According to NHLNumbers.com the NHL is made up of players with eighteen different nations of origin. Slovenia, Norway, and Lithuania sitting at the bottom of the representation chart, and Canada resting at the top with more than half of the National Hockey League’s players. Of the sixty three goalies to enter a game this season eleven of those men are Americans. In the post lockout era, four of the six times the award has been handed out have gone to Americans. Tim Thomas has twice won the award and made Flint Michigan, the University of Vermont and Boston Bruins fans proud. Ryan Miller of East Lansing Michigan, Michigan State and the Buffalo Sabres is the other American to lift the Vezina.
But they are hardly alone among the elite level goalies hailing from the US of A. Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings has hovered in the Vezina picture over the last few years as well. Hobbled by being on a west coast team that until very recently was only so-so he’s still managed to pile up some highly creditable numbers. Last season, he put up numbers comparable to the last non-American to win the Vezina (Martin Brodeur, 2008) and did it in a system less favorable to goaltenders. This year he’s setting a ridiculous early pace with three consecutive shutouts in his first seven games. At twenty five the pride of Milford Connecticut is likely to keep improving for several more years, and is probably the favorite to win the Vezina at this point in the season.
Tim Thomas the reigning Vezina trophy winner is at 37 years old today, but only like most goalies his age has not logged the huge minutes at the NHL level that might be expected. He’s logged just 7000 more minutes than Quick who is 12 year younger, and 5000 less than Miller who is six years younger. Given the ages we’ve seen goalies such as Hasek and Brodeur play to while playing enormous amounts of games, its entirely possible that the man who last year set a regular season save percentage record, and followed it up by bettering that number and setting a record for number of saves in the Stanley Cup playoffs could be around for several more years. He’s won the Vezina twice now a third is entirely possible.
Ryan Miller is considered by many to be the best goalie in the world, and even the people who believe he’s overrated don’t list him outside the NHL’s top five. He’s won the award in the past, has a much better team in front of him now and right of the gate he’s putting up numbers that are better than the season he won the Vezina. With a new owner who has thrown the purse wide open enabling better players around him, and potentially a better level of backup that will let him play 55-60 games a year instead of the 65-74 he has played in years past the sky is the limit.
Arguably the best backup goaltender in the NHL is another American. Tucked away behind Roberto Luongo’s lifetime contract in Vancouver is Marlbehead Massachusetts native son Cory Schneider. Although, given recent events and the comparative numbers of the two goaltenders this season, it is arguable which of the two is the number one goaltender. Schneider who is listed behind Luongo on the depth chart has started four games to the “number one goaltenders” seven, come in to relieve the other guy once, and not given up a single special teams goal in five appearances. He also boasts far better numbers, with a Sv% .058 better and a goals against average 1.57 lower. The ousting of Luongo has been called for numerous times in British Columbia, with numbers like that it’s not hard to see why that is.
Nor is the pipeline exactly bare. Jack Campbell of Michigan and John Gibson of Pennsylvania were both high draft picks in recent drafts. Jeff Zatkoff is another American goaltender in the Kings system currently working the crease in the AHL. Also filling the crease in the AHL is Nashville Predators prospect Jeremy Smith (yet another) Michigan native who is among the league leaders in Sv%.
As players like Thomas, and Miller continue to win Vezinas or guys like Schneider and Quick emerge from the shadows of in widely spread parts of the continent you can expect to see more and more great athletes taking to the highest pressure position in team sports. As the west coast is exposed to Quick and Schneider, the east coast to Miller and Thomas, and the heartland gets to know Campbell and Smith in the near future don’t be surprised if the next generations NHL creases are predominantly patrolled by men with the stars and stripes on their shoulder.