Amazingly enough, the season is just around the corner - and that means it’s time for our annual ranking of the best players the division has to offer.
As with most things this year, of course, these rankings will look a little different than they have in the past, as we shift our focus from the Metropolitan Division (RIP) to the newly formed East Division. These are the guys that the Caps will face every night this season... so let’s get to know them and ruthlessly compare them to one another, shall we?
The Method Behind the Madness - To determine the overall ranking, each member of the Rink staff was first asked to create their own top 10 list by position. We then took the average of those scores to determine our final ranking below. Any player not making the overall top 10 but who was ranked by at least one of our Rink writers earns Honorable Mention honors, where applicable.
Let’s kick off the fun with a rundown of the East’s best netminders:
Honorable Mention: Ilya Sorokin (NYI)
10. Linus Ullmark (BUF)
Last year’s stats: 17-14-3, .915 sv%, 2.69 GAA, 1 SO
Drafted by Buffalo back in 2012, Ullmark began his career the way most pro goalies do - shuffling between the NHL and AHL before finally joining the Sabres full time in 2018-19. His season debut also marked his first career shutout, a 3-0 victory over the Coyotes, and he finished his first full season 15-14-5 with a respectable if unspectacular .905 save percentage and two shutouts. Ullmark took a step forward last season, though, splitting time with Carter Hutton and posting a .915 save percentage.
T-8. Mackenzie Blackwood (NJD)
Last year’s stats: 22-14-8, .915 sv%, 2.77 GAA, 3 SO
In just his first two seasons with the Devils, Blackwood has gone from surprise back-up rookie to acclaimed starter. The 2015 second-rounder has compiled a pretty impressive resume in his brief NHL career - while the team has gone 59-70-22 over the last two seasons, Blackwood has been in net for just 24 of the losses and is 32-24-8 overall, with five shutouts and a .916 save percentage, and posted an even-strength save percentage of .924.
T-8. Corey Crawford (NJD)
Last year’s stats: 16-20-3, .917 sv%, 2.77 GAA, 1 SO
After 13 seasons - and two Stanley Cup rings - with Chicago, the Blackhawks brass made the decision to move on from their longtime goaltender. Their loss is New Jersey’s gain, as the Devils signed Crawford to a two-year deal over the offseason, bringing in the veteran to share time with Blackwood. Crawford is far from a washed-up type, though, as he’s put up strong numbers each of the last three years despite some injury issues, the NHL’s COVID pause last year, and a team in front of him whose play has fallen off from their glory days.
7. Jaroslav Halak (BOS)
Last year’s stats: 18-6-6, .919 sv%, 2.39 GAA, 3 SO
The other half of last year’s Jennings Trophy-winning duo, Halak is no stranger to Caps fans, and there will be plenty of facetime with the former Capitals netminder and one-time nemesis this season to be sure. While Rask continues to be the de facto starter in Boston, he and Halak have basically split the workload since the latter signed with the Bruins two years ago. In that time, he’s continued to be a very steady presence for them, going 40-17-10 with a .921 save percentage and eight shutouts.
6. Tristan Jarry (PIT)
Last year’s stats: 20-12-1, .921 sv%, 2.43 GAA, 3 SO
Jarry is the latest in a recent line of Penguin-drafted goaltenders who has quickly risen through the ranks to unseat a previous Cup-winner. With Matt Murray (who did the same to Marc-Andre Fleury) heading to Ottawa, the net in Pittsburgh is Jarry’s... for now, at least, and conceivably for the future. Selected in the second round of the 2013 draft, Jarry had gotten brief tastes of NHL action over the last four seasons before stepping in to share time with Murray last year. In his first “full” season as an NHLer, he put up an impressive .928 save percentage at even strength, with three shutouts to boot. Apparently the Penguins had seen enough after that, and signed him to a three-year contract extension back in October - sending Matt Murray to Ottawa just days later.
5. Ilya Samsonov (WSH)
Last year’s stats: 16-6-2, .913 sv%, 2.55 GAA, 1 SO
The Caps have had a long tradition of drafting great goalies who go on to become successful NHLers (just peep how many of the Caps’ former draftees now occupy starting roles around the NHL, including elsewhere on this list). The team is hoping that Samsonov continues that tradition - and he’s off to a pretty good start, putting together a stellar rookie season that was unfortunately cut short by the pandemic (and then an off-ice injury suffered during the pause that kept him out of the postseason). He may have to navigate his sophomore season without the veteran backup the team had planned on in Henrik Lundqvist, but the talent is there and the net is his to lose.
4. Semyon Varlamov (NYI)
Last year’s stats: 19-14-6, .914 sv%, 2.62 GAA, 2 SO
Another familiar face to Caps fans, Varlamov was the last line of defense behind a very tight Islanders team that took out the Capitals in five games last postseason. Yeah... that guy. While his numbers have fluctuated over the years, the bulk of which were spent in Colorado, Varlamov seems to thrive under Barry Trotz’s system and followed up a 19-14-6/.914/2.62 season with an 11-7-0/.921/2.14 postseason run that saw the Isles go on a surprise run to the Conference Final.
3. Igor Shesterkin (NYR)
Last year’s stats: 10-2-0, .932 sv%, 2.52 GAA, 0 SO
One of a handful of up-and-coming Russian goalies along with Samsonov and our honorable mention, the Isles’ Ilya Sorokin, Shesterkin is arguably the most talented of the trio. Starting his career in Russia, Shesterkin signed an entry-level deal with the Rangers back in May of 2019 and opened the 2019-20 season with Hartford in the AHL - where all he did was go 15-4-3, with a 1.90 GAA and .934 save percentage. Those numbers were more than good enough to merit a call-up to the NHL, where his stellar work continued (albeit in limited action) to the tune of 10-2-0, a save percentage of .932, and a goals-saved above average of 6.45. That’s good news for a rebuilding Rangers squad... and probably bad news for the rest of the division.
2. Carter Hart (PHI)
Last year’s stats: 24-13-3, .914 sv%, 2.42 GAA, 1 SO
The Flyers have seemingly been searching for their franchise guy in net since Ron Hextall was put out to pasture - but with Hart, they really do seem to have found their guy. The first goalie selected in the 2016 draft, Hart took on a larger role with the Flyers last season and while his numbers took a slight hit as a result (along with a slow start to the year), Athletic writer Charlie O’Connor noted that “according to Evolving-Hockey, he prevented 7.25 extra goals than a league-average goaltender. And +7.25 goals saved above expectation (GSAx) is far from merely fine. In fact, Hart ranked seventh among all goalies in 2019-20, and fourth when looking only at starting netminders. By GSAx, Hart trailed just Vezina winner Connor Hellebuyck, Corey Crawford and Tuukka Rask — pretty solid company.”
Pretty solid company, indeed.
1. Tuukka Rask (BOS)
Last year’s stats: 26-8-6, .929 sv%, 2.12 GAA, 5 SO
Rask has become not only the face of Bruins goaltending but also one of the NHL’s elite netminders, earning Vezina Trophy honors in 2013-14 and sharing the Jennings Trophy with co-goalie Halak. Over the course of his 11-year career as a full-time NHLer, Rask has never finished the season with a save percentage under .912, going over .920 six times — the most recent one being last season. Only six goalies in the NHL had more wins than Rask did last year, and all six of them appeared in at least eight more games than Rask’s 41. When it comes to the new division, Rask will be the one to beat.