Dominik Hasek is without question the greatest goaltender of all time. No other goalie has dominated the hockey landscape for an extended period as extensively and thoroughly as Hasek. Here’s but a small taste of his many achievements…
- Won 6 Vezina Trophy awards during an 8 year period (only matched by Plate and Durnan, both of which accomplished the feat while playing for a powerhouse Canadiens club). Making this that much more impressive is that Hall-of-Famers Patrick Roy and Ed Belfour never won another Vezina after Hasek became a starting goaltender in the NHL, nor was fellow future Hall-of-Famer Martin Brodeur capable of winning one until after Hasek’s initial retirement.
- Twice won the Hart Memorial Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award, the only goaltender in league history to capture either more than once.
- Led the league in Goals Against Average twice during the regular season (only finishing outside the top 5 twice during his career as a starter) and holds a career regular season GAA of 2.20, best all time among goalies after the Original Six era.
- Holds a career GAA of 2.01 in the playoffs, best all time among goalies after the Original Six era with 50+ career playoff games.
- Led the league in Save Percentage a record 6 times during the regular season, all consecutively (no other goalie has more than 3 in a row or 4 total), and holds a career regular season Save % of .922, best all time among goalies with 250+ career GP.
- Holds a career Save % of .925 in the playoffs, best all time among goalies with 60+ career post-season games.
- Recorded 81 career regular season shutouts, good for a share of 6th all time and 2nd best among Modern era goaltenders (Brodeur is 1st, but has played 456 more games).
- Recorded 14 career playoff shutouts, good for a share of 5th all time, and notched 6 shutouts in one playoff year, the 2nd highest total of all time.
- Won 389 career regular season games, enough for 11th all time, while playing an average of 200 games less in his career than those goalies in the top 10 and spending the majority of his career on a team that struggled to win even with the best goaltender in the world.
- Lead the Czech Republic to a stunning Gold Medal victory at the 1998 Winter Olympics, posting tournament leading numbers of 0.97 GAA and .961 Save %.
Though his stats and awards alone may be enough to justify proclaiming him the greatest goaltender of all time, they don’t paint the full picture of what Hasek accomplished. There are others with similar quantities of Vezina Trophy wins, consecutive league leading statistics, and overall career numbers. In addition, his critics will point out that he’s somewhat lacking in the Win column (his Win % is right there with the best of them), that he never won a Conn Smythe Trophy (should have in 98/99, arguably in 01/02 as well), and that he doesn’t have the Cup victories neccessary to make him the greatest goaltender to ever play the game (yet this never hurts Orr, Lemieux, or Gretzky). But what those detractors fail to recognize is that Hasek dominated his position in a way that had never been seen before and hasn’t been seen since, and no, I’m not talking about his unorthodox style of goaltending.
Hasek excelled among mediocrity. Actually, scratch that, Hasek was the best at his position despite having little to no help from his teammates. While this is a more common occurrence for forwards (look at the early years of Gretzky, Lemieux, Crosby, Ovechkin, etc.), it’s practically unheard of from a goaltender based on the simple fact that their performance is more closely tied to a team’s performance. Not to say goaltenders have never excelled on bad teams before (take Vanbiesbrouck in 85/86 or Theodore in 01/02 for instance), but certainly none have come even remotely close to doing what Hasek did. He almost single-handedly made a bad-to-average Sabres team competitive or better for close to a decade.
During the 8 seasons in which Hasek was the starting goaltender for Buffalo they missed the playoffs only once, in 95/96. Coincidentally that was also the only season in which Hasek did not win the Vezina due to his performance (but still managed to lead the league in Save %). He also failed to win the Vezina in 99/00, but certainly would have if not for injury (both his GAA and Save % over 35 games were better than the actual Vezina winner, Olaf Kolzig), and the Sabres only managed to snag the final playoff spot by a single point because of this. Quite simply, the Sabres did not rely solely on Hasek to perform well as a team, they relied on Hasek being the absolute best goaltender in the world to have any chance at all. This is only further supported by the fact that after trading Hasek to Detroit the Sabres never reached the playoffs again until the season following the lockout (by which point they were a completely different team, molded to take advantage of the new NHL).
But just how bad were the Buffalo Sabres during Hasek’s tenure? For now we’re going to focus on his 3 most outstanding seasons, 96/97, 97/98, and 98/99. Here’s a list of important facts to ascentuate how awful Buffalo was during this period…
- The 96/97 season was the only time during Hasek’s tenure that they managed to win their division or claim home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, largely due to his otherworldly performance (he was rewarded his first Hart Trophy for his efforts). The Sabres ranked 13th in goals for that year and not a single player reached 30 goals or 60 points.
- The 97/98 season saw Hasek not only improve upon his Hart winning performance from the previous year, but also record 8 additional shutouts (13 total), yet Buffalo fell to 6th in the East. This time they were 17th in goals for (last among playoff teams) and not one player reached 25 goals or 50 points.
- The 98/99 season saw Hasek improve yet again, setting a single season Save % record of .937 (which lasted until the 10/11 season). Yet again the Sabres fell down the standings, to 7th, and were 17th in goals for (worse than some non-playoff teams, but at least they finally had a legitimate scoring threat in Satan). Nonetheless, Hasek led the Sabres all the way to the Stanley Cup finals before losing to Dallas, Brett Hull, and the infamous foot-in-the-crease. Adding insult to injury, Hasek was robbed of the Hart Trophy by Jagr even though Pittsburgh finished below Buffalo in the standings.
Buffalo was at best an average team overall with Hasek. Take Hasek away and it’s almost certain they would have finished near the bottom of the league. Take it a step further and you could say that if you swapped Hasek off of the Sabres for any other goalie in the NHL, even a Vezina Trophy runner-up, the Sabres would have performed worse, probably missing the playoffs entirely.
However, Buffalo being a bad team isn’t of itself enough to justify that Hasek did more with less than any other goaltender in history. It’s quite possible that other greats of the game played on spectacularly awful teams as well, right? Actually, no, they didn’t. To prove this all you have to do is compare the quality of teammates and to make this even easier to understand I’m simply going to compare the number of games played by Hall of Fame talent with each goaltender. Here are the approximate numbers for 10 of the greatest goaltenders of all time…
As you can clearly see, Hasek is at the bottom of the list by a wide margin (it’s also worth noting that Esposito is very impressive compared to other pre-Modern era goaltenders, but that might be a topic for another day) and that margin is likely to increase substantially when compared to Roy and Brodeur once Niedermayer, Forsberg, etc. are inducted into the Hall. However, we can make this gap even more glaring by simply removing the games accumulated by Hasek during his initial season with the Red Wings. That would bring his total with HOF members down to a mere 171 games, nearly 5 times less than the next lowest on the list. Truly stunning.
Also worth mentioning is the fact that while with the Buffalo Sabres Dominik Hasek never played a single game with a HOF quality defenseman, nor even a Norris Trophy candidate for that matter. The same cannot be said for any other goalie that could be reasonably considered among the all time best.
Considering that Hasek was able to win the Stanley Cup immediately upon being surrounded by elite talent, just imagine the success he could have had if afforded the same opportunity as other top goaltenders. He certainly would have recorded more wins and shutouts, won more Stanley Cups, and his already amazing statistics could have been downright out of this world.
To conclude, look at it this way. Consider everything that Hasek was able to accomplish given the talent that surrounded him. If you placed Hasek on any other team throughout history would that team have been any worse? If you took any other goaltender throughout history and placed him on the Sabres from 1993 to 2001 could he have possibly achieved what Hasek did in that same situation? The answers are obvious.