There are a few positions in team sports wherein one player can take over an entire game, and there is no better example of that than goaltenders in hockey. Elite goalies can make bad teams competitive, and they can make average teams look like contenders.
The catch is that elite goaltending, like elite pitching or quarterbacking, is very hard to find. There are a limited number of NHL netminders who are good enough to completely change the fortunes of their respective teams over the course of an 82-game season.
Ilya Sorokin has already shown that he can elevate a somewhat pedestrian New York Islanders roster, and Juuse Saros has done the same for the Nashville Predators. Other goalies, like Andrei Vasilevskiy, can make great teams look borderline unbeatable.
Here are the top 10 NHL goaltenders heading into the 2023-24 season.
All goals saved above average and high-danger save percentage numbers courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.
There were a few goaltenders in contention for this final spot, including Ilya Samsonov and Alexandar Georgiev, but Kuemper got the nod because of his larger body of work. Kuemper had a bit of a down year in 2022-23, but it was better than it looked on the surface.
In his first season with the Washington Capitals, Kuemper posted a GAA of 2.87 and a save percentage of .908. That doesn't necessarily scream "top 10 goaltender." Having said that, Kuemper kept his head above water with 6.41 goals saved above average. Kuemper did face 471 high-danger shots, which was 12th most in the NHL, and those sank his numbers. Kuemper had a .811 high-danger save percentage, which was well below that of the league's best.
Even taking that into consideration, Kuemper has done enough throughout his career to keep a top-10 spot. He was excellent for the Colorado Avalanche in 2021-22, and he put together some great seasons behind an outmatched Arizona Coyotes lineup. Look for him to bounce back in 2023-24.
Filip Gustavsson really burst onto the scene in his first season with the Minnesota Wild last year, and he even wrestled playing time away from the legendary Marc-Andre Fleury. It was only one season, but Gustavsson put the Wild on his back down the stretch.
Gustavsson appeared in just 39 games for the Wild last year, but he still managed to finish third in goals saved above average with 22.4. Minnesota finished 23rd in goals per game last season but was still in contention for the Central Division title thanks to Gustavsson. The Wild scored just 106 goals in his 39 appearances, but Gustavsson kept them afloat and finished the year with a 22-9-7 record.
Back in July, Gustavsson signed a three-year contract with the Wild, and his $3.75 million AAV will be a massive bargain if he has another special season. Going into 2023-24, Gustvasson is set to split starts with Fleury again, but he might become the full-time starter before long.
It's an embarrassment of riches in Boston. Not only do the Bruins have the reigning Vezina Trophy winner in goal, but it has hands down the best backup in the league in Jeremy Swayman. Just 24 years old, Swayman looks like the long-term solution for the Bruins in goal.
Swayman may have lived in Linus Ullmark's shadow last year, but he was plenty good enough to start for most NHL teams. He finished 11th in goals saved above average (15.3), fourth in GAA (2.27) and fourth in save percentage (.920). That's not half bad for a backup goaltender. Swayman allows the Bruins to take more of a committee approach in net and keep both players fresh throughout the year.
Swayman is entering the final year of his current contract, and it will be interesting to see how the Bruins handle their goaltending duo. Ullmark just had a mind-blowing season, but he is six years older than Swayman, who looks ready to take over as the full-time starter for Boston.
The Dallas Stars have built up a talented young core, and that extends to the crease with Jake Oettinger. The 24-year-old goaltender has already strung together two great seasons between the pipes.
Through his first 139 NHL games, Oettinger has a .916 save percentage and 37.2 goals saved above average. This past season, Oettinger became a true workhorse for the Stars by starting 62 games, and he handled it well. He was seventh in GSAA (26.2), seventh in GAA (2.37) and sixth in save percentage (.919). That said, Oettinger did struggle a bit in the playoffs, or he might be even higher on this list.
Oettinger, along with Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz, Wyatt Johnston, and Miro Heiskanen, is part of a young core in Dallas that should get multiple cracks at a Stanley Cup run. If Oettinger can continue to develop his game, the Stars will be set in goal for a very long time.
6. Andrei Vasilevskiy | Tampa Bay Lightning
No goaltender on this list has a better postseason resume than Andrei Vasilevskiy. Then again, few netminders have shown the ability to elevate their game in the playoffs quite like Vasilevskiy.
Dating back to the 2017-18 season, the lowest that Vasilevskiy has finished in Vezina Trophy voting is sixth. In that span, Vasilevskiy has saved a total of 112.8 goals above average. In addition to his regular-season excellence, Vasilevskiy has shown a penchant for playing his best hockey in the playoffs. In 110 postseason appearances, Vasilevskiy has a GAA of 2.37 and a save percentage of .921. After leading the Bolts to a second consecutive Stanley Cup in 2021, he was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner.
