Top Twenty Goaltenders and the Oilers Biggest Summer Decision

Jonathan Willis
March 18 2009 04:33PM

Roloson

Most people here are probably familiar with the policy of Ken Holland in Detroit regarding goaltenders. For those of you who aren’t, here’s the quote that makes it crystal clear:

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.

Occasional commenter Tyler referenced that comment in a post he did at his website. He made a related point, something that would seem to apply to the Oilers’ goaltenders this season:

I think that the line between the tenth best goalie in the NHL and the twenty fifth best goalie in the NHL is a pretty hazy one and that there’s an awful lot of movement around that line from year to year. Some years the pucks hit you, some years they don’t.

I was reading some of my old stuff when I came across that quote of Tyler, so I decided to take a look at the top-twenty goaltenders in the league by save percentage, and see how much movement there was. Here are some of the more interesting names on the list:

3. Craig Anderson (12-6-5, 2.75 GAA, .923 SV%) - Anderson is in his third season as the Florida Panthers’ backup goaltender, and he’s been putting up great numbers each year (last season’s .935 SV% was even better than this year’s mark). Prior to that, he was a very good AHL goaltender for a number of seasons, and put up some ugly numbers in a little over 50 games with Chicago. He’s an example of how a very good AHL goaltender can become a good NHL goaltender in no-time flat; it’s also entirely possible that he’s a very good example of how a little-used backup can put up numbers well beyond his actual level of ability. Given that he’s almost assured of a chance at a starting job next season, we’ll find out. His performance this season has been unexpected given his lack of reputation.

4. Pekka Rinne (24-11-1, 2.23 GAA, .922 SV%) - Pekka Rinne is an interesting case. Nashville grabbed him as an overage (22) European in the 8th round of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft (the Oilers’ selected Devan Dubnyk 14th overall that year). He’s had three seasons in Milwaukee of the AHL, putting up good numbers in two of his three seasons (the exception being a phenomenal year in 2006-07 as Karl Goerhing’s backup). Back in Finland though, he served as a very capable backup to Niklas Backstrom, who has had some success here in North America.

7. Jonas Hiller (15-14-1, 2.33 GAA, .920 SV%) - Brian Burke was mocked in some quarters for handing an undrafted Swiss goaltender a three year contract averaging 1.3-million per season when he already had J-S Giguere and Ilya Bryzgalov under contract. After two years with great numbers, I doubt that anyone is still under the impression that he made a mistake in this instance, as Hiller’s turned into one of the best bargains in the NHL. Hiller had a nice career with Davos of the top Swiss league before coming to North America.

8. Steve Mason (28-17-3, 2.24 GAA, .919 SV%)- The front-runner for the Calder Trophy (Pekka Rinne’s too old to win) came to the NHL right out of junior, with only three AHL games in between. He had solid numbers for three seasons in the OHL.

10. Scott Clemmensen (25-13-1, 2.39 GAA, .917 SV%) - The 31-year old Clemmensen was called on to take the starting role in New Jersey after Martin Brodeur was injured and did an admirable job holding the fort. Clemmensen spent the vast majority of his career in the Devils organization, with the exception of last season which he spent in Toronto. He’s had five solid seasons in the AHL in addition to some nice seasons at Boston College, but nothing remotely resembling this breakthrough campaign.

12. Mike Smith (14-18-9, 2.62 GAA, .916 SV%) - Smith’s inclusion on this list should surprise nobody. A solid AHL goaltender for several seasons, Smith put up solid numbers as Marty Turco’s backup in Dallas for two years running before being dealt to Tampa Bay in the Brad Richards trade. Consistently underrated, Smith has been one of the few bright spots on the Lightning this season.

13. Chris Mason (18-19-6, 2.48 GAA, .916 SV%) - Unceremoniously dumped by the Predators for a fourth-round draft pick after struggling as a starter in 2007-08, Mason has performed well for the often-struggling St. Louis Blues. He’s yet another goaltender with very nice AHL numbers who also had success as an NHL backup before getting a starting job.

