When the New Jersey Devils lost star goaltender Martin Brodeur last week for up to four months because of injury, speculation instantly turned to who they would get to replace him. The talk around the league wasn't along the lines of 'maybe they should look around to see who might be available', it was 'they need to make a move immediately'.
Not surprisingly, New Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello (one of, if not the best in the business) has instead chosen to sit tight and play out the hand he was dealt. In handing the starting job to back-up Kevin Weekes, Lou has once again proven why he has more Stanley Cup championships to his credit over the last 14 years (three) than all other Eastern Conference GM's combined (two).
Goaltenders in general are over-valued. Not at the top-end, but those in the rank and file. The difference between the best goalies (Brodeur and Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks) and those ranked 3 thru 50 is similar to the gap that exists in the World Golf rankings between Tiger Woods and his nearest competitor. Beyond that, just as it is in golf, the difference is negligible. A golfer ranked 3 thru 200 can play well and win a tournament on any given week, and so can any of the goalies ranked 3 thru 50 in the NHL.
Sports Illustrated's Peter King has gone to great lengths over the last few years to explain why he thinks selecting a running back high in the NFL draft or giving them big money as a free agent isn’t a wise move. He argues that finding a serviceable running back is a lot easier than it seems, and the career span of a productive running back is shorter than most other positions. Basically if you don’t have an elite player, one of the top 4-5 running backs in the game, you’re better off picking somebody from out of the scrap pile or taking a chance on an unknown commodity than you are paying for someone who may turn out to be only marginally better than the average player.
I would use the same logic to describe the state of NHL goaltending, and here is the evidence:
Exhibit A: Where did this guy come from?
Halfway through the 2005-06 season Thomas was playing in the AHL when the Bruins recalled him. At that point Thomas had to clear waivers to get back into the NHL, meaning any team in the league could have claimed him for a little more than $100,000 (half his remaining salary). No one bit. Three years and 161 starts later, Thomas is now leading the NHL in save percentage (.944), goals against average (1.85) and is a big reason why Boston has gained contender status. I'm not saying Thomas is a franchise netminder or a guy you can build your team around. But he is easily good enough to be your #1 goalie for a handful of years.
Like Thomas, there have been a number of netminders who seemingly burst onto the scene out of nowhere to suddenly fortify an awful situation. Guys like Cristobal Huet, Miikka Kiprusoff, Niklas Backstrom, and Evgeni Nabokov had little hype surrounding their NHL debuts but have developed into extremely dependable goalies.
Exhibit B: The "Hot" Goalie
No, not Keanu Reeves in 'Youngblood'. (That was for any female readers out there.) These are the relatively anonymous goalies who somehow find the ability to carry their teams for weeks or even months at a time, only to crash at a later date. Roman Cechmanek, Patrick Lalime, Roman Turek, Johan Hedberg, Brian Boucher, and Chris Mason are only a few of the many who fit the bill. They may not be the long-term answer, but they fill in admirably during the short-term and you never know how long it could last.
Exhibit C: Goalies take longer to fulfill their potential
Like everyone drafted into the NHL, goalies are selected as 18 year olds. But unlike their peers, goaltenders rarely make an impact at the NHL level until their mid 20’s. For every Carey Price or Cam Ward, there is a Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Tomas Vokoun, or Dominik Hasek, players that were traded away or given up on before they grew into the number one position. You can just as easily have a guy fall into your lap as you can draft and develop him into a starter.
Exhibit D: They're all really good now...all of them
When you watch highlights from the 70's or 80's one thing that always sticks out is the abundance of moustaches. The other is how bad the goalies were. They were terrible. Now you've got goalie coaches on every team, video scouting reports, specialized training techniques, and regimented diets with the result being fewer weak goals and closer games. In short: every goalie in the league is capable of standing on his head and stealing a game (except those playing for the 2008-09 Colorado Avalanche).
Why would Lamoriello (or any other competent GM) move a top prospect or a first round draft pick to acquire a goalie when you can find a suitable one almost anywhere you look? I rest my case.