Managing The Goal: Learning the Lessons of the Past
Everyone would agree that the play in goal is a vital component in getting to the Holy Grail that is the Stanley Cup. We take a look at the varying approaches NHL clubs use in the care, feeding and compensation of the net minder position.
At this time of year, all thirty NHL clubs have the same number of wins and losses, and all have a single goal . . .hoisting the Stanley Cup. ( Whether that expectation is rational is another story) To reach that goal, most would agree that solid -- if not superior -- play in goal is a necessary element. If your club makes it into the playoffs, a hot goalie can make all of the difference in the world. Meanwhile, sub-par play in net can torpedo the ship before it leaves the dock.
When it comes to forwards and defensemen, coaches and GMs have options. You have 13 or 14 forwards on the roster, and 7 or 8 blue liners, and if somebody goes down or goes into a slump, there's usually somebody who can step in. With goalies, not so much. There are precisely 30 starting NHL goal-tenders on the planet, and another 30 backups. That's it. That fact along puts enormous pressure on organizations to "get it right"when it comes to the guy manning the blue ice. Unfortunately, the fact is that goalies are the most mercurial of players . . .sort of the left-handed pitchers of hockey. They can be stellar one season, game or minute, and absolutely awful the next. With top line forwards and top pair defensemen, you pretty much know what you're going to get, at least within a reasonable range of performance, barring injury. Again, due to the sheer numbers, even if a guy performs poorly, chances are you can do something to adjust. However, in a salary capped league with only two goalie positions on the roster, the situation for the guys in the masks is entirely different.
This discussion is framed by two monuments of goalie contract management. The first, of course, is the 15 year, $67.5 million contract the Islanders' Garth Snow bestowed upon Rick DiPietro in 2006, while the other is the 12 year $64 million deal Roberto Luongo pocketed from Vancouver in 2009. While the per season numbers ($4.5 million for DiPietro, $5.625 for Luongo) seem relatively cheap today, in the absolute, they were stunning at the time. Even more stunning was proffered term for these deals. As history teaches, the DiPIetro deal proved to be an unmitigated disaster. The Luongo contract is more debatable, as he at least has been on the ice, and has provided some upper echelon years in goal. Was the deal an overwhelming success? Certainly not, but neither was it the disaster that was DiPietro.
So, organizations today face some difficult choices when confronting the goalie strategy. While the CBA imposes some restraints on term, how much money do you devote to a position that is vital to success, but unpredictable in quality? Are you a club that is going to adopt the "1A/1B" style, with two relatively interchangeable players in goal (and comparable salaries)? Are you going to ride one guy as hard as you can, pay him for the responsibility, and cross your fingers that he holds up for the whole season? Alternatively, will you go bargain hunting, spending as little as you reasonably can on the goalie position, and beefing up elsewhere?
The answer to these questions likely depends, in part, upon what type of team you have. Are you an offensive juggernaut that dominates possession and puts little pressure on the goalie? (Think Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Tampa Bay), or are you a club that focuses on stingy defense, playing a lot of one-goal games, and low scoring games, which put considerable pressure on the net-minder? (Think any club coached by Ken Hitchcock, plus Montreal).
I took a look at each club's two goalies, grabbing the total cap hit for both, and the total term involved (i.e. 2 goalies with two years left on each contract equals four years of term.) I then compared these with the team CORSI/SAT stats for last year, the goals for/goals against rankings, and the playoff status of each club, to see if clubs have learned The DiPietro Lesson, and how they approach manning the net.
Clearly, clubs have learned the lesson when it comes to term. While the CBA imposes outer limits that did not exist at the time of the Luongo and DiPietro deals, only rarely is the maximum approached. In fact, the maximum term for both goal positions combined is nine years, shared by New Jersey and Los Angeles, with the longer deals for Cory Schneider and Jonathan Quick accounting for most of that. In fact, more teams have the minimum possible value of 2 years (Anaheim, Calgary, Carolina and Edmonton) than occupy the upper echelon (Florida has eight years of term on the books, due primarily to . . . Lounge). [To be fair, Anaheim is a special case, depending upon which tandem emerges as the one for the year. If it's Andersen & Khudobin, its 2 years of term and $3.4 in cap hit. If Gibson replaces one of them, the term goes up to five years, and the cap hit would be between $1.9 - $3.0 million this season, going up to between $3.4 and $4.5 million next year.] Twenty of the thirty NHL clubs have between four and seven years of term on the books for their net-minders, with the bulk of that attributable to a clear #1 guy.
Cap hit shows a clear average, with 18 of the thirty clubs expending between $6 million and $8 million per year in cap hit for both net-minder positions. Three clubs fall at the low end of the spectrum, using less than $4 million of cap hit: Anaheim (but see note above), Buffalo and Edmonton. San Jose, St. Louis and Winnipeg come next, with between $4 million and $5 million, while Florida, Philadelphia and Ottawa spending between $5 million & $6 million. (The Flyers obviously learning their lesson from the Ilya Bryzgalov saga -- whose 9-year $51 million deal deserves at least the bronze medal in the Outlandish Goalie Contracts event, and was arguably far worse than Luongo's).
At the other extreme are three perhaps unlikely clubs. Columbus has $8.225 million in cap space for goalies, with all but $770,000 of that attributable to Sergei Bobrovsky. Such is the price of a Vezina Trophy. The New York Rangers spend $9.25 million for net-minding, with the lion's share for the inimitable Henrik Lundqvist. Topping the chart are the Dallas Stars, who spend $10.4 million for the true A/B pairing of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi.
So, how well do these arrangements work. You can't derive too much long term fortune from this narrow data slice, but there are at least some interesting questions that arise. Nobody can seriously argue that the Rangers have not received full value for their investment in Lundqvist. However, he is getting older, and despite a wealth of front line talent, the Rangers ranked only 20th in the league in Corsi/SAT, with 49.5%. That type of play increases the pressure on the goalie slot, and as Lundqvist ages, that could pose problems. Montreal has the perfect fit with goalie Carey Price and his $6.5 million cap hit. The Canadiens ranked only 23rd in Corsi/SAT, but were tops in the league in goals against. Merci, Mr. Price.
Whatever the numbers turn out to be, Anaheim is a marvel. Near the bottom of goaltender investment, and middle of the road in SAT/Corsi and goals against, they still manage to dominate the regular season. As their front line players get older, can they get away with the bargain basement blue ice? In St. Louis -- all kidding aside -- the organization has managed to put together a nice blend. With only $4.85 million of cap hit and 4 years of term tied up, the Blues ranked fourth in goals against, fifth in goals for and a respectable 11th in Corsi/SAT, at 51.8%. As long as Ken Hitchcock allows the offense some latitude, they are in good shape. Dallas is taking a calculated gamble with its blue ice tandem, and with the other additions, could be in for salary cap hell in a year or two. Their motto this year might well be "Win Now!"
Finally, there are the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks. Infamous for cap struggles, they have reached a fine accommodation in terms of the net-minder position. At the middle of the road with $6.5 in cap hit and 7 years of term, the Blackhawks also dominate possession, with a 53.6% Corsi/SAT, second only to the Los Angeles Kings. They were also second in goals against, proving that when you have the puck most of the time, the other team can't score, no matter who is on the ice.
So, the bottom line appears to be that teams have largely learned from the sins of the past, and are treating the goalie position with relative caution. The upper echelon are still rewarded, but with terms that appear to recognize the mercurial nature of the position. Fun stuff to ponder as we get ready for serious hockey. Stay tuned.