The 1980s was the golden era of the National Hockey League (or so I’m told).
It was a time of dynastic teams, high-scoring games and some of the best international hockey that’s ever been played.
Nevertheless, the on-ice product is fondly remembered, primarily for the sheer amount of goals it produced. A large part of this scoring was made possible by an influx of generational offensive talent, which the goaltending of the era simply couldn’t catch up to.
That said, not all the goaltending was bad. The 1980s made legendary the backstops of perennial powerhouses, such as Billy Smith, Grant Fuhr and Mike Vernon. There was what could have been with Pelle Lindbergh and what was with his successor, Ron Hextall. And, of course, 1985 saw the debut of Patrick Roy, arguably the greatest goaltender to ever play the game.
Nostalgia aside, what do the statistics say? Who was the best when it came to tending goal in the 1980s?
What Were the 1980s, in NHL Terms?
First of all, when we talk about the “1980s,” we all know we’re talking about the decade which lasted from the beginning of 1980 until the end of 1989. Obviously.
However, in an NHL context, “1980s” refers more to an era of the game; an era in which goals were plentiful and superstars reigned supreme.
In 1978-79, goal-scoring jumped to an average of 3.50 goals per game per team, a mark unseen since 1944-45, while the 1992-93 campaign – a year regarded as the best of all time, saw teams average 3.63 goals per game, a statistic which dropped off sharply the following two seasons.
The peak of this offensive binge came from 1980-81 until 1985-86, inclusive, when said average never dropped below 3.84.
For reference, teams in 2017-18 averaged 2.97 goals per game, the highest total since the 3.08 registered in post-lockout 2005-06.
Thus, for the purposes of this article, “1980s” shall refer to the time between the 1978-79 and 1992-93 NHL seasons, inclusive.
Additionally, goaltenders had to have started at least 200 games during the time frame in question to qualify for inclusion in cumulative categories. For single-season categories, goalies had to have started 40 or more games, which may seem a low threshold, but allows for injury, and also the fact teams often played their backups very nearly as often as their starters (the dynastic New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers are both great examples).
The Top 5 Best NHL Goalies of the 1980s, by Statistical Category
Most Total NHL Wins in the 1980s
1. 293 Wins: Mike Liut (St. Louis Blues, Hartford Whalers, Washington Capitals)
2. 279 Wins: Andy Moog (Edmonton Oilers, Boston Bruins)
An Oilers draft pick, Moog split regular-season games with batterymate Fuhr throughout much of the 1980s, posting numbers nearly identical to those of the Hall-of-Famer. However, with the exception of 1983, Fuhr always got the nod in the playoffs, though Moog did take over from an injured Fuhr in the 1984 Stanley Cup Final to secure the Oilers’ first championship.
After a 1988 trade to the Bruins, Moog was again forced to share the crease, this time with veteran Réjean (“Reggie”) Lemelin, before finally assuming the starter’s role in 1990-91 after taking over from Lemelin the previous postseason and guiding the Bruins to the Final.
There’s no doubt Moog’s numbers were somewhat deflated thanks to being stuck behind the prodigious Fuhr and the veteran Lemelin throughout much of the time frame in question. It should also be noted Moog briefly left the NHL, playing much of 1987-88 with the Canadian National Team.
Still, Moog played nearly two decades in the league, finishing his career 17th in all-time regular-season wins (372), ranking second only to Liut in this era – even ahead of Fuhr. Not bad for a second fiddle.
3. 275 Wins: Grant Fuhr (Edmonton Oilers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres)
4. 246 Wins: Pete Peeters (Philadelphia Flyers, Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals)
5. 244 Wins: Tom Barrasso (Buffalo Sabres, Pittsburgh Penguins)
Most NHL Wins in a Single Season in the 1980s
1. 43 Wins (61 Starts): Tom Barrasso (1992-93, Pittsburgh Penguins)
In an era that featured much sharing of the crease – not to mention games that ended in ties, that Barrasso won 43 games in a season is noteworthy enough, let alone the fact he only had to start 61 times to do so.
