Sunday the NHL Network released their much-anticipated list of Top Ten NHL Goaltenders. This list has created fierce debate among fans and analysts who each have their own opinions on how the league’s best goaltenders should be ranked. And fans are often shocked when their favorite netminder fails to be included on the list of NHL greats.
For Bruins fans, that is the case with Tuukka Rask.
Tuukka Rask has not been on the NHL Network’s list for the past two years. This exclusion has infuriated many in Beantown, and has got them wondering how a goaltender who won the Vezina Trophy during the 2013-14 season as the best goalie in the league has managed to fall out of the top ten only four years later. On top of that, Rask led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup Final the previous season, recording a .940 save percentage and 1.88 goals against average (GAA) in 22 games.
During the 2013-14 campaign, Rask posted 36 wins, a save percentage of .930, GAA of 2.04 along with seven shutouts. If you compare those numbers to this year's top goalies a .930 save percentage would be second in the league (behind Sergei Bobrovsky’s Vezina-winning .931). A GAA of 2.04 would have been the league’s best beating out Bobrovsky who led all netminders this past season with a GAA of 2.06. And at the end of the 2013-14 season Rask had seven shutouts which would have tied for third this season. This year the Capitals’ Braden Holtby led the league with nine shutouts and Tuukka himself came in second with eight.
Of course this was the Tuukka Rask of 2014, not the Tuukka Rask of 2017. It is nearly impossible for any goaltender to maintain such high numbers over an extended period of time. The reason these stats are important is because the NHL Network has made it clear that they are not simply looking at this year’s stats when compiling their list of top goalies. If they had only looked at this years stats then Jonathan Quick has no business being part of the top ten.
This season Jonathan Quick was out for an extended period of time with a groin injury. He only played 17 games, winning eight. During those 17 games, Quick posted a save percentage of .917 and GAA of 2.26. It is not to say that Jonathan Quick is not one of the best goaltenders in the league. His athleticism is second to none, and with two Stanley Cup rings in the past five years, he has the pedigree of a star. The issue is that it is difficult to judge a goaltender by the numbers when they have played in less than 30 games in the season, and Quick played barely half of that.
That is why it is perfectly acceptable to say that Rask’s 2013-2014 Vezina season should be taken into account when calculating the league’s best between the pipes.
Let’s take a look at the official list of Top Ten Goaltenders from the NHL Network:
1. Carey Price
2. Braden Holtby
3. Sergei Bobrovsky
4. Matt Murray
5. Devan Dubnyk
6. Jonathan Quick
7. Cam Talbot
8. Henrik Lundqvist
9. Martin Jones
10. Pekka Rinne
How did Rask do this year?
In a year when Rask played behind a young and struggling defense he still posted numbers that are deserving of top five consideration, never mind top ten.
Looking at just this season’s numbers, Rask beat out goaltenders in the top ten in every category.
Rask’s worst stat this season was his save percentage at .915. It is the same save percentage he posted at the end of the 2015-16 season and is down from .922 in the 2014-15 season and .930 in his Vezina winning 2013-14 season. Even still, this lower-than-normal save percentage is better than Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Jones, who posted percentages of .910 and .912 respectively during the 2016-17 season.
As far as win percentage goes, Rask finished with a .578 and a total of 37 wins on the season. This means the games the Bruins started Rask in net, they won just about 58% of the time. Compared to other netminders on the list this stat ranks in the direct middle, behind Murray (.681), Holtby (.667), Bobrovsky (.650), Dubnyk (.635) and Price (.596) but higher than Talbot (.575), Lundqvist (.564), Jones (.538), Rinne (.508) and Quick (.471). Murray led the entire group with a win percentage of .681 in games he started for the Pittsburgh Penguins during the regular season. Pekka Rinne, who took the Nashville Predators to the Stanley Cup Final this year against Murray and the Penguins, had a win percentage of .508, the worst on the list of top ten not counting Quick, who with playing only 17 games, is hard to gauge accurately compared to the others.
