There isn’t much in the way of sure things when it comes to goaltending. Maybe that’s why general managers are willing to spend so much money on maybes.
Matt Murray’s four-year, $25 million contract with the Ottawa Senators looked questionable before he ever put on a Senators jersey, but it’s been downright ugly so far given his 4.47 GAA and .862 save percentage in five starts. Yes it’s still early, but it’s not a completely isolated incident. The Pittsburgh Penguins decided to move on from him because he became unreliable. Now he’s gone from a playoff contender to a rebuilding squad - so is it really surprising that he’s struggling?
The thing is, even if Murray never plays particularly well in Ottawa, he’s arguably still not the worst goaltending signing in recent history. Sergei Bobrovsky was inked to a seven-year, $70 million contract back in July 2019. He had a 3.23 GAA and .900 save percentage in 50 contests in 2019-20 and has started out similarly poorly this season with a 3.35 GAA and .879 save percentage in two starts.
The Panthers have to hope it doesn’t go the way of Cory Schneider’s seven-year, $42 million contract signed back in July 2014. At the time of that contract, Schneider looked like a pretty good bet. He didn’t have two Vezina Trophy wins on his resume like Bobrovsky, but Schneider had been a consistently high-end goaltender, which contrasted Bobrovsky’s more up-and-down career even before signing with Florida. Still, Schneider only really looked good in the first season of that contract and everything after that was an increasingly big disappointment until he was finally bought out in October.
Part of the problem honestly is that goaltenders in this era just aren’t safe bets, almost without exception. During the era of Martin Brodeur, Dominik Hasek, and Henrik Lundqvist at his prime, there were certain cream of the crop goaltenders who produced at that level almost every season. Nowadays? There’s Carey Price. He’s certainly been at the top of the league more often than not, but he also posted a 3.11 GAA and .900 save percentage in 2017-18 and a 2.79 GAA and .909 save percentage in 2019-20. Is a goaltender who dominates some of the time the gold standard? He’s certainly the most expensive goaltender out there cap wise thanks to his eight-year, $84 million contract.
Braden Holtby was great for a while. His past three seasons were pretty lackluster though, making Vancouver’s decision to sign him to a two-year, $8.6 million contract over the offseason seem pretty questionable – though we’re starting to see why they’d feel the need to roll the dice. As long as we’re talking about the dominate for a time, remember Murray? He’s left plenty to be desired in recent years, but you couldn’t have asked for a better start to a career. After all, he played an important role in the Penguins’ back-to-back championships.
In this era, Tuukka Rask is probably about as good as it gets when it comes to reliability. Not always the league’s top goaltender, but often in the conversation. From 2011-12 through 2019-20, his worst GAA has been 2.56 and his worst save percentage has been .912. As we’ve seen, that’s remarkably consistent. It’s made his eight-year, $56 million contract with the Bruins one of the few long-term goaltender contracts in recent memory that’s been strong from start to finish.
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Perhaps Andrei Vasilevskiy will be another example? He finished in the top-three of Vezina Trophy voting in each of the past three seasons, winning the award in 2019. He’s gotten off to another strong start this season. Connor Hellebuyck has potential in that regard too. We’ll see. One thing is for sure though, it’s easier to understand why general managers are willing to take such big risks with goaltenders who have had some major highs along with troubling lows when you consider just scarce truly reliable high-end goaltending is.
It’s at least better than rolling the dice on goaltenders who are at best mid-tier in the hopes that they’ll be adequate. I’d argue that’s what Edmonton did when they decided to indulge in another campaign of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen and the results haven’t been great so far. Koskinen has a 3.42 GAA and .900 save percentage in eight starts as part of the Oilers’ early season struggles. Granted, Smith has been injured so far, but he was at best passable over the last two seasons and at the age of 38 – 39 in March – passable in 2020-21 was pretty much the best-case scenario.
Arguably, swinging for the fences and missing, as is happening in Ottawa, is more understandable than going for a bunt and missing like the Oilers are trending towards. Let’s look at it from a different perspective: Going into this season, I would have wanted to avoid both Murray and Koskinen in fantasy drafts. I wouldn’t bet on either of them having much value for fantasy managers in standard leagues. Even still, if I had to chose between the two, I’d have grabbed Murray for the simple reason that while both were likely to do poorly in my mind, at least Murray comes with that outside chance that he’ll rekindle his former glory compared to Koskinen, who was arguably the safer bet, but with a much lower ceiling. All that said, I will add in the qualifier that it’s still early in the season so of course Koskinen and Murray can still bounce back.
It also has to be noted that while Koskinen’s contract isn’t good, it’s at least significantly cheaper than Murray at three-years, $13.5 million. Though I only can give so much credit for that. As the Oilers have seen time and again: Having good goaltending isn’t optional if you want to have a championship level team. While obviously having $2 million worth of cap space occupied on a poor goaltender is preferable to having $10 million worth of cap space occupied by a poor goaltender, that’s not much of a consolation because for the most part, neither team will end up winning it all. You don’t need to have the best goaltender in the league to win a championship and you need more than just good goaltending to get the Cup. Even an amazing goaltender playing at the top of his game can’t singlehandedly carry a team the whole way, which was part of the Rangers’ shortcoming during parts of Henrik Lundqvist’s tenure, but you still need that good goaltending to be part of your formula.
Sometimes you can check off that box through internal development as was the case with Jordan Binnington in St. Louis, Murray with Pittsburgh, or (eventually) Holtby with Washington. The Flyers are hoping they’re on that path now with Carter Hart, even if he has started the season on a sour note. After all with great goaltending being so hard to come by and UFA prices so high that even diamonds in the rough command big contracts, about the only way to get strong goaltending at a reasonable price is to develop it themselves or manage to snag a goaltender in a trade when they’re still in the prospect or young backup phase of their career.
For everyone else though, they’re left to roll the dice in the free agent market and if they don’t…well, then you’re left with the Edmonton Oilers: A team that made a lot of encouraging moves during the offseason, but left their goaltending situation unchanged.
There are cap reasons why Edmonton did that, but then you also look towards Vegas and are reminded that if teams are willing to get bold and creative, they can find a way to fit in free agents. The Golden Knights weren’t swimming in cap space, but they still managed to sign goaltender Robin Lehner and defenseman Alex Pietrangelo to significant contracts over the offseason. Will those moves pay off? It’s too early to say. Certainly Lehner had a bit of a rough start before stabilizing in his last two games, but whatever happens, the Golden Knights built a team that you could look at and make a reasonable case for them being a Stanley Cup contender. In other words, management put the team in a good position to win, which is can’t be said for every team, even after factoring out the squads that obviously are going through rebuilding phases.
All of these challenges make the teams that have managed to secure good goaltending at a reasonable price all the more impressive. The Stars having Anton Khudobin and Ben Bishop at a combined annual cap hit of roughly $8.2 million for the next three seasons is quite the luxury, even if there is some risk there given that both goaltenders are in their mid-30s. Toronto having Frederik Andersen locked to a five-year, $25 million contract since June 2016 has been great too, providing a stabilizing force behind what has often been a team that’s been lacking defensively. He’s in the last season of that deal though and if Matt Murray just got a $6.25 million cap hit, what can Andersen get? Given Toronto’s tight cap situation, Andersen might end up on the free agent market and, again, given the state of high-end goaltending in the league, he’ll be heavily sought after.