A good starting goalie is invaluable to an NHL team. He’s also both surprisingly easy and shockingly difficult to acquire.
No other position player has the ability to impact the game in the same way. A great forward can make a difference for 20 minutes a night, while a great defenceman can do so for literally half the game at times, but a great goaltender can take over a game and render the efforts of an entire team totally pointless.
There is no better recent example of this than the performance Ben Scrivens put on in a late January game for the Edmonton Oilers against the San Jose Sharks. The result of the game was pretty much what one would expect—the Sharks put the boots to the lowly Oilers, and it wasn’t close.
Except that Edmonton ended up winning the game by a 3-0 score, thanks to a 59-save performance from Scrivens:
Scrivens had been acquired by the Oilers from Los Angeles just two weeks earlier, at the relatively cheap price of a third-round pick. He’s the favourite to start for Edmonton next year (though he’ll have to outplay Viktor Fasth, another promising goalie, who cost a couple of low draft picks to add), and while Scrivens isn’t proven, he does hold a career 0.917 save percentage, built mostly behind the porous Toronto Maple Leafs.
Goaltending is a position where castoffs like Scrivens surprisingly often emerge as legitimate NHL players. Scrivens’ future remains uncertain, but history is full of third-string goalies going on to incredible achievements. The best-known recent example is probably Miikka Kiprusoff, who was squeezed out in San Jose but spent most of a decade as a starter for the Calgary Flames.
But the weirdest thing about goalies isn’t just the way they defy prediction; it’s that established ones seem to be available every year in a way that simply isn’t true of other positions.
This summer’s free-agent market is a good example. The best available forward was probably Paul Stastny, an excellent No. 2 centre or a poor man’s No. 1. The highest-paid defenceman was Matt Niskanen, who ranked third among Pittsburgh Penguins defenders in per-game time on ice.
Meanwhile, in net, the Vancouver Canucks signed Ryan Miller, a former Vezina Trophy winner. Jonas Hiller, a six-season starter for the Anaheim Ducks, was acquired by the Calgary Flames. Jaroslav Halak was headed to free agency, but the New York Islanders acquired his rights for a late pick and signed him to a four-year deal before he got there.
It’s a fantastic free-agent period when one legitimate first-line forward or one true No. 1 defenceman makes it to market. Meanwhile, 10 percent of the NHL’s starters for next season swapped teams, and it wasn’t particularly noteworthy.
It’s pretty easy, in other words, for a team to find a promising up-and-comer who might be a starter, and it’s pretty easy to land an established No. 1 goalie via free agency.
What about elite goalies? That’s much harder, because outside of less than a handful of players, the definition of “elite” can shift dramatically in a very short period of time.
Miller is an example. The St. Louis Blues had three very decent goalies before they decided to add an elite No. 1 for a run at the Stanley Cup last spring. The cost of acquiring Miller (and Steve Ott) was massive. TSN has it down as Halak, physical top-six winger Chris Stewart, top prospect William Carrier, a first-round pick in 2015 and a conditional third-round pick in 2016 (which, under certain conditions, could have become another first-round pick).
That was in March. Miller didn’t play particularly well over 25 regular-season and playoff games with the Blues, so they didn’t re-sign him. It’s incredible, really; Miller has been an exceptional starter for nearly a decade (a run that includes a Vezina win and a wonderful performance at the 2010 Olympics), and after 20-odd games, the Blues go from surrendering a fortune in assets to acquire him to saying "thanks, but no thanks."
The headline on this piece uses the word “rapidly changing” to describe the NHL’s goalie market, and if anything, that’s a massive understatement. Of the NHL’s 30 starters in 2010-11, just 10 finished 2013-14 as the No. 1 goalie with the same team. Goalies flame out and disappear, goalies come out of nowhere and goalies hop from team to team with the frequency of a cheap ham radio.
What’s the solution for NHL teams? There isn’t an iron-clad strategy that will always work, but there are some sensible precautions teams can take:
- Unless the goalie is truly and obviously elite (and by this, we mean multiple seasons where a legitimate case could be made that the player is the best at his position in the NHL), don’t commit massive dollars and massive terms. It’s too easy for that kind of deal to go sideways, and even if it doesn’t, the replacement cost of a non-elite goalie isn’t all that high.
- Hire two good goalies. The acquisition cost generally isn’t all that high (in dollars or in assets), and if something goes wrong with the starter, it can ruin an entire season (as anyone who saw the New York Islanders’ duo of Evgeni Nabokov and Kevin Poulin last year can attest). If a backup isn’t legitimately pushing a starter, there probably isn’t a place for him in the league.
In short: Don’t get locked in on anything other than the best, and make sure both guys can play. Even the surest eye is going to misjudge goalies every now and again, and it’s best to make sure that those mistakes don’t sting too badly when they come.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.
Statistics courtesy of NHL.com.