Ever since the Curtis Joseph/Dominik Hasek/Manny Legace goaltending triangle just before the NHL lockout, the Detroit Red Wings have been cycling an assortment of cheap and largely unremarkable goaltenders through their crease. Legace, Osgood, Conklin, Howard; with the exception of a single half-season from a declining Hasek the Red Wings haven’t had a single goaltender distinguishable from the usual mix of 1A/1B types available in each summer’s free agent bargain bin.

I recycle the Ken Holland quote from this post over and over again because it’s brilliant and it shows a depth of understanding that the vast majority of not just fans and commentators but also NHL general managers seem unable to reach. The Red Wings G.M., on why he cheaps out on goalies:

My feeling is if you can get one of the five or six best goalies in the league you can spend the money. We can’t get into those guys, and the difference between the eighth goalie in the league and the 15th goalie, it’s a big difference in money. It’s not a big difference in performance.

I have the feeling that Holland’s underselling it, because he’s never entered the playoffs with a better-than-average (i.e. top-15) starter. In any case, here’s a quick chart looking at the 10 highest cap hit goalies in the league, and whether they’ve been worth the money this season. Blue for yes, red for no.

Player Cap Hit (MM) Good/Bad
Henrik Lundqvist 6.875 The best part of a struggling Rangers’ team
Roberto Luongo 6.75 One of the league’s best goaltenders
Ryan Miller 6.25 Vezina candidate has been Sabres’ MVP
Jean-Sebastien Giguere 6 Outplayed by cheap backup Jonas Hiller
Niklas Backstrom 6 Has struggled since the departure of Jacques Lemaire
Miikka Kiprusoff 5.833 Rebound year for previously disappointing Finn
Marty Turco 5.7 Below average goaltender has been fighting to hang on to his spot
Tomas Vokoun 5.7 Underrated veteran has been excellent
Cristobal Huet 5.625 Outplayed by Antii Niemi at a fraction of the price
Evgeni Nabokov 5.375 On pace for the best season of his career

Six for 10. Those aren’t numbers that a G.M. necessarily wants his owner to see; imagine the conversation:

G.M.: I need $5.5 million to sign us a legitimate, top-10 NHL goaltender.

Owner: What are the chances that your guy is going to live up to the contract?

G.M.: Well, going by this season there’s a 60% chance that your investment will give us a top-10 starter, and a 40% chance that he’ll implode and we’ll replace him with some random European kid/generic backup, at which point he’ll be a salary cap boat anchor.

Owner: Let me just grab my pen to sign that cheque…

I don’t think there’s any arguing the fact that Holland (a minor-league goaltender who had an NHL cup of coffee as a player) is right about goalies, and the fact that general managers continue to sign decidedly average players to big money contracts (for a recent example, see Ward, Cam) boggles my mind. It’s the single greatest area of inefficiency in the cap era, and many of them don’t seem to learn from their mistakes (for a recent example, see Ferguson, John Jr.). Every single year, some cheap and hitherto unknown backup or some veteran, undrafted European goaltender shows up in the NHL and outplays an assortment of the money guys; it seems to me that it makes a lot more sense to run with a capable looking tandem and a good AHL goalie, as Detroit has done, and hope that one of the three catches fire in any given season.

Comments (33)

  1. The only one I disagree with is Backstrom. He’s been arguably the best goalie in the NHL post-lockout. Yes, he’s struggling this season, but that doesn’t stricken from the record what he’s accomplished over the past few years.

    Nabokov is a model of consistency, and truly a bargain out west.

    Giguere won the Ducks a Cup, and took them to the final on his own. I’m almost tempted to say he was worth it.

    As for Huet, I’d love to try the dope they’re smoking down in Chicago.

  2. eyebleaf: It’s just for this season. If we were to look at the last few years, Kiprusoff’s been a disaster and Nabokov’s only been okay – in the 10-20 range, not the top-10 range.

  3. Willis please tell me you have no forgotten the 05-06 season… Markkanen-Conklin-Morrison… both Markkanen and Conklin looked prepared and capable. How about a tandem of Journeyman Goalies at reasonably short (price and term) contracts ie) Fernandez-Roloson, or Roloson-Biron

  4. The worst part of it is that not only is Holland right, but he was proven right beyond a shadow of a doubt when the Wings won in 2008. Usually other GMs are so quick to copy what’s working for another team, but why they can’t wrap their heads around this one is beyond me. What’s happened since the Wings won the Cup? Chicago shelled out for Huet, Boston broke the bank for Tim Thomas, Carolina gave Ward a rich extension, Pittsburgh did the same for Fleury, Washington handed Jose Theodore $4.5 million per, Phoenix gave Bryzgalov $4.25 million a year, the Oilers handed Khabibulin $15 million over four years…