16. Dwayne Roloson (24-17-9, 2.76 GAA, .915 SV%) – Roloson requested a trade last season after a tough year in Edmonton, a year where his kids were mocked at school for his poor play. When Mathieu Garon struggled at the start of this season, Craig MacTavish gave Roloson back the starting job (a decision he was harshly criticized for, criticism that still continues in some cases) that he had lost, and the 39-year old has excelled. It’s revived Roloson’s career and may end up saving both the Oilers’ season and MacTavish’s job.

20. Antero Niittymaki (15-7-5, 2.75 GAA, .912 SV%) - Once half of one of the worst goaltending duos in the NHL (Robert Esche was the other half), Niittymaki has had an excellent season as Martin Biron’s partner in Philadelphia. The Flyers struggled through two weak NHL seasons with the Finn, but he’s now showing the form that made him an excellent goaltender in the AHL and the SM-Liiga.

Those nine names make my point – how many of them would anyone have expected to see on this list last season? Some had struggled after previous success, while others were complete unknowns or minor-league journeymen. It’s an open question how many will be on this list next year.

It also tells me that Ken Holland has the right idea, and that Tyler (who argued this summer that signing Mathieu Garon to a big-money contract would be a mistake, despite popular opinion) was correct that there is a ton of movement on this list season-to-season.

Ideally, I’d like to see the Edmonton Oilers embrace Ken Holland’s method by signing two cheap goaltenders who both have the ability to be a starter. It’s too much of a risk to give one of those jobs to Jeff Deslauriers; the prospect is still a question mark and only has one good AHL season to his credit. If he won’t clear waivers, than the organization should do their best to move him to another team because it’s a bad idea to test these guys out at the NHL level, and goaltenders with a better track record than Deslauriers are a dime a dozen.

My personal solution would be to bring back Dwayne Roloson on a one-year contract, and then bring in a second goaltender as insurance. The second goaltender should be somebody inexpensive with a solid track record; here are the guys I would be taking a long look at it (in alphabetical order):

  • Martin Biron
  • Brian Boucher
  • Marc Denis
  • Ray Emery
  • Martin Gerber
  • Vitaly Kolesnik
  • Jason Labarbera
  • Manny Legace
  • Antero Niittymaki
  • Kevin Weekes

None of those players should be overly expensive; all of them have had good track records on the whole in the past. I’d prefer somebody with previous NHL success – ideally Labarabera or Legace, but Vitaly Kolesnik rates highly to (he’s outplayed Emery in the KHL this season).

Lastly, as insurance for the starters, I’d like to see the Oilers bring prospect Bjorn Bjurling over from Europe to split time in Springfield with Devan Dubnyk. Bjurling was drafted as an overage player in the 9th round of the 2004 draft, and he’s put together some very successful seasons in the Swedish Elite League.

That would make the Oilers goaltending depth chart look something like this:

  • NHL: Roloson/*Labarbera*
  • AHL: Dubnyk/Bjurling
  • ECHL: Two of Fisher/Perugini/Pitton

With the exception of Pitton, all of the players on that list have some ability to move up one league if their play warrants it or if slumps/injuries hit the tier above them, and that to me is exactly how goaltending should be in a cap world: inexpensive, redundant, and likely effective. The other alternative is putting money in one starter, but that only makes sense if that goaltender is one of the league’s best, and none of those players are likely to be available this summer.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#101 Dennis
March 19 2009, 04:40PM
Trash it!
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trashes
+1
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props

Unless Katz is willing to stash some contracts - guys like 18-24-34-27 - the Oilers are going to Have to go on the cheap in net.

They tried the approach in '06 with Conkkanen - plus a sprinkle of Mike Morrisson - and I thought that was the smart bet considering what the duo had done in '04. But I'm not sure what happened to Jussi heading into that season but Conks didn't play enough during the lockout and was coming off an injury, too, I believe, and it all went for naught.

Still, as much as I'd like to have that big guy who's got the big resume, I'm also not against signing up guys who either look to have been overlooked or/are ready to bust out.

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