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Cap forced teams to consider other options in goal

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com
Evgeni Nabokov and Marty Turco were supposed to set the market for goaltenders this summer. The Flyers were supposed to go hard after Turco, while the Sharks were supposed to try to keep Nabokov even though the price would be steep.

The Blackhawks, meanwhile, were supposed to make some major changes, but not at the top of their goaltending depth chart.

 Then something funny happened -- something we've never really seen happen before.

 As if it were choreographed, General Managers Doug Wilson, Paul Holmgren and Stan Bowman grabbed their wallets tightly and squeezed so only a few million bucks would come out, not the whole enchilada.

Nabokov, unable to find work at his estimated $6 million per season asking price, had to leave the NHL to find a job. The Flyers decided not to tinker with what obviously worked in the spring. Turco was unemployed after a full month of the free agency signing period. Antti Niemi had to scramble to field offers less than two months after winning the Stanley Cup.

Why? How?

The salary cap, folks -- it forces even the most well-conceived ideas to go haywire.

"When you look at Patrick Roy, Marty Brodeur, Eddie Belfour -- there was no cap so you were able to keep them and you didn't have to make those decisions," NHL Network analyst and former NHL GM Craig Button told NHL.com.

In an uncapped world, Nabokov might be getting ready for his 11th straight training camp with the Sharks and Niemi definitely would be gearing up for another Cup run in Chicago. You could make the argument that Turco would be in Philadelphia and Michael Leighton, again considered the Flyers' No. 1 after signing on for two more years, would be elsewhere or serving as Turco's backup.

Instead, the Flyers, Sharks and Blackhawks combined are spending less than $10 million on goaltending heading into the 2010-11 season and they're linked for the moves they made -- and more importantly, didn't make -- this summer.

"So many things we do now are not straight hockey decisions," Nashville GM David Poile told NHL.com.

Wilson told Nabokov in late June that he wasn't going to be re-signed. It wasn't that Nabokov played poorly or was too old (he's 35) -- Wilson just couldn't allocate an estimated $6 million in cap space to the goalie when he also had to think about re-signing Patrick Marleau, Devin Setoguchi and Joe Pavelski while finding a replacement for the retired Rob Blake.

Wilson thanked Nabokov for his contributions to the Sharks over the past decade and watched him leave for Russia, where he landed a six-year contract with SKA St. Petersburg.

"This decision boils down to a dedication of dollars in a salary-cap system, and under this system teams can't keep everyone," Wilson said when he made the announcement that the team was parting ways with Nabokov. "If you're dedicating $5 million or $6 million (to the goaltending position), that's coming out of somewhere else."

Wilson signed all of his other players, and although he never replaced Blake, he signed goalie Antero Niittymaki for two years at $2 million per season. Two months later he won the lottery by signing Niemi.

The Blackhawks, faced with their own salary cap issues, let the Cup-winning goalie walk because their pockets weren't deep enough for Niemi's arbitration award of $2.75 million. Wilson landed Niemi for one year and $2 million.

"When a player like this comes available and wants to join your team, and you don't have to give up any assets … you have to make it happen," Wilson said. "We like the combination of goaltending we have. We've dedicated 'X' amount of dollars to it and we like the way it's built."

Turco knew he would have to find a new home for 2010-11 after the Stars traded for Kari Lehtonen in February. The Flyers seemed like the natural fit as a team seeking a veteran No. 1 goalie that could stand behind a wonderful defense led by Chris Pronger. ESPN.com reported Turco was offered a three-year contract by the Flyers.

He turned it down.

When the news came June 30, one day before the free-agent frenzy was to begin, that Holmgren signed Leighton to a two-year contract, Turco's chances of becoming a Flyer and landing a multi-year contract essentially fizzled.

"So many things we do now are not straight hockey decisions." -- Predators' GM David Poile

The Flyers' GM, apparently not willing to play hardball, decided Leighton was a good enough option, a point that's hard to argue considering he had just played in the Stanley Cup Final while Turco watched the playoffs for the second straight spring.

"Michael is an athletic goalie who we feel is just coming into his own as an NHL goaltender, and we look forward to Michael building on the level of play he established this past season," Holmgren said at the time.

CSNPhilly.com reported then that the Flyers would seek another goaltender through free agency. It never happened.

Holmgren watched Niittymaki, Dan Ellis, Chris Mason, Johan Hedberg and Martin Biron come off the board July 1. The Blackhawks opened another door for the Flyers on Aug. 2 when they let Niemi become an unrestricted free agent and signed Turco to a one-year, $1.3 million contract.

Turco, by the way, wanted to be a Blackhawk all along and was holding out hope that Chicago could find room for him.

It took Holmgren mere hours to say he had no interest in signing Niemi, the goalie that beat his team in the Stanley Cup Final. Instead of allocating more money to the position, the Flyers will have Leighton, Brian Boucher and Johan Backlund in training camp competing for two spots. Leighton is all but assured one of them.

"I just think I fit well with this team," Leighton said.

The price certainly does.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl


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