Mike Richter is an American hockey hero, a kid from a small town near Philadelphia who grew up to become the first starting goaltender for the New York Rangers to win the Stanley Cup in 54 years and the backbone of a landmark victory for the United States at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.
When Richter was eligible to be an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 1998, he was one year removed from the best save percentage of his career and had led the NHL in games played by a goaltender. He was one of the top two goalies on the free-agent market, along with the Edmonton Oilers' Curtis Joseph.
Joseph moved across Canada and signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Richter stayed put, returning to the Rangers (after reports of New York flirting with the idea of pursuing Joseph).
The players signed a free-agent contract in two of the biggest hockey markets, and at the time became the second- and third-highest paid players at the position. They each signed a four-year contract, which was a year more than Dominik Hasek, who had won the Hart Trophy, received in an extension with the Buffalo Sabres.
Ryan Miller also is an American hockey hero, a kid from a well-known college town in Michigan who grew up to star for that college then for the Sabres before being named MVP at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
He can become an unrestricted free agent this summer, and along with Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, could represent the top two players at the position on the market.
Miller and Lundqvist are likely to sign a contract, either with their current team before July or with another that month, that will dwarf what Richter and Joseph agreed to 15 years ago.
The economics of goaltending in the NHL have changed a lot since 1998, dramatically in recent seasons. The League is entering an era of unparalleled contract security at the position.
"Goalie for the last 20 years or so has really become so important to the organization," New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur said. "Everybody knows you can't go anywhere, can't win the Stanley Cup if the goalie is not doing the job. It is pretty rare to see teams go far with alternating goalies. Normally you see teams with one horse and they play him until he can't move. I think it is great. It is a great position, but it is a hard one and a harsh one at times. Other top players got these long contracts, and with goalies it was just a matter of time."
There are 14 goaltenders, including Lundqvist and Miller, playing with a contract longer than the ones Richter and Joseph signed in 1998. That figure is likely to rise by at least one when the extension given to the Chicago Blackhawks' Corey Crawford begins, assuming Miller and Lundqvist sign new long-term deals. It could reach as high as 18 if Jonas Hiller of the Anaheim Ducks, Jaroslav Halak of the St. Louis Blues and Devan Dubnyk of the Edmonton Oilers land contracts of five years or more.
How did the landscape change so much from when the best goalie on the planet signed a three-year contract 15 years ago to now, where there is little doubt Lundqvist will pen his name to either an eight-year contract with the Rangers or a seven-year pact with another franchise; those are the maximum contract lengths allowed in the Collective Bargaining Agreement?
A primary factor is the position's evolution, which took a major turn in the second half of the 1990s. Also, the second-most recent CBA, which introduced a salary cap to the League at the start of the 2005-06 season, played a major part in the process.
Those changes have led to a perfect storm of sorts, which has allowed goalie contracts to escalate in length and term during the past decade.
This season, five goaltenders are in the first year of a contract with at least five years in term. There could be as many as five more added between now and the beginning of the 2014-15 season.
"I think we're locking up our best players, and if your goalie is one of your best players then you want to try and lock him up," Nashville Predators general manager David Poile told NHL.com. "It is like pitching in baseball. If you don't have pitching, it is going to be hard to win no matter how great your hitters are. To me, goaltending is always one of the biggest factors in every game. If you win, the goaltender gets a certain amount of recognition, and when you lose, the goaltender almost always gets criticism. It is a responsibility they have to deal with. To me, if you know you've got a good goaltender, then you want to wrap him up for sure."
Poile may understand the goaltending economic evolution better than anyone because he has lived it.
During his time with the Washington Capitals, Poile thought he found a foundation piece, Jim Carey, a perfect complement to a roster worthy of Stanley Cup-contender status. Instead Poile ended up with the poster child for why goaltenders shouldn't be trusted.
