Coming up with a list of the 20 best NHL goaltenders of all time was quite a challenge, and I made several revisions to the list before finally settling on what I’ve written here. The NHL has changed so dramatically over the past century that strictly using stats to define the greatest is a useless tool. Goaltenders in the 80s had extremely high G.A.A.s compared to those who played the bulk of their career in the dead puck era.
Way back in the day teams only carried one goaltender, who had to play through injury and sickness, without a capable backup on the bench waiting to take over if they faltered. Many also worked day jobs and showed up on game night prepared to battle despite a full day of back-breaking labor under their belt.
And of course we can’t forget the evolution of equipment as a factor in determining the greatest goalies to ever play the game of hockey. Today’s equipment is absolutely huge, and goalies look like Michelin men when compared to their brethren of the 80s and before. Go way back into the history books and none of the goalies even more masks. On the flip side the shooters weren’t as deadly as they are today. The increased size and strength of players, coupled with breakthroughs in hockey stick technology has given even so-called 4th line grinders power and accuracy that even the game’s biggest stars never enjoyed back in the day.
As impossible as it seems to compare yesteryear’s legends to the superstars of today it is an exercise that hockey fans enjoy undertaking on a regular basis. In the end it boils down to one man’s opinion, and I’m sure that opinion will be widely contested and even derided. That is the great thing about the sport of hockey. It elicits so much passion from those who follow it.
For those who will note Vladislav Tretiak’s absence on this list, remember this is a list of NHL goalies only. Had it been a world-wide list there is no question that Tretiak would be sitting at a high spot. With that said here are my picks for the top 20 best NHL hockey goalies of all time:
20 – Ron Hextall - I figured I’d create some controversy right off the bat with my number 20 selection. No, Ron Hextall didn’t win a Stanley Cup, and yes he was a bit of a snap-show at times – Remember him hacking down Kent Nilsson, or going bananas trying to get at Chris Chelios? However, that doesn’t take away from the fact that he was a spectacular goalie who took the 1987 Philadelphia Flyers to within a whiskers-breadth of the 1987 Stanley Cup, before finally bowing out to the far more powerful Edmonton Oilers in game 7. His performance that year would earn him the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP, one of the very few times it has been awarded to a player on the losing team.
Hextall was not only an extraordinarily skilled puck stopper, he was also a revolutionary puck handler, and not only could he pass the puck as well as a defenseman, he was the first goalie in NHL history to score a goal by shooting it into an empty net. Then when his imitators began to accomplish the same feat, Hextall one-upped them by becoming the first goalie to do it in a playoff game.
19 – Gerry Cheevers - Known for his creative goal mask which features mock stitches of all the cuts he would have received had he not been wearing said mask, Gerry Cheevers was an integral part of the powerful Boston Bruins team that won two Stanley Cups in the 1970s. Though he lacked the Vezina Trophies on many others on this list – thanks in large part to playing at the same time as a guy by the name of Ken Dryden, and spending a stint in the WHA during his prime – Cheevers built himself a well deserved reputation as a money goaltender, who always delivered at clutch times. His streak of 33 games without a loss is an NHL record that still stands to this day.
18 – Frank Brimsek - When your nickname is Mister Zero you know you’ve earned yourself a spot on the list of the best NHL goalies of all time. Though some Mike Richter fans might argue, many consider this man the greatest American born goaltender of all time (Watch out Mr. Zero, Ryan Miller is throwing his hat in the ring for that title now too). Brimsek made an immediate impact with the Boston Bruins, earning 10 shutouts in his rookie year and earning the Calder Trophy as a result. Over his career he would earn 2 Vezina Trophies, lead the Bruins to 2 Stanley Cups and appear in 8 All Star Games.
