By Felix Sicard
Ranking goaltenders throughout the history of NHL hockey is an arduous task. Multiple factors must be considered: sheer dominance, longevity, impact on the sport, etc. For some, raw win-and-ring totals are more important than how those totals were achieved. With all of these factors in mind, let’s take a shot at ranking the five greatest goalies in the history of the NHL:
5. Jacques Plante
November 1, 1959: Perhaps the most fateful night in goaltending history. Most hockey fans know the story, but it bears repeating. Struck in the face by an Andy Bathgate slapshot, Plante told Montreal Canadiens head coach Toe Blake that he refused to go back out on the ice without his rudimentary fiberglass mask on. Blake relented, as there was no backup goaltender on hand, and the rest is history.
Goaltenders at all levels—whether it be beer league or the National Hockey League—should say a quick “thank you” to Plante every time they receive a puck to the head, as he was the first to push the wearing of a mask into common practice.
Plante was an innovator in other ways, though, as he was among the first goaltenders to come out and support his defensemen by playing the puck. A student of the game, Plante would also take his own notes on the opponents he faced, and would bark orders to his players during games. He was more than just an innovator as well. He owned the Vezina Trophy during the 1950s, winning five in a row and two more later on. With five straight Stanley Cups in that same decade, Plante was at the heart of one of the most dominant teams in NHL history, and places him on this list of the five greatest goalies of all time.
4. Terry Sawchuk
Ben Bishop was exalted in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final for playing through a torn groin. While that sounds horribly painful, here is the list of injuries Sawchuk suffered and at times played through during his career: a permanently damaged elbow that rendered his left arm shorter than his right; cuts and bruises that resulted in over 400 stitches to his face; a collapsed lung; a broken instep; and severed hand tendons. And the wear and tear that the position inflicted on his back left him with a condition known a lordosis, which prevented him from sleeping for more than two hours at a time.
Sawchuk lived a troubled life, struggling with physical ailments, as well as alcoholism and a depression that was never treated. Yet through horrific obstacles, Sawchuk shone as one of the greatest goaltenders to ever play the game, compiling four Vezina trophies, four Stanley Cups, and a record of 103 career shutouts that stood for nearly four decades. Though his life was filled with hardship and ultimately ended tragically, his hockey career was nothing short of legendary. And that’s why he earned his spot among the five greatest goalies.
3. Martin Brodeur
No discussion of the five greatest goalies would be complete without mentioning Marty Brodeur. Let’s start with the hardware: Four Vezina trophies, two Olympic gold medals, and three Stanley Cups. Now for the numbers: 691 career wins, 125 career shutouts, 24 playoff shutouts, 28,508 career saves, and three career goals. Guess what? Those are all NHL records, and a smart gambler would say that at least a few of those will stand for a long, long time.
Brodeur was a member of one of the most stifling teams in NHL history, as they choked their opponents of the 1990s and early 2000s with a neutral-zone trap that would essentially change how the game was played. Brodeur was the perfect man for the job in a system that featured such legendary defensemen as Scott Niedermayer, and a genius team builder in Lou Lamoriello. With a cool and calm demeanor, Brodeur would remain intensely focused even when routinely facing only 15 to 20 shots a game. He often prevented teams from getting into any sort of rhythm thanks to his dominant puck-handling, which was so good that the NHL actually had to make rules to limit its effectiveness. Brodeur is one of the most successful athletes of all time, and his records will surely stand for decades to come.
2. Dominik Hasek
At a young age, doctors observed that Hasek possessed above-average flexibility, a characteristic that would go on to define much of his career. Although he became known for the extraordinary saves that contorted his body in unimaginable ways, what made Hasek great was his freakish grasp of the fundamentals of the position, his razor-like concentration, and his refusal to give up on any given play.
Fun Fact: Hasek is the only goaltender ever to have faced the most shots per 60 minutes, while also leading the league in save percentage. (If that isn’t impressive enough, he actually did it twice.) Then there are the accolades: Six Vezina trophies, two consecutive Hart trophies, two Stanley Cups, and an improbable gold medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano. The Buffalo Sabres teams that Hasek played on in the 1990s weren’t exactly defensive juggernauts, yet he came painstakingly close to carrying them all the way to the promised land. To boot, Hasek helped pave the way for other European goaltenders, forcing NHL teams to put more effort into finding talent in Europe.
1. Patrick Roy
Brodeur was a winner. Hasek was dominant. Roy was both of those, winning and dominating in every way possible when the lights shone their brightest. Michael Jordan is worshiped for his fiery resolve to win at all costs, yet Roy was every bit his equal in that regard. A feisty competitor, he carried two offensively challenged teams to two Stanley Cups. In the 1993 playoffs, Roy helped the Canadiens win a record 10 consecutive sudden-death overtime games. If there is any indicator of how much of a clutch player Roy could be, that has to be it.
Roy’s trophy case is stocked with four Stanley Cups, three Conn Smythe trophies, and three Vezina trophies. That makes him the only goaltender in this list to have any Conn Smythe trophies (awarded to the MVP of the playoffs), let alone three. He effectively shaped the course of modern goaltending by being the first goaltender to popularize the butterfly style, and even changed the very equipment that goaltenders wore thanks to his close relationship with coach François Allaire and the Lefebvre brothers.
Roy’s brand of goaltending, paired with the new style of equipment, led to a huge influx in goaltenders from the province of Quebec, Canada. Athletes in the province who once idolized goal-scoring greats like Maurice Richard and Guy Lafleur now wanted to be goaltenders, something that was unheard of at the time. The quality of goaltending improved around the league, which played a large role in a steady decrease in scoring. No goaltender has the combination of sheer dominance, team success, and influence on the sport that Roy had, earning him the top spot among the five greatest goalies and making him the greatest goaltender of all time.
Reprinted with permission of The Hockey Writers.
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