With Hellebuyck leaving, how important is goaltending to playoff success?

Winnipeg Jets, Connor Hellebuyck (Photo by Jason Halstead/Getty Images)
Winnipeg Jets, Connor Hellebuyck (Photo by Jason Halstead/Getty Images) /

Goaltending is hard. Jacques Plante put it best:

“Goaltending is a normal job, sure. How would you like it in your job if every time you made a small mistake, a red light went on over your desk and 15,000 people stood up and yelled at you.”

There is no escaping the ubiquity of goalie quotes, nor a goalie’s relative utility to NHL franchises. Let’s get this simian declaration out of the way – goaltending is important to the success of NHL teams. Obviousness aside, how important is it?

Of the 10 different goalies to play in a Stanley Cup final over the past 6 years, 60% of them have won a Vezina Trophy in their career. They include (finals appearances in parentheses): Andrei Vasilevskiy (3), Tuukka Rask (1), Carey Price (1), Sergei Bobrovsky (1), Braden Holtby (1), and Marc-Andre Fleury (1). That means that since 2018, 66% of netminders playing for the Stanley Cup won the most coveted award at their position.

A contrarian would argue that the sample size above includes the far less illustrious group of Darcy Kuemper (COL), Anton Khudobin (DAL), Jordan Binnington (STL), and Adin Hill (VGN). History is rife with teams that experienced Stanley Cup success with mediocre to subpar goaltending. The 2010 NHL Finals is emblematic, as both Antti Niemi for the Blackhawks, and Michel Leighton of the Flyers were middling at best.

How important is goaltending to playoff success?

To be clear, making the Stanley Cup Finals is not the singular benchmark for gauging worth, or even success for that matter. It does however set an easily recognizable and trackable touchstone. The goal of every NHL team should be to win the Cup, so it seems apropos to use it as our frame of reference.

Let’s look again at the last 6 years of goaltending Finalists:

The metrics used above attempt to represent a holistic statistical analysis of each goalie’s performance (playoffs only) relative to a playoff year. The rankings are for all goalies having played a minimum of 4 playoff games and include only one cumulative stat – “Wins Above Replacement”.

While this list is populated with former Vezina winners, we can see that only Vasilevskiy in 2021 and Rask in 2019 were truly elite during their playoff run. For example, Holtby won his Vezina in 2015-16 but was simply ‘good’ not ‘great’ for Washington’s Cup run in 2018.

Marc-Andre Fleury further typifies an accomplished goalie who won a Stanley Cup (2009) despite being statistically average relative to the league and his own previous (and future) accolades.

In all, it bodes well for your playoff chances to roster elite goaltending, but outliers and exceptions are pervasive. There is also no direct correlation between regular season goaltending success to playoff goaltending success. Outside of Vasilevskiy, no Vezina finalist in the past 4 years has played in a Stanley Cup final.

What is going on with Winnipeg Jets’ Connor Hellebuyck?

This takes us to the Winnipeg Jets and Connor Hellebuyck. It must be noted that it is hard not to assess the Jets’ lack of playoff success as an organizational failure given their goaltending advantage.

For Jets fans, it represents the end of an era – one fraught with uncertainty. Goaltending has been the one constant, and now the organization finds itself back with the unwashed masses.

Recent news postulates that Connor Hellebuyck is seeking a contract worth north of $9M per year. Hellebuyck is a Vezina winner and 2-time finalist. Only Andrei Vasilevskiy has had more nominations since 2018. Currently, Sergei Bobrovsky and Vasilevskiy occupy the rarified plus $9M tier, however, I believe Hellebuyck belongs in that echelon. Whether a team will pay a 30-year-old goaltender that salary for his presumed twilight remains to be seen.

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The good news is that elite goaltending is not an opaque barrier to NHL playoff success – more of a translucent one. The Jets will have to increasingly rely on their play, rather than their goaltender if the goal is to remain relevant moving forward. Regardless, losing Hellebuyck hurts, and to quote another famous goalie Denis Lemieux – “hurt like hell”.