17 – Grant Fuhr - Speaking of money goaltenders, there are few that were as good at key moments than this backbone of the powerful 80s era Edmonton Oilers. Fuhr’s numbers might pale in comparison to many others, and he only earned a single Vezina Trophy in his career, but let’s be honest, he didn’t exactly have a very defensive-minded team playing in front of him. Yet, in the third period whether the Oilers were up by a goal, or whether they were trailing by one and needed him to make a key save to keep the game in reach Fuhr would always deliver. Known for his spectacular glove saves Fuhr was a goalie who was just as entertaining to watch as his high-flying teammates. He would capture 5 Stanley Cups with the Oilers before going on to stints with Toronto, Buffalo, Los Angeles, St. Louis and Calgary.
16 – Walter “Turk” Broda - Another blast from the past on the list, Turk Broda spent his entire NHL career with the Toronto Maple Leafs. During that span this Hockey Hall of Famer helped the Leafs capture 5 Stanley Cup championships, twice earning himself Vezina Trophy honors along the way. Amazingly he did all this despite taking a three year hiatus in the prime of his career to serve in the war. When he returned he showed no rust at all from the break, leading Toronto to the Stanley Cup in 3 of the next 4 years.
15 – Clint Benedict - Though Jacques Plante is routinely credited with being the pioneer that brought the goalie mask to hockey, it is actually this man who first donned the mask in a game, dating way back to early 1930. He starred with the Ottawa Senators and the Montreal Maroons, winning 4 Stanley Cups along the way. He was one of the first bona fide goaltending stars in first the NHA and eventually the NHL, and his accomplishments were recognized when he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame back in 1965.
14 – Billy Smith - Though much of the credit to the New York Islanders’ incredible dynasty of the early 80s goes to Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and Denis Potvin, as any coach or player will tell you, it is all but impossible to win a Stanley Cup, let alone four in a row, without great goaltending. Battlin’ Billy Smith was known for his vicious stickwork well before Ron Hextall took over the mantel of league lumberjack. He would punish any opposing forward brave enough to stand at the lip of his crease, delivering nasty chops to exposed leg flesh whenever he could get away with it. Smith didn’t put up particularly impressive numbers in the regular season, but when playoff time hit he had that rare ability to take his game to another level, becoming all but unbeatable as he helped the Islanders win one playoff series after another for a span of almost 5 straight years. Smith also holds the distinction of being the first NHL goaltender to be officially credited with a goal. Colorado Rockies’ defenseman Rob Ramage actually put the puck into his own empty net with the goalie pulled for an extra attacker, but since Smith was the last opposing player to touch the puck he got credit.
13 – Cecil “Tiny” Thompson - As Clint Benedict’s career was winding down Cecil Thompson was starting to carve his own name in the history books as a superstar NHL goaltender. In his very first game he pitched a shutout, serving immediate notice that he was going to be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. That first season he was ridiculously stingy, putting up a miniscule 1.15 GAA. He played the bulk of his career with the Boston Bruins, winning 4 Vezina Trophies and helping the Bruins win a Stanley Cup.
12 – Johnny Bower - Not even Johnny Bower himself knows how old he is, but there can be little question that this legendary keeper tended the nets until a ripe old age. For most of his distinguished career he was a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and he helped that team to 4 Stanley Cup championships – including 3 in a row between 1962-64 – during his tenure there. He earned two Vezina Trophies over his career, but even more than the Stanley Cups and the Vezinas Bower is arguably most famous as an innovator. He was the first goalie to popularize the poke check, using the daring maneuver to poke the puck off opposing forwards’ sticks when they got too close to the net. It was a supremely effective tactic that was rapidly emulated by his peers, and is still widely used by today’s NHL goaltenders.
11 – Tony Esposito - Though he spent much of his early life and his NHL career in the shadow of his larger than life superstar brother Phil Esposito, Tony Esposito managed to make his own legend as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks. Tony O would help pioneer the butterfly style, and hybrid goaltending style that flew in the face of traditional stand-up goaltending. The style proved to be remarkably effective, and Esposito set an NHL record with 15 shutouts his rookie season in the NHL, a mark that still stands today. The performance earned Esposito the Calder Trophy, the Vezina Trophy, and was even runner-up for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP. He would continue his brilliant play, and though he never captured a Stanley Cup, he earned two more Vezinas over his career, giving him 3 in total, and was on the Team Canada team that beat the Soviets in the 1972 Summit Series.
