somehow) just 27.
Other goalies who may or may not be bargains
- Jacob Markstrom is tricky. At 32, Markstrom’s play could slip, and the Flames may take a serious step back in front of him. Still, his $6M cap hit looks more reasonable considering the far-less-proven goalies who are making comparable money.
- What does the future hold for John Gibson? When he signed at $6.4 million, it seemed like a mega-steal. Yet, the 28-year-old’s results have been mixed-at-best the past three seasons. There’s talent there, but that $6.4M AAV through 2026-27 is something of a mystery. Maybe we won’t really get a true answer until he’s traded, or the Ducks make big improvements?
- Jake Oettinger — currently 23 and an RFA — stands as a fascinating goalie contract situation to watch.
- While playoff injury issues soured the end, both Frederik Andersen (32, $4.5M) and Antti Raanta (33, $2M) delivered serious value for a Hurricanes team that could be even better in 2022-23. Both are entering contract years, though, so those savings may be short-lived.
- In surveying the NHL goalie trade landscape instead of free agents, James Reimer was one of my biggest recommendations. “Frequently above-average, sometimes quite good” might not be the sexiest thing in the world, especially for a 34-year-old goalie. Yet, with the way prices went, one year of Reimer at just $2.2M looked and looks really appealing.
- Truthfully, I have no sweet clue what to expect from Ilya Samsonov. That said, there are worse bets than $1.8M for a 25-year-old whose show flashes of brilliance. (You know, like almost $4.7M for Matt Murray.)
In the end, it’s about making the best, most-educated guesses you can about a mysterious position
To reiterate: even the most promising-looking goalies on this list could flop. And it’s not outrageous for a deal that looks dicey (multiple years of Jordan Binnington at $5M, maybe even Bobrovsky?) could work out, short-term and/or long-term.
There are just so many variables that go into goalies succeeding, failing, or merely getting by.
That said, if recent seasons are decent indications of what’s next for at least the most established goalies, then Shesterkin, Saros, Demko, Sorokin, and others could improve their teams’ odds in enormous ways.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.