There's a new rule of team-building in the salary-capped NHL, and it's not a good one for the last line of defence. Once upon a time, general managers lived by the "build from the net out" principal. Start with a great goalie, they reasoned, and then make the rest of your team work around him. It was a proven technique. Sam Pollock did it with great success in Montreal. His modern-day disciple, Lou Lamoriello has redone it with Martin Brodeur in New Jersey. Times are changing, though, and changing fast.
NHL GMs tend to be a bit monkey-see, monkey-do when picking up players in free agency. In 2007, after the Ducks won the Cup with a big, aggressive team, everyone wanted big, aggressive forwards and Scott Hartnell was one of the most-coveted free agents. Then, in 2008 and 2009, when Detroit and Pittsburgh won with fast, skilled teams, everyone changed gears and started looking for fast, skilled players. Brian Campbell and Marian Hossa topped every team's wish list. This year Philly and Chicago got to the Stanley Cup Finals with gritty, skilled teams with negligible goaltending, and everyone has decided goaltending doesn't matter all that much.
In the first 24 hours of free agency, the average player contract signed was worth $1.59 million dollars. The average goalie contract was worth only $1.04 million. The gap is actually much wider, though. Of 56 skaters signed, 16 of them have cap hits of $3-million or more. Not one goalie signed for more than $2-million against the cap.
This is not a league in which the netminder is god anymore. Teams are looking around and deciding that the big-money goalies aren't earning their pay. Luongo, Brodeur and Miller were out in the first round of the playoffs. Lundqvist and Kiprusoff didn't make it at all, and Thomas, Huet, Osgood and Theodore became humble backups to their kid partners. On the other hand, Michael Leighton and Antti Niemi ended up in the Stanley Cup Finals and Jaroslav Halak played the best goal of the post-season. All of them made less than a million dollars. GMs have figured out they don't really need to shell out big money for goalies anymore.
Exhibit A: Jaroslav Halak leads the Habs to the third round of the playoffs with some of the most spectacular goaltending we've seen since Patrick Roy. Habs decide they can't afford to pay him three or four million a year, even though they're paying other players ridiculous amounts of money relative to their contributions to playoff success. Habs trade Halak to St.Louis for prospects. Andrei Kostitsyn, who did nothing outside Game Two in Washington, remains a Hab.
Exhibit B: July 1, 2010. Goalies available include former Vezina and Hart winner Jose Theodore, former Stars stalwart Marty Turco and former powerhouse goalie Evgeni Nabokov. They're joined by a bunch of also-rans who change teams every second year, if not every year. Who's signed at the end of the day? The also-rans. The guys with the great resumes get nothing. It's a market in which good goalies are overqualified for the position and get no interest.
It's not just the money, either. Goalies are also getting little in the way of job security. The average player contract in the first 24 hours of free agency was for 2.125 years. Goalies signed for only 1.45 years on average. Goalies are becoming disposable, in the way that coaches have always been. And, Brodeur aside, when was the last time a goalie played his entire career with one team? Even Luongo has been traded twice. Bryzgalov and Anderson, two of the league's top-ten winning goalies last season, have been through waivers. Now, if a goalie is coming up for renewal, if he wants greater term or money than the cap will allow, the GM can just shrug and let him walk.
The turnover among goalies is pretty amazing too, relative to other players. Of the top-ten winning goalies five years ago, eight of them are no longer with those teams. Four don't currently have NHL jobs at all. Compare that to the top-ten point producers, and you see only five of them having changed teams. Only one of them, Jaromir Jagr, is no longer in the league.
The funny thing is, even though they're getting little respect on the contract side of things, goalies still get more than their share of the kudos or blame for a win or a loss. Halak was superman in the playoffs, and nobody remembers the shots Gill and Gorges blocked. Luongo was the goat in Vancouver's loss to Chicago, and a lot of fans were ready to lynch him.
Being a goalie is honestly becoming the hardest job to get, and keep in the NHL. Maybe it's because it's just basically a hard job. The shots are harder, faster and more accurate now than they were before the advent of the composite stick, and on any given night, 18 different players can be firing anywhere from 20 to 50 shots on goal. Perhaps it's because there's always a younger or cheaper option available for teams who only need to fill two slots each season, so they have no problem dumping a goalie who gets too old or expensive. Or maybe it's because goaltending has become such a science, the difference between a really good NHL goalie and a merely decent one is very small.
Whatever the reason for the trend away from opening the coffers for a goalie, it's bad news for netminders who want to cash in. These days, being a defenceman is the way to go. Teams who want to copy Philly and Chicago's makeup see strong defence in front of those no-name goalies. It's no coincidence, then, that the biggest money handed out since the free agent market opened has been to the better available defencemen. Of the sixteen guys who got deals with a cap hit of more than $3-million a year, ten of them are blueliners. This is the new way NHL teams are building, and goalies like Turco and Nabokov may have to settle for a lot less than they're actually worth.