Paying the right price for goaltenders

Tomas Vokoun, not a Toronto Maple Leaf

One of the most worrying things about cheering for an NHL team is the feeling that, out of nowhere, the organization will make a horrific trade, handicapping the team’s future for minimal return. That’s not exactly the case in Toronto, as it was a series of moves made by the two previous regimes that left Brian Burke in a tight spot, none that really concentrated on prospects or the league heading to a salary cap system. JP Nikota looked at that in some detail yesterday.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Overpaying for players is a pretty sensitive issue for the Leafs and their fans. Particularly when their star player was brought over for a fairly expensive price tag, the last thing this team needs is to pay the premium the Vancouver Canucks want for Roberto Luongo or another goaltender and have them disappoint in Toronto because you really can’t predict goaltending.

But this morning we’ll do just that. I want to look a bit at recent goalie movement, as well as the price and success of bringing a goalie to a new team.

In the comment section of yesterday’s video post, leafer4life said we were asking the wrong questions. It’s not about “choosing between which inexperienced rookie NHL goaltender is better”, it’s about “why did the Leafs not move aggressively” to sign an available goaltender?

This is actually a very legitimate point and one that I’m upset I haven’t made yet. This isn’t the first summer that the Leafs have been without a goalie. In his first full season as general manager, Brian Burke traded Jason Blake and Vesa Toskala to Anaheim for Jean-Sebastien Giguere. That wasn’t the deal made to secure the goalie of the future, but going into that year, it was obvious the Leafs had a problem. Toskala was purported to be the team’s starting goaltender. He was coming off a year where he registered a .903 even strength save percentage (EV SV%) in 53 starts, which bested only Chris Osgood’s .902 among starters that season.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below


A brief history of recent Leafs goaltending

I guess you could make the argument that the Leafs signed Jonas Gustavsson that summer, but there was no guarantee of his success. Gustavsson was straight out of Sweden with no NHL experience, so the Leafs were forced to wait until January for Plan B. Giguere came in and posted a .915 EV SV% and along with Gustavsson’s .910 and whatever god-awful number Toskala put up in his half season, the team combined for the fourth worst EV SV% in the league with .906.

That summer again, the Leafs stood pat on the goaltending front for the most part. They signed Jussi Rynnas, Ben Scrivens and Mark Owuya, all unproven at the time. James Reimer came in midseason and impressed, enough so that Burke was confident in not re-signing Giguere that summer. Reimer put up a .933 but Giguere and Gustavsson each had a .910. The Leafs were now a middle-of-the-pack goaltending team, their .916 EV SV% as a team being the 17th best in the league.

At this point, the Leafs left themselves unprepared for Reimer’s second year regression to the mean, often attributed as the “sophomore slump”. Like Chemmy wrote for this blog last summer:

A great rookie season is often built on an unsustainable run over 20 games or so. As we see with things regressing to the mean a long run of unsustainably good play is often followed up by a bad stretch: a sophomore slump. This season we’ll see how Reimer plays for a whole year. For me his target should be something around 60GP with a .915SV% though a 0.910SV% wouldn’t be terrible (and is about what the three year running league average is).

Reimer of course, got hurt and played just 34 games. His save percentage fell to .900, not .910, showcasing a much worse sophomore slump than we could have imagined. Again, Burke did not have his “Plan B”.

Now here’s the issue… the argument has been made that Reimer together with Ben Scrivens (Screimer?) is probably the safest option for the Leafs going forward. Again, though, it’s just running on faith. Burke shuffled around some deck chairs in Vancouver before settling on Dan Cloutier as the starter, who had two horrific playoff runs behind a very good team and got hurt in a third. Burke was also the man who waived Ilya Bryzgalov and his $4.25M cap hit over the older Giguere to free up space for Jonas Hiller. I wouldn’t exactly call him the brains behind too many good goaltending decisions in the past.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Of note, who’s been moved?

