The Goaltending, Going Forward

Along with the major questions on the back end, the Edmonton Oilers do have some concerns in net. Nikolai Khabibulin has one year left on his contract, but his age and general performance since joining the Oilers make it clear that he won’t be the starter on a contending Edmonton team. Devan Dubnyk has youth and has shown flashes, but not everyone is confident in his ability to be a starter for a contending team, period.

Should the Oilers be worried about their goaltending?

There have been basically two approaches to goaltending in the NHL since the lockout:

  • Build from the net out
  • Get adequate goaltending and spend money elsewhere

“Build from the net out” has been a cherished NHL management strategy for ages, and it’s easy to see why. A goaltender has more impact on an individual game than any forward or defenseman the vast majority of the time; it is the most important position on the team. Thus, teams have frequently tried to find that franchise goaltender that can eliminate all their worries – either drafting the year’s best goalie prospect high or else signing a free agent to a massive contract.

Thanks to this, the league has 13 goaltenders with a cap hit north of $4.0 million per season in 2011-12, with Pekka Rinne set to join that group and others – such as Carey Price – in need of new contracts. Some of them are well worth the money, while others are decidedly less so. In the latter group we find players such as Cristobal Huet, playing out the last year of his $5.625 million/season contract in France, and Rick DiPietro, who has just nine seasons left on one of the worst contracts in league history.

Yet, even past the obvious punch-lines some of those players have not been worth the money. Take the legendary Martin Brodeur. While earning $5.0 million per season, over the last two years he’s ceded playing time to career backup Johan Hedberg because Hedberg has outplayed him by a substantial amount; Brodeur’s own numbers are among the worst in the league over the past two years. Philadelphia sent a Brinks truck worth of cash Ilya Bryzgalov’s way this past summer, hoping to address their long-standing questions in net with a guy who has arguably been a franchise goalie the last while. In the first year of Bryzgalov’s contract, however, he’s been brutal and outplayed by unheralded Sergei Bobrovsky, the man he was supposed to replace.

There’s an interesting quote from Red wings general manager Ken Holland that should probably serve as the Bible when it comes to handing out big contracts to 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.

This is something Detroit has shown time and again in the way they handle their own goalies. Hasek, Legace, Osgood, Conklin, Howard – the list of post-lockout goalies is varied but the fact is the Red Wings haven’t paid much money for any of them. They gambled on Hasek as one of the all-time greats ended his career and it didn’t cost them much. They ran with Chris Osgood, a decidedly middling starting goalie, and it didn’t cost them much. Even Howard, arguably the best of the bunch, hasn’t really cost them money: as an entry-level goalie he made $733,000 per season, on his second (three-year) contract he made $717,000 per season, and he’s just started a new two-year deal that pays him $2.25 million per season.

When we look at the NHL goalie leaders this season, the point that good goaltending is available cheaply is driven home repeatedly. Lundqvist, Thomas and Backstrom are all having great years, and are all paid accordingly, but other top save percentage goalies in the NHL include Brian Elliott ($600,000), Jonathan Quick ($1.8 million), Tuukka Rask ($1.25 million), Cory Schneider ($900,000) and Evgeni Nabokov ($570,000). The list continues and includes guys like Howard, Giguere, Smith, Harding and Vokoun.

Good goaltending can be had cheaply. Because goaltending performance varies widely on a year-to-year basis, because there are far more qualified goalies than there are spaces for them, and because of teams like Detroit and Chicago that steadfastly refuse to pay money for goalies, the market has collapsed the last few seasons.

My preference would be for the Oilers to try and do what Detroit does: hire two goalies they like, and hire them at low cost. There are a lot of advantages to using this system:

  • There are two guys the coach trusts to start, making the team less vulnerable to injuries and performance fluctuations
  • It’s dirt cheap, allowing the team to spend money elsewhere
  • It keeps internal competition at a high level, since the starting job is never really secure
  • It prevents the team from blowing a huge chunk of money/years on a guy who then gets hurt or sees his play drop off

What does that mean? If the Oilers are able to dump Khabibulin’s salary at the deadline, it would mean going out and adding one of the lower-tier unrestricted free agents to the team to play with Dubnyk. From this year’s list, that might include a guy like Chris Mason, Scott Clemmensen, Martin Biron, Josh Harding, Al Montoya, Ray Emery or Evgeni Nabokov (all ranked by 2011-12 salary). All of those guys make less than $2.0 million per season now, all of them could presumably be had cheaply and all of them stand a good chance of outplaying Nikolai Khabibulin next year.

