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The Goaltending Foxhole, Part Five

In Hockey on December 7, 2011 at 9:55 am

We’ve finally arrived at the top of the mountain. You’ve had a chance to get my thoughts on some of the leagues, best, worst, and brightest goalies in the first four posts. Now is where things get serious. These are the best of the best. The guys that you want on your team to go to war with. While I haven’t number rankings for the past lists (although I might as well have, based on the order), this list deserves a 1-10 ranking for each goalie. This could cause some stir, but I’m prepared to deal with that. Away we go with:

The Elite

10. Niklas Backstrom
I nearly swapped Backstrom with Ilya Bryzgalov, but elected to keep the talented Finn in this section. Backstrom has been sensational since his debut for the Wild back in 2006. When completely healthy, Backstrom is as hard to score on as anyone in the league. You might say that his elevated numbers were the product of Jacques Lemaire’s system in the few years Backstrom played for the defensive stickler of a coach, but he’s doing it again this year playing behind a very young Wild defense. What holds Backstrom back is his past injury concerns and the fact that the one team he took to a division crown (2007-08 Wild), he was outplayed in the team’s loss to Colorado. Still, I love his game and hope he has a chance to perform on a larger stage.

Cam Ward's performances in his two playoff runs earn him a spot on this list

9. Cam Ward
One of the league’s most under-appreciated goalies in my eyes over the last few years, Ward took a little while to settle in with the number one job in Carolina. Of course, he had to follow his Conn Smythe performance in 2006, and that wasn’t easy because Ward was amazing in backstopping the ‘Canes to a title. These last few years, Ward has been at his very best, playing great goal for a Carolina team that has been one of the NHL’s worst defensive clubs in terms of shots allowed. Are his career stats the best? No way. But what gets Ward on this list is the fact that he knows how to get the job done in crunch time. In 2006, he saved the ‘Canes from a potentially embarrassing first-round loss to the Canadiens. In 2009, he out-dueled Martin Brodeur and Tim Thomas to take an underdog Carolina squad to the East Finals. When the lights shine bright, Ward shows up. His spot is safe.

Until he gets it done in the playoffs, Roberto Luongo stays at eighth

8. Roberto Luongo
Some of you reading this might have been surprised Luongo didn’t end up in the last section. Some people might be mad he’s not higher than some of the names in front of him. To you both, I say stop! It’s so easy to look at the bad Roberto Luongo over the last few years. It’s also kind of fun to do, but I digress (only because he dominated the Sharks last year). What many people forget is just how good this guy has been in his career. He was great for some awful Florida teams when he broke into the league. He got traded to a good team, and continued to put up some strong numbers. I have no doubt that he’s an elite goalie. That said, his meltdowns in big spots have been of the spectacular variety. He has the two against Chicago in consecutive years, and was pitiful against Boston on the road in the Stanley Cup Finals last year. He has also been bailed out in the 2010 Gold Medal game, when he failed to smother Zach Parise’s game-tying goal late in the third, as well as last year’s Chicago series when Chris Campoli handed the game to Alex Burrows in OT of game seven in a series Vancouver once led 3-0. So yes, I can’t figure the guy out, but I know he’s good enough to be on this list.

7. Tomas Vokoun
He’s earned his chance to play on a good team for once in his career. His best chance to play for a really good team was back in 2007 with Nashville, but a blood clot cost him that chance. There’s no question that he’s a top goalie in this league, but he hasn’t had a chance to prove us that he belongs higher because of his resume in big games. In other words, there isn’t much of one. He’s struggled out of the gate with the Caps this year, but some of that can be attributed to the team in front of him. Time’s running out on Vokoun though, so we’ll see if he can dig the Caps out of their current hole.

Pekka Rinne is the frontrunner to be Finland's starter in the 2014 Olympics

6. Pekka Rinne
I can only think of one goalie that’s been on a bigger roll than Rinne in the last 12 months, and he plays in Boston (more on him later). Rinne has been the best goalie to come from the long line of Nashville goaltending products. He’s been stellar since taking over the Preds’ starting spot, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. If the Preds only had more success offensively, then he might be higher on this list. Regardless, Rinne is an elite goalie, and he should have more chances to prove that in the coming years in Nashville.

