Written by HPC podcast co-host, Kevin Kustron.
Who doesn’t love a goalie controversy?! You know, besides the coaches!
Today I explore the top 5 goalie controversies as the NHL season resumes for the 2020 NHL Playoffs and make my picks for each team.
To be clear, I don’t envy any of these Head Coaches in the coming weeks. In many ways, an organization is blessed to have 2 (and maybe 3), starting-quality goalies, on their roster.
At some point though, a starter must be chosen, and the wrong choice can easily cost you a series. Maybe your job. Not too much pressure right?
Top 5 Goalie Controversies of the 2020 NHL Playoffs
5. Edmonton Oilers: Mike Smith or Mikko Koskinen
We start with the Oilers. Mikko Koskinen easily outplayed his counterpart during the regular season. Both played 38 and 39 regular season games respectively. Koskinen finished with 18 wins and a .917 SV% and a 2.75 GAA. Mike Smith’s .902 SV% and 2.95 GAA falls well below those marks but he did earn 19 wins on the season.
The experience factor is where things get interesting. Mike Smith has played in 24 playoff games. Koskinen has played in zero. Smith has 4 shutouts and sports the best playoff SV% among active goalies with .938, 5th in GAA at 2.17.
The playoffs, and by extension the play-in round, are such a different animal in the NHL. Mental toughness and the ability to not make the moment too big are vital to a goalie’s success. Edmonton desperately needs a good start to earn a much-needed spot in the playoffs. A best-of-5 series can go south in a hurry. I want the guy that’s been there.
Game 1 Pick: Mike Smith
4. Nashville Predators: Pekka Rinne or Juuse Saros
This is a fascinating one. On one side is Pekka Rinne. Former Vezina winner and 4th in wins for Active Goalies. He’s been to 3 All-Star games and a Stanley Cup Final. He Sports a .914 SV% and 2.49 GAA in 89 career playoff games. However, Rinne played in 36 games this season and didn’t fare too well. His .895 SV% and 3.17 GAA are well below his career averages of .917 SV% and 2.42 GAA.
On the flip side is Juuse Saros. He played in 40 games this regular season. And his .914 SV% and 2.70 GAA over a bigger sample size can’t be ignored. What’s interesting is Saros had fewer wins than Rinne overall; 18 for Rinne and 17 for Saros. In the playoffs, Saros has only PLAYED in 7 playoff games. He has never started one.
So again, how much do you weigh experience? It’s lopsided both directions. Saros has vastly outperformed Rinne this season but here’s a number to keep in mind. Saros has started 104 career games. Rinne has started 89 PLAYOFF games. Experience wins in the playoffs.
Game 1 Pick: Pekka Rinne
For the record, this Finnish broadcast is pure gold!
3. Pittsburgh Penguins: Matt Murray or Tristan Jarry
You know, some part of me feels for Matt Murray. The dudes won two Stanley Cups. He’s started 47 playoff games and maintains a .921 SV% and a 2.16 GAA with 6 shutouts. Those are great numbers. It puts him 9th in SV% among active goalies and 4th in GAA. He’s also won 28 out of those 47 games. Yet here we are, once again, debating who will start in goal for the Penguins. And with good reason. Tristan Jarry has been that good.
There were many in the organization that pegged Jarry as the eventual franchise goalie when he was drafted in 2013. Then Murray got his chance and the rest is history. But Jarry started 31 games this season, had a .921 SV%, and a 2.43 GAA with 3 shutouts. He was then selected to his first All-Star Game. During all this, Murray struggled. He started 38 games and put up a .899 SV% and a 2.87 GAA.
What gets lost in the shuffle, is how the Pens deployed Murray this season. He consistently started against the league’s top teams when the Pens saw them. That’s not to diminish Jarry’s achievements. He’s been great. But Murray saw the stiffer competition.
Now, I’ve watched all 4 intrasquad scrimmages during Pens training camp and Jarry has been better. Murray started camp rough but has been settling in. He looked real solid in Saturday’s scrimmage. You start Murray, but it’s a short leash.
Game 1 Pick: Matt Murray
2. New York Rangers: Henrik Lundqvist, Alexander Georgiev, or Igor Shesterkin
Man do the Rangers and Head Coach Dave Quinn have a doozy on their hands!
There is little doubt “King Henrik” has a Hall of Fame resume. He’s never won the big one, but his playoff stats have been superb. In 115 starts he has a .922 SV% and a 2.28 GAA with 10 shutouts. His regular-season though before the break was underwhelming, to say the least. 26 starts with a .905 SV% and a 3.16 GAA.
In comes 23 year old Alexander Georgiev. In his third season with the big club, he started 32 games, had a .910 SV% and a 3.04 GAA with 2 shutouts. He’s never started an NHL playoff game.
Then there’s Igor Shesterkin. He started the season with the Hartford Wolf Pack. Started 25 games and had a .934 SV% and a 1.90 GAA. His first NHL work saw him start 12 games. He finished with a .932 SV% and 2.52 GAA. The best stats out of the three. But is it too small of sample size?
My hunch says yes it is. Shesterkin is most likely the long term goalie of the future for the Rangers. Right now though, you’d rather have experience. Lundqvist’s and Georgieve’s stats were similar enough during the regular season to make no difference. And with the way Henrik has historically stepped his game up come playoff time, it’s hard to say no to the King.
Game 1 Pick: Henrik Lundqvist
1. Vegas Golden Knights: Marc-Andre Fleury or Robin Lehner
Six months ago, this was all nice and simple. Fleury was the guy and the team (and city) loved him. Then the 2020 trade deadline came and went, and the Vegas Golden Knights suddenly found themselves with a Vezina finalist on their roster as Robin Lehner was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks and immediately complicated things.
Fleury had a slightly below average regular season in 19-20. He started 48 games and posted a .905 SV% and a 2.77 GAA with 5 shutouts. Robin Lehner only had 3 starts in Vegas before the stoppage but started 31 in Chicago. He had a combined .920 SV% and 2.89 GAA with 1 shutout for the season.
Here’s where recency bias can definitely affect your perspective. Last season, Lehner was sensational. Both in the regular season and in the playoffs. Very deserving of his Vezina Finalist nomination. But, he has only started 8 playoff games in his career. 8! He’s only made the playoffs twice out of his 10 seasons. And he never started a game his first trip.
Now, those of you that might have seen my most recent post [TOP 10 ACTIVE NHL PLAYOFF PERFORMERS] probably sense a Fleury rant coming. You’d be right.
Fleury has started 134 NHL playoff games to Lehners 8. He’s the active playoff wins leader with 78. He’s a 3x Stanley Cup Champion and has been to two more. His playoff .911 SV% and 2.59 GAA with 15 SO are solid.
The reason this is even a conversation is due to the inexplicable way Fleury can go from world-beater to pedestrian in a blink. It’s why he lost his job to a more consistent goalie in Pittsburgh and it has generally been his Achilles heel professionally.
And here we are back to the experience question again. As so many of these choices boil down to. Is it the Vet? Or time to pass the torch? At this point, I think you know which way I’m leaning.
Game 1 Pick: Marc-Andre Fleury
Other Teams with Tough Goalie Decisions:
New York Islanders: Thomas Greiss or Semyon Varlamov – Pick: Greiss
Carolina Hurricanes: Petr Mrazek or James Reiner – Pick: Mrazek
Arizona Coyotes: Darcy Kuemper or Antti Raanta – Pick: Kuemper