by RGM81 aka Richard McAdam

Nashville Has Their Man

The recent signing of Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne to a 7-year, $49M extension with the club has ignited considerable discussion regarding the role and value to a team’s success. After going through a lull in the market in recent years, it appears as though goalies are back as a high priority for a team looking to achieve lasting success in the NHL. There have been several large contracts awarded to netminders in recent months, and this seems to indicate that the days of teams thinking they can get by with average goaltending for the same scale as a 2nd line forward (according to capgeek.com, there are only 10 goalies in the NHL making more than $5M per season) may be a thing of the past.
The market for a big name, big dollar goaltender was virtually non-existent through the latter part of the past decade. Since the lockout, the list of goaltenders that have been on the Stanley Cup-winning team is as follows: Cam Ward, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Chris Osgood, Marc-Andre Fleury, Antti Niemi, and Tim Thomas. Of these six goalies, only three—Ward, Fleury, and Thomas—are still with their current teams. The 2010 Finals, which featured Niemi against Michael Leighton, demonstrated that teams could win with what can be charitably described as not very good goaltenders behind a good team with a potent offensive attack. That summer, the largest contract awarded to a goalie went to the Blues’ Jaroslav Halak, who got a 4-year, $15M deal after his playoff heroics in Montreal that spring. Niemi held out and was ultimately shipped to San Jose where he signed a 1-year, $2M deal, while Leighton was re-signed to a 2-year, $3M deal but ultimately fell out of favour in Philadelphia last season.

In addition to teams being able to win the Stanley Cup without a franchise calibre goaltender, teams were also very wary of giving out a long-term contract to a goalie for fear of injury or perennial under-performance. When the Islanders gave Rick DiPietro a 15-year contract, the hockey world’s collective jaw dropped. In a long line of poor decisions made by Islanders management, the DiPietro contract stood out like a sore thumb. Sure, he was a good and capable goaltender and a former #1 pick, but tying a team’s fortunes to a player that had only played two full NHL seasons was a major risk that defied all conventional wisdom about player contract terms in the NHL. Since signing that deal, DiPietro has played in only 164 games over five seasons. His injury history plus the length of the contract make him completely untradeable – the Islanders have no option but to hope he can recover and keep soldiering on to at least have a credible hope of justifying the deal. The only other goalie in the NHL with a deal over 10 years is the Canucks’ Roberto Luongo, a goalie with so much potential and talent that has never been able to get his game at 100% at the most critical time. Yes he was the winning goalie at the 2010 Olympics, which bought him a honeymoon period in Vancouver, but his performance in the Finals last spring definitely signalled an end to that and the onset of what looks to be a long and troubled marriage. Few will dispute that Luongo is a world-class talent but there just seems to be something “off” about him that has people perennially doubting that he can pull through in the clutch. Many Vancouver fans are already clamouring for young Cory Schneider to supplant Luongo as the #1 goalie for the Canucks, but with the latter’s gargantuan salary it is difficult to justify benching him for a prolonged period. The cautionary tales on Long Island and in Vancouver clearly have given pause to any general manager that has considered doling out a big-dollar deal on a long term basis.

So why is it that the last three major goalie signings have all been long-term, big money contracts? The three I refer to are:
• Pekka Rinne – 7 years, $49M ($7M cap hit)
• Cam Ward – 6 years, $37.8M ($6.3M cap hit)
• Ilya Bryzgalov – 9 years, $51M ($5.66M cap hit)

On the surface, two of these are easily understandable – Rinne and Ward are absolutely central to the overall success of their respective clubs. Nashville plays a very conservative system that is based around defence and limiting chances for the opposition. They finished tied with Montreal for 22nd in total offence last year; the LA Kings were the only playoff team to score fewer goals than Nashville. The system’s success is largely attributable to Rinne, a towering 6’5” athletic goalie that can use his size and quickness to stop a ton of pucks – indeed, of his 100 wins, 22 have come via the shutout. In Carolina, Ward was the key reason the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in 2006. He took over for the disastrous Martin Gerber and put on an MVP performance to lead the team to glory. While the ‘Canes haven’t had that type of success since, Ward has been a rock between the pipes for them, putting up 30 wins in 4 of the last 5 seasons and always being near the top of every major statistical category for goalies. These are franchise goalies and they have been treated as such by their respective clubs.

Risk/Reward in Philly

Signing 31-year old Bryzgalov to a 9-year contract was a head-scratcher on the part of Flyers GM Bobby Clarke. This is the same goalie that just a few years ago then-Ducks GM Brian Burke could barely give away, finding no takers on the trade market and ultimately putting him on waivers, where he was finally claimed by Phoenix. Bryzgalov went on to have two average years and then two really good years in the desert, putting up 78 wins over the last two regular seasons. That Phoenix was swept in last year’s playoffs didn’t faze Clarke a bit, as he traded for Bryzgalov’s rights in June and dealt away popular stars Mike Richards and Jeff Carter to make appropriate cap space for the monster new deal for the goalie. Since the departure of Ron Hextall, Philadelphia has devoured goalies and always been that one major piece away from being a championship club. Twenty years of mediocre netminding compelled Clarke to make this move, but what if Bryzgalov does not pan out? Giving a player that did not become a successful (based on regular season numbers) #1 goalie until he was 29 years old seems a major risk. After an early season game against the Jets, in which Bryzgalov surrendered four goals on ten shots in a relief role, he admitted, “I have zero confidence in myself right now. I am terrible. They [The offence] scores eight goals and we are still losing. It’s obviously a terrible goalie and that’s me. I am the reason we lost the game tonight. I am lost in the woods right now.” Those are not words that Flyers fans will want to hear as it will surely give them reason to think, “We have 9 years of this?!?”