My criteria was at least 41 games for a season, with a save percentage of over .910 over the period of time. This means that the goalie was likely quality before, and after, the move. Info via capgeek and Hockey-Reference.


Two years ago…

Mike Smith

Price: Free agent, signed by Phoenix 2 years at $2M a season

The skinny: Smith has never been a terrific goalie except in a Dave Tippett system. He had a .900 EV SV% in Tampa Bay making $2.2M and was bad enough that the Lightning reached out for a midseason acquisition in Dwayne Roloson. He was signed in, and thrived, in Phoenix last year, but that could be a one-year thing.

Tomas Vokoun

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Price: Free agent, signed by Washington 1 year at $1.5M, signed by Pittsburgh 2 years at $2M a season

The skinny: The Leafs reportedly kicked the tires on Vokoun this summer but didn’t want to offer the 36-year old goaltender the second year. Vokoun also apparently took a discount last summer to go to Washington and the chance to play for a championship. His .927 EV SV% made him a key reason in the Capitals even making the playoffs, as they were a worse team than people anticipated.

Ilya Bryzgalov

Price: Free agent rights traded to Philadelphia for Matt Clackson, 3rd round choice and future considerations, signed by Philadelphia 9 years at $5.67M a season

The skinny: This is the classic case of overpaying for a goaltender. Bryzgalov notably struggled in Philadelphia this season, but finished with a league-average EV SV% and will likely improve on that next season.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Jose Theodore

Price: Free agent, signed by Florida 2 years at $1.5M a season

The skinny: Theodore probably could have been a stop-gap option. He had a .915 EV SV% in 2011 with the Wild, not great, but better than Gustavsson at a reasonable price. He had a .924 in Washington a year prior. This is maybe a goalie the Leafs could have more aggressively pursued. He had a fairly good campaign with the Florida Panthers with a .928 EV SV%, although that’s somewhat boosted since Florida may inflate shot counts.

Craig Anderson

Price: Traded to Ottawa by Colorado for Brian Elliott, signed as free agent by Ottawa 4 years, $3.19M per season

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The skinny: Craig Anderson has always been a very good goalie on fairly average teams and frankly, I’m surprised it took until last summer for Anderson to get his first serious NHL contract. Anderson’s career save percentage is .913, not outstanding, but above the NHL average, and in Ottawa last season was their strongest weapon in net, registering a league average .920 EV SV% but was a workhorse, starting 60 games.

Like Theodore, a guy the Leafs could have conceivably pitched for but didn’t, although Anderson represents a fairly longer-term solution.

Brian Elliott

Price: Traded to Colorado by Ottawa for Brian Elliott, signed as free agent by St. Louis 1 year, $600K

The skinny: A cheap guy who played way over his head in St. Louis this last season, making his way onto this list. Originally intended to be a backup for the Blues, he still will be, as Jaroslav Halak had the reigns for that team, starting more games including in the playoffs before he got hurt. St. Louis re-signed him to a 2-year deal worth $3.6M ($1.8M per year) mid-season, and they won’t get nearly as good goaltending with him.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below


Three and four years ago…

Jaroslav Halak

Price: Traded to St. Louis by Montreal for Lars Eller and Ian Schultz

The skinny: This may work out for the Blues. Halak, as noted above, is still the starter in St. Louis and is right for a Ken Hitchcock system. The Montreal Canadiens decided to keep Carey Price over Halak despite Halak’s strong 2010 playoff run. While he’s posted EV SV%’s of .933, .916 and .938 in his last three seasons. Pierre Gauthier, Montreal’s then-GM, noted that a number of teams were involved, but the feeling from Montreal fans on Twitter is that Gauthier didn’t necessarily shop Halak around. The Leafs prospect system at that time did not boast a prospect as strong as Lars Eller that was expendable, so the price was probably out of reach.

