There is some argument to be made that when it comes to overall goaltending, the NHL’s Atlantic Division might be the worst of any division in the league this year. Newcomers to the division include guys like Cam Talbot with the Ottawa Senators and Ilya Samsonov with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but the division also lost goalies like Jack Campbell and — likely — Carey Price for the upcoming season.
I know some will respond with the “well the Tampa Bay Lightning still have Andrei Vasilevskiy” argument and I tend to agree. It’s safe to say that Vasilevskiy could be the best goalie in the game right now, but overall the Atlantic Division is suffering at that position.
On a recent episode of the hockey podcast Sticks in the 6ix, I went as far as arguing that the Maple Leafs could have the second best duo in the division which was met with some question marks on social media. But it’s not completely out of this realm given the potential — yes, that horrible word, potential — that this duo possesses.
With that, the decision was made to rank the overall duos that remain in the Atlantic Division. Where do guys like Ville Husso and Alex Nedeljkovic rank amongst their peers? How about Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight? Now that your mind is stirring and your thoughts are brewing, let’s take a look at how the goalie tandems stack up in the division.
1. Lightning Duo Not a Flash in the Pan
We’ve already said it. Vasilevskiy is arguably the best goalie in the game right now. His numbers — both during the regular season and come playoff time — speaks volumes as to what kind of goalie he is.
What makes it even crazier is that Vasilevskiy is just 28 years old and still has a lot of hockey ahead of him. Yet, he’s already accomplished so much. He’s a two-time Stanley Cup champion and did it in back-to-back seasons in 2019-20 and again in 2020-21 at which time he also won the Conn Smythe Trophy. He also took home the Vezina in 2018-19 and could’ve easily won it the past three seasons as well.
This is all stuff he’s accomplished in just eight seasons. He’s coming off another season of almost 40 wins, finishing with 39 in 2021-22 and another run to the Stanley Cup Final where the Lightning came up just shy losing to the Colorado Avalanche.
Over the past three seasons, Vasilevskiy has played the second most games (210) and he’s tied for fifth in save percentage (.921) amongst goalies who’ve played more than 30 games over that span. He’s also seventh over that span in goals against average (2.43) with that same metric and has the second most shots against behind only Connor Hellebuyck.
Behind him, is 37-year-old Brian Elliott. While he’s been a bit of a journeyman over his career, he still has the potential to make some big stops at timely moments in games. While he only got into 19 games last season for the Lightning, he still posted a record of 11-4-3 with a 2.43 GAA and .912 SV% which are better than his overall career numbers.
A stingy Lightning defence certainly helps the cause, but there’s no topping this duo in the Atlantic Division this time around.
2. New Faces With Maple Leafs Have Something to Prove
I know I’ll get some blowback on this one, but this is a prove-it year for both Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov in Toronto. This could one of three ways for Kyle Dubas and the Maple Leafs — either as an incredible offseason shake-up, a horrendous blunder for the front office, or a move that really didn’t change much of the outcome for a Maple Leafs team that needs to take a major step in 2022-23.
Right now, with nothing behind it, I’m going to lean towards the first option and here’s why. Murray is coming home. After a long, disastrous, two-year stint with the Senators, Murray has a chance to be closer to home and get back to the form he had with the Pittsburgh Penguins early in his career.
Like Vasilevskiy, he’s a two-time Cup champion and while he doesn’t possess the other accolades, there were surely glimpses of good goaltending for Murray early in his career. In Toronto, he has a chance to play behind a much better back end than what he had in Ottawa and that should make a significant difference when it comes to his overall numbers this season. The biggest question mark might be his health and the head injuries he’s suffered over the past year. If he can give it enough time to heal, he could be a game-changer for the Maple Leafs.
Add to the fact that he’s got a young, first-round pick in Samsonov coming up behind him as well and there’s some internal competition that could push these two goaltenders to boost their play. Murray has played just 47 games over the past two seasons so he’ll look to increase his productivity this year.
As for Samsonov, the Washington Capitals let him walk as a 25-year-old after his numbers dipped slightly with a heavier work load. He had a 23-12-5 record in 44 games in 2021-22 and posted a 2.81 GAA and .896 SV%, but the Capitals didn’t see him being worth the money he likely would’ve got staying in Washington. So, the Maple Leafs scooped him up on a team-friendly deal and now Samsonov has the opportunity to prove himself to get that next big ticket.
As is the case with most of the division, this duo has the potential to be a strong tandem in 2022-23. Both want to continue to play at a high level and both want to make a difference when it comes to what’s next in their respective careers. If that’s not motivation enough, then the Maple Leafs likely won’t have a long season once again.
3. Panthers’ Duo Holds Inconsistency and Unknown
Yes, they were last year’s Presidents’ Trophy winners. Yes, they had a plus-94 goal differential by season’s end. But, the Panthers might see that Spencer Knight is the starting option in 2022-23. Bobrovsky has had a history of falling off every few years over his career and is due for another bumpy season.
