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This week's sign that the (c)apocalypse is upon us

 

ESPN has published a sensible hockey article!  Alvin Chang, where have you been hiding!?

 

I know this topic has been discussed ad nauseum around these enlightened parts, but I thought this article on Niemi was worth a read for everyone who still doesn't understand why the organ-I-zation values Hjammer over Niemi.  The author points out that by winning the Cup, Niemi has ironically lowered the market value for himself and goalies in general.  Definitely worth a read, and since it's an "insider" article on ESPN, I've decided to copy and paste it here for all to read after the jump.

Antti Niemi began last season with three NHL starts; he ended it with a Stanley Cup. A breakout year like that figures to earn you a sizeable salary bump from the $827,000 he made last season. But the way this offseason has played out, it's looking more and more as though Niemi's stellar second season actually cost him some money on his next contract. And he may have indirectly cost his crease-dwelling peers some coin as well.

Conventional wisdom used to be that a top-class netminder was the single most essential item for a Stanley Cup campaign. However, Niemi is just the latest inexpensive goalie to backstop his club to a championship. Across the ice in the Finals, neither member of the Flyers' netminding tandem (Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton) earned more than $1 million a year. In 2009, an aging Chris Osgood ($1.417 million cap hit) helped the Detroit Red Wings to the finals after winning the Cup (and an extension) in 2008.

So that conventional wisdom may now be giving way to new thinking: If teams can win with cheap goaltending, why not save in goal and spend more elsewhere?

Top five 2010 goalie contracts

Priciest contracts signed by goalies in 2010, ordered by the cap hit, in millions.

Goalie

2009-10 cap hit

2010-11 cap hit

Save pct.

GAA

Jaroslav Halak

$0.78

$3.75

0.924

2.40

Pekka Rinne

$0.725

$3.40

0.911

2.53

Kari Lehtonen

$3.00

$3.55

0.911

2.81

Antero Niittymaki

$0.60

$2.00

0.909

2.87

Chris Mason

$3.00

$1.85

0.913

2.53

We're seeing this anecdotal trend play out in this year's free-agent market. Evgeni Nabokovcouldn't get the money he wanted from NHL clubs. Vets Marty Turco and Jose Theodore remain unsigned. Chris Mason and Dan Ellis took pay cuts.

As usual, Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland appears to be ahead of the curve. For years, he's opted for cheap goaltending so he can invest money elsewhere -- specifically defensemen. Holland, a former goalie himself, believes defensemen are the most important players in the game.

"Other than the top few goalies, I've always said the defensemen are the most important players in the game today," Holland says. "In the days of [Dominik] Hasek and [Patrick] Roy and [Martin] Brodeur, the feeling was that the goaltender was the most important player in the game because they were so dominant. Well, we don't really have that anymore."

In recent years, there has been another reason for Holland to stick to his philosophy: the 2005 rule changes. By restricting goalies to the trapezoid, it put a premium on fast-skating, puck-moving defensemen who can retrieve pucks in the corners. Also, the changes encouraged scoring, which reduced a goalie's ability to dominate the game.

And, this offseason, it seems the rest of the league may be catching on to Holland's logic.

The goalie tithe

Since the lockout, NHL teams have spent on average 10 percent of their payrolls on goalies -- a tithe, if you will:

Money spent on goalies

Average percentage of each team's payroll that was spent on goalies, and the average money each team spent on goalies.

 

2005-06

2006-07

2007-08

2008-09

2009-2010

Avg. pct. of payroll

10.0%

10.3%

10.5%

10.0%

10.2%

Avg. money spent

$3,322,471

$4,121,644

$4,651,150

$5,105,591

$5,153,229

But next season, NHL clubs will shortchange the stoppers.

We don't know exactly how much teams will spend on goalies in 2010-11 because not everyone is signed. But currently about $140 million is committed to 52 goalies ($2.69 million per goalie) which likely means they will not reach the 10 percent mark, when you account for increased payrolls and a higher salary cap.