10 – Bill Durnan - I dust off the history books as I enter the top 10 best NHL goalies of all time. Bill Durnan doesn’t often get his due when great Canadiens like Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau, Guy Lafleur, Doug Harvey and Jacques Plante are mentioned, and that is a crime, because this is one of the best to ever don an NHL sweater. Though his career was brief – he played only 7 seasons – Durnan made the most of that relatively short time. Over that span he captured the Vezina Trophy 6 times, set an NHL record (since broken by Brian Boucher) with 4 consecutive shutouts, and helped the mighty Canadiens win two Stanley Cups.
9 – Bernie Parent - Though his first six NHL seasons were nothing to write home about, from the 1973-74 season on Bernie Parent certainly made up for lost time. Over that span Parent was one of the most dominant goaltenders the game has ever seen, winning 197 games and losing only 60. The peak of this incredible stretch came between 1974 and 1975 where Parent helped the Flyers win Stanley Cups, earning personal accolades in the form of consecutive Vezina and Conn Smythe Trophies along the way.
8 – George Hainsworth - The Montreal Canadiens have had an embarrassment of riches at the goaltending position over the years, and this man was arguably the one who got the tradition of great Canadiens goaltenders started. Back in the 20s and early 30s Hainsworth was an absolute wall for the Habs. Though his statistical greatness goes unheralded in the modern NHL record book Hainsworth’s performance during that era cannot be ignored. In the 1928-29 season he posted a mind-boggling 22 shutouts in just 44 games, and his goals against average that season was a microscopic 0.92. He once went over 270 minutes without allowing a goal, in the playoffs! He would help the Canadiens to two Stanley Cups, and even served a stint as team captain – only the 2nd goalie to ever do so – before moving on to the rival Toronto Maple Leafs. His 1.93 career GAA is the second lowest in NHL history, and his 94 career shutouts put him third on the all time list behind only Martin Brodeur, and Terry Sawchuk.
7 – Glenn Hall - 502 consecutive starts in goal. That’s all that needs to be said. I’m going to say more, but really that insane stat alone is reason enough this goaltender earns such a high spot. It is, of course, an NHL record and perhaps no other mark in any sport is as completely untouchable as this one. As you all know Gordie Howe was known as Mr. Hockey. Well Glenn Hall was known as Mr. Goalie. Over his Hall of Fame career he wore the hockey jerseys of the Red Wings, Blackhawks, and Blues and along the way he helped his clubs earn a pair of Stanley Cups, nabbing himself a pair of shiny Vezina Trophies to boot.
6 – Ken Dryden - Sorry, Leafs fans, but get used to seeing a lot of Montreal Canadiens goaltenders in the top 10. Dryden followed up the work of legends like Hainsworth, Durnan and Plante with his own Hall of Fame career in the sweater of the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge. Like Durnan before him, Dryden didn’t stick around the NHL for very long, but his brief time there was even more dominant than Bernie Parent’s performance in Philadelphia was. In the 397 regular season games Dryden played he only lost 57 times! That is not a typo. In that same span he backstopped the Habs to 6 Stanley Cups, earned 5 Vezina Trophies, and paired with Tony Esposito to help Team Canada beat the Soviets in 1972. Despite the great power of the legendary Habs team of the 70s, it isn’t a coincidence that their dynasty toppled after Dryden called it a career following the completion of the 1978-79 NHL season.
5 – Jacques Plante - As great as the 1970s Canadiens were, there are many hockey historians that contend that the team that won 5 consecutive Stanley Cups in the latter half of the 1950s is the greatest Habs team ever assembled. While legends like Maurice Richard and his brother Henri, Jean Beliveau, Doug Harvey and Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion were getting the job done in front of him, Jacques Plante tended the nets. Over his remarkable career Plante would go on to capture the Vezina trophy an NHL record 7 times, and even won a Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP. Of course his biggest claim to fame is popularizing the goalie mask. Plante defied his coach, the legendary Toe Blake, after taking a shot that broke his nose. He finally won the argument and donned a mask for protection. It wasn’t long before his contemporaries copied Plante, changing the game forever.
