There shouldn’t be a debate about the NHL’s best goaltender, at least according to one goalie coach.
“For me, the No. 1 is clear cut,” the coach told ESPN. “He is the king right now. He’s been the king for a while. There is no argument there.”
That’s quite a statement. Consider that nine different goaltenders have won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top netminder in the past nine seasons. There are more than a few netminders with a claim to that throne. So we turned to the experts to find out which goalie they believe sits upon it.
ESPN’s 2023 NHL position-by-position ranking collected 20 surveys that represented those on the ice and behind the scenes.
Here’s how it worked: Surveys were conducted over the past two months. Respondents were asked to rank their current top 10 players at center, winger, defenseman and goaltender, based on a predetermined list of the top 25 to 35 players at each position. Players who were ranked in the top 10 were given a numerical score — No. 1 earned 10 points, No. 2 earned nine points and so on.
There were 10 NHL players surveyed — six from the Eastern Conference, four from the Western Conference. They range from NHL award nominees to veteran role players. To balance that perspective, we surveyed 10 people from the hockey operations departments of NHL teams, including three coaches and three general managers.
Combined, their insights led to rankings that go behind fan conjecture and media narratives to reveal the best of the best — at least according to those inside the NHL.
Here are the top 10 goaltenders, according to our surveys, with additional reporting from yours truly, Kristen Shilton and Ryan S. Clark to add context to the choices. Stats are collected from sites such as Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference and Evolving Hockey.
As previously noted: He’s the king right now, and he’s been the king for a while. Vasilevskiy topped this ranking in 2021 as well.
The Lightning goaltender won the Vezina Trophy in 2018-19 and has been a finalist for the award four times. He’s led the NHL in wins for the past five seasons. He won the 2021 Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, leading Tampa Bay to its second straight Stanley Cup. In the process, he established himself as one of the greatest postseason goaltenders of all time.
Vasilevskiy was ranked first on 17 ballots, one more than he was the 2021 survey.
As NHL broadcaster Brian Engblom said of Vasilevskiy last postseason: “He’s a machine. He’s got the best legs of any goalie I’ve ever seen in the National Hockey League. He’s so fast. They call him the ‘Big Cat’ for a reason. I’ve seen so many plays where guys come in and give a million-dollar move and then he shoots out a leg. You can see the expression on the forward’s face: ‘C’mon, you didn’t stop that one — that’s impossible.’ He does the impossible.”
It wasn’t hyperbole to say that Shesterkin was the best player on the ice in the majority of New York’s wins last season with an NHL-best 34.1 goals saved above expected. The Rangers goaltender won the Vezina last season and finished third for the Hart Trophy as league MVP.
“Shesty” has endeared himself to Rangers fans with acrobatic saves, aggressive puck handling and a personality that breaks through any language barriers for the Russian star.
He also endeared himself to our voters: Shesterkin was ranked first on two ballots — both from players. He led all goalies with 13 second-place votes.
The Jets goalie won the Vezina Trophy in 2019-20 and has returned to that form this season with a .924 save percentage in 41 games. It’s no coincidence that Winnipeg has also rebounded to playoff contender status: As Hellebuyck goes, so go the Jets.
Hellebuyck’s calling card in the NHL has been his work rate. He’s led NHL goalies in games played three times and could do it against this season. He’s led the NHL in shots faced and saves made in four straight seasons.
Hellebuyck tied Vasilevskiy with two second-place votes but led all goalies with nine third-place votes. That was ultimately the margin between the Jets goalie and the netminder who finished fourth.
As one NHL veteran defenseman put it: “I think the top three is about right … but I might pop Ilya Sorokin into the top three.”
Sorokin has never been a Vezina finalist, but that could very well change this season. He’s been a rock as the Islanders have tried to find their footing this season, earning 17 wins in 40 games and a league-leading five shutouts. Sorokin has 25.5 goals saved above expected, which is second in the league, and an NHL-best 5.8 wins above replacement.
Some observers said they felt that Sorokin, who earned six third-place votes, was a little underrated here.
“Shesterkin and Sorokin should be high up there,” one goalie coach said. “The list is good. But, yeah, you can argue all those names.”
The youngest goalie in the top five put himself on the map with a brilliant first-round playoff series against the Calgary Flames last spring, including a 64-save performance in a Game 7 overtime defeat. That postseason showed Oettinger’s promise, and he’s more than delivered on it this season for Dallas: In 40 games, he had 23 wins and a .926 save percentage.
“He’s our No. 1 goalie,” Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill told ESPN earlier this season. “He’s grabbed that opportunity. It’s not like you come into a season and say, ‘We’re just going to give it to you.’ No, he’s earned it.”
Oettinger had one third-place vote and seven fourth-place votes.
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If there’s been one constant through the years for the Predators, it’s been a legacy of solid goaltending: From Tomas Vokoun to Pekka Rinne to Saros, who formally took over the crease in 2021-22, when he appeared in a league-high 67 games.
The Nashville netminder, who finished third for the Vezina last season, overcame a bumpy start in 2022-23 to help the Predators to the playoff bubble. He has 20 wins in 39 appearances with a .919 save percentage.
