Chatting about franchise goaltenders once again

Probably about a year and a half ago I did a post on the great goaltending debate. After a the debate was sparked last fall, I re-posted this piece. Bucky’s recent GM for a day column sparked my interest in this again, along with the big money goalies who played deep into the playoffs this season.
The post below is made up, mostly, of facts and thoughts I penned shortly after the Chicago/Philadelphia Stanley Cup Final. I am going to leave as much of the original work intact as I can, with some additions about this season and some other thoughts on Ryan Miller and where he fits with the Buffalo Sabres.
Keep in mind that aside from Mike Smith, none of the final four teams in the 2012 NHL Playoffs were without a goaltender they had pegged as their guy. Jonathon Quick still makes below $2M, but that won’t last much longer than next summer when he becomes a RFA. This is the same story that followed Antti Niemi a couple years ago.
The debate for dumping elite goalies for a platoon system gained steam from the Red Wings back-to-back runs to the Cup. Niemi and Michael Leighton became the poster boys for this when they squared off in a very mediocre goaltending duel. The 2010 Finals, however seem to have become the exception rather than the rule.
The St. Louis Blues rode a tandem of Jaro Halak and Brian Elliott this season, however, Halak remained their man for the playoffs before he was injured. In fact, Elliott’s average play was a big reason the Blues bowed out against the Kings. That and the fact that the Kings were a complete juggernaut. Still, you pay for mediocrity and you get mediocrity.

Looking at all of the playoff teams this season, only Mike Smith, Craig Anderson, Corey Crawford, Braden Holtby and Jose Theodore weren’t looked as as cornerstone goaltenders for their club. Niemi probably falls in that group now, despite the Sharks hoping that he would continue to develop after his Cup triumph.

I do expect that Smith and Holtby receive handsome raises down the line thanks to their success. In fact, Holtby may eventually trend to become a cornerstone, but that remains to be seen. Of the five (or six) teams to employ a platoon system – or one that invests money elsewhere – only one made it to the conference finals. In addition, that was the only team to survive the first round.

My previous post had a list of the Cup goalies going back to 1995, I was sure to update and keep that rundown. Looking at past Cup finals, in the dead puck and post lockout seasons, the theory of building a strong team over having a true franchise goalie is not necessarily true:

1995 – New Jersey (Brodeur) over Detroit (Vernon)

1996 – Colorado (Roy) over Florida (Vanbeisbrouck)

1997 – Detroit (Vernon) over Philadelphia (Hextall)

1998 – Detroit (Osgood) over Washington (Kolzig)

1999 – Dallas (Belfour) over Buffalo (Hasek)

2000 – New Jersey (Brodeur) over Dallas (Belfour)

2001 – Colorado (Roy) over New Jersey (Brodeur)

2002 – Detroit (Hasek) over Carolina (Irbe)

2003 – New Jersey (Brodeur) over Anaheim (Giguere)

2004 – Tampa Bay (Khabibulin) over Calgary (Kiprusoff)

2005 – Lockout

2006 – Carolina (Ward) over Edmonton (Roloson)

2007 – Anaheim (Giguere) over Ottawa (Emery)

2008 – Detroit (Osgood) over Pittsburgh (Fleury)

2009 – Pittsburgh (Fleury) over Detroit (Osgood)

2010 – Chicago (Niemi) over Philadelphia (Leighton)

2011 – Boston (Thomas) over Vancouver (Luongo)

2012 – Los Angeles (Quick) over New Jersey (Brodeur)

Now, the pre-salary cap teams had a slight advantage, especially teams like Colorado (01) and Detroit because they stockpiled quite a bit of talent. I count seven of seventeen teams that didn’t heavily stock their crease; Detroit in 97, 98, 08 and 09; Carolina in 02, 06 and Ottawa in 07. One team I included was the 2006 Hurricanes who turned Cam Ward into their cornerstone shortly thereafter.
The dead-puck era teams are dotted with legends like Belfour, Hasek, Brodeur and Roy. Again, I understand that many of these teams had bought up numerous stars to bolster their chances for a Cup. Nevertheless, each team identified a need for the right goaltender. As for the teams that succeeded without one in the pre-lockout days, Carolina and the Panthers were two small market teams, while the Red Wings have always built with strong star players up front before looking between the pipes – 2002 with Hasek being the exception with a veritable all star team wearing the Winged Wheel. Even Mike Vernon might be seen as one of those franchise players too.
Pundits will point to players like Halak, Tuuka Rask and Neimi as players who buck the trend. But they should realize that Rask was a highly-touted prospect and Neimi was signed from Finland to do exactly what he did for the Blackhawks, they simply ran out of salary cap space. Even Halak has been the beneficiary of a big contract, showing that the premium on goaltending is still quite high. Of note, Niemi seems to have plateaued in his development. Hotlby or Smith may be worthy of inclusion into the previously mentioned group.
Looking at the state of the position today, I see more players with a ton of talent coming up in the league. Many of the players who are considered no-names now may very well cash in with a big pay day in a year or two. This has become a product of the salary cap. However, when I look at the Sabres, I still see a team whose best player is wearing the mask.
Whether or not you agree with that fact or not is irrelevant. In fact, I’d be motivated to disagree with you if you said Miller isn’t the best player on the team. It would be more appropriate to say the Sabres need to upgrade if Miller is indeed their best player.
Looking at 2011-12, Miller had average numbers. Numbers that line up with his career average. However, it is more effective to look at Miller’s year in two parts. One part centered around his concussion and what appears to be a lengthy recovery and then the hockey he played when completely healthy. Those two goaltenders are drastically different and the second one is probably capable of winning a Cup. Yeah, I said it.
As someone who knows the position quite well, I love the fact that Miller isn’t a robotic, blocking goaltender. He is athletic and reacts to the game, this makes him very effective. Of course you notice lapses in that style a bit more often. Personally, I tie that to the fact that you need to be so technically sound to play such a reactive, athletic style.
I also think that Miller’s numbers are often at a direct disconnect to the type of hockey he is playing. Miller will never be a goalie who consistently posts a 2.00 GAA and .935 SV%. That just isn’t the goalie he is, and that is why the term “Miller Shutout” is indeed popular. However, I can watch Miller allow three goals and still be the reason the Sabres win. This probably sounds ludicrous to some, but that is entirely possible for a goaltender. In fact, I think Sabres nation was all a Twitter back in March or April when Miller played a great game despite allowing five goals. This is indeed a rare occurrence, but it is entirely possible.
At the end of the day, goaltending is about making the next save. When you see Miller take two or three goals off his opponent, his final numbers for the game don’t matter as much – so long as his performance results in a win. Most who see goaltending as “shutout or get out” will think I’m full of shit, those who hate Miller will feel the same. But I can assure you that a true number one goaltender is what any team needs to be successful. So when you float the “trade Miller for Getzlaf” rumors on HF Boards, be careful what you wish for.
If trading Miller makes the Sabres a better team, I am all for it. However, I think the NHL has proven that you need stability between the pipes in order to win. Based on that logic, Ryan Miller is probably the last person on Darcy Regier’s trade block.

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