Suddenly, and seemingly without warning, there are no more “elite” goaltenders in the National Hockey League. By elite, I mean veteran guys who mean everything to their club and whom management would never, ever consider trading. They’re too good. Period. Elite netminders could, predictably, get a club to the third round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on their skill alone. Like I said those days, and those guys, are gone.
There are still some netminders in the NHL who used to be considered elite. Miikka Kiprusoff, of the Calgary Flames, was once in that category. Not anymore. Kipper’s Flames missed the playoffs, and his save percentage was only tenth-best in the league. Jean-Sébastien Giguère was elite. Martin Brodeur also used to be elite. This season, other than passing the great Terry Sawchuk (elite) on the all-time shutout list, was a wild ride for Brodeur.
As the Olympic Winter Games started, he was Canada’s man in goal. A former gold medal winner. By the time he’d fumbled and bumbled his way to a preliminary-round loss to the United States, Brodeur was out. He did post nine shutouts for the Devils this season, but his save percentage was only thirteenth best in the league.
And how about José Theodore? Who knows which version of him we’ll see tonight as the Capitals begin their playoff run. Eight years ago, as a 25-year old with the Montreal Canadiens, Theodore won the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP. In recent years, only Theodore and Dominik Hasek have claimed the Hart.
“The Dominator” was one of those elite guys. So was Patrick Roy. So was Ed Belfour and Grant Fuhr and Ken Dryden and Bernie Parent. Years ago, pretty much every NHL team had an elite netminder, because there were so few teams in the league. Today, it’s more of a “Flavour-of-the-Month” kind of deal.
Goaltenders have one or two great seasons – then begin the quick slide into semi-obscurity. Boston’s Tim Thomas won the Vezina Trophy last year. Tonight, he won’t even start the Bruins’ first playoff game. Tuukka Rask will. Today, the closest you will find to an elite goalie is Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres. He’s in his fifth NHL season but, in 34 career Stanley Cup Playoff games, only has 14 wins. Not elite yet.
And don’t even think of uttering Roberto Luongo’s name in the elite category. Because, if you felt completely comfortable with him in Canada’s goal at the Olympics, you’re the only one.
Elite goaltenders play great. All the time. Every season. Over an extended period of time. Those guys are extinct.