Ideally in this strategy, the Oilers would continue doing what they’ve done in the AHL the last few years, employing a strong third-string goalie like Yann Danis or Martin Gerber, a guy that can come up and play if the need arises.

In short, I’m not worried about the Oilers goaltending going forward, because identifying a franchise tender and hanging on to him for dear life isn’t the route I’d like to see the team go. It’s expensive if it works, and catastrophic if it doesn’t. The UFA market swarms every year with perfectly serviceable 1A/1B types, and it’s time the Oilers shifted their approach to fit the realities of the market place.

    • Can’t win in this league, or make a good playoff run without having a solid goaltender.

      Just look at the playoff teams in the west and compare:

      Red Wings- Howard
      Canucks- Luongo, Schneider
      Sharks- Niemi
      Preds- Rinne
      Kings- Quick

      If it wasn’t for Kiprusoff in Calgary, they wouldn’t be anywhere near a playoff spot, who has probably been one of, if not the best goaltender this year, in the NHL. He has just been hidden in the shadows of his team who can’t put the puck in the net for him.

      You can’t just win without having a solid goaltender and teams like the Ducks, and Sabres have proven that this year.

  • James Gronau

    Yes they need to worry. Dubnyk is a very long way from a starter in the NHL and Habby is closer to the end of his career. Maybe Phily wants one of them?

  • Quicksilver ballet

    ~Where’s Marty Turco on that list, i don’t see Marty anywhere, anyone know where Turco is?….MARTY!~

    I’m sure it was just a slight oversight on JW’s part. He must’ve only included guys who’ve played minutes this season.

    Goalie crush went from watching Billy Smith, Fuhr,Moog,Pete Peeters,Cujo,Broduer,Turco and now it seems to be Carey Price. Might have missed a couple, never was big on Patrick Roy.

    • Romulus' Apotheosis

      Your obsession with Turco continues to amaze. Don’t you remember him feeding Smyth his teeth?

      I can never cheer for that guy in Oiler silks. never.

      @JW

      I agree wholeheartedly with this strategy. But I disagree that there is nothing to worry about… because:

      1) the goalie situation currently for the oil is very dodgy and unreliable and does not represent a long term solution… ie the current team running the show has already gummed up the works.

      2) what makes you think this current group can recognize the wisdom of this strategy you’ve laid out and can follow it through? I point you to this:

      I mentioned at the time of the Khabibulin deal that I wasn’t impressed with Tambellini’s work because the market for goalies was so soft. Even if he stupidly was convinced that Khabibulin was the guy, there was unlikely to be a need to give him so much term and money – there were goalies who were literally begging for jobs. Dwayne Roloson has said he would have come back for two years and $2.5MM per. There were lots of coinflip options that required less commitment.

      http://www.mc79hockey.com/?p=4249

      • I try not to fret about the Oilers mistakes until they move from hypothetical to real.

        Besides, the specific question is: ‘should Oilers fans be worried about goaltending’ not ‘should Oilers fans be worried that Tambo’s going to revisit the Khabibulin mistake when he signs his next goalie.’

        • Romulus' Apotheosis

          Fair enough.

          If the premise is simply: is there a lot of quality Gs around for cut rates… then yea… nothing to worry about. the market is great.

          If the premise is there are a lot of quality Gs around for cut rates… but we might shoot for the moon, or buy yesterday’s winners, or lock in for too long (all of which seem possible at this point), or fail to make any move… then yea… I fret.

      • Quicksilver ballet

        If Grant could play for the Calgary Flames and Lafluer play for the Nordiques then anything’s possible.

        Like Owen Nolan, i think you’ll see Turco hang them up in the next couple months. If we could only rewind the clock 5 yrs…

        Teeth, ah, store bought or real, same thing. Not often you get a second chance with teeth and get the ones you wished you had in life. I remember Pronger knocking a tooth or two out, don’t remember the Turco pillowfight.

