Which NHL Teams Are Being Held Back The Most By Goaltending?

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen #1, Buffalo Sabres (Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images)
Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen #1, Buffalo Sabres (Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images) /

No matter how much the NHL changes, goaltending is always the most premium of positions. A good or bad goaltending duo can lead a team to greatness or to the draft lottery. The acrobatics of those who tend the twine may not make the highlight reels the same way goals scored by Connor McDavid do, but they might be even more important.

Every team could use goaltending. Even the teams who had seemingly elite starting net minders would say they can use elite backup net minders. There are some teams more in need of quality crease minders than others. Here are some teams whose goaltending is the thing holding them back from taking that next step and reaching even more success.

Before we start, here’s an honorable mention to the Edmonton Oilers. Imagine how unstoppable the Oilers would be if they had the likes of Andrei Vasilevskiy from the Tampa Bay Lightning in net? We left them out of this because saying “Edmonton needs goaltending” isn’t exactly a new take, but one that has been talked about for as long as we can remember.

The last time Edmonton felt any type of stability increase was with Devan Dubnyk. Even if Stuart Skinner had stabilized the situation (try saying that five times really fast), that doesn’t take away the fact last year’s long playoff run was on the back of forty-year-old Mike Smith finding the fountain of youth for a few rounds. Don’t forget that big contract they handed to former Toronto Maple Leaf goaltender Jack Campbell hasn’t worked out either.

Goaltending truly is a make-or-break position.

The two NHL teams whose netminders are the ones holding them back from reaching contention.

First off is the Ottawa Senators. The Senators seemingly were about to exit their scorched Earth rebuild after a successful offseason that added the likes of Claude Giroux and Alex Debrincat to supplement their already impressive young core of Josh Norris, Alex Stutzle and Brady Tkachuk. After a few years of giving the Matt Murray experience a try, Ottawa shipped off the underperforming netminder to the Toronto Maple Leafs and opted to go with a “1A/1B” strategy with Cam Talbot and Anton Forsberg.

Problem is, neither of them really performed to the level of “1A”, even if they’ve given Ottawa very fine “1B” performances. Forsberg currently sports a 3.26 goal-against average and a .902 save percentage. Talbot is slightly better at a 2.90 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage. The problem is both are currently out with injury, so the current Senators’ tandem is Kevin Mandolese and Mads Sogaard.

Here is some food for thought: the Senators traded for Talbot from the Minnesota Wild, sending away former backup Filip Gustavsson to the state of hockey. Gustavsson has saved 12.9 goals saved above expected in 23 games. In a similar workload (28 games), Talbot has only saved 0.8 goals above expected for Ottawa.

Goaltending might not have been Ottawa’s biggest problem this season. Injuries got to them, including Josh Norris’s season-ending shoulder problem. Like many years before, it’s going to be a year spent saying “maybe next season” for Senators fans. As the team continues to grow, the goaltending tandem of Talbot and Forsberg clearly isn’t the answer.

Second, are the Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres entered this year with low expectations, expecting it to be another lost season in Western New York while fans say, “at least we got the Buffalo Bills”. Instead, the team has overachieved the point where the playoffs might not be a pipe dream.

By no means are the Sabres a great team. With a forward group with talents such as Tage Thompson, Dylan Cozens and a somewhat resurgent, but still overpaid Jeff Skinner, they’re scoring enough to be taken seriously. Don’t forget they have two former first overall picks in Rasmus Dahlin, who has been perhaps the league’s best point producer on the blue line not named Erik Karlsson, and Owen Power on defense.

Goaltending needs work, however. The Sabers have largely used a goaltending trio of Craig Anderson, Eric Comrie and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. Luukkonen is still a year or two away from being that true, dependable starter. Comrie is largely an AHL talent who never had more than 19 games of NHL action in a single season, which he did last year with the Winnipeg Jets. Anderson has been surprisingly reliable, but he’s also the oldest player in the entire league at 41, which is also ironically his number on the Sabres.

We’re not saying the Sabres could be playoff contenders. We’re not even saying the Sabres could win their division, or even be top three in their division. Considering they currently sit six points out of the final Eastern Conference wild card playoff spot and have flirted with playoff positioning all year, if they had decent goaltending they would be in a better position to make this the year they end their NHL record postseason drought. In a completely hypothetical fantasy hockey trade article, Sean Allen of ESPN considered the possibility of trading for the Anaheim Ducks John Gibson.

Both the Sabres and the Senators are teams on the rise, but both have long term questions in goal. Sabres at least have Luukkonen as their next potential starter. What’s Ottawa’s game plan? Are they going to hope another goalie like Darcy Kuemper did last summer hits free agency? Ottawa has addressed big roster moves with trades and free agency before, they might have to do it again for their goaltending.