It was a unique year for goaltending as well, particularly as many of the big stars had off-seasons or down years. Patrick Roy got traded by Montreal, Ed Belfour had an off-year and was in the process of losing his starting job in Chicago, while Dominik Hasek and Martin Brodeur both played well but missed the playoffs. All that combined to allow a 22-year old sophomore named Jim Carey to walk off with the Vezina Trophy, all of the voters completely unaware that he would have only three seasons remaining in his professional career.
The league was still full of the old guard of standup goaltenders, many of whom were past their prime or struggling to keep up with the changing game. The result was a huge spread in the save percentage numbers among starting goalies, all the way from Hasek at the top with .920 down to Don Beaupre at .872.
The large gap in results was likely influenced by a higher level of shot quality differences across teams than we see today, particularly for goaltenders representing the Sens or the Sharks. However, even within teams there was a broad range of performance numbers, suggesting that goaltending was a real difference-maker back then. Going through team by team, it is impossible to avoid noticing that the starters almost always had much better win/loss records than the backups.
Compiling the numbers league-wide demonstrates this point (I just took the goalie with the most games played that season for each team to represent their "starter"):
Starters: 611-512-156, .539
Backups: 318-417-118, .442
The totals can be skewed a bit by some team's starters playing more games than others, but even if you take the average of each team's starter and backups you get .536 and .436, a full .100 increase in winning percentage with a team's most-used netminder in the game.
Only five out of 26 teams had a better win/loss record with their backup goalie(s) in the game. Only three more teams had their backups post a win percentage that was even within .050 of their starter.
Let's compare that to 2010-11:
Starters: 838-605-186, .572
Backups: 392-328-111, .539
That gap is much closer, even more so when the averages are taken for each team (starters .564, backups .547). Thirteen out of 30 teams had a better winning percentage when their top goalie didn't get the decision, and eight more had a difference of less than .050 between their starter and backups.
These results strongly confirm what analysts all over the place have been pointing out regarding today's goalies, that there is far more depth at the position today than in prior decades. The two big factors in the increased level of talent was the technical revolution sweeping the game and the increasing influx of European goaltenders.
In 1995-96, only 7 out of 78 goalies in the league were European (I don't count Olaf Kolzig as a European product, he grew up in Canada and played all his minor hockey there). They combined to play a total of 247 games.
By last season, there were 29 Europeans among the league's 87 goaltenders, meaning the percentage of Europeans rose from 9% to 33% in just 15 years. The European goaltenders also combined to play over four times as many games (1077) as they did in 1995-96.
Based on this evidence, it is perhaps unsurprising that there appears to have been a stronger correlation between goalie talent and championships won in the mid-to-late 1990s than in the post-lockout era, where the best goalies have mostly struggled to achieve much team success. Today, it's simply much harder to stand out from the pack.