Carey was a member of the All-Rookie team in 1995. The next year, he won the Vezina Trophy as the League's best goaltender, winning 35 games and posting nine shutouts. Three seasons and four teams later, Carey was out of hockey with 26 more NHL wins. He was 24 years old.
Now, Poile is the general manager for the Predators, who play in one of the NHL's smallest markets. He consistently works with one of the lowest budgets in the League.
He also has a goaltender, Pekka Rinne, who is starting the second season of a seven-year, $49 million contract.
THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT
No position in team sports has evolved as much as goaltending in the past 20 years. The quarterback revolution in football began earlier; ditto for relief pitcher specialization in baseball.
Watching highlights of an NHL game from 20 years ago or more is like being transported to an alternate reality. The first reaction of many seeing play from that era is often, "Why did the goalie just stand there?"
The stand-up goalie, once the norm in the NHL, has gone the way of the rover. The butterfly style of goaltending, brought to prominence by a group of Quebec-trained goalies led by the great Patrick Roy in 1985, changed the position forever.
By the late 1990s nearly every goaltender in the League had adopted the style, which stresses that the goaltender drop to his knees to block shots and seal the lower half of the net while using quick hand reflexes to deal with elevated shots.
Before the introduction of the butterfly, coaching for goaltenders was often rudimentary. Suddenly, as the new style spread with the success Roy enjoyed at the start of his career, every NHL team needed a coach to specifically concentrate on fine-tuning the technical ability required by this more advanced way to play the position.
More specialized coaching trickled down to the amateur levels. Now a kid can be learning the butterfly while still using the bunny ears method to lace up his or her skates.
Just as parents spend thousands of dollars to send their son to week-long football camps or hundreds per hour for him to work on seven-step drops and looking off safeties with a personal instructor, there are now goaltender-specific youth camps -- and the 1-on-1 consultant business is booming.
NHL franchises have learned that while one goaltending coach is great, having two is even better. That setup allows more time for instruction with prospects who haven't reached the League yet while not diverting focus from maintaining order with the two players on the NHL roster.
All this teaching has led to goaltenders who are fundamentally better than at any point in the sport's history. But it is not just a physical maturation that has taken place; mental development has evolved as well.
For years, the stereotype for goaltenders has always been Denis Lemieux, the eccentric netminder in "Slap Shot." In that era, the goalie was usually to be left alone with his idiosyncrasies. After all, many believed, a human being has to have a few screws loose if he is willingly going to let other human beings shoot a piece of frozen rubber at him at high speeds, especially in the era before full facial protection was common.
"My son is a goalie, they're all nuts. They all have their idiosyncrasies," Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said. "They have to be wired a little bit different because they're facing 100 mph pucks every day."
This perception often led to a lack of trust when it came to goalies, as well as the notion that organizations couldn't count on a goaltender in their long-term planning.
Times have certainly changed, and the goaltending fraternity has shed much of its eccentric perception. Now, goalies work nearly as much on psychological training as physical fundamentals. As a result, there is far more trust placed in the ability of the No. 1 goaltender to be a consistent player and representative of the team.
"There's no question the goaltending is great in our League now," Poile said. "The style changed a number of years ago. The size of the goaltenders for the most part has gotten to be bigger. There are a number of great, great goaltenders in this League. They're all really great athletes. There can be trust there. It is never a sure thing when you sign anybody to a longer-term contract, but these guys are being signed and most everyone has been concurring that it is a good investment."
Another stereotype played out in the cinema, goaltenders built like Greg Goldberg, the heavyset goalie in "The Mighty Ducks" movie trilogy, don't exist anymore. The demands of utilizing the butterfly style combined with a general culture change in the League when it comes to nutrition and conditioning have led to a generation of world-class athletes at the position.
"The biggest difference, if there is [one], when I played in the '70s and '80s and probably in the '60s, goalies weren't known to be in tremendous shape," Boudreau said. "Now, almost like Tiger Woods when he started becoming a really well-conditioned golfer -- golfers were the same way, nobody really thought of them as athletes who are in shape until Tiger took the workouts to a different level -- goalies are in the same boat now.