The Penguins won the Presidents’ Trophy that year, helped by an NHL-record 17-game winning streak towards the end of the season, spurred on by the return of captain Mario Lemieux from cancer. Barrasso won 14 of those games en route to his best statistical season up until that point in his career.
Barrasso also sits fifth in cumulative wins from this era, to go along with winning both the Calder and Vezina trophies during his rookie season of 1983-84 – when, incredibly, he made the NHL straight out of high school hockey.
In terms of the all-time greats, Barrasso sits 19th in regular-season wins, with 369 – borderline Hall of Fame numbers. However, Barrasso’s poor personal rapport with many in the hockey world would seem to put his induction in doubt.
2. 43 Wins (70 Starts): Ed Belfour (1990-91, Chicago Blackhawks).
3. 41 Wins: Ed Belfour (1992-93, Chicago Blackhawks)
4. 40 Wins (61 Starts): Pete Peeters (1982-83, Boston Bruins)
5. 40 Wins (63 Starts): Pelle Lindbergh (1984-85, Philadelphia Flyers)
HM. 40 Wins (73 Starts): Grant Fuhr (1987-88, Edmonton Oilers)
Most NHL Shutouts in the 1980s
1. 25 Shutouts: Mike Liut (St. Louis Blues, Hartford Whalers, Washington Capitals)
Despite making the playoffs in all but one of his 13 seasons in the league, Liut played on a team that finished the regular season over .500 only five times, so perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Liut leads all NHL goalies during this era in both shots faced and saves made.
However, Liut also leads in wins and shutouts, an already impressive accomplishment made all the more exceptional when one considers the middling-to-poor nature of most of the teams he played on.
Although his career totals don’t really stand out when compared to the all-time greats, Liut being saddled with mediocre teams, not to mention having to retire early on account of injury troubles, should be taken into account when judging his netminding résumé.
One can make a very convincing argument Liut was, all things considered, the very best goaltender of the 1980s.
2. 21 Shutouts: Pete Peeters (Philadelphia Flyers, Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals)
3. 20 Shutouts: Patrick Roy (Montréal Canadiens)
4. 19 Shutouts: Tom Barrasso (Buffalo Sabres, Pittsburgh Penguins)
5. 17 Shutouts (459 Starts): Andy Moog (Edmonton Oilers, Boston Bruins)
HM. 17 Shutouts (582 Starts): Greg Millen (Pittsburgh Penguins, Hartford Whalers, St. Louis Blues, Québec Nordiques, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings)
Most NHL Shutouts in a Single Season in the 1980s
1. 8 Shutouts: Pete Peeters (1982-83, Boston Bruins)
2. 7 Shutouts: Ed Belfour (1992-93, Chicago Blackhawks)
3. 6 Shutouts (51 Starts): Greg Millen (1988-89, St. Louis Blues)
Millen played for six different teams during his 14-year NHL career, with the journeyman’s best all-around season coming in 1988-89, when he posted the second-highest win total of his career (22) and registered six shutouts in just 51 starts.
Millen posted three consecutive shutouts at one point during the season and went 8-1-2 down the stretch, guiding the Blues to their 10th-consecutive playoff berth before backstopping them to a first-round series win over the Minnesota North Stars.
Never considered one of the greats, even during his era, Millen nevertheless put together an solid NHL career punctuated by one of the best single seasons – shutout-wise, anyway – in the entirety of the 1980s.
4. 6 Shutouts (69 Starts): Tony Esposito (1979-80, Chicago Black Hawks)
5. 5 Shutouts (41 Starts): Tommy Soderstrom (1992-93, Philadelphia Flyers)
HM. 5 Shutouts (42 Starts): Don Beaupre (1990-91, Washington Capitals)
HM. 5 Shutouts (45 Starts): Bob Essensa (1991-92, Winnipeg Jets)
HM. 5 Shutouts (47 Starts, 47 Games Played): Ken Dryden (1978-79, Montréal Canadiens)
HM. 5 Shutouts (47 Starts, 51 Games Played): Bob Froese (1985-86, Philadelphia Flyers)
HM. 5 Shutouts (51 Starts): Ed Belfour (1991-92, Chicago Blackhawks)
HM. 5 Shutouts (54 Starts): Tom Barrasso (1984-85, Buffalo Sabres)
HM. 5 Shutouts (63 Starts): Kirk McLean (1991-92, Vancouver Canucks)
HM. 5 Shutouts (66 Starts: Patrick Roy (1991-92, Montréal Canadiens)
Lowest NHL Goals Against Average in the 1980s
1. 2.70 GAA: Ed Belfour (Chicago Blackhawks)
2. 2.79 GAA: Patrick Roy (Montréal Canadiens)
While Belfour’s numbers are certainly marvellous, they also came towards the end of the era being profiled (Belfour played briefly in both 1988-89 and 1989-90, before making the NHL on a full-time basis in 1990-91).
