It’s September at last, which means the 2017-18 season is just around the corner. It also means that it's once again time to take a look at the best the Metropolitan Division has to offer. First up, the men between the pipes.
Honorable mention: Joonas Korpisalo (CBJ), Michal Neuvirth (PHI), Antti Niemi (PIT) 10. Thomas Greiss (NYI)
Last year's rank: 10
The Islanders’ German-born netminder had never appeared in more than 25 games in a single season before arriving in New York; in each of the last two seasons, however, he’s basically split the workload with “starter” Jaroslav Halak, playing in 92 regular-season games over that span (and all 11 playoff contests in 2015-16). Despite the heavier workload, Greiss has continued to put up decent numbers (albeit numbers that took a bit of a dip last year) and may have shaken off that backup moniker once and for all.
9. Brian Elliott (PHI)
Last year's rank: N/A
One of a handful of new goalies in the division, Elliott spent last season sharing netminding duties with Chad Johnson up in Calgary before hitting the free-agent market this summer and signing on with the Flyers. He’s struggled a bit with inconsistency over the years, as evidenced most recently by following up one of his best seasons in 2015-16 with one of his worst, and it’s not going to get easier behind Philadelphia’s talented but very green defense. Still, he’s a very capable veteran, and someone who could be a calming influence on that young group in front of him.
8. Jaroslav Halak (NYI)
Last year's rank: 8
Halak’s career has been anything but boring, but last season was particularly dramatic, as he went from a brilliant performance backstopping an upstart Team Europe at the World Cup to a three-month stint in the AHL before finishing the year back in his team’s good graces. And yet even amid that chaos, his season-long numbers still kept pace with his career average. Heading into the 2017-18 season, he’ll be looking to put all that turmoil behind him and bounce back, especially as his four-year deal with the Isles is up next summer.
7. Scott Darling (CAR)
Last year's rank: N/A
It’s kind of amazing to see what Darling has been able to do since cracking the NHL lineup three seasons ago. At one point a member of 13 different clubs at various levels of hockey’s minor leagues, Darling stepped up when a series of injuries took out the Blackhawks’ goaltending duo back in 2014-15, and went on to win a Cup with his hometown team (and put up two more stellar seasons). Now a member of the Hurricanes, Darling gives Carolina what is probably their most solid goaltending option in about a decade, and should be able to take some of the weight off of Cam Ward’s shoulders (which, no offense to Ward, can only be good for the ‘Canes).
6. Philipp Grubauer (WSH)
Last year's rank: HM
Thanks to Braden Holtby’s emergence and a series of solid, if unspectacular, veteran backups, the Caps have been able to ease Grubauer into the NHL. He’s gotten stronger every year, culminating in a pretty spectacular 2016-17 campaign. Grubauer found a consistency to his game last year, allowing the coaching staff to trust him with a stronger workload - which was important not only for Holtby but also for Grubauer’s confidence. It’s a shame that he fell just short of the minimum games played to qualify for the Jennings Trophy, but there’s no doubt that he deserves some credit for his goaltending partner taking home that particular hardware this past June.
5. Matt Murray (PIT)
Last year's rank: 7
In any other division, it’s likely that backstopping a team to back-to-back Stanley Cups would put you closer to the top of a list like this... alas, Murray plays in one of the deepest divisions when it comes to goaltending, so it’s going to take a bit more than a couple of bejeweled rings to crack the upper echelon.
That’s not to say that Murray isn’t a very good goaltender in his own right, small sample sizes aside - although it’s an even smaller sample than expected, as Murray struggled with injuries this year, first breaking his hand at the World Cup and then injuring himself during warmups of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs. It’ll be interesting to see what he can accomplish given a full season to work with... and given his new role as the Pens’ de facto starter now that Marc-Andre Fleury has moved to Vegas.
4. Cory Schneider (NJD)
Last year's rank: 3
Schneider has been one of the best goalies, not just in the Division but in the League, over the past few years. But he struggled to find that form in 2016-17 (albeit behind a ramshackle New Jersey defense) and his numbers reflect that. His .908 save percentage was the lowest of his career (min 10 GP) and he managed “only” two shutouts, all while cobbling together quality starts in just under 46% of his games - the first time he’s ever dipped below 50% in that department. Given the body of work he’s compiled over his career, though, it’s hard not to see him bouncing back this year... especially with a stronger Devils team in front of him.
3. Henrik Lundqvist (NYR)
Last year's rank: 1
For the first time ever... the king has been dethroned. That’s right, this year Lundqvist finds himself outside of our top spot after a season that was very un-Lundqvist-like, with prolonged slumps that dropped his numbers down to almost human levels by the end of the year. He even had his struggles in the playoffs, alternating his usual brilliant performances with games in which he gave up handfuls of goals en route to a second-round ousting at the hands of the Senators.
It’s not hard to imagine that the 35-year-old has begun to wear down a bit (although rest assured, a “worn down” Lundqvist is likely better than at least half the League’s goalies). But like Schneider, smart money would be on last season merely being an outlier, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him come back as good as ever.
2. Sergei Bobrovsky (CBJ)
Last year's rank: 5
Speaking of bouncing back, the Blue Jackets shot to the top of the NHL standings last year thanks in large part to the bounceback season of Sergei Bobrovsky. After a couple of down years, Bobrovsky was back in Vezina-winning form last year (as evidenced by the fact that he took home another Vezina in June), facing more shots than any other Metro goalie and responding with the highest save percentage in the Division. That stellar performance helped the Blue Jackets to their best regular-season finish in franchise history (and on the flip side, his struggles in the playoffs resulted in Columbus’s near-sweep at the hands of the Pens).
1. Braden Holtby (WSH)
Last year's rank: 2
Few goaltenders have been as dominant as Holtby has been over the past few seasons, and the question of whether he’s elite is no longer really a question. Holtby finished the 2016-17 season in the top five in wins, shutouts, GAA and save percentage - the only goalie other than Bobrovsky to achieve that feat.
If there’s one blemish on an otherwise spotless record, it’s his work in the 2016 playoffs; Holtby’s postseason performance has usually been one of his strongest features, but he struggled in both rounds this year, giving up 33 goals in 13 games - including a number that he should have had.
Still, Holtby is more than just one bad postseason. He’s racked up 90 wins over the past two seasons, and has more shutouts than anyone else over the last five years, all while seeing his year-to-year numbers improve. Rough playoffs aside, it’s pretty clear that he’s joined the ranks of the League’s best.