Many people like to analogize goaltending in the NHL to pitching in Major League Baseball. Our brothers and sisters over at Baseball Prospectus have written countless articles about the importance of pitching and rightfully so. Fittingly, the importance of goaltending has been stated countless times on this very website. If the analogy fits, then the lack of activity by the GMs of the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers may cause their fans some concern.
Let’s first touch on the Blackhawks’ decision not to shakeup their netminding situation. Chicago general manager Stan Bowman decided that his team did not need to make a move to improve its current goaltending situation. With Cristobal Huet and Antti Niemi in the fold, Bowman stood still and decided his team was going to move forward with the duo.
Cristobal Huet is making $5.6 million this season which is the fifth highest goaltender cap hit in the entire Western Conference. Only Miikka Kiprusoff, Marty Turco, Niklas Backstrom and Roberto Luongo have higher cap hits in the Western Conference than Huet. Clearly Huet is paid to be a top netminder, but do his statistics indicate such production? Well, in a word, no.
This season, Huet has a save percentage of .898 which ranks him 42nd in the NHL. Additionally, his G.A.A. is 2.38 which ranks him 10th in the NHL. So, it is fair to say that Huet has not exactly earned his salary this season.
By those numbers, Huet inspires anything but confidence in a team that clearly has Stanley Cup aspirations. The most disconcerting aspect of Huet’s game this season may be the fact that the netminder is the only member of the Blackhawks with a negative GVT this season (-1.6).
If Huet has not proven to be the answer, what about the Hawks’ other netminder Antti Niemi?
Niemi’s numbers are admittedly better than Huet’s, although with less of a sample size. The Finnish netminder has a save percentage of .909 which ranks him 26th in the entire NHL and a G.A.A. of 2.25 with ranks him 4th in the NHL. His GVT of 6.1 is better than Huet’s but is behind such players as Troy Brouwer and Kris Versteeg.
Taking the Hawks’ netminding numbers together, you can easily tell why Chicago fans have voiced some concern moving forward.
Before moving onto the possible alternatives that were passed up by Chicago management, let’s take a look at the Flyers’ netminding statistics.
The Flyers, unlike the Blackhawks, decided not to apportion a large part of the team salary cap towards goaltending. Coming into the season, Philadelphia general manager Paul Holmgren spent a total of $2.425 million on the team’s goaltending duo. So far the duo has not exactly paid off.
Ray Emery came into the season as the Flyers’ apparent solution, albeit cheap solution, to the team’s seemingly decade long goaltending woes. The former Senators netminder started the season off well but then got injured and never did return to his early season form before being ruled out for the season with a hip injury. Prior to his season-ending injury, the former Cup finalist posted a .904 save percentage which ranked him 33rd in the NHL. His G.A.A. was 2.64 which ranked him 23rd in the entire NHL; moreover, his GVT was 3.6. These numbers clearly weren’t anything to get overly excited about, but some thought a healthy Emery just needed to be around average for the Flyers to be a real threat in the Eastern Conference. Well, Emery is now out of the lineup and the Flyers’ fortunes now lie in the hands of the largely unproven Michael Leighton.
Leighton was acquired by the Flyers this season from the Carolina Hurricanes and sports a career 2.91 G.A.A. and a .902 career save percentage. When he was acquired, no one believed that Leighton was the answer to the Flyers’ netminding woes. However, with Emery now out for the season and the Flyers’ lack of activity at last week’s trade deadline, Leighton will presumably be counted on to be the missing ingredient for a Flyers’ team that hasn’t made the Stanley Cup Finals since 1997.
This season, Leighton has posted 14 wins and a 2.29 G.A.A. His save percentage is .908 and his GVT is an impressive 10.7. Overall, those numbers are pretty serviceable but taking into account his career numbers, his current form does not instil fear in Flyer opponents.
We should not forget that the Flyers also have Brian Boucher on the roster. Boucher was brought in to be Ray Emery’s reliable backup this season but has posted an .895 save percentage and a 2.89 G.A.A.—numbers that find him on the bench far more often than between the pipes. Boucher’s GVT is a below replacement -2.7 and he has proven that he won’t be the answer to any playoff hopes.
Some goaltending alternatives prior to the trade deadline
Roloson was a player that was clearly up for grabs at the deadline. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Roloson’s value and thought he would be on the move before the deadline. Sure he was up for grabs, but Garth Snow is a smart man and was not just going to give Roloson away—partly due to his team’s youth and more so due to Martin Biron’s poor play and Rick DiPietro’s injury trouble. Leighton may be posting similar overall totals to Leighton this season and his age may be a drawback, but his experience and proven track record made some wonder why the Flyers did not target the veteran netminder.
You do not need to convince anyone at Puck Prospectus about the value of Tomas Vokoun. Vokoun is the third overall leader in GVT this season sitting at 31.0. Vokoun has posted an impressive .931 save percentage (second overall in the NHL) and a 2.36 G.A.A. (seventh in the NHL). The rumors had Vokoun available at the deadline but for a very high price. Was he worth it? That, of course, is the $64,000 question. If Panthers GM Randy Sexton was going to deal Vokoun it would have cost Philadelphia or Chicago a hefty price in terms of young talent. He would have made the Blackhawks the overwhelming favorite in the entire NHL and would have put Philadelphia up with the Washington and Pittsburgh talents, but the cost may have been too high.
Thomas has sure gone from the penthouse to the doghouse in one season. Last season, Thomas was arguably the best goaltender in the NHL and this season he has been battling for his job with the ultra-talented Tuukka Rask. While the Flint, Michigan native hasn’t been as dominant as last season, he has still posted a .917 save percentage and is better than any netminder currently on the Flyers/Blackhawks roster. Thomas has two big drawbacks though, his age and his contract. Thomas is 35 years old and will be turning 36 this April. Additionally, he has three years left on his contract after this season with a $5 million cap hit. Sure his stats are impressive, but his contract stats probably scared both of these teams off.
With Pekka Rinne signing a contract extension and Dan Ellis closing in on unrestricted free agency, it was surprising to see Ellis remain in Nashville through the trade deadline. That surprise probably has more to do with teams possible interest in Ellis rather than Nashville’s willingness to give him up. This season, Ellis has posted a .911 save percentage which is in line with his .912 career save percentage. Considering his pending free agency, age (29) and relatively cheap current contract ($2.0 million), Ellis certainly would have been a nice option for either of the Blackhawks or Flyers.
The decisions by Stan Bowman and Paul Holmgren to stick with their current netminding duos may end up to be good ones—especially if their teams win and they did not have to give up any assets to improve their netminding. However, questions surround the crease for both teams and if one or both of these groups do not fulfill expectations, goaltending may be the main reason why. If that is the case, fans will be wondering what could have been with one of the four netminders listed above between the pipes for their favorite team.
Richard Pollock is Editor for the hockey website Illegal Curve.