When it comes to the question of who is the best goaltender in the NHL, it might not be as easy to answer as you would think.
If you look at just this past season’s work, the obvious answer would have to be Los Angeles Kings netminder Jonathan Quick, who helped lead the Kings to their second Stanley Cup championship in three years.
When a long period of high level performance is looked at, then perhaps the best goalie in the league is the New York Rangers Henrik Lundqvist, who has been a stalwart in goal for the Blueshirts for nine seasons now.
A newcomer who dazzled in his first year as a starter? That would be Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop, who became the Lightning’s all-time leader for wins in a season with 37, and set franchise record for save percentage.
You can never count out the Colorado Avalanche when talking about top goalies, and this season Semyon Varlamov kept the tradition of quality goalkeeping in Colorado going when he passed Hall of Famer (and head coach) Patrick Roy‘s single-season record with 41 wins.
But as good as all of those goalies were, the best goaltender in the league (for my money) is Boston Bruins backstop, Tuukka Rask.
Just looking at this season’s stats alone are enough to bring him into the current conversation of top goalies. Rask ended the season with a 36-15-6 record, including career-best 10-game point streak from Mar. 20-30 when he and the Bruins went 9-0-1. The Bruins led the Eastern Conference in team defense (2.08 GA/game), and Rask was a huge part of that number.
Rask set single-season highs in wins and appearances, and was the only goaltender to rank among the NHL’s top five in each of the major statistical categories, finishing first in shutouts (7), second in save percentage (.930), fourth in goals-against average (2.04) and fifth in wins.
All of this has led to Rask ending up this season’s Vezina Trophy winner for the top goaltender in the league. And in this case, the trophy winner absolutely reflected the meaning behind the award.
But Rask’s play goes way beyond the stat line. It’s practically uncountable how many times he has been able to keep the Bruins in a game that seemed otherwise lost with his steady presence in net. His teammates do their jobs, and attack in the opponents zone because they know that if something gets past them, Rask is up to the task of making sure Boston doesn’t pay.
Leadership qualities, the ability to stay focused and not get rattled even when a puck does get past and – probably most important – the ability to get into the other team’s heads. When you take shots that snap the twine ten times out of ten against other goalies, and then get stonewalled by Rask, it gnaws at you.
Rask faced 1641 shots this past season, the most he’s ever had thrown at him in a single season. Only 115 of those shots saw their way into the net. No, the Bruins didn’t reach the Stanley Cup finals, but it was by no fault of Rask.
Since Rask entered the league, his numbers have been off the charts. Starting in the 2007-2008 season, his career numbers are 102-60, with a .928 save percentage and 2.11 goals against average. Throw in 23 shutouts over that stretch by the way.
There are some who think that Rask was overpaid in his $7 million a year price tag, and seeing the Bruins get bounced in the conference semifinals against the Montreal Canadiens didn’t do anything to squash that argument. He’s not as flashy or acrobatic as Tim Thomas was, and he may not draw all the oooooooos and aaaaaahs at some marvelous saves. Makes no difference. He’s as tough and steady between the pipes as they come, and will only continue to get better.
The Bruins were hit unusually hard by some key injuries at just the wrong times. Rask may be the only reason the B’s were in position to even play in the conference finals this season. When you post a 1.99 GAA against the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens, it’s safe to say that you did your part.
If you think humility and a humble spirit are part of being the best, then Rask has that going as well. Prior to his winning the Veniza, Rask as asked about how it felt to be part of the finalists and at the awards presentation in Las Vegas.
In typical Tuukka style, he quipped, “I’m [up] for the goalie award, and Bergy’s [up] for whatever that award is.”
“I don’t really know what to expect, I’ve never been to a fancy thing like this,” Rask said via NESN.com. “I’m excited to walk the red carpet tomorrow, see some fans and friends and doing the awards. I hope I win, but I kind of hope I don’t win because I don’t have a speech ready. I’m not a good public speaker.”
Ungodly stats, a Vezina Trophy, leading a team to the President’s Cup, and living up to a large contract extension (which many players don’t end up doing), all point to the best goalie in the NHL right now.
Anytime you make a statement about who is the best at anything, there is (and should be) debate following in the wake of such an assertment. So go ahead, tell me why I’m wrong. I still think Tuukka Rask is hands down the best goaltender in the NHL right now.