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Minding The Blue Ice

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Managing the netminder position is an enormous headache for NHL franchises, including the Blue Jackets. Let's take a look at the challenges.

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

In the game of baseball, left handed pitchers represent the notoriously difficult slots on the roster.  The adjectives most commonly associated with them are "inconsistent", "flaky" and . . ."essential." Ditto for goaltenders in the National Hockey League.  As they say in the investment commercials "past results do not guarantee future performance."  At no other position is the quality of play so wildly unpredictable, on scales ranging from minutes to years.  There is also that certain quirkiness that tends to afflict the position, perhaps most poignantly personified by the character of  Denis Lemieux Slap Shot:

Mind you, a bit of quirkiness is to be expected when you make your living trying to stop a hard rubber disk with a 3 square inch profile, traveling at 100+ mph, while on skates and on ice.  Also keep in mind that the rules do not require that the goalie actually be able to see this projectile as it bears down on him.  What would Ty Cobb's batting average have been if he had the baseball equivalent of Tomas Holmstrom standing at the top of the batter's box?  Can you imagine the whining if soccer teams could station a huge guy right in the keeper's face?   But I digress . . .

Of course, goalies today bear little resemblance to their professional ancestors.  The physical conditioning, emphasis on technique and  innovations in equipment have made the prospect of putting the biscuit in the basket more remote than ever.  So, on the one hand you have a position increasingly populated by highly skilled and conditioned athletes, who make life miserable for opposing shooters.  On the other hand, you really don't know how long they will play at that level.  Success is the blue ice is both elusive and fleeting.  Consider Craig Anderson, who was traded to Ottawa by Colorado in the middle of the 2010-11 season, after posting an .897 save percentage and 3.28 GAA that season.  Anderson went on to ring up a .939 save percentage and 2.05 GAA in 18 starts.  Ottawa had found their savior.  However, the next year, he posted more mundane 2.84 and .914 numbers. The next year, he rebounded to other-worldly totals of 1.69 and .941, only to follow that with a 3.00 GAA and .911 save percentage the ensuing year.  How does one plan for that level of variation?

Another example is Tim Thomas, who did not make a regular appearance on NHL ice until the age of 31.  He posted unimpressive 3.05 and .905 numbers in 66 appearances the following season.  Two years later he hoisted the Vezina, and two years after that he did it again.  However, he would play only two more relatively indifferent seasons in the NHL before vanishing from the radar screen.  To be sure, Thomas was in many ways the poster-child for goalie quirkiness, but that is the essence of the point.  It really doesn't matter why net-minders appear and disappear like rabbits in a magic show.  It's the mere fact that they do disappear that causes coaches and GM's no end of headaches.

Complicating the situation is the fact that there are only 60 slots for these guys at the NHL level, and the very success of a club is intimately tied to how that goalie performs.  Add in the limitations of the salary cap, and the ever-present risk of injury, and it's easy to see that  finding a way to manage the position in a way that ensures team success is a bedeviling predicament for all of the NHL teams, including the Blue Jackets.  Ron Tugnutt, Marc Denis, Pascal Leclaire, Steve Mason and Sergei Bobrovsky have all presented their own sets of unique challenges, and their foibles pale in comparison to some.  Do you think Garth Snow might want a mulligan on the whole Rick DiPietro deal?  For those who care, DiPietro was bought out of his 15-year, $67.5 million deal, which was absurd term and money when signed in 2006.  As a result of the buy-out, he'll have to struggle along on $1.5 million per year . . . through 2029.

So, how do clubs manage the most vital of positions in a way that provides victories and preserves fiscal integrity, while still maintaining personal sanity for the owner, coach and GM?  It's a task that requires an evaluation of each guy's mental and physical tools, maturity, consistency and future prospects, then somehow translating that into a dollar/term structure that enables a team to retain worthy talent, while mitigating the risk that it could all disappear in a flash. More fundamentally, what approach do you take to manning the blue ice to begin with?  I took a look at the 60 guys currently occupying the role at the NHL to find out, and perhaps provide some guidance for the Blue Jackets going forward.

