It’s hard to believe, but we’re already one-third of the way through the NHL season. December 2021, already? Boy, time really flies when you’re having fun, huh?
With the league paused (bar one more game) until after the holiday break, it seems as good an opportunity as ever to check in on how some of the NHL’s most recent members are faring so far. And since breaking in as an NHL goalie is such a difficult job – even at the best of times – let’s give some holiday love to the league’s young stoppers by highlighting the 2021-22 season’s top rookies.
Something to keep in mind: this list is not a projection of which current rookie NHLers will have the best careers. It is simply a snapshot of how the cohort’s 2021-22 seasons have gone as of Dec. 21.
So don’t fret, Panthers fans, that you won’t see Spencer Knight on this list. He’s had some great performances this season. And some rough ones. But he ultimately projects as one of the best young goalies on the planet; he was the highest-ranked goalie 21 or under in our 2021-22 Prospects Unlimited issue. That he’s an NHL regular before his 21st birthday is mighty impressive.
Similarly, though guys like Justus Annunen (COL – ranked 70th overall in the above-mentioned Prospects Unlimited list), Joel Hofer (STL), Filip Gustavsson (OTT) and Nico Daws (NJ) could wind up being the goalies of the future for their respective clubs, their current sample sizes are either too small or too inconsistent to warrant mention above the following names.
With that out of the way, here are the top five rookie goalies of 2021-22.
Alex Nedeljkovic – Detroit Red Wings
It feels wrong to have one of last season’s Calder finalists on this list, but Nedeljkovic still qualifies as a rookie by NHL standards.
Nedeljkovic won’t be a repeat finalist this season – if nothing else, playing on the same squad as Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider will see to that – but he nonetheless impresses for a resurgent Wings squad. With Detroit currently sitting in a playoff spot, Nedeljkovic’s contributions will be critical as the calendar turns over.
The 25-year-old from Parma, Ohio, is 9-7-3 with a .916 save percentage and 2.78 goals-against average in 18 starts this season. He’s coming off a season where he led the NHL in SP (.932) and GAA (1.90) in 23 starts for the Carolina Hurricanes. Following his off-season trade to Motown, Nedeljkovic has faced a more challenging workload than he saw in Carolina. Per naturalstattrick.com, Nedeljkovic has faced the 12th-most high-danger shots per 60 minutes of the 67 goalies who’ve played more than 250 minutes this season. But he’s acquitted himself well despite the sometimes-frenetic action around him. With batterymate Thomas Greiss struggling so far in 2021-22, Nedeljkovic may need to shoulder a greater percentage of the load as the season reaches its apex. Thus far, Nedeljkovic has started 18 games to Greiss’ 13.
Nedeljkovic is currently in COVID protocol, but with action paused until after Christmas, he may not miss much – if any – game action. And while individual hardware may not be in his immediate future, the 6-foot, 203-pounder will be more than happy with playing meaningful hockey for another spring. Not bad for a man quickly becoming a long and difficult-to-spell household name in the NHL.
Jeremy Swayman – Boston Bruins
Swayman’s sudden emergence last season as a future crease pillar in Boston made Dan Vladar (more on him later) expendable. And while Vladar has been brilliant for Calgary, Swayman is giving the Beantown faithful no reason to question the decision.
Swayman, who celebrated his 23rd birthday Nov. 24, was scorching hot down the stretch last season when the B’s were dealing with injuries to Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak. The Anchorage, Alaska, native played to the tune of a ridiculous .945 SP and 1.50 GAA in 10 starts in 2020-21. His numbers aren’t quite that gaudy this season, but he’s nonetheless been solid in his 14 starts this year. Swayman is 7-5-2 with a .917 SP, 2.29 GAA and one shutout, splitting time with Linus Ullmark. The highlight of his season came in early December, with a 42-save shutout of the Nashville Predators.
The B’s play brilliant defensive hockey – Swayman faces the fewest high-danger shots and has the lowest expected goals against per 60 of the above-mentioned 67-goalie sample – which does unquestionably help the young tender. Still, you can only make the saves asked of you. And Swayman has been up to the task.