Carey Price is next in a long line of great Montreal goalies

5. Carey Price
Price entered the league with some big expectations, and he was decent in his rookie season taking the Canadiens to the East Semis. Price then went through a tough few seasons, sharing time with Jaroslav Halak. Sure enough, Halak gets dealt and Price has a career year last year. He was sensational for the Habs even through their playoff loss to the Boston (though some would argue they should have won that series after holding a 2-0 lead). Price continues to be stellar for a Habs squad that’s struggling to score goals this year, and that’s not expected to change.

4. Ryan Miller
Miller has carved out one hell of a resume for himself since the lockout. He’s taken Buffalo to a pair of conference finals, won a Vezina Trophy and backstopped his country to a silver medal in the 2010 Olympics. Miller remains one of the league’s top goalies, and this year he’s got a team in Buffalo that he could win a Cup with. Of course, he got trucked by Milan Lucic, and now he’s out with a concussion. Miller has been just average this year for the Sabres, and when he comes back, he’s going to have to be back at his best to get Buffalo over the hump. I have a feeling he will.

Best moment of last season's Cup Finals. Easily.

3. Tim Thomas
Things got awfully tough to decide on when I got to this spot. Thomas has been the best goalie in the league since the start of the 2008-09 season and carried the Bruins to a Stanley Cup last year. He was also a member of the USA team that lost to the Canadians in the 2010 Olympics. I love the way Thomas plays every game. He’s not the biggest or most physically gifted goaltender in the league, but he battles harder than anyone else in the crease. When the Bruins had their backs against the wall in the playoffs last year, Thomas answered the call each and every time, allowing only six goals in five elimination games. Look, I want this guy on my team no matter what, but I have to drop him down to the third spot because there are times his aggressive style gets the better of him. It’s not a very good reason, I know.

Henrik Lundqvist is poised for his best season to date

2. Henrik Lundqvist
Another argument can be made for King Henrik to be the top guy on this list. I’m not one to disagree that he’s capable of being that top guy. He’s been great in every season since joining the Rangers after the lockout. He’s got an Olympic gold medal for his performance in 2006 with Team Sweden, and he’s backstopped some Rangers teams that have been weak on offense to the playoffs in all but one season since the lockout. He’s been great this year and could be on his way to a Vezina Trophy if the Rangers continue to roll at the rate they are. But it’s the fact that that Lundqvist hasn’t seen the East Finals that keeps him at number two. Yes, I know that the Rangers teams in front of him haven’t been the greatest. Yes, I also realize that some of that playoff failure could be the result of playing too much for those offensively-challenged teams. Not good reasons, I know, but he’s still someone I wouldn’t hate to have. Sorry Henrik, you’re still the best looking goalie on this list. So you’ve got that going for you…

And the top spot on this list goes to…

Like it or not, Marc-Andre Fleury is the guy I want between the pipes in a must-win spot

1. Marc-Andre Fleury
I know some people (all three of you) have to be screaming at me for this pick. Fleury took a long time to develop after Pittsburgh made him the top pick in 2003, but he needed to spend that time developing, because Pittsburgh was an awful team when he was drafted. Once he arrived for good, he hit the ground running. Fleury has continuously come up big for the Penguins throughout his career, but no time bigger than his last second save on Nicklas Lidstrom in game seven of the 2009 Cup Finals. He was brilliant that entire series, helping the Penguins get out of an 0-2 hole in that series. Don’t forget, he also has an Olympic gold medal to go with his Cup (I know he didn’t play, shut up). You can tell me all you want that he’s had Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Gonchar, Letang etc. playing in front of him his entire career. The ultimate factor that led me to put Fleury at this spot is what he did with Crosby and Malkin out last year. That team, on paper, was awful without the two superstars. Fleury was the biggest reason that they not only made the playoffs, but they nearly won the division as well. And yes, I’m willing to look past the series collapse against Tampa. Give me the Flower any day.

That does it for this list. Is it flawed? I’m sure it is, I’m not an expert after all. But that doesn’t mean I won’t listen to what you have to say. Let me know if you agree, disagree, or who you would have in your top spot.

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