In the past three Stanley Cup finals, Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Osgood, Antti Niemi and Michael Leighton were the starring goalies. Not exactly a collection that would rival a Patrick Roy-Martin Brodeur showdown.
Because of this – and because of the salary cap – a perception that you shouldn’t spend money on a goaltender has blossomed.
While Osgood was leading the Detroit Red Wings to back-to-back Stanley Cup final appearances on a pittance, Roberto Luongo – who has become the poster child for overpaid goalies – was struggling to earn his multi-millions.
But, then again, we’ve seen this knee-twitching reaction to a Stanley Cup final before.
In 2007, before the Red Wings re-emerged as champions, the Anaheim Ducks bombarded their way through the Western Conference with ferocity. They led the league in penalty minutes, major penalties and fights. They did it by committee, too, as only two Anaheim players finished the season with 100-plus penalty minutes; Teemu Selanne had 82 PIM, nearly doubling his previous career high.
They trounced the comparably nimble Ottawa Senators in the final and, supposedly, had ushered in a toughness movement that all serious contenders had to adapt to.
One year later the Detroit Red Wings, who had the fewest penalty minutes, were the triumphant ones. It was all about skill, depth, puck-possession and the ability to stay out of the box.
Of course, after that, the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team built on anything but depth, took down the model Red Wings. In 2009-10 we had the penalty-happy Flyers against the skill-and-depth Blackhawks. While Chicago won the series, you certainly can’t overlook the contributions of Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager and the bully bunch. On the flip side, Philadelphia wouldn’t have gone anywhere without Chris Pronger.
The landscape of the NHL has changed in many different ways, one of which is the sudden move towards offense. Goalies won’t take a team to the final through 1-0 and 2-1 wins anymore, but goalies can still carry a team nonetheless.
Remember Jaroslav Halak.
Another major change came on the finance sheet with the introduction of the salary cap. Anytime you can save money on a position and not sacrifice performance you’re a leg up on the competition. And a third major shift can be seen on the faces and birth certificates of the stars; the young studs in the NHL today.
So, of course the goalie landscape has changed as well, but not as drastically as it may appear. Just like forwards and defensemen, young goalies are starting to emerge as stars and young players come with small salaries.
Of the top eight GAAs last season, “name” goalies occupied five of those slots: Ryan Miller, Martin Brodeur, Ilya Bryzgalov, Miikka Kiprusoff and Henrik Lundqvist. Take one look at the three Vezina finalists and none made less than $4.25 million.
Without Kiprusoff, I doubt the Calgary Flames would have had as much appeal to the majority of THN staffers (or even Flames fans) who slotted them into a playoff position. Without Miller, many more would have the Buffalo Sabres out of the post-season. Without Evgeni Nabokov, a not-quite-star goalie to begin with, the San Jose Sharks aren’t looked upon with the same sort of awe and don’t haul around the same expectations.
In a few years, Tuukka Rask, Semyon Varlamov, Jonathans Quick and Bernier, Steve Mason, Halak and any other young goalie who starts making a difference on his team will see their pay rise significantly. They won’t all be cast aside for the next on-the-cheap youngster or over-the-hill veteran; they’ll be the next wave of proven, Vezina-chasing stars. And you can bet even younger goalies will start challenging them, too.
What happens if Vancouver meets New Jersey in the 2011 final? What if Chicago makes it back against Pittsburgh? Neither scenario is far-fetched; would they change the popular goalie opinion again?
A good goalie will always help, even if you have to pay him $5 million a season. Sure, anytime you can save money in a salary cap league you’ll do it and we’re seeing more examples of that involving goalies than we’re used to. Heck, we’re seeing more examples of that everywhere than we’re used to. Many veterans are still without a contract, but has their impact diminished? Ask Mark Recchi and the Boston Bruins.
Yes, a few less-proven goalies are leaving their mark and changing perceptions. But proven goalies aren’t becoming less important or obsolete – it’s just a case of, like in every other aspect of the NHL, young stars flourishing.
THN Puck Panel – Best NHLers not in THN’s Yearbook top 50 ranking
PRODUCER: Ted Cooper
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