NHL clubs basically fall into one of three approaches to the goalie slot.  First is the school that grabs the A+ guy, pays him accordingly, and rides him for as many games as possible.  Next are the squads that hedge their bets a bit, and adopt the 1A/1B strategy, with two guys who may not fall in the elite ranks, but each is a solid starter in his own right.  Finally, there are the bargain basement clubs, who apparently don't see what all the fuss is about, and figure that the minor differences between goalies can be compensated for by spending the money elsewhere.  Each approach has its virtues and vices, as we shall see.

Your average NHL goalie is 28.6 years old (29.7 for starters). This in itself is significant, and reflective of how different the position is.  It takes time to be able to play this position on a regular basis in the NHL, more so from the mental side than the physical.  Exhibit A here is Steve Mason, who was pressed into duty at a young age due to relieve the injury plagued Pascal Leclaire. When he came up, Mason was big, smooth and a dominant presence in the crease.  When traded to Philadelphia, he was a physical and mental reclamation project, ducking pucks and utterly lacking in confidence.  No matter how great the physical tools, an NHL goalie has to have the mental maturity and toughness to do the work necessary to prepare for the daily onslaught, while simultaneously being able to mentally discard past sins and ignore the barbs hurled when things don't go well.  Mason had neither of these qualities at that age, and it was devastating to his development.  He has gained some measure back in Philadelphia as he has matured, which merely serves to prove the point.  It is also a cautionary tale for those who would hand the starting job in Columbus to young Joonas Korpisalo.

The Mason/Leclaire saga is instructive on another variable, namely injury.  Leclaire was the Golden Boy when drafted #8 overall in the 2001 Entry Draft.  He was undeniably skilled, but his frenetic, jerky style of making saves seemed destined to pose injury troubles, and it did.  After posting a 2.25 GAA and .919 save percentage for a distinctly average team in 2007-08, Leclaire seemed destined for a long, successful career in Columbus.  In fact, he would play only 12 more games in a Blue Jackets uniform, his last victory coming in a road win at Buffalo.  He played 48 games over two seasons in Ottawa, until injuries finally sidelined him for good.

Injuries are a part of the game, but are particularly devastating when they strike the goalie position. The Blue Jackets are again confronting this with Sergei Bobrovsky's serial groin injuries, and the injury to Carey Price has almost single-handedly de-railed a season for Montreal that appeared to be destined for the Stanley Cup Finals.  It is perhaps the single biggest flaw in the "A+ Guy" model, which is followed by the vast majority of NHL clubs, including the Blue Jackets.  If your stud goes down, you either rely on an untested backup or go out into the trade market, hat in hand, preparing to be fleeced.  Sometimes you can get lucky and discover that diamond in the rough prospect, but luck is not a strategy, particularly when millions of dollars are involved.  Additionally, the combination of the wear and tear and muscular challenges posed by the ubiquitous butterfly style, and the increasing frequency of goalie collisions caused by lack of enforcement of the crease rules (combined with the inability of a butterfly goalie to easily avoid impact), promises to make this an ongoing threat.

The viability of the A+ model is further called into question by the pure usage numbers.  The 30 starters currently in the NHL have collectively played in 232 NHL seasons.  In less than half of those seasons (108) did the player appear in more than 50 games.  So, even allowing for seasons when the starter was not "The Guy", there is a statistically significant chance that your back-up is going to play 30+ games.  That casts a different light on things, as teams are discovering.

