If one position has redefined itself in the five post-lockout NHL seasons, that position is goaltender.
Previously, goaltending was the crux of an NHL team; having a marquee goaltender in net was a must for any team to have any reasonable chance of success. The 10 seasons from 1995 through 2004 only saw five different NHL teams hoist the Stanley Cup; Colorado (1996, 2001), Dallas (1999), Detroit (1997, 1998, 2002), New Jersey (1995, 2000, 2003), and Tampa Bay (2004). Unsurprisingly, each and every team had top-tier goaltending from the likes of players such as Patrick Roy, Ed Belfour, Martin Brodeur, and Dominik Hasek.
Times have changed. Smaller goalie pads and less freedom for defensemen to obstruct the opposition has opened things up completely.
Scoring is up, job security for goaltenders is down.
In each and every of the past five seasons, a handful of middle of the pack goaltenders emerged with a season of elite goaltending numbers, only to be supplanted the following season by a new handful.
The change was instantaneous.
2006, the first post-lockout season, saw former Anaheim backup Martin Gerber lead the unlikely Carolina Hurricanes to a division title, and in an even more unlikely twist of fate would be supplanted by rookie Cam Ward in the playoffs, who went on to win MVP honors en route to the Stanley Cup. Carolina's opponent, the Edmonton Oilers, were in the finals thanks to goaltending from Dwayne Roloson, a trade deadline acquisition. Even when Roloson went down due to injuries in the finals, third stringer Jussi Markkanen took over and pushed the series to seven games.
Wild inconsistency continued in the following seasons, with goaltenders like Steve Mason going from Calder Trophy winner to fringe starter, Tim Thomas going from Vezina Trophy winner to backup in the span of one season, and J.S. Giguere going from Stanley Cup winner to $6M paper weight.
2009-2010, perhaps more than any of the previous years, saw several goaltenders jump from being backups—or even AHL starters—to NHL stardom. In perhaps the most improbable scenario possible, Chicago and Philadelphia faced in the Stanley Cup finals led by Finnish league (FNL) veteran Antti Niemi and AHL journeyman Michael Leighton.
Boston's Tuuka Rask (one win to 22), Colorado's Craig Anderson (15 wins to 38), Detroit's Jimmy Howard (zero wins to 37), LA's Jonathan Quick (21 to 39), and Montreal's Jaroslav Halak (18 wins to 26, plus nine in the playoffs) round out the "get rich quick" of 2010.
All of the listed goaltenders are young and filled with promise, but some of them will undoubtedly falter. Will Jimmy Howard falter as Detroit's defense continues to age? Will Craig Anderson, the oldest on the list, prove to be one trick pony like Marty Biron was for the Flyers? Will Jonathan Quick, shaky in the playoffs and signed to a small salary contract, lose his starting seat to top prospect Jonathan Bernier?
Question marks in the heads of general managers have caused them to wise up. No longer will teams give out lucrative offers to try to shore up their goaltending holes, even if they're a Stanley Cup contender or it's been an Achilles heel for the past half decade. As such, goaltenders once considered elite, such as Marty Turco and Jose Theodore, remain without an NHL contract; Evgeni Nabokov, the only goaltender to win over 40 games in each of the past three seasons, has signed in Russia.
For now, the era of the goaltender is dead.