Meanwhile, Roy debuted smack in the middle, and instantly shot to stardom thanks to backstopping the Canadiens to a surprise Stanley Cup as a rookie in 1986, taking down the Calgary Flames and earning himself the Conn Smythe Trophy along the way.
One of – if not the – greatest netminder to ever strap on the pads, Roy was as consistent as he was clutch, providing the Habs with well above-average goaltending season after season, taking home the Vezina Trophy in 1988-89, 1989-90 and 1991-92, along with another Conn Smythe in 1993 as the Canadiens won their second Cup during this era.
I mean, just look at the yawning chasm between Roy’s 2.79 GAA and the rest of this list.
3. 3.09 GAA: Pete Peeters (Philadelphia Flyers, Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals)
4. 3.10 GAA: Bob Froese (Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers)
5. 3.26 GAA: Bob Essensa (Winnipeg Jets)
Lowest NHL Goals Against Average in a Single Season in the 1980s
1. 2.30 GAA: Ken Dryden (1978-79, Montréal Canadiens)
2. 2.36 GAA: Patrick Roy (1991-92, Montréal Canadiens)
3. 2.37 GAA: Pete Peeters (1982-83, Boston Bruins)
Peeters’ incredible 1982-83 campaign, a season which earned him the Vezina Trophy, makes several appearances on these lists, but I felt it most impactful to highlight his remarkable 2.37 GAA.
Though GAA generally has more utility as a team statistic, as opposed to judging goaltenders, I felt this one significant on account of just how much better it is than anyone else’s. Peeters’ 2.37 GAA is 0.13 lower than any other goalie from that year, and 0.29 higher than any with 40 or more starts.
While that’s impressive on its own, it’s worth noting that Peeters’ 2.37 GAA, which would still be rather good today (only 10 goalies that played regularly in 2017-18 fared better), comes smack in the middle of peak ‘80s hockey, when teams were averaging 3.86 goals per game.
Peeters’ mark is the only one in this category to have been posted midway through the era in question, with the others all coming at the much-less-crazy bookends.
Peeters certainly had a solid career, but the fact it lasted only (“only”) 13 seasons – and came at a time when platooning goaltenders was the norm, leaves him out of most discussions of the NHL’s all-time greatest netminders.
That said, with only 156 losses in 467 total starts, I’d say Peeters deserves a whole lot more recognition for his body of work.
4. 2.47 (2.471) GAA: Patrick Roy (1988-89, Montréal Canadiens)
5. 2.47 (2.472) GAA: Ed Belfour (1990-91, Chicago Blackhawks)
Highest NHL Save Percentage in the 1980s
1. .901 SV%: Ed Belfour (Chicago Blackhawks)
2. .901 SV%: Patrick Roy (Montréal Canadiens)
3. .896 SV%: Bob Essensa (Winnipeg Jets)
Essensa was a solid pro for a reasonably long time, but his performances in the early years of his career, which overlap with the time frame for this analysis, are pretty darn impressive. 1991-92 was the second-best best season of his career, save percentage-wise (his best would come in 1997-98), his .910 SV% leaving him second only to Vezina-winning Roy.
A highly competitive team throughout much of the 1980s that fielded some truly excellent players, the Jets had the misfortune to be stuck in the Smythe Division with the Oilers and their fellow Alberta powerhouse, the Flames.