Coming from the perspective of being a Montreal Canadiens fan, I understand that there is great value in the position of goaltender. When you support a team that boasts the likes of Vezina, Hainsworth, Plante, Dryden, and Roy among its most cherished alumni you cannot help but have a deep and lasting appreciation for the difference that a goaltender can make in a team’s fortunes. The 1993 Stanley Cup Playoffs are, in my opinion, the most excellent campaign ever put oout by a goaltender in leading his team to victory. That Habs squad had no business going all the way, and if it were not for Roy they surely would not have done so. A goalie can make all the difference in the world, and that is why I firmly believe that when a club has an elite level goalie in its ranks it should take every step to secure that player for as long as it reasonably can. While it is true that goalies become available often, and it is true that the market for goalies in recent years has been low, there are goalies and there are goalies. Decent goalies can move around with regularity. Good goalies switch jerseys every so often. Even great goalies may be made available if there is a pressing organizational need. But a generational talent in nets is – by default – a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Patrick Roy should have been a Montreal Canadien for his entire career. Martin Brodeur will be a New Jersey Devil until he retires. There are some players that are so special that the idea of them leaving to ply their trade elsewhere should leave the club with a gnawing sensation in its stomach with the realization that a departure of that magnitude could never truly be filled by another current goalie.

When you look around the NHL right now, there are 4-6 guys that are going to be coming into their prime and will be among the rulers of the crease for the next 5-10 years. Those goalies are Ryan Miller, Cam Ward, Pekka Rinne, Marc-Andre Fleury, Henrik Lundqvist, and Carey Price. All but Miller are under 30, and all of them will be competing for the Vezina Trophy on an annual basis for years to come. They will all be perennial All-Stars, and should the NHL participate in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi and beyond, all of them will be the top competitors for roles on their home country’s rosters. As of today, all of them are under long-term contracts…except for Price, and that is going to provide a major dilemma for Habs GM Pierre Gauthier this coming summer.

Looking to the Future, What Do Price & the Habs Do?

Price will be a restricted free agent in 2012, and all signs indicate that the Habs would be unwise to wait until September like they did back in 2010. Price had a career season in 2010-11 and seems primed to do so again this year. The Rinne signing will have an impact on his agent’s reference points for term and dollar amounts – Price is younger, has a higher pedigree (5th overall pick), and plays in a much more visible market. At only 24 years old, he is the 4th youngest goalie in NHL history to reach 100 career regular season wins. Like Rinne, Price plays in a defensive-oriented system built around minimizing the opposition’s opportunities and low-scoring affairs. The Canadiens made the playoffs last year on the strength of Price’s stellar play, as he finally realized his true potential as an elite number one NHL goalie. The Canadiens put all their goaltending eggs in his basket in 2010, and the move seems to have paid off. He is the centrepiece of a young corps that the organization hopes can bring back playoff glory to Montreal. While the club does have the luxury of RFA status for Price, if they can lock him up to a long-term deal that eats away several UFA years, they would be well-advised to do so. After a string of disappointments in nets since Roy was dealt, the Canadiens may have their generational talent.

In an era where the names on the marquee are most often superstar forwards that can pot 40-50 goals a season, it is not terribly surprising that many teams are once again investing in top-notch goaltending. After all, those forwards cannot attain those lofty points totals if they encounter a wall between the pipes, and teams are starting to recognize the high value in having a franchise goaltender that will bring stability and success to an organization. There are and will continue to be those teams that go with the offence first mentality and rely on a journeyman or average goaltender in the hopes of getting by, and they too will enjoy their successes. But the current trend line indicates that goaltending will once again be in the spotlight. If the Flyers had Bryzgalov instead of Leighton in 2010, who knows what the outcome may have been. Though only one goaltender truly showed up in 2011, it was the first real meeting of elite goaltenders in some time in the Finals and it did swing the pendulum in that direction. Teams tend to look at the most recent Cup winner to find out what key pieces that team had that theirs did not. There is absolutely no denying that Tim Thomas was the MVP of the Bruins’ Cup victory, and while his story is far from conventional, his success brought back the old axiom that great goaltending in the NHL wins championships.

The key for any general manager in this situation is to accurately assess the talent level of their netminders and ensure that they make the right decision. The complexities of dealing with the salary cap means that not every team can have the luxury of signing an elite goalie to a $5M+ long-term deal; indeed, not every team even needs to go that route. The Washington Capitals may have made the steal of the summer when they signed Tomas Vokoun to a 1-year, $1.5M contract – only time will tell if bringing him in while shipping off promising young goalie Simeon Varlamov to Colorado was the right move. We can forever debate the propriety of signing a player at any position to a contract over 5 years in length. The DiPietro and Luongo contracts serve as a reminder of how misplaced one’s thoughts may be in making a huge commitment to a goalie, or any position player. While a club may have no doubts about a player’s talent and abilities, it only takes one major injury to make a good contract look bad, or an already bad contract look really bad. For every real deal goalie that has earned every penny of his big contract, there are many more bad deals that are still an albatross around the neck of an organization. You want to think that your team has got its Martin Brodeur, but you may end up with your Cristobal Huet. It is for that reason that GM’s give out a large contract at their peril, but under the right circumstances it can be eminently justified.