It is widely believed that the balance of power in the NHL these days is heavily weighted in the Western Conference. With the last three Stanley Cups going to the Los Angeles Kings, Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings respectively, it is an easy assessment to make. And that doesn't even take into account the other contenders like the Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues. Yet, when it comes to the game's most important position - goaltending - the Eastern Conference seems to have a wide edge when it comes to the last line of defense. That said, the goaltending in the west is certainly nothing to sneeze at. Just ask every shooter who faced Jonathan Quick in the 2012 and/or 2014 playoffs. So which of these masked men gets the nod as the best in the business right now? Read on as I count them down from 20 to 1.
20 - John Gibson
Yes, it is bold to list this young man based on such a small body of work, but I think John Gibson is the real deal, and in a couple of years time he will be a lot higher on this list. He may have some stumbles in his rookie season with Anaheim, but look for him to swiftly gain confidence at the NHL level. The Ducks will be a Stanley Cup contender this year, and if Gibson can play up to his potential they may just upset both the Kings and the Blackhawks and make it out of the west.
19 - Ryan Miller
Okay, so he's lost a step since his brilliant 2009-10 season which saw him capture not only the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goalie, but also the MVP of the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Miller actually put up pretty solid numbers last year, sporting an impressive .923 save percentage while backstopping a woeful Buffalo Sabres squad in the throes of a full rebuild. When he was acquired by the St. Louis Blues late in the season it seemed like Miller would finally get his chance at a Stanley Cup, yet he seemed to struggle after the move. This summer saw him sign on with the Vancouver Canucks, and he should help stabilize what has been a very unstable environment for goalies over the past several years. Yes, his days as a Vezina Trophy winner are almost certainly behind him, but he should be good enough to help the Nucks squeak into the playoffs.
18 - Braden Holtby
After a couple of years of sharing the net in Washington Braden Holtby is now the clear number one, and will finally get a chance to show both his teammates and the rest of the league just how good he is. Holtby has put up solid numbers in his time with the Caps, already notching a dozen shutouts and a career .919 save percentage in just 108 games played to date. This will be a make or break year for Holtby. Will he cave under the additional pressure that comes with the moniker of #1 goalie, or will he thrive? I think he'll thrive, despite Washington's porous defense, and may establish himself as a top 10 goalie in the not-too-distant future.
17 - Jonathan Bernier
If you look at the team stats in 2013-14, the Toronto Maple Leafs had absolutely no business being in the playoff hunt past Christmas. Yet, thanks to the stellar play of Jonathan Bernier they were not only in a playoff spot, but battling for a top four position and home ice advantage. Unfortunately for long-suffering Leafs fans Bernier suffered an injury and when James Reimer came on in relief duty for the tail end of the season he wasn't able to handle the barrage of shots the Leafs gave up nightly as well as Bernier did. The Leafs rapidly slid out of the playoff race, highlighting the importance of Bernier to the fortunes of this franchise. If Bernier can stay healthy and duplicate what he accomplished last year then the Leafs have a very good shot of grabbing a coveted playoff spot this time around.
16 - Roberto Luongo
Let's be honest, Roberto Luongo isn't going to win very many games this year. The Panthers have some nice prospects on their roster, but most of the squad is still a couple years away from making a real impact at the NHL level. As a result the Panthers aren't going to score a lot of goals and they are likely going to be giving up a plethora of chances. Luongo has always thrived under a heavy workload so you can probably expect a save percentage in the neighborhood of .920. Though in the twilight of his career he still has something left to give. Unfortunately there may not be many fans in Florida this year to witness his brilliance.
15 - Craig Anderson
Will the real Craig Anderson please stand up? A couple of seasons ago Anderson was otherworldly, posting a stingy 1.69 GAA and a .941 save percentage during an injury-plagued campaign. A year later, healthy and seemingly on the cusp of superstardom Anderson took a big step back. His GAA ballooned to 3.00 and though his save percentage was still decent at .911 he couldn't seem to come through with that timely save. The Sens who'd made it it to the Eastern Conference semifinals the season before didn't come close to making the playoffs. In my estimation Anderson's true ability lies somewhere in between. Look for his save percentage to shoot north of .920 this year and while that still might not be good enough to get the Sens into the playoffs it will certainly make them competitive on a nightly basis, a characteristic that was sorely lacking from last year's squad.