"They work out very hard. You very rarely see an out-of-shape goalie. The strength in their legs that they have to have, the push and the core, getting from down to up in such a quick timeframe, and to be able to ward off those 6-foot-4 guys in front of the net and push them away to still see, you have to be in shape. That's probably the biggest difference I've noticed."
As detailed earlier, the mental aspect of goaltending has become a science. Much of the coaching at the NHL level is about the psychology of playing the position, and goalies have been educated on dealing with positional demands that can tax their brain as much as their muscles.
The cumulative result is the standard of play in net has increased dramatically. Goaltenders are better at their job and there are more of them who can rise above replacement-level work.
"I always wonder a little why goaltenders are looked at different than other players," Lundqvist told NHL.com. "It is a real important position. I look at the guys that have signed long-term deals. They're great goalies. I'm not surprised they signed for a lot of years. They deserve it and they worked hard to get there."
In addition to improved technique and coaching, the talent pool has expanded exponentially because of the rise of hockey in the United States and the immigration of players from Europe.
Though Canada was long considered the preferred producer of goalies, the two most recent Vezina Trophy winners are Europeans, Russian Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Sweden's Lundqvist. Meanwhile, the deep and talented collection competing with Miller to start for the United States in the 2014 Sochi Olympics is the envy of hockey fans north of the 49th parallel. Also, Finland is producing elite goaltending prospects with assembly-line efficiency.
When the salary cap was introduced in 2005-06, one of the expected effects certainly could have been increased limitations on contracts, specifically for goaltenders. It was, after all, a cap on spending for NHL teams.
In the years before the institution of a salary cap, the Rangers and Detroit Red Wings were double the cap ceiling when it was introduced. It was also higher than when the cap reached at its peak of $70.2 million in 2012-13.
Teams like the Rangers, Red Wings and Maple Leafs were restricted to a certain amount of spending, but teams near the bottom of the League in payroll began to spend more. Having both a cap ceiling and floor has led to far more parity in a League long defined by its dynasties.
The model for roster construction in the cap era NHL has become clear. There is enough room to spend a lot of money (and cap space) on a small group of players. Because of the parity, teams have to search for individual advantages, and those are usually found in this small group of (hopefully) star-level players. The best way to win consistently is to keep that small group of players together as long as possible and fill in the blanks around them.
It has led to the word "core" becoming one of the most important in the modern NHL lexicon. The simplest way to keep the core together is through long contracts. Giving players the security of term also helps keep the annual cost of the contract down, though it is quite possible there will be less of that in the next seven years as there has been in the previous seven because of the new term limits in the recent CBA.
This is where the effects of goaltender evolution and the current economic climate converge. If there had been a salary cap in 1983 or 1993, NHL GMs would not have been so comfortable with signing goaltenders to contracts of five-plus years.
In 2013, the goaltender is very much a candidate to be part of a team's core. In fact, if the core doesn't include its goaltender, that team is almost certainly in search of a goalie worthy of such status.
"It is nice to see guys getting rewarded for their play," said Mike Smith, who signed a six-year, $34 million contract with the Phoenix Coyotes this summer. "Obviously, they are an important piece to the puzzle, and I think teams would rather get their guy locked up than try to go out and find another starting goaltender."
INTO THE UNKNOWN
Despite the advancements, signing a goaltender to a long-term contract remains a risk. There has been progress in injury prevention, but the butterfly style of goaltending remains hard on the hips and groin muscles.
Goalies also are susceptible to collision-based injuries, more so than 15 years ago when it was illegal to have a skate in the crease as the puck crossed the goal line. Opposing players skate toward the net with more abandon, and trying to screen the goaltender's vision (because they are all so much better positionally) with a player standing at the edge of the crease has become a necessary tactic.
