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High-priced, star goalies don't guarantee a Cup

Wednesday, 06.30.2010 / 10:39 AM / Features
By Dan Rosen  - NHL.com senior writer
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High-priced, star goalies don\'t guarantee a Cup
As the Blackhawks and Flyers showed this season, a big-name goalie isn\'t necessarily the answer in going deep into the playoffs.
The Blackhawks took home the Cup with undrafted free agent Antti Niemi.

As is usually the case, what Ken Holland has been doing successfully for years may be catching on in the rest of the National Hockey League. Today we're talking about putting major dollars into goaltending -- teams are still doing it, but the eye-popping thing is that they're learning they don't necessarily have to in order to be successful.

While that little statement may not bode well for potential unrestricted free agents such as Marty Turco and Evgeni Nabokov -- both are hoping for substantial paydays come Thursday despite a saturated goalie market -- there is enough proof now that teams don't need to invest millions off their cap figure in goal to win the Stanley Cup.

Antti Niemi and Michael Leighton were bargain busters playing in the Final earlier this month. Detroit won twice with Chris Osgood as the No. 1, and now Jimmy Howard, who makes less than a million, is the No. 1. Carolina won in 2006 with rookie Cam Ward and Ottawa went to the Final with a young and still somewhat tame and cheap Ray Emery in 2007.

"I think pro sports leagues to a degree are copycats. If somebody is doing something and has success, somebody else tries it," Holland told NHL.com. "If you can have the best goalie in the League and pay him six million that would be the best way to go, but there is only one best goalie."

That goalie is, of course, up for debate, but names such as Roberto Luongo, Ryan Miller, Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Brodeur are always in the discussion.

Well, Luongo will reportedly make $10 million in 2010-11, but he's never been out of the second round. Neither has Lundqvist, who will reportedly make $7.75 million this coming season. Miller is working on a five-year deal worth a reported $31.5 million, but he has won one playoff round since 2007. Brodeur ($5.2 million per) won three Cups in the pre-cap era, but hasn't been out of the first round since 2007 or the second round since 2003.

To go further, 2009 Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas, a reported $6 million goalie in 2010-11, has become a backup in Boston and rumors are swirling that GM Peter Chiarelli is hoping to trade him. Cristobal Huet and his reported $5.625 million salary could potentially be dumped into the AHL by the Blackhawks for cap relief.

This is not to say that investing a lot of money in goalies is bad -- Holland said he would if he could -- but teams have clearly found other options for success.

"If you asked who was the best goalie in this year's playoffs, most people would say (Jaroslav) Halak and he got traded," Nashville GM David Poile told NHL.com. "You tell me what that means. So many things we do now are not straight hockey decisions."

But what does that mean for the goalie market this offseason?

Nabokov and Turco are the headliners -- with Nabokov likely to set the market -- but some GMs feel they may not see the kind of dollars they would have in the past in part because of the success of Niemi and Leighton, who, by the way, is also scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

One GM told NHL.com that he believes there's no way Nabokov gets anywhere near $6 million per year or even $5 million because the goalie market is strong and he hasn't won anything.

"It's in the eye of the beholder," Poile said. "Look at Philadelphia -- will they just re-sign Michael Leighton and (Brian) Boucher, guys that got them within two games of winning the Cup, or will they sign Nabokov, who is arguably the best out there? That's two different ways to go and it'll be way different dollars. Only Paul Holmgren knows the answer to that."

Sharks GM Doug Wilson answered the Nabokov question last week when he announced that he wasn't going to re-sign him because that cap money could be used to instead re-sign Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi as well as a cheaper, maybe even younger unrestricted free agent goalie.

Nabokov will be 35 on July 25.

"You have to make a decision and certainly in San Jose's case they just signed two great players (Marleau and Pavelski) that they did not want to lose, and it's understandable," Carolina GM Jim Rutherford told NHL.com. "That was a decision they made, but at the same time I'm sure they are comfortable with the other goalie in the organization (Thomas Greiss) and someone they are projecting to get. I'm sure they felt it was easier to replace the goalie than the two forwards."

Rutherford said in most years it's not easier to replace a No. 1 goalie, but this year is the exception because of the glut of potential UFA goalies, including Chris Mason, Dan Ellis, Jose Theodore, Antero Niittymaki and even Leighton.

"If you were going to take a chance to do it, this would be the year to do it," Rutherford said.

Odds are it'll be a cheaper way to go, too, and you could create a 1A and 1B tandem with a veteran and a young goalie. Together they could make less than a star No. 1, and your chances of winning the Stanley Cup might still go up because you could use that extra money for depth elsewhere.

Wilson said he envisions that as a possibility in San Jose.

"That's a definite way to do it," Poile said. "We're seeing it all different ways here."

The one theme, though, seems to be younger is better, and a lot of the times cheaper, too.

The price for No. 1s was under $2 million in 2010 playoff cities such as Chicago, Boston, Detroit, Washington, Philadelphia, Montreal, Los Angeles and arguably Ottawa, depending on if you viewed Brian Elliott as the No. 1 or Pascal Leclaire.

The Stars essentially told Turco he was out when they traded for Kari Lehtonen, who signed a three-year extension reportedly worth $10.65 million. Depending on the market and who sets it, Turco could wind up with a bigger deal elsewhere in 2010-11, but Lehtonen's annual salary of $3.55 million is cap friendly for a goalie that's only 26 years old.

Turco will be 35 on Aug. 13, a fact that works against him as much as his numbers over the past two seasons (55-51-21 with a 2.78 goals-against average).

"The disparity between the best goalie in the League of the 30 starters and the 30th goalie is pretty different, but what's the difference between the 11th and the 20th?" Holland said. "At some point you're putting your team together and deciding where to spend your money and you have to make a decision on how much of a difference maker the goalie you're signing is. At the same time, if you are spending significant dollars on the best goalie then the other guy is going to have much more money to spend on skaters.

"There could be different options and plans, but certainly one option could be (spending less in goal)."

It's not a bad option.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Columnist