A few weeks ago Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford and I were talking about the importance of goaltending to a team’s success. Jim laughed and said, “people are always asking who is the smartest coach? And I always answer, ‘the one with the best goalie.’”
There is a common belief among GMs that “you can’t win with average goaltending.” What happens when a team’s goaltending is less than average? Simple. You lose.
Toronto Maple Leaf fans well remember the impact Curtis Joseph had on their team. I signed Curtis as a free agent during the summer of 1998. The Leafs had Felix Potvin at the time. Curtis turned out to be a significant upgrade. The club had a great year. Nearly every writer had picked the Leafs to be out of the playoffs. We went to the East final. Curtis gave us a chance to win every night.
The same Leaf fans will likely have to watch their former prospect, Tuukka Rask, emerge as a top goalie for Boston. Trading Rask for Andrew Raycroft may well be talked about for years.
The Winnipeg Jets made such a trade once while I worked there. The late Mike Doran was running scouting for the Jets at the time. We targeted Patrick Roy to be our third round pick in the 1984 entry draft. During the season, Jets GM John Ferguson traded our third round pick to Montreal for Robert Picard. Montreal GM Serge Savard took Roy with our pick. The rest is history.
A look at the performance from the goalies of the top teams in the East and the West illustrates this importance. The number in parentheses is the goalie’s rank in wins.
Washington: Jose Theodore (18)
Buffalo: Ryan Miller (5)
New Jersey: Martin Brodeur (1)
Pittsburgh: Marc-Andre Fleury (7)
San Jose: Evgeni Nabokov (4)
Chicago: Cristobal Huet (9)
Vancouver: Roberto Luongo (6)
Colorado: Craig Anderson (8)
Phoenix: Ilya Bryzgalov (4)
Los Angeles: Jonathan Quick (2)
The top 10 clubs all have goalies ranked in the top 10 except for Washington’s Theodore, who is 18th. Don’t be surprised if GM George McPhee trades for a goalie by the deadline. The Caps are definite Cup contenders. Right now they have average goaltending. An upgrade is needed if they want to win the Cup.
How about the teams in the hunt for the lottery pick: Carolina’s Cam Ward is 24h, Toronto’s Jonas Gustavsson is 38th and Edmonton’s Nikolai Khabibulin is 44th and out for the season. Boston is rooting for Toronto to plummet since they have the Leafs’ first pick via the Phil Kessel trade.
I wrote a few weeks ago that the most difficult task for a GM is to hire a good coach. Getting a top goalie may be the next most difficult task. Getting a goalie may sound simple, but it is not. This position is the least predictable when evaluating young players. Goalies mature at a later age than defensemen and forwards.
If you want to give your team a chance to win every night, get a goalie, a real goalie. Otherwise, you will fail at GM 101. That’s OK, every GM fails at this. If you are lucky to retake GM 101, get a goalie.
Mike Smith is a former GM with the Blackhawks and Jets and associate GM with the Maple Leafs. He also served as GM for Team USA at the ’81, ’94 and ’95 IIHF World Championship. His Insider Blog will appear regularly only on THN.com.