Antti Niemi

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Price: Free agent, signed by San Jose 1 year, $2M

The skinny: After winning the Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010, the Blackhawks waffled on re-signing Niemi to a long-term deal, wary of his price tag and he took the team to arbitration. The Hawks walked away from a $2.75M deal and the Sharks picked him off the wire. Niemi’s not a perfect goaltender but has posted a .931 and a .926 in consecutive years in San Jose. There was little indication he’d hit numbers like that prior to his two years with the Sharks, registering a .914 EV SV% during his time in Chicago, regular season and playoffs.

Maybe a guy to take a gamble on, especially in that 2010 offseason when several prospects were signed. Who knows how he would have done in Toronto’s system as opposed to San Jose’s, although I am skeptical on team system affecting save percentage by a sizeable amount.

Kari Lehtonen

Price: Traded to Dallas by Atlanta for Ivan Vishnevskiy and a 4th round choice

The skinny: A mid-season deal for a guy who was perpetually injured, this deal came just nine days after the JS Giguere trade. I don’t know, maybe Burkie was traded out? Lehtonen had had some decent numbers in Atlanta and has succeeded in Dallas.


The question is right on the mark. There are some goalies who have been moved for cheap who have been successful before and after the move. If the Leafs didn’t have an opportunity to pull the trigger on Jaro Halak, I think that Craig Anderson, Kari Lehtonen and Jose Theodore could have been reasonable options in the Leafs net. The commitment by Burke to his young puck-stoppers is admirable, but there are multiple available goalies that would have instantly improved the Leafs goaltending situation if they were willing to pay the price.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Eli York

    The goalie situation is not the main problem. Rather Brian Burke has put Toronto at a steep disadvantage because he refuses to give out long contracts that circumvent the cap and refuses to sign offer sheets for RFA’s.
    Ehically he may be right, but ultimately he makes it harder for the Leafs to compete. It’s not a level playing field.
    He could have signed an offer sheet for Steve Stamkos last year, but refused.
    He may have good intentions, but it’s like starting a game of chess without the queen.

    • Ummm yes, the goalie situation IS the main problem. The refusal to go after RFAs or give out contracts with tails put the Leafs at a theoretical disadvantage (because we have no idea if those players would have signed here anyway) but his failure to address the goaltending situation has put the Leafs at an actual disadvantage.

    • Gotta agree with PPP here, and add this: what team is really benefiting from RFA offer sheets? Besides the Weber offer which wouldn’t have even made sense for TO (four firsts??) they do nothing to help you, and more often just lob a grenade at your competition. You mention the Leafs offering for Stamkos (TBL would’ve matched anything btw) but that is a terrible example as Tampa didn’t even make the playoffs last year…largely due to lackluster goaltending.
      On the missed UFAs: B. Richards must be the example you are referring to (and I’m glad we missed on this, already starting to look bad for NYR) because we were never in the running for Parise, Suter or Kovalchuk regardless of whether we shelled out the term + $. See how smart you think Detroit is with their long deals now that their D is in shambles and they have too many good forwards locked up forever to properly rebuild. Same for NJD with their Kovalchuk ‘win’ now that Parise is gone.
      Burke is doing what he has to do: trying to return this franchise to respectability so UFAs want to sign here without needing to be signed for 15 years.

  • This is a great article, I agree that Burke’s commitment to team youth is admirable but goaltending is one area where experience is needed, especially in the pressure cooker that is TO. Some say Leafs fans would be ‘too hard’ on Luongo, I think to the contrary we have SEEN terrible goaltending and will appreciate when someone can come in here and just give us average puck stoppage.
    I have one quick question about systems. You mentioned a positive impact with regards to the Tippett and Hitchcock systems, but discount team systems for Niemi. Why the distinction? I’m interested because I often wonder whether something like Elliott/Smith phenomena could actually ever happen in Toronto.

  • Eli York

    I hear what you guys are saying. But just answer this please. Is Brian Burke doing all he possibly could to make the Leafs better even though he’s not going after top free agents?