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Teams with inexpensive goalies need bulky defense

by Dan Rosen /
Former NHL general manager Craig Button has a theory that if you allocate 65-70 percent of your salary cap money to nine specific players, you'll be giving your team a chance to contend for the Stanley Cup. He calls it his "4-2-1-2 theory," and with the way things have gone this offseason, it's not at all surprising to learn that according to Button, the goaltender is the seventh-most important asset when it comes to distributing money from your salary cap.

"You need four good defensemen, two really good centermen and then your goaltender comes in before you get two more good forwards," Button, now an analyst for the NHL Network, explained to "If you put most of your money into a goaltender and you don't have defense, those teams are not winning."

Call it skimping on goaltending, a new way of thinking among general managers that right now it appears to be working.

According to, the four teams that will pay the most for goaltenders this coming season are, in order, the Rangers, Maple Leafs, Wild and Islanders. Those four have two things in common:

* Each is allocating more than $7 million of cap money to two goaltenders, and not one of those teams made the playoffs last season.

* Of the 11 teams that allocate $6 million or more of cap money to goaltending, seven did not qualify for the playoffs last season.

Which are the teams that pay the least for goaltending? Oh, just your defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks ($2.1 million) and reigning Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals ($1.65 million), who are going with a pair of 22-year-olds after opting not to re-sign Jose Theodore.

The Philadelphia Flyers, who took the Hawks to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, are 26th on the list, with Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher, and the Detroit Red Wings are 27th with Jimmy Howard and Chris Osgood. Both allocate less than $2.5 million for goaltending.

"It's one thing to have a theory and a philosophy, but those numbers bear it out," Button said. "If you want to go one step further, what else don't those teams (Rangers, Leafs, Wild, Isles) have? They don't have an elite defense. Great, we're putting all our money into goaltenders, but we don't have an elite defense, we don't win, and we don't make the playoffs."

The poster boy for this new way of thinking is San Jose GM Doug Wilson. Instead of making the safe move of signing Evgeni Nabokov, who won 131 games over the past three seasons, to an estimated $6 million a year contract, Wilson saw how the Blackhawks and Flyers did last season with virtual unknowns in net and decided his cap money needed to go elsewhere.

He bid farewell to Nabokov and gave a two-year, $4 million contract to Antero Niittymaki, a 30-year-old who never has won more than 23 games in a season or played in more than 52.

When the Blackhawks kept to the same philosophy and decided Marty Turco was a better value than Antti Niemi at half the price for one season, Wilson was able to scoop up the Stanley Cup-winning goalie for another $2 million.

Now Wilson has a pair of Finns, one who won a silver medal in the 2006 Olympics and another who won a Stanley Cup this past June, that combined make two-thirds of what Nabokov reportedly wanted. Wilson also was able to re-sign Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi.

Nabokov? He wasn't finding work in the NHL at his asking price, so now he's playing in Russia.

"At some point you're putting your team together and deciding where to spend your money and you have to make a decision on how much of a difference-maker the goalie you're signing is," Detroit GM Ken Holland told "At the same time, if you are spending significant dollars on the best goalie, then the other guy is going to have much more money to spend on skaters. If you're dedicating $5 million or $6 million, that's coming out of somewhere else."

"If you asked who was the best goalie in this year's playoffs, most people would say (Jaroslav) Halak and he got traded," Nashville GM David Poile told "You tell me what that means. So many things we do now are not straight hockey decisions."

Button believes the philosophy on goaltending has changed not only because of the salary cap, but because of how the game is played in the post-work stoppage era. It's faster and there's way more emphasis on puck possession, which takes the onus off the goaltender and puts it on the defense.

"You need four good defensemen, two really good centermen and then your goaltender comes in before you get two more good forwards. If you put most of your money into a goaltender and you don't have defense, those teams are not winning." -- NHL analyst Craig Button

"If you don't have defensemen that can control the play and make good plays with the puck, it doesn't matter how good your goaltender is," Button said. "Roberto Luongo, I think he's a very good goaltender, but when good players can get on top of your goaltender they can take advantage. It's become more about scoring chances rather than making saves. The way to not give up scoring chances is to have really good defensemen."

Button recalled a conversation he had with Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, who told the former GM that 40-year-old, six-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom "might have had his best year in the NHL" because the Wings couldn't score, had a rookie goaltender and still didn't give up a ton of chances.

"Jimmy Howard doesn't win 37 games if Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski aren't playing."

But skimping on goaltending does not mean teams should go with youngsters just because they're on entry-level deals or relatively inexpensive, short-term second contracts. Button said to be a successful goalie in this League you still need to be mature enough and have the mental capacity to understand the position and the pressure.

For instance, Howard might have been a rookie, but he was 25 going on 26 and he understood how to best use his strengths and hide his weaknesses while playing behind a stellar defense.

Niemi won the Stanley Cup in his first NHL season, but like Howard, he was 26 (he turned 27 last month) and had several seasons of professional experience behind him, so he also knew how to operate behind the best defense in the NHL. Only a few times throughout the playoffs did Niemi have to be the one difference maker in a Blackhawks win.

"Look at what Carey Price has gone through in Montreal," Button said. "It's not that he doesn't have the talent, I just think he's in a process of maturing."

With that in mind, Button doesn't mind taking a hard-line stance on the Capitals, the team that spends the least on goaltending but didn't do anything over the summer to upgrade its maligned defense.

The Capitals won the Presidents' Trophy last season despite giving up the 16th-most goals in the League. Colorado, Ottawa and Pittsburgh were the only playoff teams that allowed more.

"If Marty Brodeur, a three-time Stanley Cup winner and arguably the best to ever play the position, can't win in this era without great defense, I can guarantee you Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov can't win without a great defense," Button said. "I have no problem going with a young goaltender, but you better make sure teams can't take advantage of his vulnerability and inexperience."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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