Thursday, July 1, 2010

Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Goalies

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.


pfhabs said...


-what you say is very true...the "new way" is actually the Detroit model they started about 3-4 years ago. have an outstanding group of D men with forwards who work both ends of the ice and can score and you can win the Cup with an Osgoode

-unfortunately the opposite is true also. an average D corps with inconsistency up front demands great goaltending....Exhibit A being the Canadiens and Halak

-on an unrelated subject but one that many posters have discussed let me say I doubt Saku Koivu gives a rat's ass what number Gomez wears.

-to any CH fan (not Anon poachers) with any sense of the game knows Gomez can wear the number but he'll never be Saku. Saku out ranks Gomez by a country mile in leadership, courage, grit and community involvement

-in fact if you consider the teammates Gomez has had (HoF goalie Brodeur, potential HoF D men Neidemeyer and Stevens plus others like Elias, Langennbruner, Gionta, Daneyko, Rafalski and those in NY) in comparison to the array of 'stuff' Saku played with it's revealing that Gomez while being 6 years younger has only obtained 35 points more than Saku in the last 7/7 seasons. not even Saku's equal in offensive production

-Gomez can wear Saku's number but he cannot even carry his jockstrap

Anonymous said...

Price has played his entire career with one NHL team. When Dryden came up Earnie Wakley (sp) was rated better than Vachon, Esposito, and Dryden. Steve Penney ring a bell? I could go on and on but I'm here to tell you: Keep the shots outside, climb on the opponent so they can't get the puck up from in close and every team's offence looks like that of the Montreal Canadiens.

Every now and then a goalie comes along who does things well. They direct the rebounds, they anticipate the plays, they bring it. Brodeur was the last one, Roy before him. The myth grows, confidence grows, the team plays better with that guy in nets. The question begs is Price the next one?

The NHL is a rough business, for goalies and the others. The bigger names stick for 10, maybe 20 years (the exceptions). Most don't last that long. Since you gotta have two goalies, and a few more in the pipe, it stands to reason that the one not #1 is going to be pushed by the guys making 10% of that and wanting their shot at a full NHL salary. So they play 60 AHL games, 12 NHL games, lookin' good, and bump out the number two.

Watch the next CBA when the owners try and reduce the roster to 16 skaters and two goalies. The fans will rave about how scoring is up but 60 NHL players will lose their jobs.

If you listen to the play by play, or to the crowd at a game, there is a lot going on. Very little of it to do with the play on the ice until the puck is moved past the blue line by the offence. Suddenly all attention switches to the goal. The guy standing there is the goalie. He has to. They don't let him go for a beer or anything. 36 other players change but the goalie stays the same. The name is easy to remember, the save, or non save easy to remember, everyone screams. They replay it on the TV and jumbotron. We have a false impression of what is happening, and contracts have reflected that. It just so happened that this year the Stanley Cup finalists demonstrated that the better team wins, not the better myth.

There are maybe five good goalies in the league. Luongo, Quick (?), Brodeur (although sliding),Millar, and Ward. Price easily has the parts to be there as well. Halak is ok. He really works hard. He is likeable. I don't think he'll get a lot from St Louis. What happens to him if he gets too much money, his play drops off or he gets hurt, and a kid comes in and plays as well? I'll tell you what happens. Some owner is surprised they were playing for keepsies and wants his money back. The GM is employed to make that happen.

I feel for goalies too. It is a terrible job. If you're in it for the money you will likely end up disappointed but with a satisfied agent.

Anonymous said...

Higgins to Fla as a top six forward. At least the Habs won't be last in the conference.

moeman said...

Add upcoming smaller equipment and constant, unregulated crease crashing and the job keeps getting more difficult. I think Price will be more than OK. Question is how much do the Habs pay him now, going forward.

Anonymous said...

The new "conventional wisdom" of the NHL is that teams no longer require solid goaltending to win.

That might be true with a blueline staffed by Seabrook & Keith, Lidstrom & Kronwall, Pronger & Coburn and forwards who score and play a strong game in both ends but without all the collateral assets no way!

Chicago, Philly, Vancouver, Detroit,San Jose, Pittsburgh, Washington can all win games 7-6, 9-7, 8-5 when the last shot wins but Montreal, Boston,Maple Laff and the rest of mid-level teams cannot and must rely on solid if not outstanding goaltending in order to survive.

GM's outside the top tier teams are being duped into believing that average (aka cheap) goaltending can win no matter what in the new NHL.

Et tu M.Goatier que pense toi?

Number31 said...

It's a money issue again. Most teams don't want to meet the 5-million dollar demands of a guy like Turco or Nabokov.

Frankly the NHL seems intent on making a goalie's life more and more miserable, I wouldn't be surprised if one day they just eliminate them all together and turn this into basketball on ice. The crowd wants goals! (According to Bettman).

J.T. said...

@31: Sorry, Blogger seems to have eaten your earlier comment. On the issue of Huet and Halak being a threat to Price, of course they were. Although I certainly agree money was a huge part of it as well. I wonder, though, if Huet was willing to take peanuts to stick around, or if they were assured Jaro wouldn't ask more than two million, if they'd still have decided to let those guys go? They'd both proven they were capable of outplaying Price and challenging for the number-one role. I really think Gainey/Gauthier wanted to BOTH save money AND clear obstacles out of Price's path.

I imagine, if it had been Price who stood to make the money and Halak without arbitration rights, the team would still have found a way to pay Price. Management simply believes he's the man, and have never deviated from that. I hope Price justifies the belief this year. If he does, I'll be cheering louder than anyone. I just want the team to win, no matter what.

Stephane said...

The actual, measurable difference between a great goalie (with, say, a 92% save percentage, like Evgeni Nabokov last season) and a barely NHL-grade one (with, say, a 90% save percentage, like Brian Boucher) is about 0.6 goal per game, if you consider an average of 30 shots on goal.

Is that half-goal saved worth $4,450,000 (Nabokov earned 5.375M to Boucher's 925K last season)?

Can the skaters signed for the difference create or save more than 0.6 goal every game, or about 42 in a season (assuming an exhausting, Nabokov-like 70 games played by that goalie)?

That's a worthwhile question, I think...