Rask, with a GAA of 2.23, tied Carey Price for 3rd in the league, behind only Holtby and Bobrovsky who each posted impressive averages of 2.07 and 2.06 respectively. As previously mentioned, Rask recorded eight shutouts last season, that is five more than Price, who topped NHL Network’s list and one more than Bobrovsky, the goaltender voted best in the league this past season.
Rask robs Thomas Plekanec in a game the Bruins eventually won 2-1 in OT:
In the past four seasons, Henrik Lundqvist has not had a GAA lower than 2.25, a save percentage better than .922 or more than 35 wins in a season. This stats are surely elite material, but they are not numbers that should give Hank a spot on the list of Top Ten Goaltenders over Tuukka Rask.
Clearly there is a projection component of this list. For example, Matt Murray only has one full season in the NHL under his belt, but the impressive numbers he has put up in that time, along with helping to lead the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cups, project that he will continue to produce at a high level into the future. This has won him the number four spot on the list, with NHL Network’s EJ Hradek saying he could have been listed even higher, potentially at number one.
Goaltenders Martin Jones, Cam Talbot and Devan Dubnyk have only played two full seasons as the starting goaltenders for their respective clubs, yet in each of these seasons their GAA have been below 2.55 (sometimes as good as Dubnyk’s 2.25 this season) and their save percentages are always above .910 (Dubnyk had the highest of the group with a .923 this past year). While these numbers may be impressive for two seasons of work, Jones, Talbot and Dubnyk have not put up numbers even close to what Rask did in 2013. Even this season Rask’s GAA of 2.23 beats out all four of these less experienced netminders.
A closer look at the numbers
The case can be made that the reason why Rask had a really strong GAA and eight shutouts, while recording a only slightly above average save percentage this season was due to the fact that there were times when Rask played really well for the Bruins, and other nights when he was chased from the net.
Consistency was difficult for the entire B’s roster this past season and it resulted in the firing of Head Coach Claude Julien in February, and the installment of Bruce Cassidy as Interim Head Coach. In the 21 games Rask started after Cassidy took over, he recorded 12 wins, a GAA of 2.08, and save percentage of .923. This is up from the .911 save percentage and 2.31 GAA he maintained under Claude Julien in the earlier part of the season.
Tuukka robs Patrick Sharp off a pass from former teammate Tyler Seguin last February:
What does this all mean? It means that Rask’s low numbers, this past season in specific, have less to do with his individual performance and more to do with how the team in front of him has been performing. Rask jumped from an average season under Julien to putting up numbers that would have seen him finish among the league’s best in nearly every aspect of the position under Cassidy. The team as a whole had a 26-23-6 record under Claude yet finished the season going 18-8-1 under Cassidy, earning a playoff birth for the first time in three seasons.
The bottom line is that elite goaltenders can help make a team better, and can steal a playoff series or two for a team, but in order to have long term success, the players in front of that goaltender need to be playing at their best as well. Pekka Rinne, playing for the Nashville Predators, was the only goaltender on the NHL Network’s list that played for a team that finished with fewer points than the Bruins at the end of the regular season.
With Rinne’s numbers worse than Rask’s in every category except for save percentage (.918 to Rask’s .915) it is conceivable that the only reason Rinne made the top ten over Rask was the fact that his team reached the Stanley Cup Final this year. Every other goaltender on the list plays for an elite team that played to their potential for most of the regular season as well. These goalies often get help on defense that may be lacking on other teams, allowing their numbers to be better than a goaltender of comparable is skill.
If it is true that the list was created in part through predicting which goaltenders will be dominant next season, then it is even more bizarre as to why Rask was not included. The Bruins young defensive core is promising with Brandon Carlo who just completed his rookie year paired with veteran Zdeno Chara. Charlie McAvoy, the Bruins 14th overall pick in the 2016 draft, who played with the team this postseason is another player Boston expects to be a top-four player on the back end.
The Bruins’ defense has been their Achilles Heel for the last two seasons, not coincidentally the same two years when Rask’s numbers have been the lowest. Expect an improved defensive core to help out Rask in front of the net by eliminating more odd-man rushes and fewer back-door passes. If the Boston blue line develops like many hope it will, Rask will be a shoo-in for the NHL Network’s list of Top Ten Goalies this time next year, even if he should be there already.