A bad time to be a goaltender; a great time to be a GM

There is a change in thinking sweeping through the National Hockey League these days.  The Stanley Cup can be won despite a team’s goaltending.  Chicago and Philadelphia both competed for the Cup last season with afterthoughts between the pipes in Antti Niemi and Michael Leighton.  The Washington Capitals had the best regular season record with a couple of sacks of grain in goal.  Two years ago, the Detroit Red Wings won with the nominally paid Chris Osgood. 

In today’s NHL, managing the salary cap is critical and at the heart of the issue is how to build allocate dollars.  For every $6-7 million forward, defenseman or goalie, there has to be 2 or 3 plugs (slightly better than AHL level players) making around $1 million per season.  If a 20 man roster has three highly paid stars, the roster likely also has 5-7 players of mediocre talent to round out the roster.   

Old school thinking had GMs allocating big money on their goalie plus 2-3 other players.  Using the Calgary Flames as an example, Iginla, Kiprusoff and Bouwmeester take up $19.5 million of the $59.4 million cap.  There are six players on the roster with a cap hit ranging from $0.5 million to $1.3 million.  Other teams in this mold include the New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes, Vancouver Canucks, Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres.  

Teams have realized they can reduce the number of plugs on their team if their goaltending costs are kept nominal.  The Washington Capitals allocate a combined $27.5 million of their cap to three forwards and one defenseman, yet only have six players (excluding goalies) with the lower range cap hit.  They can double up the Flames star horsepower because both their goalies have a cap hit under $1.0 million this season. 

The Chicago Blackhawks have leveraged the idea even further by committing $30.5 million of their cap space to five players.  This results in nine skaters and both goalies making less than $1.3 million this season.    

San Jose, Detroit, Los Angeles and Philadelphia also subscribe to this philosophy of team construction.  If teams continue to have success with this configuration it will have long lasting implications for goalies around the league.  The list of teams with low priced goaltending represent the most exciting teams in the league and the teams that are generally thought of as Stanley Cup contenders this season.    

By way of full disclosure, I was a goalie growing up.  I have a natural bias towards thinking that goaltending is by far the most important position in hockey.  I could see this when I played.  Our best players could have a bad game and we would still win if I played great.  If I had a bad night, we lost no matter what my teammates did on the ice.   

For those who read my blog from time to time, they know I am a big fan of Alan Ryder’s ‘Player Contribution’ (“PC”) methodology of evaluating each player’s contribution to their team.  If a team has 100 points in the regular season, there are 1,000 PC points allocated out to each player in the areas of offense, defense, shoot-outs and goaltending.  It is intuitive and it makes sense.  His 2010 evaluation just came out a couple of weeks ago.  Check it out. 

Below is a summary of the combined goaltending contribution for each team last season:

 

There are many ways to slice and dice this information.  A few teams rode great goaltending to the playoffs.  A few teams made the playoffs despite their goaltending.  Columbus was a lot better team than their record reflected.  Florida would have been relegated to the AHL if not for the heroics of Tomas Vokoun.

For the purposes of this article, I am interesting in pointing out the average contribution of a goalie to his team.  If I call the average 19%, that translates to $11.3 million of a team’s $59.4 million cap being spent on goaltenders.   This season, the Rangers lead the league in goaltender cap hit at $7.8 million.  Washington has a $1.6 million cap hit for their roughly $7.7 million of value their goaltenders will provide. 

The reality is that goaltenders are not being paid a salary that reflects their value and their salaries are decreasing.  Marty Turco went from a $5.4 million salary last season with Dallas to a $1.3 million deal with Chicago this offseason.  Evgeni Nabokov took his talents to south Russia when teams were unwilling to pay him anywhere near his $6.0 million salary with the Sharks last year.  Chris Mason had a great year with St. Louis last year and was rewarded with a $1.15 million pay cut.  Jaroslav Halak was the only goalie that had a meaningful bump in pay went to went to St. Louis and received a $3.8 million deal.  

While this is a sad trend for goalies, it is a great time to be a NHL general manager.  For those teams who are not locked into a long term, big money contract with their #1 tender, they have an opportunity to solidify the most important position in the game at a price well under historical market values.  The list of free agents after the 2010-2011 season is impressive.  Led by Vokoun, the list also includes Ilya Bryzgalov, Antti Niemi, Craig Anderson, JS Giguere, Marty Turco and Josh Harding.   

Of these players, only Vokoun is likely to receive a contract over $4 million per season, which would represent a pay cut from his current $5.7 million deal.  Bryzgalov might sign for more than $3 million with the rest of the players signing between $1.0 and $3.0 million per season. 

For the general managers of the Leafs, Lightening, Islanders or Thrashers, they are going to have a great chance to propel themselves from afterthoughts to playoff contenders with one of these goalies this upcoming offseason.  Until a team with old school thinking wins the Cup, my goaltending brethren are going to be available at Walmart prices.        

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