Are Goalies Worth Elite Pay?

Cam Ward now with second highest Cap Hit for goalies in NHL

The goalie position has taken a bit of a hit this offseason around the NHL.  Once dubbed the "most important position in all of sports", some teams now appear to be satisfied settling for lower cost options rather than paying for the best goaltender available.

Of course the salary cap is a bit of the driver here as teams struggle to stay under the cap maximum, or within budget limits, but several clubs seem to be making an intentional decision to go cheap in net, regardless of the cap.  Did the postseason success of teams like Montreal, Philadelphia, and Chicago change the way NHL general managers rank the importance of the position?

Stanley Cup finalists Philadelphia and Chicago both made it to the promised land with less then heralded goalies, Michael Leighton and Antti Niemi, in net.  Both goalies were considered second stringers earlier in the season and were making close to minimal salaries.

The Montreal Canadiens rode the hot hand of another backup goalie, Jaroslav Halak, all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals.  But rather than pay the goalie a raise this summer to keep him in the fold, they traded his rights to St. Louis instead.

After another disappointing playoff performance, San Jose allowed long time goalie Evgeni Nabokov to sign in the KHL.  Now they are supposedly going with Tampa Bay's part-timer last season, Antero Niittymaki at a fraction of what they previously paid Nabokov.

Other teams who were counting on their higher paid netminders for success ended up leaving the playoffs early or not making the postseason at all.  Henrik Lundqvist, Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, Miikka Kiprusoff, Nicklas Backstrom, and Ryan Miller, among the highest paid goalies in the league, each failed to either make it to the postseason, or play deep into the playoffs.

Perhaps the big money is better spent elsewhere?

The Carolina Hurricanes will not be one of the teams who are going cheap in net.  As a matter of fact, they have already committed to going the opposite way.  Cam Ward's new six year contract kicks in this season and his cap number of $6.3 million is the second highest for a goalie in the entire league.

While a couple goalies have longer term deals, only one is making more on average than Ward.  The following list is from NHLNumbers.com.

 

Player Age Cap Hit
2010-11
(millions)
1 Henrik Lundqvist 28 6.875
2 Cam Ward 26 6.3
3 Ryan Miller 29 6.25
4 J-P Giguere 33 6
5 Nicklas Backstrom 32 6
6 Miikka Kiprusoff 33 5.833
7 Tomas Vokoun 33 5.7
8 Cristobal Huet 34 5.625
9 Roberto Luongo 31 5.333
10 Martin Brodeur 38 5.2
11 Tim Thomas 36 5
12 M-A Fleury 25 5

 

Ward has certainly made a name for himself regarding postseason play as he is undefeated in game seven's, has won a Conn Smythe, and has backstopped a Stanley Cup Championship, but so far he's been less than consistent during the regular season and has yet to be nominated for a Vezina, which is one of the stepping stones to being considered an elite goalie in the league.

Now that his cap number puts him in elite status, it is more important than ever that he performs like one of the best goalies in the league during the coming regular seasons.  Being a smaller market team, the Canes take in less income than many of their counterparts and hence are usually a budget minded franchise.  Each contract is very important and they need maximum value for every dollar spent. 

Teammate Eric Staal sometimes faces criticism because his results are not deemed to be worth his $8.2 million dollar cap hit.  Will Ward face the same scrutiny?

Last season was an injury riddled fiasco and one the goalie would probably rather forget.  His 18 wins placed him at 28th in the league, his .916 save percentage was 14th best, and his GAA of 2.69 was rated at 26th in the league.

The previous year would probably be a better measuring point.  In 2008-09, he won 39 games which was third most in the league, his save percentage was .916, again at 14th best, and his GAA was 2.44 ranked at 12th in the league.

In order to be nominated for a Vezina, he probably needs to have all of those stats be in the top five in the league.

This coming season will be a big one for Ward.  Not only will he need to be more consistent, improve on his numbers, and steal a game for his club once in awhile, (zero shutouts last season), he will also have to prove that he can play the majority of the season and stay injury free.  Now with two separate reported episodes of "back pain" on his resume, trainer Pete Friesen will be watching him closely.

Will Cam Ward and his highly compensated fellow thoroughbreds in the NHL dominate and return the goalie position to being known as "the most important position in all of sports", or will the lesser known and lower paid netminders rule the roost again this season?  

If you were a GM, who would you put on your team?

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