This coming season will be Vasilevskiy's 10th in the NHL, but he is still at the top of his game. He's a major reason why the Lightning have been able to keep their Stanley Cup window open for so long, and he will make sure it remains open for the foreseeable future.
5. Linus Ullmark | Boston Bruins
I had my doubts when the Boston Bruin handed Linus Ullmark a $20 million contract, but now $5 million per season looks like a bargain. Ullmark took home the Vezina Trophy in June after backstopping the Bruins to a historic regular season.
Despite splitting starts with fellow Boston netminder Jeremy Swayman, Ullmark led the NHL with 48.5 goals saved above average last year. Ilya Sorokin was the next closest player at 36.1 goals saved above average. Ullmark also led the league in GAA (1.89), save percentage (.938), and wins (40). Boston lost just seven of Ullmark's starts all season.
The Bruins enter the 2023-24 seasons with some questions at the top of their lineup, but there are no questions in the crease. Ullmark has proven that he is an upper-echelon starter in the NHL, and Boson will be able to compete atop the Atlantic Division as long as he is anywhere near as good as he was in 2022-23.
Igor Shesterkin remains in the top five after another excellent season for the New York Rangers. His 2022-23 campaign wasn't quite on the level of his Vezina Trophy winning performance in 2021-22, but Shesterkin was still a massive headache for opponents last season.
Shesterkin saved a preposterous 44.8 goals above average in 2021-22, and I would have questioned his mortality if he was able to do that two seasons in a row. Instead, Shesterkin saved a meager 20.6 goals and above average last year, which dropped him all the way to No. 8 in the NHL. Where Shesterkin really thrives is making saves that leave shooters looking up at the rafters. His .860 high-danger save percentage over the last two seasons is far and away the best among regular starters.
Just a few short years ago, Shesterkin had the unenviable task of taking over for Henrik Lundqvist, one of the most beloved Rangers in franchise history. All Shesterkin has done since then is put up equally absurd numbers between the pipes.
3. Juuse Saros | Nashville Predators
Consistency is hard to find between the pipes, but Juuse Saros has steadily been one of the best goalies in the NHL for a few years now. Saros really took over for Pekka Rinne in the 2020-21 season, and he has not looked back.
Over the last three seasons, only Connor Hellebuyck has played more games than Saros, and the Nashville Predators goaltender produces elite numbers despite his massive workload. Since the start of the 2020-21 season, Saros has recorded 75.33 goals saved above average. That number leads the league, with Shesterkin and Sorokin hot on his heels. Since his rookie campaign in 2016-17, Saros has never posted a save percentage lower than .914.
The Predators seem to be shifting into rebuild mode under new general manager Barry Trotz, but Saros might throw a wrench into those plans. Like Sorokin, Saros has already proven that he can drag a lackluster roster into playoff contention, and he is poised to do it again this year.
2. Connor Hellebuyck | Winnipeg Jets
The Winnipeg Jets underwent some changes this offseason, but Connor Hellebuyck remains in goal, despite some trade rumors. That's probably because it would be hard for Winnipeg to get fair value in a deal involving Hellebuyck. He has been a top-five goaltender for the last five years now.
As has already been discussed, goaltending is a volatile position, and consistency is hard to find. No goalie has been more consistent than Hellebuyck, who has finished in the top five of Vezina Trophy voting four times in the last six years. Hellebuyck won the award in 2020, and he was a strong candidate to take it home this past season. The Jets had their share of struggles last year, but Hellebuyck was exceptional. He saved 31.1 goals above average and posted a .920 save percentage.
Hellebuyck has one year remaining in his contract at just over $6.1 million per season. The Jets better enjoy him at that price point because Hellebuyck has earned a sizable raise, and he will almost certainly get it from a team in search of elite goaltending, which is hard to find.
1. Ilya Sorokin | New York Islanders
Ilya Sorokin has only spent three seasons in the NHL, but he has already proven that he is the best goaltender in the league. He has earned this top spot thanks to three straight seasons of absolute dominance for the New York Islanders.
Sorokin took over the Islanders' starting role in 2021-22, his second season at the NHL level. Since then, he has put up some eye-popping numbers. Over the last two years, Sorokin leads the league in goals saved above average (65.6) and has posted a sparkling .855 high-danger save percentage. Igor Shesterkin and Linus Ullmark may have put together better individual seasons, but Sorokin has been a wall from wire to wire.
The Islanders don't have a ton of offensive firepower, and it's not hard to imagine them near the bottom of the standings without Sorokin in goal over the last two seasons. Sorokin is fully capable of carrying his team to the postseason in 2023-24, and there is probably a Vezina Trophy in his future.