Though great strides have been made in focus and preparation, parts of the mental aspect of the position, like confidence, will always be volatile. A forward or defenseman whose confidence is shaken by a scoring slump can contribute through backchecking or physical play. Goaltenders have one job, and if anything is even the slightest bit askew, it makes their ability to perform it at a world-class level problematic.
Teams have seen the completion of successful long-term contracts that stretch five or six years with goalies, but the outbreak of really long-term pacts has yet to provide the same return.
Two of the five richest contracts in the history of the position (Rick DiPietro's 15-year, $67.5 million deal with the New York Islanders and Ilya Bryzgalov's nine-year, $51 million pact with the Philadelphia Flyers) were terminated early. A third, Roberto Luongo's 12-year, $64 million contract with the Vancouver Canucks, led to an 18-month saga with the parties wanting to part ways before a mending of the fences was undertaken this summer.
"I'm not sure it is always something you want to get into," Washington Capitals GM George McPhee said. "There's a lot of risk with goaltenders, because if you have a forward or a defenseman on a longer-term deal and he's not playing the way he's capable of, you can move him around in the lineup and still get value and use him in different ways. If a goaltender is not playing well, there's not a heck of a lot you can do, especially if he's being paid a lot. That limits what you can do with your backup goalie."
The other two owners of a top-five-richest contract in NHL goaltending history are Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings (10 years, $58 million) and Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins (eight years, $56 million).
Lundqvist almost certainly will bump Bryzgalov's deal from the list. History in this situation is changing quickly. Other deals that eclipse $50 million are imminent.
The influx of long-term contracts could have a drastic impact on the market in the near future. Lundqvist, Miller, Hiller, Halak and Dubnyk could form a strong, diverse free-agent class for teams in search of goaltending help. The same could be said for the Class of 2015, which is scheduled to include Bobrovsky, Antti Niemi of the San Jose Sharks, Cory Schneider of the New Jersey Devils, Craig Anderson of the Ottawa Senators and Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins, along with potential restricted free agents Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals and Jonathan Bernier of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
After that? Well, that's when the goaltending market could get really interesting. Cam Ward of the Carolina Hurricanes and Minnesota Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom (who will be 38 years old) are the only starting goaltenders scheduled to be UFAs in 2016. Ondrej Pavelec of the Winnipeg Jets is the only one slated to be available in 2017.
By then, a new crop of young players -- Malcolm Subban, Jack Campbell and John Gibson -- could be threatening to take the jobs of goalies on long-term deals or slotting into No. 1 jobs for teams without a high-priced option.
Though that list of potential free agents in the next two summers looks quite sumptuous, the reality is a team hoping to snare a new long-term solution in net could be out of luck before the market opens. The Class of 2013 was scheduled to include Quick, Rask, Smith, Jimmy Howard of the Detroit Red Wings and Kari Lehtonen of the Dallas Stars.
Not only did none of those five players change his address, only Rask was available when the market opened July 5, and he was an RFA. A grand total of one goaltender has signed an offer sheet (the mechanism by which a restricted free agent can sign with another team) in NHL history, and Ron Tugnutt's salary in his first year with the Ottawa Senators was a pinch less than $385,000.
The other avenues available for ending up with a franchise goaltender are a trade (Schneider and Bernier were dealt in the offseason) or by drafting and developing one. To build off Poile's pitching analogy, in baseball a prominent theory about pitching prospects is for every handful that a team develops, one will work out.
The idea is there has to be quantity as well as quality, because the track record for young pitchers working out is too erratic. That also works with goaltending prospects. Fans might become fixated on the "goaltender of the future" tag, but smart organizations aren't looking for one netminder to develop but two or three at a time, provided they are at different stages of their matriculation so they don't all end up competing for one net with the organization's American Hockey League affiliate.
Howard and Crawford are prime examples of teams drafting and developing a goaltender then having a desire to keep him for the long haul once he (finally) reached his potential.
