THW Goalie Report: Vejmelka, Fleury, Merzļikins, Shesterkin & More

Although the NHL’s 2021-22 season is barely underway, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that goaltending storylines are already aplenty. As the position that often faces the greatest fluctuations between scrutiny and celebration, only a few games are ever required for the masses to dictate which trend any given netminder is playing through at the moment.

The Hockey Writers Goalie Report
Carey Price, Connor Hellebuyck, John Gibson, Ilya Samsonov, Andrei Vasilevskiy (The Hockey Writers)

Although some clubs are already headed in the exact direction they planned while others look to re-route their path, it’s far too soon to be crowning a champion or suggesting roster rebuilds. However, there is relevancy to be found from reflecting upon individual performances. Some are contributing to a successful collective, while others have become part of the problem.

RELATED: THW’s 2021-22 Predictions: Standings, Stanley Cup & NHL Awards

Bringing you the most important netminder news all season long, here is your THW Goalie Report for the week of Oct. 12-Oct. 18.

NHL Goaltending Leaders

At every week’s end, this is where you’ll find a snapshot of the goalies leading the way in every major stat category.

Whether it’s wins (W), goals-against average (GAA), save percentage (SV%), goals saved above expected (GSAx), or shutouts (SO), these are the athletes that currently lead the league after Week 1.

W: 11-way tie (2)
GAA: Dustin Tokarski (0.92 GAA)
SV%: Thomas Greiss (.976 SV%)
GSAx: Sergei Bobrovsky (6.2 GSAx)

While there are no shutouts to account for just yet, seeing 11 goalies already battling for the league lead in wins suggests one is sure to break the ice in that respect sooner than later.

Pay Attention to Goals Saved Above Expected

If you’re unfamiliar with GSAx, it’s still early enough in the season to read up on why it matters throughout it. This modern metric compares the number of goals a netminder should have allowed, based on various factors that impact that probability, against the actual amount they let in.

GAA and SV% are definitely useful measures when it comes to gauging effectiveness in the role. However, those numbers can be more easily swayed by a team’s collective effort than GSAx tends to be. A loss in and of itself won’t negatively affect a GSAx, just like a win won’t necessarily improve it. It more effectively isolates the goalie’s performance, alone.

The netminder’s efficacy being at, above, or below expected results is what this equation calculates. Simply stated, it’s a concise way to gauge whether or not a goalie is good at their job. As such, the best in the role will rise to the top of this ranking, regardless of where their team places at any given time. Pay attention to this advanced stat – it matters.

Last Week’s Five-Hole Headlines

With every report, the goal will be to bring you the headline-worthy stories that stood out from the week that was. It will be a reflection on the performances that should be celebrated, questioned, or talked about in any which way.

From Study Hall to Hockey Night in Canada

Managing the NHL salary cap can be far more complex than coordinating a weekly grocery budget. It’s not just the millions of dollars at play that confuse matters, either. One such complication centres around cap relief and how that impacts a team’s ability to look to their affiliates for assistance.

Perhaps a necessary lesson in finance is exactly why Kyle Dubas chose to call the University of Toronto to seek additional support this past weekend. Fortunately for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Alex Bishop was taking a break from his midterm studies and was able to pick up the call.

Dressing in a backup role to Campbell, Bishop joined the Maple Leafs for the full day’s slate of activities. From morning skate, to pre-game ceremonies, to post-game interviews. He didn’t get into any in-game action, but that doesn’t take away from the incredibly unique experience he got to be part of.

Rather than fixating on why this was a necessary route to take, set any skepticism aside and simply enjoy a feel-good story. After all, it is permissible for sports to simply be entertaining. Good luck with your midterms, Alex!

Vejmelka Demands More Playing Time With Debut

After kicking off their season with an 8-2 loss, the Arizona Coyotes decided there was no better time to get Karel Vejmelka into the action. That foresight paid off, as Vejmelka put in a debut performance that stood well above his team’s results throughout that 2-1 shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres.

Through 65:00 of ice time, Vejmelka only allowed one goal – stopping 32 of 33. Good for a GSAx of 1.43 in that game alone. Despite not adding the win to his stat line, that type of performance is evidence enough that the Coyotes need to allow this prospect to play. If they want to give themselves a chance to succeed, that is.