In 2019-20, his first year in Florida, Bobrovsky finished 23-19-6 in 50 games during the regular season with an inflated 3.23 GAA and a .900 SV%. That improved the following year, but he only played 30 games in 2020-21 with the shortened season, finishing 19-8-2 with a 2.91 GAA and .906 SV%.
Last season, the Panthers saw Bobrovsky have his best season yet with the franchise from a numbers standpoint. He finished just shy of the 40-win mark with a 39-7-3 record, a 2.67 GAA and .913 SV%. While my belief in his game is solely based of his historical trend, what also changed his offseason is the fact that the Panthers lost both Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar in a trade to acquire Matthew Tkachuk.
The move certainly adds a tough piece up front for the Panthers, but it leaves a gapping hole where Weegar played on the back end. Along with the injury history that has seemingly haunted Aaron Ekblad at times in his career, the group in front of Bobrovsky is much different than the Presidents’ Trophy winning squad of one year ago.
As for Knight, there’s no doubt that he’s the real deal. That said, his regular season sample size is just 36 games and we need more to go off of when discussing just how much of an influence he will play on the success of his team in 2022-23. Still, over the first 36 games of his career, he has respectable numbers with a 2.74 GAA and a .909 SV%, but the same thing can be said about Knight as it pertained to Bobrovsky.
How good will the team be in front of him when playing in their own end? That’s the biggest question that knocks them down to three in this case.
4. Bruins Got a Sample of Swayman Last Season
Well, it’s officially a new era in Boston with the unfortunate retirement of Tuukka Rask last season due to injury and while he barely touched the ice for the Bruins in 2021-22, the reality of it all set in when he finally hung them up.
That all behind them, the Bruins do have an interesting duo between the pipes in Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman. The two literally split the season each getting in for 41 games with Ullmark having the better record, while Swayman’s goals against average was slightly lower.
Swayman is much like Knight for the Panthers. His game total in the regular season to this point is 51 games — 41 of which were played last season. Over that span he has a 2.23 GAA and .920 save percentage, so question his overall ability isn’t really in the cards right now. All that said, the team’s blue line remains a major question mark and because of that so does Swayman.
The Bruins will start the year without Matt Grzelcyk who underwent offseason surgery and that will leave a major hole on their back end. Still, Swayman was fifth in Calder Trophy voting in 2021-22 and had just five really bad starts with a save percentage under .850 last season. Considering that, maybe he is ready to take the reins.
As for Ullmark, he finished the year 26-10-2 with a .917 SV% and 2.45 GAA. His numbers weren’t horrible and he and Swayman seemingly shared the crease quite well last season. But the same battered back end that will likely hurt Swayman will surely have a similar impact on Ullmark and while I’m not convinced they miss the postseason, I do think the Bruins and their aging core are going to take a step back this season, in part to their overall goaltending.
5. Sens’ Talbot Wants Starting Role
Just like the Maple Leafs, the Senators are getting ready for a new face in town in Cam Talbot. After the Minnesota Wild re-signed Marc-Andre Fleury, Talbot made it known that he was interested in being a starter somewhere. While the Senators are still a building team — no, I won’t say rebuilding — Talbot is the surefire frontrunner to rule the net in Ottawa.
That said, what might be the theme of this division this year, the Senators back end might bring more questions for Talbot than support in their end. At 35, Talbot is coming off a season in which he played 49 games and finished with a 32-12-4 record. His GAA was 2.76 and he had a .911 SV%. It was the most games he’s played in since the 2017-18 season with Edmonton when he suited up for 67 games.
Still, the blueline will be the biggest indicator of how Talbot’s season will go. Behind Thomas Chabot, the Sens aren’t sporting anything special with the likes of Nikita Zaitsev and Artem Zub. Talbot will have to come up with some big stops at key moments if this team is going to make noise in the Atlantic.
As for the likely backup, Anton Forsberg, he’s another player that has bounced around a little over his time in the NHL. However, he has just 102 games of regular season experience over parts of seven seasons in the NHL and carries a losing record over his career.
Let’s not take anything away from him though. In 2021-22, he played in 46 games for the Senators and sported his first winning record in the NHL at 22-17-4. Beyond that, he had a 2.82 GAA and .917 SV%, both of which are better than his career totals.
All that said, however, Talbot has the 16th worst high-danger save percentage over the last three seasons at .802, while Forsberg — interestingly enough — is third amongst goalies with at least 2,000 minutes of ice-time with an .847 high-danger save percentage.
Surely they could do better than fifth in the division, but don’t set your sights high with the defence that’s playing in front of them.
6. Red Wings Running With Young and Unproven
Rumoured to be in the plans for the Maple Leafs, Ville Husso ended up signing a pretty good ticket with the Red Wings for a goalie who has just 57 games of NHL experience. At 27, it’ll be a toss up between Husso and Nedeljkovic for who will take the starting gig in Detroit this season.