Though teams are spending slightly less, it's not a trend just yet. Goalie salaries will remain high next year partly because veterans such as Tim Thomas ($5 million cap hit) and Tomas Vokoun ($5.7 million) are still on the books.

Young free agents are starting to cash in -- Jaroslav Halak and Antti Niemi this year; Jimmy Howard and Semyon Varlamov next year -- and if these emerging young goalies don't get huge deals like Thomas and Vokoun -- doubtful, given the emerging mind-set -- this trend should manifest itself more prominently in coming years.

In short, goalies are losing value.

Spending versus winning

Winnings vs. goalie spending

Average amount of money, in millions, teams spent on goalies, organized by how many standings points the team tallied in the regular season. Teams are separated into a top, middle and bottom tier.

Teams, by points

2005-06

2006-07

2007-08

2008-09

2009-10

Bottom 10

$3.8

$4.6

$5.3

$5.7

$4.8

Middle 10

$2.8

$3.7

$4.2

$4.6

$5.1

Top 10

$3.3

$4

$4.5

$5.0

$5.5

The San Jose Sharks let Evgeni Nabokov go in free agency and signed Antero Niittymaki -- a savings of $4 million in cap space. But Sharks GM Doug Wilson says the signing is not just about money. The Sharks did extensive research and chose Niittymaki for a specific reason.

"He plays the style that fits where we see the game being played today," Wilson says, though he declined to specify what attributes they liked in Niittymaki.

In other words, the Sharks think the key is to find the right kind of goalie, while devoting cap space elsewhere.

And he's right.

Since the lockout, there has been virtually no mathematical correlation between winning and goalie spending. However, the more a team spends on other key positions -- like defensemen -- the more they generally win.

In addition, the worst teams often spend the most money on goalies, which indicates that getting stuck with a bad-value contract in goal really hurts your team.

The "very elite" goalies

If you look at any group of athletes, there are a few great players -- and there's everyone else. It's no different with goalies.

Are expensive goalies worth it?

Since the salary cap, spending big on a goalie hasn't necessarily translated to wins.

Percentage of payroll spent on goalie

Wins

More than 10 percent

90.7 points per season

Less than 10 percent

90.2 points per season

"Everyone who plays in the NHL is pretty good," Holland says. "But there's a cutoff line where there is a major difference between the very elite goalies in the world and everyone else."

After the "very elite" guys, Holland doesn't think there's much of a difference among the next tier of players -- at least not enough that it's worth spending more money. That's why he stuck with Chris Osgood for so many years.

So, when paying goalies, it's a matter of determining where that line is -- which goalies deserve huge contracts, and which goalies don't. But NHL teams have not been good at finding that line.

Top five highest-paid goalies

Goalies who carry the biggest cap hits, in millions, for the 2010-11 season.

Goalie

Cap hit

2010-11 salary

Contract expires

Save pct.

GAA

Henrik Lundqvist

$6.875

$7.75

2014

0.921

2.38

Cam Ward

$6.30

$5.00

2016

0.916

2.69

Ryan Miller

$6.25

$6.25

2014

0.929

2.22

Jean-Sebastien Giguere

$6.00

$7.00

2011

0.907

2.85

Niklas Backstrom

$6.00

$6.00

2013

0.903

2.72

Theoretically, if you have one of those elite goalies -- a rare commodity -- you should fare better than average. But most teams haven't. It indicates that they miscalculated where that "very elite" line was, and that puts them in a hole.

Interestingly, Holland will have to wrestle with that "elite" line for the first time in many years. Jimmy Howard is an unrestricted free agent next season, and as Holland says, "I understand we're going to have to put more money into goal going forward."

The situation is new, but Holland's philosophy is the same. He'll determine how Howard compares to the field, what that advantage is worth and how that takes away from the rest of the team.

So perhaps the new rules, offensive schemes and an surplus of average NHL goalies has decreased the value of netminders, while boosting the value of defensemen. That's why the Blackhawks chose to match the offer sheet for Niklas Hjalmarsson, even if it might mean losing Niemi. And it's why Turco and Theodore are available to replace Niemi -- for less money -- if it comes to that.

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