Monday, August 30, 2010

Guest Blog: The Lunacy of the Bargain Goalie

This is a Guest Blog as part of the current competition we are running here on Puck Central  
by Corey Tomlinson

Take a second and stop whatever you're doing, hockey fans. Listen...listen really hard.

Do you hear that? I'll wait...

There, that sound. It's the sound of utter lunacy starting to pervade the ranks of NHL general managers.

Nobody's sure when the lunacy started, but I point to the beginning of March, 2010. It was just around then that a quiet Finnish goaltender named Antti Niemi firmly took the reigns of the Chicago Blackhawks away from the grossly overpaid Cristobal Huet and, well, I don't have to tell you what happened. But for the benefit of those that don't know, Niemi was instrumental in winning a Stanley Cup for the 'Hawks.

Over the last two months of the regular season, he posted a record of 9-5-3 while recording three shutouts for a team that was, admittedly, already firmly entrenched as a playoff contestant. Let's not forget the April stretch of 5-0-1 that left everyone without a doubt for who would be between the pipes during the playoffs.

Niemi's, and Chicago's, subsequent run in the playoffs doesn't need to be recounted here. We all know what happened with that.

The lunacy started to come to light after the playoffs, however. General managers across the league took note of the goaltending for both Cup finalists and, most important, their respective salaries. Niemi's $700K salary in 2010 and opponent Michael Leighton's $600K were both huge bargains, even more so when you consider that their backups (Chicago's Huet and the Flyers' Brian Boucher) made $5.625 million and $925K respectively.

With memories of the recent playoffs fresh in mind, a fundamental shift in the way teams thought about goaltending swept through the NHL. Likely playoff teams like Philadelphia, San Jose and Washington are all casting their lots with inexpensive goaltending tandems in 2010-11, refusing to make a splash in a (still) deep free agent pool by signing a big name.

There's a lot of room for argument here, I'm sure. One might mention the salary cap – after all, Niemi himself was a victim after the Blackhawks refused to pay the salary set by his arbitration hearing. It's ironic in a way that a big name goalie like Marty Turco would become his replacement, but there's no denying the savings the team made by their decision.

What's astonishing is that one season, one playoff, is causing such a stir in the league. I've read several stories, in both print and online, where the strategy of “low cost goaltending” is touted as the way of the future in the NHL.

General managers of the league, may I present to you the most recent decade?

Aside from Niemi, let's run down the list of goalies that have won a Stanley Cup over the past 10 years: Fleury, Osgood, Giguere, Ward, Khabibulin, Brodeur (2), Hasek, Roy, Belfour.

I'm sorry, but that's no list of scrubs. I'd happily take any of those goaltenders on my team if I were heading into the playoffs and had to stake my fortunes on the man between the pipes.

It may be that the wave of the future will be teams recycling inexpensive, potentially unproven masked men with a penchant for being struck by vulcanized rubber disks traveling at unseemly speeds. A few of them might even have a Niemi-like impact and hoist Lord Stanley's chalice at the end of the playoffs. However, history teaches differently, and I would not be shocked to see this trend be revealed for what it appears to be; a short-lived experiment.

It is tough to tinker with the position that is arguably the most critical in the realm of team sports. I don't see the position of quarterback in football or pitcher in baseball being toyed with anytime soon. Why should hockey, or the goalie, be any different?

To read more of Corey's hockey writing check out The Neutral Zone

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