14 - Marc-Andre Fleury
Hidden in the enormous shadows of superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury often flies under the radar as one of the NHL's premiere goaltenders. In fact, the only time he seems to spend any time in the spotlight is when he plays poorly (eg: 2012 playoffs). No, Fleury hasn't been stellar in the post-season as of late, but that may be an anomaly. He has shown he can get it done in the playoffs before, and was outstanding in the Pens' 2009 Stanley Cup run.
13 - Corey Crawford
This guy might well be remembered as the Chris Osgood of his era. Many claim that Osgood never got the respect he deserved, considering he posted 401 career wins to go along with 50 shutouts, and was a 3 time Stanley Cup champion. His naysayers claimed that he was the beneficiary of playing behind an awesome team (Detroit Red Wings) for the bulk of his career, and that he was just good enough not to screw things up for the juggernaut that was the Winged Wheel. Now Crawford finds himself in a similar situation. With stars like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith playing in front of him he rarely sees the spotlight, despite putting up very impressive GAA and save percentage over the past four seasons with the club. In the 2013 playoffs Crawford posted a sparkling 1.84 GAA and .932 save percentage, leading the Hawks to their second Stanley Cup in four years, yet he was little more than an afterthought in the Conn Smythe conversation. Maybe one day he'll get his due, but in the meantime he will have to be satisfied with making our list.
12 - Jaroslav Halak
Wow, the Montreal Canadiens really had an embarrassment of riches at the goaltending position when they had both Carey Price and this Slovakian superstar fighting for the number one job. Ultimately they chose Price, and that was probably a wise decision, but Halak's stellar play with the Habs must have made it a touch decision for management to finally let him go. Not only was he great in Montreal, almost single-handedly taking them to the Eastern Conference semi-finals in the 2010 playoffs, but he has continued to shine since then, starring for the St. Louis Blues, briefly for the Washington Capitals, and now for the New York Islanders. Halak has battled some injuries over the past few seasons that have probably kept him from a higher spot on this list, but watch for him to lead the Islanders to a significant improvement in the standings this year providing he can stay healthy.
11 - Kari Lehtonen
Speaking of goalies who would have been higher on this list if not for injury woes, Kari Lehtonen of the Dallas Stars certainly fits in that category. Lehtonen has been stellar for the Stars, and has never had a save percentage worse than .911 in his five seasons with the club. This could be a breakout year for the Finnish star. With key acquisitions like Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky the Stars have become an offensive powerhouse. If Lehtonen can hold the fort at the other end the Stars should be able to make some serious noise in the west this season.
10 - Antti Niemi
Finland has been cranking out superstar goalies for a number of years now, and Antti Niemi is yet another example that they are definitely doing something right in that small Scandinavian country when it comes to training their tenders. Niemi tended the pipes for the Blackhawks when they captured the cup in 2010, yet was let go by the team in the off-season after an arbitration award proved to costly for them to bear due to salary cap constraints. The San Jose Sharks snapped him up, and he has been a model of consistency for them over the past four seasons.
9 - Semyon Varlamov
The Colorado Avalanche shocked everyone with the incredible season they enjoyed in 2013-14, and the main reason for that performance was not the guidance of rookie coach Patrick Roy, nor the brilliance of rookie phenom Nathan MacKinnon, but rather the unexpected play of netminder Semyon Varlamov. Varlamov was brilliant in the Avs net, posting a .927 save percentage, a 2.41 GAA and winning 41 games for the club. His performance didn't go unnoticed as he was nominated as a finalist for the Vezina Trophy. He ultimately was beat out by Boston's Tuukka Rask for the accolade, but at just 26 years of age he is just coming into his prime, and will likely be in the conversation for the Vezina for years to come.
8 - Cory Schneider
It's hard not to feel for Cory Schneider. First he get caught up in one of the biggest soap operas in the history of the league while with the Vancouver Canucks. First he was the backup to Roberto Luongo, then he was the starter, then he was the backup again before finally getting traded to the New Jersey Devils on a day when everyone thought it would be Luongo that was moving on. Matters weren't quite as crazy in New Jersey, but he found himself entangled in yet more drama as reigning number one and future first ballot Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur wasn't ready to give up his starting job. This season, Brodeur having parted ways with the Devils, Schneider finally has a chance to be an undisputed number one. His numbers over the years with a sheltered workload have been impressive, and there is little reason to doubt he will thrive as his role expands. Look for Schneider to put the Devils on his back and don't be surprised if they vastly exceed expectations this year.