    Why do so many teams not seem to get this? Even if you sign two guys to be your tandem for $1.5 million per, the trade market for goalies is so soft, and has been since the lockout, that you could get a decent goalie like Biron for a song right now. Not to mention that there’s at least ten guys who are either starters or have the potential to be half of a solid tandem hitting the market this summer: Nabokov, Turco, Theodore, Chris Mason, Ellis, Emery, Biron, Hiller, Budaj, Hedberg…

    Although this gives us a chance to see which managers are really paying attention. If Dallas, San Jose, Philly, Nashville, or St. Louis panic and give their current starters big money extensions, we’ll know their managers are a bit dim. I’ll be especially interested to see what Nieuwendyk does in Dallas, since both his goalie’s deals are expiring and he has no likely candidates in the system. Not re-signing Turco seems like an easy call with the way he’s played, but maybe Nieuwendyk will make a rookie GM mistake?

  5. Strong work, Jonathan. Entirely convincing.

  6. Excellent piece. Signing Huet was an example of the stupid signing. I never knew why they thought he was so much bette than a bunch of other guys.

    • Well if you remember he had played 2 solid year in Montreal even winning an award for keeping the best % save in all NHL…

      Then he was traded to Washington (Dumb move by Gainey)
      He won 12 of 14 or something like that to allow the Caps to make the playoffs…

      So he was hot with Montreal and then even Hotter with Washington… So I am not suprised someone took a chance with him… But 5,7M fiewwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww

  7. Good piece, I would love to see something comparing cost vs. performance for the top ten in both categories since the lockout. Create a goalie statistic along the lines of a value index. You interested in doing that much work?

  8. Well how goaltenders should be signed is based on one thing and one thing only. Does he or has he made your team or another team consistently a contender. So unless your name is Luongo, Brodeur, Lundqvist, or Miller then your not worth anything over 4 million. Every goaltender below those guys should get paid between 3-4 million and then beyond that the rest get paid below that. Which would be your young goalies and veterans that just can’t play consistently enough yet or anymore to give you 50 games needed to be a starter.

  9. I would say that of these only 3 of them are worth the money. Giguere definitely used to be but is in decline.

  10. @ Devon, Nabby has has consistently outplayed both Luongo and Lundqvist..give credit where it is due.

  11. Mike – Nabokov was brutal in 2005-06, and has been okay since; he hasn’t been as consistently good as he was pre-lockout. Perhaps this year marks a turning point, but we’ll see. It’s certainly the first time since the lockout that he’s really deserved mention as an end-of-year Vezina candidate.

  12. I couldn’t agree more about Vokoun being underrated. Easily among the league’s top 5 goalies IMO.

  13. I don’t agree totally because Philly and Ottawa have been burned by bad goaltending in the playoffs and during the regular season. Holland has to be lucky as well and 1 of the goalies is going to step up and not implode in the playoffs.

    As for the list, Giguere won a Cup, Turco was a legitimate big time goalie during his career.

    Brodeur isn’t on the list but should be. New Jersey has lucked out not having to pay him top dollar. Wonder where New Jersey would have been if they went with a tandem goaltending system instead of Brodeur? hmmmm

  14. Benvet: Giguere could have a dozen Stanley Cups in his cupboard, but that won’t help the Ducks win a game this season. Besides, if we’re counting Cups, Osgood has a bunch of them.

  15. Giguere was out at the beginning of the season and sure has struggled to get his starting job back as Hiller’s a little more spry. But that’s kind of what happens on most teams, the starter gets old and the younger guy takes over. You’re right in saying that past success won’t win the Ducks a playoff series this year, but you’d be pretty wrong in saying that Giguere hasn’t been worth the money, or the cap headache he now presents the Ducks. You focus is way too narrow if you’re really going to be judging whether a goalie, or really any player, is worth the money they’re being paid. Most of the highly paid goalies are on multi-year deals, it doesn’t make sense to try to decide whether a multi-year deal is paying off by looking at a little more than a half season. Of the four under-performing goalies you pointed out, Giguere and Turco have come up big for their teams in the past, which is why they’re paid big money; Backstrom and Huet have only had limited success, with Backstrom playing in two playoff series, losing both and only playing well in one. Huet’s had pretty solid career numbers, though with limited starts in every season, and has yet to really step up in Chicago. Bottom line, it’s more like 80% success with the goalies when you don’t pick half a season to judge whether a contract signed a few seasons ago was worth it, and you never know, Backstrom could win the Vezina next season and Huet could win this year’s Conn Smythe. You make a valid point overall, that a cheaper goalie can keep a team afloat just as well as the higher paid guys, but what happens when that cheap guy needs to be resigned? Then he’s being criticized by you I guess.