"I think you just have to find the guy who you know can do it. They are so hard to find," Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill told NHL.com. Nill was the assistant GM in Detroit when Howard was drafted, developed and signed a six-year, $31.75 million contract with the Red Wings in April. "It also takes a long time to get there. Goalies develop a little bit slower. It is a tough position to learn, and it is as much mental as it is physical. They take longer and you invest in them to get there. When you do have one and you know he has a lot of years left on his career, you want to lock him up."
McPhee previously signed a goaltender to a long-term contract, locking up Olie Kolzig for five years and $31 million in 2001, but the Capitals have moved forward with young homegrown talent since the end of Godzilla's reign (with a couple of quick-fix options as either a bridge to the prospects or insurance once they began to arrive).
"It all comes down to where the player is in his development and what's the body of work," McPhee said. "We've done some bridge deals for our young players who we still need more time with to determine what they're capable of in this League, and we made the longer-term commitments to people with we were pretty comfortable knowing what they are. Olie Kolzig was a Vezina Trophy winner and an All-Star, so we knew what we had. Since then we've been working with younger goaltenders, and if one develops into what Olie was, it will be easier to make a long-term commitment."
Clearly, the abundance of long-term contracts is going to affect the goaltending market in the future. The fascinating part will be monitoring who is able to benefit from the shift.
It has been established that if a goaltender performs well for a team, said club will be very motivated to secure the player with a long-term contract. What happens when a top goalie does reach the free-agent swap meet? There are two distinct possibilities.
On one hand, teams that don't have a goalie worthy of such a financial commitment will be searching for one. Two or more such teams creates a bidding war and the goalie ends up with a huge contract.
The other scenario is part of the fallout from all these long contracts. So many teams are going to have a high-priced goaltender in tow that options for someone looking for a new home for a considerable length of time could be scarce.
"I went through that a couple years ago. There's not that many jobs," Brodeur said. "It depends on what you expect from yourself, but a lot of young guys are good now. A lot of young guys are coming in and are bigger in the net and coming from all over the world. It is definitely different restrictions from when I started with so many goalies being ready to play at a young age."
This played out a couple of years ago for Tomas Vokoun, but with more negative consequences. There were two UFA goaltenders with a strong resume in the summer of 2011. One found a team in desperate need of "their guy" in net, and the Flyers anted up July 1 for Bryzgalov, who had performed very well for the Phoenix Coyotes.
The other was Vokoun, who found out the day after Bryzgalov signed that the number of teams left willing to hand out an expensive, long-term contract for a goaltender had dropped to zero. Instead of waiting it out the rest of the summer for a potential trade or injury to open a slot, Vokoun signed a one-year contract with the Capitals on the second day of free agency. It was worth $49 million less than Bryzgalov's deal from a day earlier.
Buffalo GM Darcy Regier has publicly discussed his recent attempts to trade Miller because the Sabres are rebuilding. As a result, the vast majority of people in hockey expect to see Miller playing for a different team next season, but it is possible Miller could re-sign and continue his career with the Sabres.
"I'm not closed off to the possibility. I understand the situation in the NHL," Miller said. "There's not a lot of goaltending jobs and they're getting filled up by long-term contracts. I'm not going to try and close too many avenues at this point."
There is no question about the importance of the position. The NHL was once an offense-driven League, where the idea of "fire-wagon hockey" was known as "hockey."
Then the goaltending got better. The defense got better. Lower scoring led to more close games. A new economic system with a salary cap led to a lesser disparity between the teams.
All of this has helped increase the demand for elite goaltending, which is now viewed as a difference-maker. As a byproduct, there has been an increase in long-term, expensive contracts for those who play the position.
"To me, the goalies are getting paid big because people realize they're the most important person on the team," Boudreau said. "I mean, if your goalie is not good, I don't care if you have Wayne Gretzky times five playing, if [the goalie] is no good you're not going to win. I think that's why they're getting paid big money these days."
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