Husso seems to be the front-runner based simply off the contract he signed with the organization in the offseason. But anything can change and given the collective NHL experience between the two Red Wings’ goalies it’s safe to say it’ll be a competition in net.
Husso is not as much of a question mark for me as Nedeljkovic. When he came over, it was believed that the Red Wings were getting a highly-skilled and capable NHL goalie and while we saw glimpses of that in 2021-22, the overall performance wasn’t top-notch.
That said, Nedeljkovic was playing behind a very young team with two star-studded rookies in front of him. The entire club needed some more experience and they’ve now got a full season under their belt. Add to that the offseason moves that GM Steve Yzerman made and the Red Wings are poised to make a big leap forward this year and that will likely include some help from their two goaltenders.
Overall, however, they aren’t in the upper half of the Atlantic Division. Husso has just one full season under his belt and while his numbers were impressive — a 2.56 GAA and .919 SV% — the inexperience and youthfulness in front of him combined with his own inexperience could lead to some lapses this season.
As for Nedeljkovic, the Red Wings are hoping for a bit of a bounce back year after a year that saw him go 20-24-9 with a 3.31 GAA and .901 SV%. Even though he’s seen action in each season since 2016-17, his overall experience is still quite limited too with just 88 regular season games under his belt.
This will be a good tandem at some point down the road, but 2022-23 just isn’t the year.
7. Sabres Remain With Question Marks in Net
At 41 years old, Craig Anderson will once again lead the way in net for the lowly Buffalo Sabres. Don’t get me wrong, the Sabres are set to make a huge leap this season after closing out the 2021-22 campaign on a high note and without the shadow of Jack Eichel hanging over the organization. But is Anderson the guy to give them that boost in net?
Anderson stood his ground once again in 2021-22 with a 17-12-2 record for the Sabres and a mediocre 3.12 GAA and .897 SV%, but he did so behind a team that was young, had a number of injuries and seemed almost without spirit at times during the season.
But their effort to close out the year made them one of the more talked about teams during the homestretch and with one of the best prospect pools in the NHL, this team is ready to make a major jump in the Atlantic over the next couple of seasons.
For now, however, there are questions in net for the Sabres. Behind the 41-year-old Anderson, the Sabres have a string of inexperience and lacklustre goaltending with Eric Comrie, Malcolm Subban and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.
At 27, Comrie seems like the likely choice to back up Anderson to start the year, but his 28 games of NHL experience are worrisome to the Sabres’ faithful. He has a 3.06 career GAA in 28 games and .905 SV% while going between three teams over the past six seasons.
As for Subban, he’s 28 years old and while he’s played 86 games over his regular season NHL career, his numbers aren’t much different. He sports a career 3.10 GAA and .898 SV% and is coming off a year in which he played just four games for the Sabres thanks to injury.
Finally, there’s the once highly-touted youngster in Luukkonen. He’s just 23 years old and has played in 13 games for the Sabres with — you guessed it — similar numbers. He holds a 3-8-2 career record so far to go along with a 3.08 GAA and .913 SV%, but should get a good crack this season as the question marks remain for the Sabres heading into the season.
8. Canadiens Might Be Missing Price Too Much
It’s unfortunate for the game, but the likelihood of Carey Price playing again is on the lower end of the spectrum. So, the Montreal Canadiens have to move on and fortunately for them they have a former NHL starter in Jake Allen.
That said, Allen’s play in recent years hasn’t reached the level he was once at and at 32 years old, that may not change in the Habs favour. Since joining the Canadiens, Allen’s numbers haven’t exactly been impressive. He has a 20-32-9 record over the last two seasons and while his .906 save percentage ranks him 38th amongst goaltenders who’ve played over 2,000 minutes, his 3.01 goals against has him tied for 45th league wide over that span.
On top of that, the Canadiens’ defence is in a small rebuild of its own and won’t provide game-saving help to the Habs’ goaltenders this season. That said, Allen is just two seasons removed from his best season statistically — when he was with the St. Louis Blues — so the possibility of a bounce back is still there. But I wouldn’t put money on it.
As for his back up, Sam Montembeault, he’s just 25 years old and has just 63 games of NHL regular season experience. He has a record of 17-26-9 with a 3.54 GAA and .892 SV%. That said, the team he played behind wasn’t always a Martin St. Louis coached team and we’ve already seen some players excel under his coaching.
Could this be an opportunity for Montembeault to take the reins and turn those numbers around? Absolutely. But it will come down to how the Canadiens play in their own end again and I’m just not convinced they are going to be a top end team defensively.
Surely, they could make me eat my words, but for now I have the Canadiens duo as the bottom group in the Atlantic Division.
Agree or disagree with these rankings? Be sure to share your thoughts in the comments below.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.