Written by Neil Becker

It’s no secret that an essential blueprint for an NHL team with Stanley Cup aspirations is solid, unflappable goaltending.

Playoff hockey history are full of goaltending legends such as Toronto Maple Leafs’ Johnny Bower, Montreal Canadiens Jacques Plante, Patrick Roy, Chicago Blackhawks Glenn Hall and Detroit Red Wings Terry Sawchuck who are just a few who have turned in heroics performances in leading their teams to Stanley Cup glory. Today, hockey fans can read about their past goaltending exploits among other heroes of the net at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. Among the many past goaltending legends, there are also other such prominent names as Edmonton Oilers Grant Fuhr, Montreal Canadiens Ken Dryden and George Hainsworth along with Leafs Harry Lumley to name just a few more who have provided Stanley Cup winning goaltending.

Heading into the 2021 abbreviated 56 game season, there are many compelling arguments to be made about which goalie will win this year’s Vezina Trophy.

One of the favourites has to be Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy who led his team to a Stanley Cup championship against the Dallas Stars last year. This 6- foot 3, 216- pound netminder from Russia, who was drafted by Tampa 19th overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, won the Vezina Trophy in 2018-19. That year he finished with a 39-10-4 record, which included six shutouts and a 2.40 G.A.A.

Affectionately known as “Big Cat” and “Vasi”, Vasilevskiy, who is 26 years old, followed up his Vezina Trophy campaign with another solid season, which saw him go 35-14-3, with three shutouts and a 2.56 G.A.A. Vasilevskiy didn’t win back-to-back Vezina’s but finished in the top three that year for voting.  

Lightning fans had reason to rejoice when on July 29, 2019, the organization signed their star goaltender to an eight-year $76 million-dollar extension which will see him wear Lightning colours through the 2027/28 season.

During the Lightning’s Stanley Cup run in 2020, Vasilevskiy made franchise post-season history when on August 11, 2020, he starred in a 61 save opening round Game 1 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets in what was a gruelling marathon that went five overtime periods. The 61 saves were the most in Lightning franchise history.

Naturally, last year’s Vezina Trophy winner, Winnipeg Jets Connor can’t be left out of discussion for elite goaltenders with a solid chance to win this year’s Vezina.

Hellebuyck, who was drafted by Winnipeg 130th overall in the 2012 Entry Draft, became the first Winnipeg Jets goaltender following the 2019-20 season to win the Vezina. Standing a towering 6 foot 4, 207 pounds, he posted a 31-21-5 record, which had him ranked second that season in wins. Hellebuyck, who posted an impressive 2.57 G.A.A., ranked first with six shutouts.

Back on July 17, 2018, Winnipeg made a full commitment to their starting goalie as they signed him long term to a six-year, $37 million-dollar pact. During the 2017-2018 campaign, Hellebuyck posted a record setting 44-11-9 record in 67 games. What made this a record setting season was that the 44 wins set a record for most single-season wins, which was previously held by Tom Barrasso in 1992 with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Currently, this unflappable goaltender is in his prime years and will once again be a serious contender to win what would be his second Vezina in the past three years.

A wild card in the Vezina debate is 33- year-old veteran Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask. Rask, who back in 2014 won the Vezina, finished second in last year’s voting.

Questions surrounding this 6’3”, 176-pound Finish goaltender is how he will bounce back after opting out of last year’s playoffs in the bubble and adjust to the Bruins revamped defence which is now minus such big names as hulking veteran Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug.

Rask, who was chosen in the 2005 draft 21st overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs, was traded in June 2006 to the Bruins, where in 2011 he won his first and only Stanley Cup.

Regarding his decision to opt out of the 2020 playoffs Rask stated,

“I want to be with my team competing, but at this moment there are things more important than hockey in my life, and that is being with my family.” Rask went on to include, “I want to thank the Bruins and my teammates for their support and wish them the best.”

Last year, Rask played in 41 games where he posted a 26-8 record with a 2.12 G.A.A. and five shutouts.

This season, the veteran got off to a solid start as he went 3-1 in his first four games with a 2.13 G.A.A.

He might be turning 34 in March, but Rask has shown so far this year he can still be considered an elite goaltender.

Another popular wildcard to consider as a possible 2021 Vezina candidate is Montreal Canadiens veteran 33-year-old goaltender Carey Price. Drafted 5th overall by Montreal in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Price hasn’t won any Cups but has been an elite goaltender who in 2015 won the Vezina Trophy.  In what was a magical year, Price was a near unanimous winner that year after he finished first in such categories as wins (44), G.A.A. (1.96) and save percentage at .933.

Price would rebound into fine form following an injury-plagued 2015/16 season which saw him play only 12 games. The following year, this Habs fan-favourite rebounded in fine fashion as he was the fifth winningest goalie in the 2016/2017 season with 37 wins.  He also placed sixth among goalies for both G.A.A. at 2.23 and save percentage at .923.

Following that season, Price proved to be durable as he played in 49, 66 and 58 games over the next three years.

This year Price, who got his 350th career win, has gotten off to a decent start as he has recorded two wins in his first four games with a 3.15 G.A.A.

One of the many emerging goaltenders who may be poised for a breakout season is 22-year-old Philadelphia Flyers goalie Carter Hart. Selected second round 48th overall by Philadelphia in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, Hart, who is 6 foot 2 and 180 pounds, came to the Flyers tagged as an up-and-coming star.

Playing for the Everett Silvertips, Carter burst onto the junior hockey scene by posting an impressive 18-5-2-3 with a 2.29 G.A.A. and a .915 save percentage in his WHL rookie campaign. That season would also see him have some international success as he backstopped the Canadian team to gold at the 2015 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.  

The accolades kept coming for Hart, who on May 28, 2016, was named the CHL Goalie of the year. A few months later, on October 2, 2016, Hart gave Philadelphia fans a reason to feel excited as he inked an entry level-contract with the team.

Continuing his dominating ways, Hart registered a microscopic 1.60 G.A.A., a .947 Save Percentage and seven shutouts to win WHL Goalie of the Year in what was a 2017-18 season for the record books. He also made history by winning the CHL goalie of the year for a second straight year. Something which has never been accomplished.

Hart entered the NHL with a lot of fanfare after he posted an overall 116-46-19 record with a tidy 2.01 GAA and .927 save percentage along with 26 shutouts in his junior career. Hart started his career in impressive fashion as he gave Flyers fans a taste of his potential as he debuted on December 18, 2018, in a 3-2 win against the Detroit Red Wings. Named the game’s first star, Hart became the youngest goalie since Carey Price to win his NHL debut.

Last season Hart started 43 games, where he posted a 24-13-3 record with a 2.42 G.A.A., 9.14 save percentage along with a shutout.

At only 22 years of age, Hart should be a star in Philadelphia for many years to come.

Numerous debates can be made about who will win this year’s Vezina Trophy. One thing is for sure; hockey fans will be entertained as they see these various elite goalies do what they do best, which is stopping the puck.