Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke has said, on a number of occasions, that he believes the only way to build a championship team is from the net out. He’s not the only one.
From Sam Pollock to Cliff Fletcher, league executives have long bought into the notion that “you can’t win without a good goaltender.” CBC commentator and former NHL coach, Don Cherry is quick to remind viewers that “a goalie can steal a game, steal an entire series.”
But recent NHL history suggests the opposite—that the big-name goaltender may be less important than in times past.
A look at the most successful franchise in the last two decades tells the story. The Detroit Red Wings have shied away from signing all-star goaltenders and, instead, have played with a collection of competent but underwhelming names over the last 20 years—including Tim Cheveldae, Bob Essensa, Mike Vernon, Chris Osgood and, more recently, Jimmy Howard.
During that period, the Red Wings have played in six Stanley Cup finals, won 33 playoff series (more than any other team), and have qualified for the playoffs 20 consecutive seasons.
Who can argue with their success?
Strange that the Red Wings would put so little stock into a position that league executives and media pundits have said for years was the most important on the team. The irony is, that Ken Holland, the architect of much of Detroit’s success, is himself a former goaltender.
Last season’s champions, the Chicago Blackhawks, borrowed a page from the Detroit school by winning the Stanley Cup with a cheap, unknown quantity in Antti Niemi, making many in the business openly question the necessity of a big-name goalie.
Nashville GM David Poile is surprised by the recent trend. "If you asked who was the best goalie in this year's playoffs, most people would say (Jaroslav) Halak and he got traded. You tell me what that means,” he said.
In fact, last season’s Stanley Cup finals showcased not one but two unfamiliar names in goal, with career minor-leaguer Michael Leighton between the pipes for the Philadelphia Flyers at the other end.
In 2006, fans were treated to a who’s-who of goalies in the Stanley Cup finals. The Oilers were back-stopped by journeyman Dwayne Roloson, while Carolina played second-stringer Cam Ward after losing Martin Gerber late in the same season.
The following season saw two goalies riding hot teams to the final, as the goalie matchup pitted Anaheim’s Jean-Sebastian Giguere against Ottawa Senators rookie Ray Emery, both of whom have since been traded and released by their former clubs.
Philadelphia Flyer’s GM Paul Holmgern remains steadfast in his view that the goaltending position is overrated and that spending money on that position is not a wise investment.
“Michael [Leighton] is an all-star calibre goalie, who we signed cheap because we really don’t give a crap about that position. I mean, since drafting Hexxy [Ron Hextall] in 1982, we have had a mentality that the goaltender position is rather irrelevant in this league. Hell, even Tretiak, who is considered the best Russian goalie of all time, told Bobby [Clarke] back in the day, that having an elite goalie wasn’t necessary to win championships.”
In Holmgren’s line of thinking, goalies are viewed more as the final piece of the puzzle and, by no means, the most important.
“We here in Philly, abide by that philosophy. Look at a guy like Antti Niemi, GAA of almost four in the Cup finals and he’s got his name etched on Lord Stanley. That just proves my point,” he said.”
The reality is that too often goalies are peripheral to a team’s success, rather than drivers of it.
This explains the Red Wings' continued playoff and organizational success despite a parade of different net-minders in goal. It also sheds light on why Stanley Cup champions like Anaheim’s Jean-Sebastian Giguere and Tampa’s Nikolai Khabibulin have been unable to repeat their past success elsewhere.
The evolution of the position is such that there’s little to choose from between modern-day goalies. The ubiquitous butterfly style, and the increased size of goalies and equipment have leveled the playing field.
The performance of rookie goalies, minor-leaguers, and back-ups is on par with the game’s top goaltenders both in terms of statistics and playoff success—an indication that there is a great deal of parity at the position.
Leaf cast-off Tukka Rask assumed the number one role for the Boston Bruins without it being a setback to his team. The same was true in Montreal where back-up Jan Halak relegated the Hab’s Carey Price to the sidelines, and the Canadiens never missed a beat.
League-wide goalie parity helps explain James Reimer’s rise in Toronto. The new number one, who shone for the club in the latter half of the year, was fifth on the depth chart going into the season and was not expected by the club’s brass to make the NHL.
Rather than break the bank on a goalie who is only marginally better than his peers, shrewd executives like Ken Holland understand that the key to building a winner involves the right combination of forwards and defensemen.
A consistent theme in the Red Wings developmental strategy has been to skimp on goalie salaries and save the big bucks for position players like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Niklas Lidstrom.
In the last four years, the Red Wings have spent only $9 million on goalie salaries; a minimal cap hit. The Maple Leafs, on the other hand, have spent close to $25 million on the same position; three times as much as the 2009 champions, without so much as a single playoff appearance to show for it.
Holland said, "The disparity between the best goalie in the League of the 30 starters and the 30th goalie is pretty different, but what's the difference between the 11th and the 20th? At some point you're putting your team together and deciding where to spend your money and you have to make a decision on how much of a difference maker the goalie you're signing is. At the same time, if you are spending significant dollars on the best goalie then the other guy is going to have much more money to spend on skaters.”
And it’s exactly that kind of reasoning which explains why the Blackhawks let Antti Niemi walk at the end of last season, choosing instead to re-sign key players like Jonathon Toews and Duncan Keith to long-term contracts.
The cheap goalie model pioneered by Holland may be catching on throughout the league.
Montreal Canadiens management turned heads last summer when it sent Jan Halak packing on the heels of a dream playoff run reminiscent of Patrick Roy in 1993.
Considering the success so many teams have had over the last decade with unsung heroes, unfamiliar names, and nobodies in goal, could the big name goalie and his big time contract be nearing an end?
Hockey fans will surely be watching to see whether the trend continues this offseason.