          • Romulus' Apotheosis

            Clocked him in the back of the head with his blocker as well.

            I don’t think I would say I’m worried about the goalie situation. It would be more accurate to say I’m worried about how managment has handled the goalie situation. But the same can be said for the defense situation as well.

  • geoilersgist

    I hope Dubby is given the rest of the season to show what he can do. If he can be .500 or better the rest of the season with the defence he’s playing with then he has a fighting chance to be a starter. I agree that a cheap veteran being brought in is the way to go though makes sense and keeps things stable and competition high. I like khabby but unfortunately his time has come to be put to pasture.

  • ItsTheBGB

    What about Ben Bishop? Isn’t he supposed to be an UFA at years end? He will is St. Louis doesn’t play him, and St. Louis has all-star Brian Elliot and Jaroslav Halak. He should be the prime target.

  • I really don’t understand why you would ever waste a draft pick (at least in the first 4 rounds) on a goalie.

    They take forever to develop, are hard to predict, and as Jon points out there are always lots of good serviceable options available.

  • John Chambers

    My philosophy on goaltending is comes down to one word: redundancy.

    Because goaltenders’ performance is so variable, a solid team strategy is to have two capable of playing 40-60 games on the big club at low cost (Washington with Vokoun and Neuvirth, or Winnipeg with Pavalec and Mason serve as examples), with another G in the minors of Joey MacDonald’s calibre, capable of playing backup minutes in the event of injury.

    Teams who employ a solid starter and weak backup (Calgary, and Vancouver prior to Schneider), are not only taking a big risk, but are under-optimizing performance during the games where the starter sits.

    Inexpensive, short-term contracts are definitely where it’s at, especially when a contending team seems capable of obtaining a half-decent goalie via trade mid-season without giving up too much.

    Josh Harding – will you sign with us this offseason for >$2M per for 3 years or less? As a starter or oft-used backup, he’s a good economy option.

  • How come no one ever mentions giving Danis a shot up in the NHL. His numbers are actually very interesting. In his limited games in the NHL the guy is consistently around the .910+ mark. He is having a great year in OKC at around .923 I don’t see a reason not to give this guy a shot. He is clearly has a better record recently than both guys we have up right now.

    • TheDarkest1

      I was thinking the same thing. In fact, I was thinking the same last year when Gerber posted some great numbers and results (albeit with limited playing time). This year, Danis and LeNeveau are 1 and 2 in the AHL (Bishop is #5 BTW). Surely we can give them a few games just to see if the (possible)answer is sitting right there on our own farm!

      • Romulus' Apotheosis

        Two Thumbs up for that idea. Trade Bulin, even bring back a lessar tender that will be a UFA if you need to make the deal happen. There provide some opportunities to the AHL guys to prove themselves.

  • vetinari

    I never thought that I’d miss the days of Tommy Salo, but it seems like he was the last of the Oiler’s true #1 goalies (until, you know, the last season or so of his NHL career).

    I think I would rather see a true, reliable #1 goalie in the Oiler’s net, playing 55-65 games a year, then a combination of average to slightly above average keepers playing about 40 games each.

    I understand the argument that economical goaltending can be good goaltending, but when I look at teams like Detroit, LA, etc. who are cited in the article, I find that they generally have stronger individual defencemen or stronger team defensive zone play than Edmonton, so those models may not work for the Oilers who are a team that trades a lot of chances on the rush with their opponents.

  • paul wodehouse

    I’m not sure if I would expect the Oilers – or any other team not called the Red Wings – to emulate the Detroit Model of Goaltending.

    IMO they’ve been plain lucky to get away with the goaltending they’ve had. Luck that is due in large part to the pure skill of their scouting staff.

    When the Red Wings drafted Nik Lidstrom, they not only grabbed the dude who’s probably the greatest defenceman of all time, they also essentially improved their goaltending by 25 per cent without having to do anything with the goaltending at all.

    Drafting a generational player like Lidstrom does that kind of thing for you.

    It was the same thing that happened with the Boston Bruins in the 1980s and early 1990s. Reggie Lemelin and Andy Moog were far from stars – you’d never put them in the same class as a Roy or Liut or Fuhr or even Ranford. But if you have Ray Bourque on your blueline, that B-minus goaltending suddenly gets its grade swept up on the curve.

