(Like Tyler Dellow, I usually feel like I don't have much to talk about early in the season. Anything involving goalies is going to necessarily be an attempt to find meaning in impossibly small sample sizes. My posts will be mostly focused on historical items until we can be in a better position to guess at how things are shaking out.)
If you were asked to list off the easiest goalie jobs in NHL history, there would be a number of dynasty teams that would come immediately to mind. Right after those powerhouses, I think a high ranking on that list should be reserved for the starting role on an Original Six team shortly after expansion in the late '60s and early '70s. That was a position that was pretty much guaranteed to make you look better than you were.
To nobody's surprise, the teams that were already full of NHL talent dominated the expansion teams in the first few seasons after the league doubled in size. This effect lasted for quite some time as new expansion fodder kept getting tossed into the mix throughout the decade, until the late '70s when the Hawks, Leafs and Wings had fallen back into the pack and a number of expansion teams including the Flyers, Islanders, and Sabres had become legitimate contenders for the Cup.
There were 11 Hall of Fame goalies that were active during the period from 1968 to 1975, but a handful of them were at the end of their careers (Plante, Worsley, Hall, Bower, Sawchuk), and another (Billy Smith) was suffering through the growing pains on an expansion team and had yet to make his mark. That leaves Ken Dryden, Tony Esposito, Gerry Cheevers, Ed Giacomin and Bernie Parent as the goalies who had their peak in the post-expansion period.
Or, to express it in a slightly different but perhaps more meaningful way, Montreal's goalie, Chicago's goalie, Boston's goalie, New York's goalie, and Bernie Parent.
The Leafs and Red Wings might have been able to put somebody in the Hall of Fame too if they hadn't spread the workload around. Both teams used 14 different goalies in those 8 seasons, and Roy Edwards was the only one who played in over 200 games. The Leafs did have both Plante and Parent on their team at times during this period, which helped both of their resumes although both of them would have become honoured members even without their tenures in Toronto.
If team effects had the potential to create Hall of Famers, then which goalies got lucky and which ones were unlucky? I'd submit Ed Giacomin as probably the worst of the lot. If you look at the Rangers' year-by-year GAAs against Original Six teams compared to expansion teams, you start to get a sense of the lack of balance in the league:
1967-68: 2.76 vs. Original Six, 1.88 vs. Expansion
1968-69: 3.15 vs. Original Six, 1.94 vs. Expansion
1969-70: 2.80 vs. Original Six, 2.14 vs. Expansion
1970-71: 2.73 vs. Original Six, 1.98 vs. Expansion
1971-72: 3.10 vs. Original Six, 2.06 vs. Expansion
1972-73: 3.31 vs. Original Six, 2.35 vs. Expansion
1973-74: 4.26 vs. Original Six, 2.67 vs. Expansion
1974-75: 4.52 vs. Original Six, 3.07 vs. Expansion
Period Averages: 3.14 vs. Original Six, 2.34 vs. Expansion
That's a 34% increase in GAA when playing against a fellow Original Six team. The Rangers also shut out the expansion teams 39 times, compared to just 17 blankings of their older foes.
Giacomin was voted the best goalie in 1966-67, which appears to be an impressive feat given that there were still only five other teams that season. However, that was an unusual year where most of league's netminders were in platoon situations. Roger Crozier was the only other goalie who played in more than 44 games, and considering Crozier played on a much weaker Detroit team it looks like Giacomin was named the best goalie more or less by default.
Giacomin also was voted the top goalie in 1970-71, a year where he finished second in save percentage with an impressive .922. Although this was Giacomin's career year, he still never should have received that honour, not when Jacques Plante posted an incredible .944 save percentage in just 5 fewer games played. In addition, Giacomin's journeyman backup Gilles Villemure had very similar stats (2.30, .919 compared to Giacomin's 2.16, .922), which suggests that the Rangers were making it tough for the opposition to score.
In this period Giacomin got many of the typical edges of a goalie playing for a defensive, disciplined team. New York faced fewer opposing power plays than average every year between 1968 and 1975 except for 1971-72. The Rangers were also routinely among the top teams in shots prevention. Newly released shot data shows that Giacomin's career shots faced per game rate was 28.8, just 0.3 higher than Ken Dryden's career mark. Giacomin also got a ton of starts, which can be interpreted as either a fortunate opportunity or evidence of his durability, depending on your outlook.
Giacomin did not have much longevity, and he only had about 5-6 peak seasons (which with the single exception of 1966-67 came in the post-expansion period). His career save percentage of .902 exactly matched league average for the seasons he played. He was nothing special once he was shipped out from Broadway to the Red Wings. His playoff record was also decidedly mediocre. The main argument for Giacomin seems to be his award recognition. In addition to being twice named the best goalie as mentioned above, Giacomin was voted the second best goalie at season's end an additional three times. Given that he did not rank in the top 5 in the league in save percentage in any of those three campaigns, despite the advantages mentioned above, it seems reasonable to question whether he truly deserved that recognition.
When evaluating players, I think it is a fair argument to claim that someone with a Hart Trophy or an Art Ross Trophy should have an advantage over a similar player without similar award recognition. With goalies I am hesitant to give the same weighting to individual awards. The two reasons for that is that I believe writers are more likely to get the voting wrong with goalies than with forwards, and that there appears to be more of a luck element involved in a single season's worth of goaltending than for a single season by a forward. Giacomin was repeatedly recognized as one of the game's best, which could have been because he was actually one of the best or it could have been because he was an established goalie playing in a large market on one of the league's best defensive teams that profited greatly from pounding on the league's weak sisters.
As for which goalies were unlucky, I think it is extremely unlikely that Rogie Vachon was a worse goalie than Ed Giacomin. Vachon was much younger when he broke into the NHL and had a longer career, he had a better save percentage (.905) over the seasons that Giacomin also played in the NHL, he played well on more than one team, he had a better Hart Trophy voting record and he represented Canada internationally. I think it's a pretty open-and-shut case, and it makes no sense to me that Giacomin is in the Hall of Fame while Vachon is not.
In a very unbalanced competitive environment, I think it is right to at least question any goalie who only had elite success for a short period of time in a single team environment. It is possible that they had a short peak and then tailed off, but I think the more probable explanation is that they had team advantages during a certain portion of their career that they did not have at other times.