7 - Pekka Rinne
This rubbery giant Finn was nominated for the Vezina in both 2011 and 2012 before health issues derailed his career temporarily. Now healthy he should quickly round into the form that made him one of the most daunting tenders in the league for opposing shooters. Nashville still has one of the strongest defensive cores in the league and with Rinne again in peak form the Preds should be able to challenge for a playoff spot in the competitive Western Conference.
6 - Sergei Bobrovsky
years decades the Philadelphia Flyers have been struggling to find a bona fide number one goalie to complement their stable of offensively gifted forwards. Little did they know they had the perfect candidate, only to let him slip away before he'd come into his own. Bobrovsky has been lights out ever since arriving in Columbus. He was the 2013 Vezina Trophy winner, and though he had a slow start last season and battled injury he finished strong, notching 5 shutouts and posting a .923 save percentage and 2.38 GAA. Look for Bob to deliver more of the same this year and again challenge for the Vezina.
5 - Ben Bishop
A couple of seasons ago the Ottawa Senators had an enviable problem. They had three number one caliber goalies on their roster in Craig Anderson, Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop. Anderson was in the middle of a terrific season so Ottawa's only logical choose was to move either Lehner or Bishop. In the end they chose to ship Bishop to Tampa Bay, and it is looking like they very likely made the wrong choice as he has turned into one of the league's most dominant goalies. At 6'7" tall Bishop covers a lot of net, but he doesn't just rest on his size. He is athletic as well and is a big reason why Tampa Bay is now considered a Stanley Cup contender. He was a Vezina finalist last season and will almost certainly be in the running again this year.
4 - Jonathan Quick
No player in any sport is more aptly named than Los Angeles Kings goalie Johnny Quick. The ridiculously flexible American-born keeper moves laterally better than anyone in the game today. His aggressive style of play can sometimes find him out of position, but that lightning quick movement bails him out more often than not. He already has a pair of Stanley Cup rings and a Conn Smythe Trophy under his belt, and providing his groin doesn't give out on one of those jaw-dropping splits saves he should have another stellar year for the defending champs.
3 - Carey Price
As I mentioned above the Montreal Canadiens had a difficult choice when deciding to keep Jaroslav Halak or Carey Price. Well, as good as Halak has been it is now readily apparent that Habs management made the right choice. After some growing pains in his first few seasons Price is now living up to the potential that saw the Canadiens select him with the 5th overall pick in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. Price's calm demeanor, his solid positioning and his athleticism have allowed him to challenge for the position of the best goalie in the game today. He was a wall for Team Canada at last year's Winter Olympics, backstopping the squad to a gold medal, and was just as good in last year's NHL playoffs, leading his team to the Eastern Conference finals before injury forced him out of action. If Price can continue to improve then Montreal has to be considered as a darkhorse in this Stanley Cup race. Yes, he is that good.
2 - Tuukka Rask
Tim Thomas left behind some pretty big skates to fill after moving on from Boston with a pair of Vezinas, a Conn Smythe and a Stanley Cup ring all stuffed in his hip pocket. Well, Rask has shown he is up for the challenge, and though he still has a ways to go in the hardware category he did capture his first Vezina last season so he is narrowing the gap. With Zdeno Chara a year older and Johnny Boychuk gone to the Islanders Rask's task may be more daunting this year, but I'm betting he won't be phased and will again be one of the finalists for the Vezina this year.
1 - Henrik Lundqvist
It was by the narrowest of margins, but the man they call King Henrik is also getting crowned as the best on the list of the best goalies in the NHL today. Lundqvist is all but unbeatable when he's on his game, and with the exception of slow starts in the past couple of seasons he is rarely off it. Amazingly he's only got one Vezina in his trophy case, but he's been a finalist five times. He led the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Finals last year, posting stingy numbers along the way. It will be a tall task to duplicate or improve upon that feat this season, but the East is wide open and with the best goalie in the game leading them the Rangers could once again overachieve this season.