The True Value of Goaltending in Today’s NHL

Posted: August 8, 2011 in Hockey, Sports
Tags: , , , , , , ,

The Toronto Maple Leafs have never been blessed with outstanding I.Q. in the hockey operations department.  However, it’s taken until now to realize just how low that I.Q. actually has been over the course of time.

Roberto Luongo could have been a Maple Leaf...thank God it didn't happen.

In 1996, Mathieu Schneider was traded from the New York Islanders to the Toronto Maple Leafs, along with Wendel Clark, for Kenny Jonsson and the Leafs’ first-round pick in 1997.  At first glance this doesn’t seem like that stupid of a trade for the Leafs, but – much like the recent Phil Kessel trade – the value of a first round pick is not to be underestimated.

In this case, the first round pick turned out to be the fourth-overall selection that the Islanders used to select Roberto Luongo, who turned into one of the top starting goalies of his generation.  The big mistake the Leafs made was passing on a bona-fide franchise goalie of the sort that they haven’t had since before I was even born.

That brings me around to the actual topic of this post: the value of goaltending in today’s NHL.

You’ve heard all the cliches about how championships are built on goaltending or how teams build from the net out and for the most part they’re true.  I challenge you to show me the Stanley Cup-winning team that did not receive great goaltending on their way to victory, even if said goaltending came from someone that was completely unheard of before the playoffs began.

The last couple of years would seem to undermine such a theory.  Fewer teams are using an out-and-out number one goaltender.  Fewer goaltenders are earning mega-bucks contracts.  Teams are stocking up on B-level goalies to interchange throughout the season.

Some may conclude that this is an indication that the value of the goalie is declining.  Teams are less inclined to pay big bucks for a top-notch goalie because they feel that the money is better spent on forwards or defencemen as they feel such are more valuable in the chase for Lord Stanley’s Cup.  As such, goalies are seen as being more expendable.

The greatest goalie of all-time, Dominik Hasek.

That’s pretty bad news for people who grew up in the era of Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur, Dominik Hasek, Ed Belfour, and Curtis Joseph.

However, I would argue that the trends of the past couple years point to just how valuable goaltending really is.

Let’s start with the premise that the goalie is the most important member of the team.  I know that such an assumption could result in a rather circular argument, but assuming that general managers also start with the same premise will help explain the trends that we have seen.  The second premise that we need to acknowledge is that there are 82 regular season games plus a possible 28 games to come in the playoffs.  This represents a total of 110 games.  Thirdly, it is a fact of the game that goalies get injured, lose form, or simply need a rest.  These premises are inarguable.

What these three premises amount to is the fact that in order to have the best chance of winning the Cup, a team must get good goaltending every game out of the entire 110 possible games.  If goaltending is the most important factor towards winning it would behoove teams to ensure they have good goaltending every game of the season.

Now, in the modern, salary-capped NHL, teams can really only devote a certain percentage of their salaries towards goaltending.  Even with the emphasis on getting top-flight goaltending, NHL rosters have room for 23 players and teams would be rather foolish not to fill those rosters out.  Based on a per-player division of salary cap money, teams can afford to spend approximately $8.217 million on goaltenders (based on 3 goaltenders at $2.739 million per player).

The question is: how is a general manager to divide up this money to give his team the best shot of winning?

If we go back to premise three – that goalies get hurt, have off-days, etc – then it would seem that the historical strategy, that of investing all the money in one high-priced superstar, is rather flawed.  For instance, what happens when a team’s $6-8 million investment comes up lame with a pulled groin?  What happens when said investment has a stretch of bad games that causes the team to lose morale and confidence, leading to a long losing streak?

Niemi is a perfect example of teams diversifying their goaltending assets.

Today’s general managers are taking a different approach.  They are diversifying, investing in multiple goaltenders in the hope that at least one will be able to produce the goods at any given time.  Let’s look at the Chicago Blackhawks as an example.  They won the Cup on the back of Antii Niemi’s great playoff performance.  (Coincidentally, their opposition in the finals – the Flyers – used a rotating carousel of goaltenders to get there.)  Niemi was a relatively unknown quantity before that playoff run, but proved to be a shrewd investment on the part of Stan Bowman and his predecessor Dale Tallon.  But when Niemi’s contract ended, Bowman refused to give Niemi a new, inflated contract on the basis that he had several young, inexpensive options (not to mention the albatross contract he was saddled with in Cristobal Huet) on hand.  One of which, Corey Crawford, turned out to be a pretty good player himself.

Other teams, including the Toronto Maple Leafs, Washington Capitals, and Detroit Red Wings have also employed such a tactic (albeit with varying results).

In saying that, teams would still be foolish to pass on a potential Hall of Fame goaltender as the Maple Leafs did in 1997 (Luongo may not be Hall-bound, but his first few years in the league sure pointed in that direction), even if it will cost them a large chunk of salary.

After all, good goaltending is the most valuable commodity in hockey and great goaltending gets you in the Hall of Fame.

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