One thing to keep in mind: if Rask does eventually return – as many expect – Swayman is likely the odd man out in the Bruins crease. Ullmark signed a four-year, $20-million pact in the off-season, so sending him to the press box would be tough.
Dan Vladar – Calgary Flames
The first of two Battle-of-Alberta tenders on this list, Vladar has ensured Calgary doesn’t experience any downturn in the cage when Jacob Markstrom needs respite. Though it’s just a seven-game sample size, if the Czech stopper can maintain his hot hand, it would grant the Flames a luxury they weren’t afforded last season, when David Rittich struggled to a .904 SP before being sent off to Toronto. Markstrom, for his part, had an identical .904 SP last season. But he was also asked to start 43 of 56 games for the Flames – far heavier a workload than seems ideal for the hulking Swede.
For a while, Vladar, a Bruins’ third-rounder in 2015, seemed like the heir-apparent in Boston. Indeed, a sparkling 2019-20, in which he led the AHL in SP and GAA, had him seemingly on the cusp of an NHL role. But a rough NHL start in 2020-21 plus Swayman’s emergence saw the latter become the favored man in Beantown. The Flames eventually sent Boston a 2022 third-rounder for Vladar on July 28.
In seven starts this year, Vladar has a sparkling .928 SP, 2.10 GAA and two shutouts. He’s also 5-1-1, staking the Flames to some vital points in a suddenly competitive Pacific Division. The 24-year-old from Prague is signed through 2022-23 at just $750,000 per. That, coupled with the cost of acquisition, could make Vladar a big-time steal.
Stuart Skinner – Edmonton Oilers
Oilers fans’ hearts sank when Mike Smith went down with another early-season injury back in October. At that point, the only healthy goalies Edmonton had under contract after Mikko Koskinen were Skinner, Olivier Rodrigue and Ilya Konovalov. Combined, the three had one NHL start (it was Skinner’s) and not a whole ton of AHL action either (again, mostly Skinner’s).
Though Smith’s injury was initially believed to be short-term, he remains out as of late December. But Skinner has been a more-than-adequate replacement, providing the northern Alberta outfit with strong enough performances to hang in there in the Pacific Division.
Skinner, the fifth goalie taken in the 2017 draft (78th overall), is just 4-5 in nine starts but has a .916 SP and 2.70 GAA. Though he’s faced a slightly easier workload than Koskinen, Skinner has significantly better numbers thus far. Tending goal behind the Oilers defense – one that has been devastated by injuries and COVID – is a difficult task, but Skinner has begun to allay Oilers fans’ worry about their crease situation.
GM Ken Holland is thought to be seeking a goalie to shore up his team for a post-season run, but if nothing else, 2021-22 has given Oilers fans a reason to believe Skinner could take the mantle in the coming years as Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid’s pacts with the club wind down.
Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen – Buffalo Sabres
The sample size for Luukkonen is infinitesimal, and he struggled for AHL Rochester before Craig Anderson’s injury necessitated a call-up, but the giant Finn has been a bright spot in his five starts for Buffalo this season. The 22-year-old from Espoo is 2-2-1 with a .939 SP and 1.96 GAA. Of the 68 goalies to play five or more games this year, he ranks eighth in goals saved above expected per 60 (per moneypuck.com).
The Sabres have other future crease options in Erik Portillo and Devon Levi, but Luukkonen, the second goalie taken in the 2017 draft (54th overall), is the furthest along and will have first dibs on securing the role of future starter. With the 40-year-old Anderson out “month-to-month,” Luukkonen could be in Buffalo to stay.
HM: Karel Vejmelka – Arizona Coyotes
Coyotes fans have needed something to cheer about this season – apart from the full-time return of one of the best jersey sets in the NHL, that is. Vejmelka, an unheralded free-agent signee out of the Czech league, has had some nice performances for the ’Yotes – including a 46-save shutout of Winnipeg in late November. His numbers don’t shine, but he’s faced an incredibly difficult workload in the desert.