Essensa would have given Winnipeg a viable option in goal to combat the consistent competence of the Alberta teams’ netminding. Unfortunately for the Jets, their goaltending salvation came too late, as Essensa debuted in 1988-89, by which time the team was on the decline.
4. .891 SV%: Billy Smith (New York Islanders)
5. .890 (.89007) SV%: Ron Hextall (Philadelphia Flyers, Québec Nordiques)
HM. .890 SV% (.89004): Jon Casey (Minnesota North Stars)
HM. .890 SV% (.8899): Kelly Hrudey (New York Islanders, Los Angeles Kings)
HM. .890 SV% (.8898): Bob Froese (Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers)
Highest NHL Save Percentage in a Single Season in the 1980s
1. .914 (.914175) SV%: Patrick Roy (1991-92, Montréal Canadiens)
2. .914 (.914170) SV%: Glenn (“Chico”) Resch (1978-79, New York Islanders)
Far less acclaimed than tandem partner Smith, who got the majority of the playoff starts, Resch shared the crease with “Battlin’ Billy” almost entirely equally before Resch was traded to the Colorado Rockies late in the 1980-81 campaign, thereby depriving him of membership of the final three Stanley Cups of the Islanders dynasty.
Resch spent most of the rest of his career behind the abysmal Rockies and the not-very-much-better New Jersey Devils (the Rockies’ successor), before finishing up with the Flyers in 1986-87.
Nevertheless, Resch won the Cup with the Islanders in 1980, was popular wherever he played and holds the second-best save percentage of the era. Not too shabby for someone who went undrafted.
3. .912 SV%: Patrick Roy (1989-90, Montréal Canadiens)
4. .911 SV%: Curtis Joseph (1992-93, St. Louis Blues)
5. .910 SV%: Bob Essensa (1991-92, Winnipeg Jets)
Most NHL Shots Faced in the 1980s
1. 18,880 Shots Faced: Mike Liut (St. Louis Blues, Hartford Whalers, Washington Capitals)
2. 18,002 Shots Faced: Greg Millen (Pittsburgh Penguins, Hartford Whalers, St. Louis Blues, Québec Nordiques, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings)
3. 16,186 Shots Faced: Grant Fuhr (Edmonton Oilers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres)
Despite being part of platoon systems for much of his career, Fuhr is a legendary workhorse in the annals of NHL history. Fuhr holds the NHL record for games played by a goaltender in one season, with 79 in 1995-96 (he’s tied for the record for starts, with 78 from that same year).
However, perhaps even more impressive, Fuhr started 73 games in 1987-88 and played in 75 games total, leading the 1980s in both categories. It’s worth noting Fuhr didn’t slow down for the playoffs, either; he played every game for the Oilers, going 16-2 as Edmonton dispatched the rest of the league in just 18 games en route to their fourth Stanley Cup.
This spectacular year won him the Vezina Trophy, but he was a standout netminder throughout the 1980s, backstopping the Oilers dynasty to four of their five Cups (though batterymate Moog had to finish off the Islanders in 1984 due to an injury to Fuhr).
Of course, playing so much, and behind the run-and-gun Edmontonians at that (the dynastic Oilers had a rather…different approach to defense than most), Fuhr saw more than his fair share of rubber, enough to net him third spot in this category.
4. 15,263 Shots Faced: Don Beaupre (Minnesota North Stars, Washington Capitals)
5. 14,643 Shots Faced: Tom Barrasso (Buffalo Sabres, Pittsburgh Penguins)
Most NHL Shots Faced in a Single Season in the 1980s
1. 2,239 Shots Faced: Tony Esposito (1980-81, Chicago Black Hawks)
Though nearing the end of his career at the time, Esposito faced three of his four largest shot totals during the scope of this analysis (1980-81, 1979-80 and 1978-79, respectively).
Constantly dragging the often-mediocre Black Hawks (the moniker was two words until 1986) to respectability (they made the playoffs every season he played), Esposito was a durable workhorse who never won a Stanley Cup as a starter (though he did not play in the playoffs, he was technically part of the Canadiens’ 1968-69 championship team), though he did help Chicago make two appearances in the Final (1971 and 1973).