For some reason, they continue to go back to Carton Hutton. If you’ve learned anything to this point in the read, it should be that Hutton’s current GSAx of -9.9 is far from ideal. In fact, it’s the worst in the league. Arizona needs to let Vejmelka have the net until there’s a good reason not to.

Fleury Falters Early With Blackhawks

The Chicago Blackhawks sought the efforts of reigning Vezina Trophy winner Marc-André Fleury for a very simple reason. They want to win more than they have been of late. One of many offseason moves for the Blackhawks that suggest they are hoping to progress their plan, Fleury was supposed to provide an immediate upgrade to their goaltending tandem.

It’s not that Kevin Lankinen didn’t prove capable through his impressive rookie campaign in 2020-21, but bringing in a future Hall of Famer should elevate the collective effort. Besides, Fleury being a mentor to Lankinen can only further the understudy’s development.

Unfortunately, the 2021-22 campaign hasn’t started out as Chicago or Fleury would have hoped. Fleury saw three quick goals end up behind him within the first 10 minutes of their season opener against the Colorado Avalanche. But that didn’t tell the whole story, as he went on to stop 32 of 36 in that loss. In his next outing, though, Fleury allowed four against by the mid-way point of the first period and was pulled as a result.

Fleury is currently 0-2-0, with a 7.06 GAA, .826 SV%, and -3.6 GSAx. None of which bodes well for the Blackhawks. But, there is still a full season ahead for both to turn things around. Worst case, Lankinen gets to build off of a rookie campaign that certainly left him deserving of such an opportunity.

Merzļikins Making Good on Preseason Promise

Prior to the start of the 2021-22 season, Elvis Merzļikins made a personal pledge to dedicate his performance to Matiss Kivlenieks.

Regardless of where Merzļikins’ year-end numbers place him among the rest of the league, there will obviously have been more at play than his individual efforts. In short, he won’t be the one to blame if the Columbus Blue Jackets aren’t able to succeed in the manner that every professional hopes to at the start of any given season.

Well, Merzļikins wasted little time in illustrating just how serious he was when he made that pre-season promise. Not that his skill was ever in question, but to be able to start the year 2-0-0, with a 1.47 GAA, .948 SV%, and 2.5 GSAx is beyond impressive when you consider the lowly expectations placed upon his Blue Jackets this season.

For anyone who wasn’t sure what to expect out of Merzļikins, leading Columbus to a perfect start to their season should immediately alleviate any skepticism that remains. While the Blue Jackets won’t go 82-0-0 throughout 2021-22, there’s no reason to believe Merzļikins can’t maintain his own momentum the rest of the way.

Shesterkin Puts on a Show in Toronto

On the night of Auston Matthews’ return, you’d expect the superstar’s stat line to dominate the highlight reel. That is, of course, if the opposing netminder succumbs to such pressure. That was far from the case when Igor Shesterkin and his New York Rangers visited Toronto for their Monday night match-up.

Two teams with some of the most prolific scorers in today’s game, it would have been fair to anticipate a goal-filled type of back and forth battle. Not the case in this one, which ended 2-1 after New York benefited from Artemi Panarin’s game-winner in overtime. Yet, that wasn’t the story that shined brightest by night’s end.

Although playing in over 63:00 minutes already suggests a busy night in net, reflecting on the actual stats elevates things further. Shesterkin stopped 40 of 41 – good for a .976 SV%. And if you’re questioning the quality of shots, you can stop. He ended the night with a 2.43 GSAx.

Where the game summary would otherwise suggest that the Maple Leafs dominated this one, Shesterkin played the right type of spoiler for his side. It would be tough to justify any other stance than continuing to look to Shesterkin as New York’s starter at this point.

Balacing the Stats Through Week 2

As a greater sample size of contests accumulates across the league, inflated numbers will find a way to balance – for the most part. All the while, the goalies who are doing it best will continue to as those who have struggled early might find it harder to bounce back.

RELATED: Marc-André Fleury Poised to Make (More) History With Blackhawks

More games to be played will result in additional storylines to cover and you’ll find the most important ones highlighted here, in next week’s edition of the THW Goalie Report.