NHL goalie salaries and playoff impact

It’s such common wisdom to say that your team gets you into the playoffs but your goalie gets you to the final that the phrase has become a hackneyed cliche. But there’s a new cliche in town:  One lesson is starting to become clear in the new NHL is that you’ve got to build it, not buy it.

These competing cliches have become a touchstone of sorts in the case of a certain recently dethroned uber-goalie, and a number of local Canucks bloggers are hot-under-the-collar in response to journos insisting that the team’s only path forward is moving Luongo out to free up cap space.

It was with the goalie-gets-you-there hypothesis that many Canucks fans simply assumed that Roberto Luongo, with his ostensibly justified high salary, made it a foregone conclusion that the Canucks could go deep this year (and last year) into the playoffs.

But is it true?  Can you buy your way deep into the playoffs by splurging big on a marquee goalie?  I decided to test the theory. 

Here are a couple of quick tables that map out goaltender salaries, starting with Conference Finalists:

Chicago Blackhawks

chi-khabibulin-front Starting Goalie:

Khabibulin, Nikolai

AGE:  35

$6.75 Million

Backup:

Huet, Cristobal

AGE:  32

$5.625 Million

Pittsburgh Penguins

fleury Starting Goalie:

Fleury, Marc-Andre

AGE:  23

$5.00 Million

Backup:

Garon, Mathieu

AGE:  30

$509,000

Detroit Red Wings

GYI0050903205.jpg Starting Goalie:

Osgood, Chris

AGE:  35

$1.417 Million

Backup:

Conklin, Ty

AGE:  32

$750,000

Carolina Hurricanes

cam-ward Starting Goalie:

Ward, Cam

AGE: 24

$2.667 Million

Backup:

Leighton, Michael

Age: 27

$600,000

… and here’s another showing the dropouts from the Conference Semifinals:

Vancouver Canucks

jan0508_skills12_b Starting Goalie:

Luongo, Roberto

AGE: 29

$6.75 Million

Backup:

Labarbera, Jason

AGE:  28

$461,000

Washington Capitals

varlymask Starting Goalie:

Varlamov, Simeon

AGE: 20

$155,000

Backup:

Theodore, Jose

AGE: 31

$4.5 Million

Boston Bruins

tim_thomas Starting Goalie:

Thomas, Tim

AGE: 34

$1.1 Million

Backup:

Fernandez, Manny

AGE: 33

$4.333 Million

Anaheim Ducks

hillier Starting Goalie:

Hiller, Jonas

AGE:  26

$1.3 Million

Backup:

Giguere, JS

AGE:  31

$6 Million

Here’s what may have changed:  with today’s salary cap consciousness, overspending on a goalie means that it becomes more challenging to build a team in front of him.  This is a reality which, as I pointed out the other day, is hitting Gillis in the face at the moment with the Sedins asking for a fortune and more than 10% of the team’s salary budget tied up in one player, Roberto Luongo, and another big chunk presumably being allocated to The Twins.

Perhaps more interesting than the above table is this chart I whipped up (covering the regular season, 2008-2009) which shows that splurging on goalies doesn’t necessarily deliver absolutes either:

goalies-budget-0809

What’s the lesson from all this data?  First:  clearly, individual salary is not entirely predictive of individual performance.  Second:  When you account for outliers like Chicago, Detroit and Carolina, there is a slight inverse corresponence to goals against and goalie spending (ie. you get scored on more when you spend less on goalies) for NHL teams.  However, the margin of difference is only about 20%, and this year four of the six biggest goalie spenders were gone within the first two rounds.  Only Chicago (which is extremely top-heavy on goalie salary) and Pittsburgh (at $5.5M) remain among the big-spending playoff teams.  What makes the difference at the top end?  A hot rookie.  Or, in the case of Detroit, an underappreciated veteran with a bad agent.

Chicago found itself in a fortunate position this year with a fairly low player salary budget (so many rookies and sophomores) that it could invest in fairly known quantities in Huet and Khabiboulin.  That’s depth that may be required to take them through the next two rounds in the playoffs, and it is a strategy that is quite unique to the NHL — but shows that Chicago is the first team to truly embrace the cap and turn a limitation into a key advantage.

So for the playoffs this year, there’s a really interesting opportunity to see which strategy prevails.  What does this mean for the Canucks?  As the very sage Ben Nevile, one of my commenters pointed out the other day, Schneider could be the difference — but for now, he’s very much a wildcard.

The Canucks could indeed trade Luongo if Schneider were to make a Cam Ward-ian appearance at the beginning of next season, and this could provide the team with an immense advantage overall … but until then?  Gillis is hamstrung, unless he can throw together a deal to move Luongo and get a veteran lower-priced goalie in return as a part of the package, which is quite possible.  But few teams have the cap room, and you’d hope to move him to the East Coast so as to prevent having to deal with him on a routine basis all season long (I doubt very much he’s interested in moving to Edmonton anyway).

The major lesson of the above analysis, therefore, is that a goalie on his own might get you through a season — but not the playoffs.  That takes a broader depth chart, thanks to video preperation, off-ice scoring strategy, and the isolation of a goalie’s weaknesses that emerges from playing him 6 or 7 nights in a two-week period.  Had Luongo not been injured and had such a slow recovery when he did return, I’m sure he could have propped the Canucks up to a league-leading points total … but with modern-day goalie-busting techniques, such as he and Varlamov felt in their respective final games, teams can no longer (if they ever could) ride the goalie through the playoffs.

The Canucks in particular are at a dangerous precipice between the pipes… but from threat comes opportunity.  Do the Canucks trade their best player to address both?

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