4 – Martin Brodeur - Some might be shocked to find this guy only at number four on the list, and to be honest I agonized over it a long time, but ultimately I could not justify putting him any higher up. Brodeur is as consistent as any goalie who has ever played the sport, and his ability to deliver while simultaneously handling a heavy workload have made him the NHL’s all time leader in both regular season wins and shutouts. With at least a few more years ahead of him Brodeur’s totals are going to go a lot higher and when the dust settles on his career his marks may well be untouchable. Over the years he has helped the New Jersey Devils win 3 Stanley Cups, Team Canada earn 2 Olympic Gold Medals, and has 4 Vezina Trophies on his mantle.
3 – Dominik Hasek - Though I’m sure many readers will be shocked to see him ahead of Brodeur, Plante and Dryden and be scratching their heads wondering how I’ve ranked him so high, I’m actually worried I may have ranked him too low. With all due respect to every other legend on this list I don’t think I’ve ever seen a goalie as completely unbeatable as Hasek was when he was at the top of his game. His unorthodox style, his incredible quickness, and his ridiculous athleticism and flexibility completely confounded shooters. Though he would go on to win 2 Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings, Hasek’s peak came while a member of the Buffalo Sabres. During his stint there he won 6 Vezina Trophies, an even more impressive 2 Hart Trophies, and helped a mediocre team that probably wouldn’t have even made the playoffs if not for him make it to game 6 of the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals. Had Hasek played on a team of the caliber that Dryden, Plante, Fuhr or Smith had in front of them he would have won several more Stanley Cups. If his NHL career doesn’t quite convince you try and find some old footage of the 1998 Olympics, where Hasek “dominated” the powerful Canadian and Russian teams to help his Czech Republic team to the Olympic Gold Medal that year.
2 – Terry Sawchuk - Before Brodeur, Hasek and Roy came along the title of greatest NHL goalie of all time was really a two horse race between Jacques Plante and this guy. He was enigmatic and outright anti-social and he refused to listen to the advice of coaches, playing the game his way. His positioning was inferior to many of his contemporaries but Sawchuk more than made up for that with his lightning fast reflexes. His hands and feet were a blur as he batted puck after puck away from his goal. Much like Tim Thomas today he was widely recognized as one of the hardest battlers in the game, and would never give up on a play until the puck crossed the goal line. Over his remarkable career he captured 3 Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings, and helped the Toronto Maple Leafs capture their 13th (and last) Stanley Cup in 1967. He was also awarded 4 Vezina Trophies, and most famously held the mark for most career shutouts with 103, until he was recently passed by Martin Brodeur.
1 – Patrick Roy - Speaking of enigmatic figures who do things their own way, Patrick Roy certainly falls under that definition. Whatever issues you might have with his personality quirks though you cannot deny his incredible performance on the ice. Perhaps no other goalie before or since has wanted to win as desperately as Patrick Roy did. He was a big game goaltender who saved his best work for the playoffs, and 4 times over his career he led his teams to Stanley Cups. However, it is the two Stanley Cups he won with the Montreal Canadiens in 1986 and 1993 that really cemented his spot on this list of the best goalies of all time. In neither of those years should the Habs have come anywhere close to hoisting the Stanley Cup. Not to take anything away from the other players on those teams, but Patrick Roy was the single reason they won the Stanley Cup those years. He was absolutely brilliantly, particularly in overtime, coolly beating one opposing goalie after another in a game of nerves. Three of the four times he hoisted the Stanley Cup he also took home the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Yes, Martin Brodeur has eclipsed his record of 551 regular season wins, but Roy was a playoff performer, and Marty ain’t gonna touch Roy’s 151 playoff victories. That one might be safe for all time, and is a big reason why Roy sits atop my list of the greatest goalies ever.