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.