Finnish goaltender Antti Niemi, who led the Chicago Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup, looks on during Game 4 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals against the Philadelphia Flyers. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Not long ago, the common practice in the NHL was to sign successful goaltenders to long-term, high-paying deals to ensure that they would be able to lead their teams to championships for years to come. And for a long time, this worked; goalies such as Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur won numerous Stanley Cups for their teams. Others such as Evgeni Nabokov, Dominic Hasek, Roberto Luongo, or Tomas Voukon were cornerstones for their franchises, leading (or expect to lead) their individual teams to Stanley Cup glory in the playoffs.
However, this past season has lead to many questioning that model. This season, if anything, proved that you don’t need a Vezina-caliber goaltender to be successful in the regular season or the playoffs. Some teams, such as the Stanley Cup winning Chicago Blackhawks, showed that, if you have an excellent defense, the goalie matters very little. Another team to prove this was the Philadelphia Flyers, who managed to make it to OT in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals with a goaltending tandem consisting of Brian Boucher and Michal Leighton, neither among the top-10 goaltenders in the NHL today. The playoffs proved that, when your defense is lead by excellent defensemen, such as Chris Pronger, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, or Kimmo Timonen, the person protecting the net is not crucial. Perhaps the biggest testament to this is that out of all three Vezina trophy finalists (Ilya Bryzagalov, Ryan Miller, and Martin Brodeur), none of them managed to make it past the first round of the playoffs, falling to teams lead by Jimmy Howard, Brian Boucher, and Tuukka Rask.
Goaltending is become less important in the NHL than before, especially as the salary cap limits teams spending. Teams must choose what is most important to their success, and they are not choosing to put money and precious salary cap space towards goaltending, as evidenced by the decreasing percentage of the cap that the goaltenders’ salaries take up. Take a look at total cap hit of all the teams goalies for that season (all salary cap information from nhlnumbers.com). All numbers include player bonuses.
|Team||2008 - 2009||2009 - 2010||2010 - 2011|
|Washington||5.661 million||5.644 million||1.643 million|
|Atlanta||4.531 million||4.565 million||3.000 million|
|Tampa Bay||4.335 million||3.854 million||3.700 million|
|Florida||6.250 million||6.949 million||6.900 million|
|Carolina||3.299 million||3.587 million||6.825 million|
|Pittsburgh||5.849 million||5.561 million||5.600 million|
|Philadelphia||4.756 million||2.802 million||2.475 million|
|NY Rangers||7.600 million||7.574 million||7.750 million|
|NY Islanders||5.484 million||8.400 million||7.000 million|
|New Jersey||6.218 million||5.700 million||6.700 million|
|Boston||5.592 million||8.237 million||6.250 million|
|Buffalo||3.884 million||7.298 million||6.850 million|
|Ottawa||5.320 million||5.003 million||5.213 million|
|Toronto||6.199 million||6.551 million||7.350 million|
|Montreal||3.065 million||2.975 million||1.000 million*|
|Chicago||12.626 million||6.468 million||5.600 million**|
|Detroit||2.201 million||2.151 million||2.133 million|
|St. Louis||4.881 million||4.314 million||5.050 million|
|Columbus||4.456 million||2.105 million||2.105 million|
|Nashville||2.306 million||2.475 million||3.400 million***|
|Colorado||1.500 million||3.101 million||3.062 million|
|Minnesota||3.837 million||7.272 million||7.200 million|
|Calgary||6.462 million||7.090 million||6.333 million|
|Edmonton||4.916 million||4.865 million||4.550 million|
|Vancouver||7.810 million||7.323 million||6.233 million|
|San Jose||6.108 million||5.925 million||2.550 million|
|Los Angeles||2.604 million||2.584 million||2.550 million|
|Anaheim||7.319 million||5.973 million||5.035 million|
|Phoenix||5.018 million||5.254 million||5.250 million|
|Dallas||6.214 million||7.567 million||4.200 million|
|League Average||5.210 million||5.306 million||4.784 million|
*Montreal has yet to resign goalie Carey Price, so this number will go up.
**This is only counting Christobal Huet, who will almost certainly not be on the team when the season starts. This number will change.
***Nashville has yet to sign anyone to back up Pekka Rinne, so this number will go up.
Here is a graph of all the data above. While some teams are spending more on goaltending this season, generally, most teams are lowering their goaltending expenses, as evidenced by many of the lines pointing down.
As shown by the graph above, teams are starting to take notice that high-priced goaltending is not the key to success, and as a result are spending less and less to fill that position. Many teams have started to adopt a goalie tandem, where two capable goaltenders fight each other for the starting spot; examples include Atlanta with Ondrej Pavelec & Chris Mason, Washington with Semyon Varlamov & Michal Neuvirth, Tampa Bay with Dan Ellis & Mike Smith, Philadelphia with Michael Leighton & Brian Boucher, and San Jose with Antero Niittymaki and Thomas Greiss. In most cases, having two capable goalies as opposed to one starter and a backup allows teams to save money, and quite possibly do better. In cases where there is a clear #1, many teams would suffer if that goalie went cold or was injured. Vancouver or Montreal really don’t have good, long-term alternatives to Roberto Luongo or Carey Price. However, with a tandem you can ride the hot goalie to wins, and then switch when that goalie falters. Possibly the biggest test to this system will come next season with the Capitals, who hope that the tandem of Varlamov and Neuvirth, both 22 and drafted only 11 spots apart in the 2006 NHL Draft, can lead them through the regular season and the playoffs to a Stanley Cup championship. Time will tell.
If the salary cap continues to increase by a similar amount as it will this season, it will be interesting to see whether goaltender salaries will continue to drop while GMs use the extra cap space adding forwards and defensemen, such as what is happening now, or whether goaltending salaries will rise with the cap. Part of this will be how well these lower-priced goaltenders do in the regular season and playoffs; this season will show, hopefully, whether last season’s formula for success of great defense and decent goaltending was a fluke, or is a new trend in the NHL.
At the end of the day, however, what wins Stanley Cups is what will be the strategy of most GMs going forward. And you cannot argue against the fact that, for now, cheap, decent goaltending wins Stanley Cups. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)