Esposito’s final season was 1983-84, when he started just 18 games, so perhaps it’s not entirely fair to label him a true ‘80s goaltender, given he did most of his work the decade previous.
Still, the barrage of 2,239 shots he faced in 1980-81 – at 37 years of age, no less – was a staggering 344 more than his next-closest competitor, and his .890 SV% ranked 12th amongst goaltenders with 12 or more starts. Esposito deserves recognition for simply being able to stand up after the season, let alone lugging his lacklustre team to second place in the Smythe Division and a berth in the playoffs.
The Henrik Lundqvist of his era, then.
2. 2,202 Shots Faced: Curtis Joseph (1992-93, St. Louis Blues)
3. 2,119 Shots Faced: Bob Essensa (1992-93, Winnipeg Jets)
4. 2,109 Shots Faced: Tony Esposito (1979-80, Chicago Black Hawks)
5. 2,099 Shots Faced: Tony Esposito (1978-79, Chicago Black Hawks)
Most NHL Shots Saved in the 1980s
1. 16,662 Shots Saved: Mike Liut (St. Louis Blues, Hartford Whalers, Washington Capitals)
2. 15,721 Shots Saved: Greg Millen (Pittsburgh Penguins, Hartford Whalers, St. Louis Blues, Québec Nordiques, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings)
3. 14,301 Shots Saved: Grant Fuhr (Edmonton Oilers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres)
4. 13,514 Shots Saved: Don Beaupre (Minnesota North Stars, Washington Capitals)
Though largely unheralded, these rankings show Beaupre was one of the true workhorses of the era, facing – and parrying – the fourth-most shots of any goaltender during the 1980s.
Like Moog, Beaupre was pretty darn good for a pretty long time. Also like Moog, Beaupre generally played in platoon situations, starting 50-plus games only twice.
However, unlike Moog, Beaupre was saddled largely with middling teams, which no doubt depressed his statistics somewhat. Things got even worse when he played for the utterly atrocious Ottawa Senators in 1994-95 and 1995-96.
Still, sticking around the NHL for nearly two decades is tough for any player, let alone a goaltender dwarfed by the many bigger fish of his era.
Credit where credit’s due: Beaupre just kept on swimming.
5. 12,988 Saves: Tom Barrasso (Buffalo Sabres, Pittsburgh Penguins)
Most NHL Shots Saved in a Single Season in the 1980s
1. 2,006 Shots Saved: Curtis Joseph (1992-93, St. Louis Blues)
Perhaps no season better reflected CuJo’s penchant for vaulting the unexceptional into contention than 1992-93. His sorry excuse for a Blues team had the seventh-fewest goals in the NHL, and were in the playoffs by the grace of Joseph leading the league in save percentage (.911) while stopping 114 more shots than the next-closest goaltender, thereby allowing the Blues to finish tied for the fourth-fewest goals allowed.
His 2,202 total shots faced also led the league by a country mile, and would have put him first on the single-season list for that category, as well, were it not for the barrage Esposito faced in Chicago during the 1980-81 campaign.
2. 1,993 Shots Saved: Tony Esposito (1980-81, Chicago Black Hawks)
3. 1,904 Shots Saved: Tony Esposito (1979-80, Chicago Black Hawks)
4. 1,893 Shots Saved: Tony Esposito (1978-79, Chicago Black Hawks)
5. 1,892 Shots Saved: Bob Essensa (1992-93, Winnipeg Jets)
Hockey Does Disservice to NHL Goaltenders of the 1980s
Clearly then, mainstream hockey history does fans a disservice. Championships, nostalgia and good-old-fashioned marketing, not to mention playing in Canada, has propelled only a select few netminders from the 1980s into the collective consciousness of the hockey world.
Yes, the goaltending in the 1980s wasn’t the pinnacle of puckstopping; watching some games from back then, much of the netminding is utterly laughable. However, the same can be said for the defense, strategies and even the uniforms of the era.
Of course things won’t measure up to what we have today, but there’s no question there were some fabulous goaltending talents plying their trade during the 1980s, limited only by the techniques and technology of the day.
The 1980s was a tough time to play for NHL goaltenders. Let’s give them the credit they deserve.
* originally published in July 2018