By Darren Eliot -
After the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, the pace set in going from the draft to free agency was frenetic. As if the league was still trying to catch up from the first-half lockout. One of the “catch-up” mechanisms to come out of the new collective bargaining agreement was the amnesty buyout, whereby a franchise can reduce the pain against the cap by taking bad, long-term deals off their books. One such case involved goaltender Rick DiPietro, bought out and let loose by the N.Y. Islanders under the new provision.
I bring DiPietro up for the sake of examining the goaltending landscape in 2013. He was thought to be a rising star and paid on speculation. Injured at the 2008 All-Star Game, DiPietro never developed over the next five injury-riddled years. Fast forward to present tense and you have the Boston Bruins inking Tuuka Rask, hot off his run to the Stanley Cup Final, to an eight-year $56-million contract. Some say it is too much. That Rask hasn’t proven enough to warrant top money – despite the Final appearance. The same was being said in these parts when the Red Wings – as usual – got out ahead in signing goaltender Jimmy Howard before the playoffs. It paid off as Howard played his best hockey when it mattered most.
Still, many will say his roughly $6.5-million annual salary is too high for a guy with very little post-season pedigree. All of which got me to thinking: Would you rather have the stable approach of Ken Holland when it comes to his team’s goaltending, or endure what Canucks’ fans have lived through in Vancouver? The curtain finally fell as GM Mike Gillis – unable to trade Roberto Luongo due to his arduous long-term deal, reversed course and dealt instead Cory Schneider to the N.J. Devils; this after signing Schneider two summers ago and declaring him the Canucks’ No. 1 netminder. Beyond the drama and the dough, though, who are the NHL’s top goaltenders and what are the criteria?
Comparing contracts, as we’ve been talking about, is one method, but given the above DiPietro and Luongo scenarios, it is hardly definitive. Statistics play a part and produce prodigious pay hikes based on surprise accolades. See Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky as case in point. Then you have the goalies-that-mean-the-most-to their-teams category. Henrik Lundqvist, Pekka Rinne, Carey Price and Ryan Miller represent that group: acknowledged as elite, paid as so, but without even a Stanley Cup ring among them. Ultimately, winning it all is the measure of a truly top-flight goaltender. That is the easiest for fans to identify with and the argument for/against a goalie’s status.
Throughout history, that has been the lore of Lord Stanley’s Cup – that great teams have great goalies. From Jacques Plante and Terry Sawchuk, to Bernie Parent and Ken Dryden, to Billy Smith and Grant Fuhr, to Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur – they all led their teams to multiple titles. Brodeur is still playing with his three titles, but no one else currently in the league has multiple titles as a No. 1 netminder. In fact the list of title winners is short:
- Corey Crawford – 2013
- Jonathan Quick – 2012
- Antti Niemi – 2011
- Marc-Andre Fleury – 2009
- J.S. Giguere – 2007
- Cam Ward – 2006
- Nikolai Khabibulin – 2004
That’s it. And Giguere and Khabibulin are now backing up much younger starters. All got paid/are getting paid because they did what every goalie that ever got geared up aspired to do – lead a team to the Stanley Cup championship. As well they should.
The list, however, shows how difficult it is to win a single championship, never mind multiple. That’s why the local angst that used to surround Chris Osgood’s relative worth was largely misplaced. Yes, the teams he was part of were outstanding, but Ozzie got it done and was a key, clutch performer. Dryden used to have the same knock, so people looked at his shortcomings rather than the role he served. All he did was win six Cups in eight years with the Canadiens – the definition of getting it done under pressure.
So, as the debate rages on as to who you would rather have as your goaltender, I think committing to Jimmy Howard was the prudent thing to do. He is one of their own – has earned his wings, so to speak, having grown up in the organization – just like Ozzie did. He is getting paid before leading his team to the Cup, but so are 24 other No. 1 netminders. It is the way of today’s cap era economics. Salary slotting is necessary. Gone are the days of dynasties.
What remains is the respect winning brings. No matter the price.