    Unless the Oilers can find a generational defenceman sometime soon, I’m going to suggest that they spend money and effort finding the absolute best goalie they can find. We can’t get by with someone who’s only Chris Osgood-good.

  • vetinari

    Does anyone know whether either of the Barons’ goaltenders would have to pass re-entry waivers to play in Edmonton? If so, that may be a deterrent. If not, what do the Oilers have to lose (besides, you know, more games of course)?

  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    Hey Willis, did you have updated scoring chance numbers for the Oilers and shots for/against for the oilers?

    Is their somewhere that totals them up? Or do you just count them all up yourself from MC79?

    Same question for shots for/against.

  • book¡e

    I am a fan of Smyth, but I am also aware that Smyth did a lot of cheap stuff to goalies over the years – I love that little move where he would knock down the top of the Goalies stick (pivoting the bottom of it up) when the puck was coming to the net.

  • paul wodehouse

    Cory Schneider…will he want more money than our goalie is getting now after this season ?

    does it depend on whether he helps win the Stanley Cup this year… if or when Louuuuuuuuu can’t get it up ? er… get it done ?

    Schneider could be the guy to take this team to the promise land… DD ain’t the guy…

    Schneider&Bunz one and one eh? training camp next year Dubnyk goes back to the Canucks in the trade we make for Schneider …our goalie gets rented by the Hawks & finishes out his last year there backing up Crawford

    no more questions ’bout how we can’t win a Cup without fist string goalies

    …now about that puck moving Dman
    91 33 & 2nd rounder for…

  • O.C.

    The Oil goal tending story this year should have been all about finding out if DD is a NHL starter. Khabby was so hot out of the gate that they had to play him and DD lost some starts he might have had. It looks like the Oil are back on message and DD should get 80% of the starts from here on in. This should be a big enough body of work for the Oil to know if DD is a starter of a 2nd stringer. In my book DD hasn’t shown the consistency of performance to be a starter on most teams (Detroit would be an exception as would any team coached by J Lemaire).

    Khabby’s first 15 games have proven to be an out of body experience and I’m not sure he would even be a back up at the NHL level now. In any event no one would take him on in that role at his salary. Most likely outcome next year is in the KHL with the Oil paying his salary.

    This off season is the time for the Oil to make a move on goaltending. How about a big RFA sheet for Schneider. Is he a RFA? Canuck’s cannot afford to pay Luongo and another goal tender big bucks.

    • O.C.

      I live and work in the Vancouver area even though I have Oiler seasons seats that I share.

      Luongo isn’t thought of as Christopher Huet, but he’s not thought of as Marty Broduer either. Still for all the Schneider hype,, with the game on the line, the fans would trust Loooo over Cory.

      For the money, the Oil can do better. They used to be great at capturing the unappreciated. Joseph, Salo before his off ice problems and the Olympics, Roloson are good examples.

    • Time Travelling Sean

      That would be too much by a wide margin, seeing as if were 2nd last thanks to Columbus we’ll probably be in the 5-7 range next year and if we get an injury bug we could be 1-3.

  • paul wodehouse

    …in a [my] perfect world the deal would go something like this gentlemen…i think the Hawks want our goalie to come in at the trade deadline cheap and sober…they offer a second round pick and a right winger that MacTavish has hiding in his Viper organization and our GM says K how ’bout we take your pick and send it along to our friends at the west coast Canucks for their Cory Schneider along with our 40 & 83…Schneider loves it so much here that he signs LUong term for 3 million a year…he’s cheap enough, we’ve tripled his salary, he’s stops enough pucks and dog gone it people like him …

  • paul wodehouse

    I don’t understand the strategy of going after one of the guys you mention. Holland’s top 6, 8-15 motto makes even more sense from 16-32, (or -42 or whatever). You may as well look toward the bottom portion of the group for a guy who has more potential.
    IMO the most obvious play is Yann Danis. hobey baker finalist in college, followed by several ahl campaigns averaging .914 sp. Average .917 sp in 49 nhl games, and .910 sp starting a season in the khl. Now leading the ahl with .927 sp.
    Not sure why he hasn’t been given a chance already but clearly worthy. Ton of upside and no risk.