The Arizona Coyotes are celebrating their 20th anniversary this season, and, like every team, have had their fair share of legends suit up for the franchise. Distinguished skaters such as Shane Doan, Keith Tkachuk, and Teppo Numminen, among others, have all played for the team, but the Coyotes have had some outstanding netminders over the years as well. Here’s our ranking of the top three goalies in Coyotes franchise history.
#3 – Nikolai Khabibulin
We’ll start our list with the man known as “the Bulin Wall” – Nikolai Khabibulin. Khabibulin played two seasons in Winnipeg before moving with the team to Phoenix in 1996 and was the first goaltender that Coyotes fans came to know when the team hit the ice for the first time during their inaugural season in Arizona. The young Russian would immediately win them over with his outstanding play in net; he played an average of 68 games per year from 1996-97 to 1998-99 and led the Coyotes to the playoffs in each of their first three campaigns in Arizona.
— Rich Nairn (@RichNairn9) October 16, 2016
Following the 1998-99 season, Khabibulin and the Coyotes became embroiled in a lengthy contract dispute and the youngster ended up spending the entire 1999-2000 season playing for the Long Beach Ice Dogs of the IHL before he was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning in March 2001. Khabibulin’s time in Arizona ultimately came to a premature end, but there’s no questioning the fact that he was a dominant force in net for the Coyotes during their early years in Arizona.
Career with Arizona: 5 seasons, 284 games played, 126-113-30 record, 2.75 GAA, .908 SV%, 21 shutouts
Playoffs: 24 games played, 10-13 record, .916 SV%, 2.75 GAA, 1 shutout
#2 – Mike Smith
Coming in at No. 2 on our list is current starting goaltender Mike Smith. After spending parts of the 2010-11 season in the AHL, Smith came to Arizona on a two-year deal over the summer of 2011 and immediately experienced breakout success; he posted a save percentage of .930 in 67 games with the Coyotes during the 2011-12 regular season and led the team to their first division title in franchise history. However, as good as his regular season was, Smith was even better in the postseason; despite facing an average of 37.6 shots against per game in the playoffs, Smith stood on his head and carried the Coyotes to series wins over both the Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators before the team ran into the buzzsaw that was Jonathan Quick and the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Final.
Although Smith has so far been unable to replicate the success he had during the 2011-12 season, he’s been a dependable option in goal for the Coyotes. He’s the franchise’s leader in saves and could take over the franchise records in shutouts, wins and games played before the end of the season if he continues to play well. Critics of Smith will point to his subpar save percentages of .910 and .904 that he’s posted in seasons past as a reason as to why he shouldn’t be included in this list, but Smith has been forced to play on some of the worst teams in franchise history over the past few seasons and had to play the hand he was dealt. The fact that he’s one of just seven netminders to score a goal with a shot on net has to earn him a place in team history as well.
Career with Arizona: 6 seasons, 290 games played, 121-121-37 record, 2.67 GAA, .916 SV%, 20 shutouts
Playoffs: 16 games played, 9-7 record, .944 SV%, 1.99 GAA, 3 shutouts
#1 – Sean Burke
Rounding out our list is the Coyotes’ franchise leader in goals-against average and save percentage – Sean Burke. Nikolai Khabibulin’s contract holdout during the 1999-2000 season left the Coyotes extremely thin in goal. As a result, the Coyotes elected to bring in the then-34-year-old Burke in a mid-season trade from the Florida Panthers.
Replacing the young Khabibulin, Burke was outstanding in five seasons with the Coyotes and played arguably the best hockey of his career in the desert during that time; he contended for the Vezina Trophy twice as a Coyote and also led the team to two playoff appearances. Burke departed from Phoenix during the 2003-04 season, but returned to the organization in 2008 following his retirement and served as the team’s goaltending coach for six seasons from 2009 to 2015. In this capacity, Burke was noted for his ability to get the most out of his goalies; he oversaw the career resurgences of Ilya Bryzgalov and Devan Dubnyk and was also instrumental in Mike Smith’s breakout 2011-12 season as well.
More than 10 years after departing Arizona, Burke still holds many franchise records; he’s the team’s all-time leader in save percentage and goals-against average and is in the top-five in nearly every other goaltending category. He enjoyed perhaps the best five-year run as a goalie in franchise history and is deserving of the top spot on this list.
Career with Arizona: 5 seasons, 211 games played, 97-78-29 record, 2.39 GAA, .919 SV%, 15 shutouts
Playoffs: 10 games played, 2-8 record, .903 SV%, 2.93 GAA
Although they didn’t make our top three, it would be impossible to properly cover the Coyotes’ goaltending history without mentioning the names of a few other players.
With a save percentage of just .898 during three seasons in the desert, Brian Boucher had a largely below-average career with the Coyotes. However, during the 2003-04 season, the journeyman caught lightning in a bottle and found himself on top of the hockey world after an unbelievable stretch of games. From Dec. 31, 2003, to Jan. 9, 2004, Boucher posted a staggering five consecutive shutouts and went 332 minutes and one second without allowing a goal.
— FOX Sports Arizona (@FOXSPORTSAZ) January 9, 2017
Boucher’s streak remains the longest in NHL history, and it’s hard to imagine anyone coming close to breaking his record anytime soon. However, his below-average body of work for his career leaves him just outside the top-three goaltenders in franchise history.
After being unceremoniously waived by the Anaheim Ducks in November 2007, Ilya Bryzgalov was in danger of losing his spot in the NHL at the young age of 27. However, he received a chance at redemption when he was claimed by the Coyotes on Nov. 17 and quickly made the most of it as he recorded a 1-0 shutout victory over Los Angeles Kings on that same day.
— Jen (@NHLhistorygirl) November 17, 2016
Bryzgalov ultimately spent four seasons with the Coyotes from 2007 to 2011 and led the team to the playoffs during two of those campaigns. After leaving Arizona following the 2010-11 season, “Bryz” spent time with the Philadelphia Flyers, Edmonton Oilers, Minnesota Wild and Anaheim Ducks before retiring and becoming the world’s most entertaining All-Star Game reporter.
Overall, the Coyotes have a relatively short history compared to some of the older teams in the league, but they’ve still had their fair share of outstanding goaltenders suit up for the franchise during their two decades in Arizona. Will someone surpass Smith, Burke and Khabibulin over the next 20 years? Only time will tell.
A lifelong Phoenix resident, Louis has been following hockey since 2010, has covered the Arizona Coyotes since 2015, and has been playing hockey since 2020. So far, Louis has visited eight NHL cities, and one of his personal goals is to eventually make it to all 31 NHL arenas. For any questions or concerns, contact the writer via Twitter @LouisPannone.