  16. MJS: It depends if he’s a top-five goalie. If he is, big money and term are fine. If he isn’t, big money and term are a mistake. Huet and Turco never should have got their contracts, while Backstrom’s numbers in Minnesota were always suspect.

    Giguere might be the lone exception. He went into a tailspin after his father died that he has yet to come out of.

  17. Lundqvist is good enough to be the highest paid goalie. So for anyone considering to think he is overpaid: if one player, and one player alone, allows your team to make the playoffs every year, he is worth the money. If he was on a good team, it’s not a stretch to say he’d have more than 30 wins already, maybe be the leader in wins right now.

    You are definitely correct in saying he is the best part of the Rangers.

  18. benvet..that was stupid. brodeur couldnt be on the list because he isnt an overpaid goalie. He’s one of those athletes who would rather play on a sucessful team than make oodles of dough. Henrik “MichelinMan” Lundpads wouljd rather have the money, as an example. Ray Emery would rather have an 8-ball (and I dont mean the kind that tell futures).

  19. Giguere took the Ducks to a game 7 once and a Cup once. He’s lost his edge, but when your goalie just won the Conn Smythe you can either sign him for whatever it takes or watch him do it for another team.

    If you were told that your team would win a Cup with a player, but would then have to carry some cap deadweight for a few years afterwards, would you do it? I would.

  20. Jimmy Howard may prove to be one of the top 10 goalies in the league. Check out his rookie year numbers…

  21. Huet’s numbers are pretty decent, and Chicago looks brilliant letting go of Khabibulin and keeping Huet. It was a risky move at the time but has paid off handsomely.

    Gigure’s numbers would be better if he got more starts, but are nevertheless still quite respectable, as are Backstrom’s.

    And since when has Cam Ward been “average”? He has more Stanley Cup rings than Nabokov. The author doesn’t know what he is talking about.

  22. Hey JW, I’ve been reading that Holland comment a lot, and I think it’s getting more play than it deserves to tell you the truth. It worked for him in ’08 and not quite in ’09 when a bigger-money goalie outplayed his cheap guy in the SCF. It didn’t work so well in ’06 when his generic ‘tender blew up in the first round of the playoffs, and all of his horses and all of his men couldn’t put Stanley together again.

    On the whole though I disagree with the notion that goalies should be paid like place-kickers or something cuz they’re insignificant. There may not be that much difference between #8 and #15 but they’re still in the top half of the league and have significant value. Every once in awhile a Hiller will come and knock off a Giguere. So what? That’s the nature of competition. The nature of NHL salaries is that accomplished veterans get paid / overpaid, and that is true at every position.

    Why not do similar lists of the top ten paid centres, or wingers, or rearguards, and see how much red font is on those lists? The goaltending position is unique in some respects, but it’s not the only spot where guys’ pay and performance don’t necessarily measure up.

  23. Oh come on! Holland has been lucky because one of his cheap goalies got hot at the right time. He also happens to have some guys called Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Lidstrom who can score and win Selke and Norris trophies every year.

    Ottawa wasted the prime of Alfredsson’s career on average goaltending. Ask a Vancouver fan during the West Coast Express days how they felt about average goaltending.

    Holland’s accomplishments are great, but his cheap goaltending strategy is more the product of luck and good scouting than vision.

  24. Yeah, Detroit’s time as “Flavour of the Decade” is surely just about due.

    Another team that has suffered with supbar goaltending for years is Philadelphia, and they keep trying to address it with a bandaid like Garth Snow or Robert Esche or Martin Biron or Ray Emery. What if they had taken the $52 MM they sank into Daniel Briere in 2007 and instead invested say half of it :) in a #8 to #15 goaltender. Even at $4 or $5 MM, how is that not going to be a better bet. Yes I’m cherry picking to some extent based on outcomes, but right at the time Philly’s goaltending was shaky as ever and a big organizational need, they cheaped out, and look where they are: 35 years from their last Stanley and counting.

  25. [...] on 2009-10 postseason results. Jonathan Willis at thescore’s Hockey or Die blog examined the Top 10 highest paid goaltenders in the NHL. Willis notes that 4 of the 10 high dollar contracts are delivering less than expected [...]

  26. wow where is gigere

  27. Huet’s numbers are pretty decent, and Chicago looks brilliant letting go of Khabibulin and keeping Huet. It was a risky move at the time but has paid off handsomely.
    wonderful gigure.

  28. Luongo is mediocre and way overpaid, he is worth 3.5 mil tops. I live in Vancouver and I’m sick to tears of hearing people call him the best goalie in the world; because he’s not even close. It’s pathetic.

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