One goalie coach said he feels Saros is underrated here.
“For me, I would swap Saros and Hellebuyck. I just love Saros. Saros is the reason those guys are in hockey games,” he said. “Hellebuyck is good too. But if you said pick between these two, I am not thinking twice about it and I am going with Saros. And to do what he does at 5-foot-11 and everyone is about the big goalies and he is a small guy who dominates?”
Notably, Saros had the most fifth-place votes (5).
There’s no question Ullmark’s performance this season puts him among the top 10 goaltenders — perhaps even at No. 1. He leads the NHL in save percentage (.937) and goals-against average (1.90) while backstopping the Bruins to the top of the league. Outside of Vasilevskiy and Shesterkin, Ullmark was the only goaltender to receive a first-place vote — his coming from a player.
The question one longtime executive posed was about the fleeting nature of success among NHL goalies.
“When you look at goalies, it is just really tough. It is so year-by-year,” the exec said. “Linus Ullmark is on the list this year but struggled last year in the middle part of the season. He became better as the season went on. Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman went to camp battling for the job, and Ullmark won the job and has had a Vezina-winning season to date.”
Follow the bouncing goalie.
Markstrom was fourth in Vezina voting in 2019-20, his last season in Vancouver before free agency. His first campaign in Calgary? Not so good with a .904 save percentage. But then a full season of Darryl Sutter as head coach led to Markstrom posting an NHL-best nine shutouts to finish second for the Vezina Trophy. This season? Markstrom has a dismal .892 save percentage in 35 games and just 1.5 goals saved above expected.
But he received one vote each for fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh place in our surveys.
One Western Conference executive said Markstrom shouldn’t make the cut this year and didn’t really impress last season, either. “Markstrom has had a tough year, and would have probably been No. 9 last year, in my opinion,” the exec said.
Without question, the most divisive selection in the ranking. The Ducks goaltender used to be considered one of the league’s best, constantly faring better than the Anaheim teams on which he played. But those days are distant memories: Gibson hasn’t had a save percentage above .904 in the past three seasons and has a minus-6.6 goals saved above expected this season.
But he has his fans. Gibson received one fifth-place vote and two sixth-place votes to bolster his case.
“With Gibson, I respect him. I think the last two years he fell off a bit. But it is also hard to judge because their team gives up a lot of Grade A scoring chances night in and night out,” one goalie coach said. “He’s either stopping 40 shots or giving up six goals.”
“Every time I see John Gibson, they may lose 5-2 but he still looks like Patrick Roy in his prime every time I view him,” one Western Conference executive said. “I think he should be higher than eight.”
But not everyone is a fan.
“I’d have Gibson off this list,” another Western Conference executive said.
Or as another longtime team executive said: “Every time I have watched him, I came away thinking, ‘I am not sure this guy can make the big save when it actually matters.'”
When John Tortorella took over the Flyers last summer, it was expected that Hart would benefit from the coaching change. Wherever Torts has coached, his goaltenders have posted some strong numbers.
But Hart isn’t being carried by that system. He’s been better at 5-on-5 than the Flyers’ defense has. Hart has posted 18.6 goals saved above expected this season. It’s enough to have Philadelphia fans once again considering the previously unthinkable: That Carter Hart could be a homegrown solution to their decades-long goaltending search.
Hart just edged a few others for the final spot on the ranking, but not everyone’s a believer.
“Hart has had a bounce-back year, but I don’t trust it,” one NHL team executive said.
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The top five or six goaltenders in the NHL right now are fairly easy to identify. It’s what follows that sparks debate.
“The last three goaltenders are so hard. It’s year-by-year with them,” one NHL team executive said. “The top six guys are the top six guys in the league. After that, it feels like the rest are guys who are having a good season.”
Among the also-rans, Vancouver Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko just missed the cut — he tied Hart with 22 points, but Hart had the tiebreaker with the highest-placed vote (fifth). Demko had his supporters. “I know Demko has been hurt, but for me, part of it is that Demko is younger and I just find him to be way more consistent than Gibson at this point,” one Western Conference executive said.
Another goalie who received support was Frederik Andersen of the Carolina Hurricanes, whose highest place was a vote for fifth. “I think Andersen is a top-10 goalie, but the problem is injuries,” one NHL goalie coach said. “In terms of numbers, he was top three in every category last year. He’s been super dominant, but it’s the injuries. It’s just a string of bad luck. For me, he can go 100% with a lot of those guys.”
One Western Conference executive lobbied for Vegas Golden Knights goalie Logan Thompson to be ranked ahead of Markstrom and Hart. “I’d put Logan Thompson at No. 10,” the exec said. “He’s been really good and kept them afloat last year when they were banged up with injuries and almost got them into the playoffs.”
Finally, there’s Darcy Kuemper. The Washington Capitals goalie won the Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche last season and has been among the NHL’s leaders in save percentage in three of the past four seasons. But his highest rank was sixth place from one voter.
“He won the Cup last year and he’s been good in Washington,” a longtime team exec said. “But he’s also polarizing because there are people who think the Avalanche won the Cup in spite of him.”