So it would seem the next logical choice is to adopt the 1A/1B model, as  a few team have -- most notably the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues.   The advantage is that you have some measure of insurance against both injury and the inevitable cold streaks that net-minders will endure.  The downside is that you potentially lose out on some top-end talent, and you don't necessarily save money over teams that spend big bucks on their A+ guy.  16 of the 30 NHL clubs spend between $ 6 million and $8 million on the goalie position, with the average starter earning $5.05 million.  Nine clubs manage to sneak in below that level (sometimes dramatically), while five clubs are over that middle range. Of the latter, the Dallas Stars lead the way, devoting a combined  $10.4 million for the services of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi.  Three of the clubs at the higher end -- Columbus, New York Rangers & Montreal -- boast Vezina Trophy winners on the payroll, while the other is Calgary, with a combined $8.3 payable to Karri Ramo and Jonas Hiller.  Conversely, the Blues have adopted the 1A/1B model at a cost of only $4.85 million for the services of Brian Elliott and Jake Allen, well below league norms.

Carrying the budgetary concept to the furthest extreme are the bargain hunters -- those clubs unwilling (or unable) to devote a significant percentage of the available cap room to the mercurial goalies.   The poster children here are the Edmonton Oilers and the Anaheim Ducks, who currently spend a total of $2.45 million and $1.9 million of cap hit respectively, in the blue ice.  Obviously, one of those two has been much more successful with this model than the other, but these things have a way of proving out over time.  The justification for such an approach is simply statistical.  You have 29 of 30 starting goalies within .029 of each other in save percentage -- a difference of three goals per 100 shots.  Not insignificant in the scheme of things, but can that impact be overcome by spending the cap money on scoring or better defense?   Does the very small statistical differential, combined with the unpredictability of performance over a given time frame, merit the high expenditures for goalies seen in the majority of the league?  Nine teams say "No."

To argue that there is a "right" or "wrong" answer here belies the facts.  You can't predict the unpredictable, but you can be prepared for it.  You may think you  have your goalie position set, but then the specter of free agency, combined with a remarkable season, drives the price of poker into the stratosphere.  You combat that by giving more term, but that locks you in long term to what is inherently an unpredictable commodity.  Term is a particularly problematic issue for goalies, given their high average age at peak productivity.  While good goalies can play late into their thirties, the GM graveyards are littered with the bodies of those who relied on that fact.

At the end of the day, the same consideration of supply and demand dictates goaltender value -- simply exacerbated by the fact that there is a limited supply and even more limited slots. Each team has to assess its stomach for risk, and proceed accordingly.  If you're lucky enough to have an A+ guy, maybe you pay him and lock him up via a series of shorter term contracts, which gives you the flexibility to adjust when circumstances change.   Alternatively, maybe you can mitigate your risk by going to some version of the 1A/1B plan, perhaps at the risk of losing your primary guy to free agency.  It's the stuff of headaches and ulcers for everyone involved.

For the Blue Jackets, history has taught them that Sergei Bobrovsky has a susceptibility to groin injuries.  Whether he has been brought back too soon, played too often, etc. begs the reality.  The Columbus goalie structure is clearly of the A+ model, with the idea that Bob would play 65+ games per year, and maybe in the 70's.   Curtis McElhinney was viewed as adequate to cover the differential, at a reasonable total investment.  With a Vezina on the mantle, the Blue Jackets had to step up and pay him, and he's squarely in the range for that level of achievement.

Given the fact that Bobrovsky has never reached the 60 game level, and seems unlikely to do so, it might be prudent to change course, and the emergence of young Korpisalo might provide the avenue for doing just that.   Shut down Bob for the year, focusing on getting his groin healed and strengthened.  Let Korpisalo get the experience in a low pressure environment.   Assuming his performance tracks where it is now, trade or waive McElhinney, whose $800K is insignificant in the scheme of things. If he clears waivers, he could be a good teacher at the AHL level.  Put Korpisalo in the backup role, with a view to him playing 30 games or so.  30 games in the NHL is worth more than a full year of AHL experience, and his development can be closely controlled.  Bob, in the meantime, can benefit from a reduced schedule, increased focus, and hopefully a consistent level of performance at his top levels.  With Korpisalo on his ELC for another year, and an RFA thereafter, the cost can similarly be  controlled.

There are never any easy answers, but sure some fascinating questions. Stay tuned.