There is no doubt that the style of hockey played in the NHL has changed significantly since the implementation of the new rules package in 2005. It is interesting to examine how the role of goaltending has evolved during this time.
Goaltending has always held a unique role in hockey. Hall of Famer Ken Dryden has pointed out that, because of the nature of the position, it is impossible for a goalie to dominate a game. However, a goalie can often dominate the result of a game. This astute observation begs the question, especially relevant in the salary cap era – how valuable is goaltending to the success of an NHL team?
In 1961-62, Jacques Plante was awarded the Hart Memorial Trophy as the most valuable player in the NHL. It took 35 years for another goalie to receive this award when Dominik Hasek won the first of two consecutive MVP awards. Jose Theodore is the last goalie to win it back in 2002.
In 1964-65, the NHL started to award the Conn Smythe Trophy for the MVP in the Stanley Cup playoffs. In the past 45 years, a goalie has been awarded the Conn Smythe on 14 occasions. This means that almost one-third of the time a goalie has been judged the MVP of the post-season.
The inescapable conclusion is goaltending has been perceived as being more valuable in the playoffs than during the regular season. After all, the same goalies who are winning Conn Smythes are performing at high levels during the regular season as well. However, their accomplishments during the regular season are not as recognized.
Have these historical trends been altered as a result of the post-lockout style of play in the NHL? The answer would appear to be a general “no,” with variations existing according to the styles of certain teams. The recent Hart Trophies have been awarded to the electrifying group of young scorers who have entered the NHL (or seen their production explode) since the lockout year. One goalie, Cam Ward, has received the Conn Smythe post-lockout, while Marc-Andre Fleury received serious consideration.
The style of play in the NHL is certainly more wide open. With this in mind, as well as salary cap considerations, a number of skilled, youthful players have made their way into NHL lineups. Organizations such as New Jersey, Vancouver and Buffalo have structured their teams around star goaltenders, but each of these franchises has paid a premium for offensive talent as well.
The intriguing debate concerning goaltending concerns its value in the playoffs in the current day NHL. The Detroit Red Wings have enjoyed playoff success with goaltending that has been solid and consistent, but not spectacular. This was the formula adopted by both of last season’s Stanley Cup finalists, Chicago and Philadelphia. In fact, only the Montreal Canadiens, with Jaroslav Halak, had goaltending that dominated the result of a playoff series.
The 2010 Olympic Games exhibited what will undoubtedly be hockey of the future. High-tempo action from a number of well-organized teams provided splendid entertainment for a global audience. The teams that advanced to the final four all had solid goaltending; it was crucial to any success they enjoyed. The teams all played disciplined defensive hockey and as a result, you virtually never saw a goalie under a barrage making a series of spectacular saves. Do not confuse this with a diminished need for quality goaltending. In today’s game, a goalie can most often dominate the result of a game in a negative fashion. Bad goals can destroy a team; you simply cannot afford them.
Although the game of hockey has changed, it seems the value of goaltending remains relatively constant. In the regular season it is important, but cannot carry a team over an entire 82-game schedule. Goaltending becomes more crucial in the playoffs as teams tighten up and the result of each game becomes more important. In seventh games or sudden-death Olympic contests, your goalie is your most important player. Although it is more difficult for a goalie to appear spectacular, the successful netminder in a crucial game will still be showered with accolades. In that sense, hockey never changes.
Tom Thompson worked as head scout for the Minnesota Wild from 1999-2001 and was promoted to assistant GM in 2002, a post he held until 2010. He has also worked as a scout for the Calgary Flames, where he earned a Stanley Cup ring in 1989. He will be blogging for THN.com this season.