The Maple Leafs and the goaltenders should be treated like running backs argument

Photo credit:Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
5 months ago
There seems to be a shift in the way that goaltenders are viewed around the NHL. No longer are goaltenders voodoo, which seemed like an expression of defeatism when it came to understanding a complicated position that operates almost entirely different than the goals of anyone else playing hockey. No, we are perhaps onto an oversimplification of the role of goaltenders by comparing them to running backs in football. A still far from perfect way of understanding goaltenders but one that provides a bit more context to their place in the game and their place in the salary cap world.
There are two recent explorations of the goaltender/running back comparison that are worth looking at. The first is a segment from That’s Hockey with Craig Button and Martin Biron exploring the idea. We’ll get to the salary and roster building comparisons in a minute, but what was interesting from this segment is the notion that much like how a running back can be made or broken by their offensive line’s ability to give them time and space, the same holds true for goaltenders in the NHL with their defence. The idea that ‘if you want to be a consistently strong goaltending team you need the defence to support it’ is not an earth-shattering statement but is absolutely one that rings true for the Maple Leafs. Toronto has struggled with a weak blueline for well over a decade and over that time there have been plenty of goaltenders who have given a glimpse of success but haven’t been able to repeat it. Andersen, Campbell, and Samsonov have all had steep declines and that comes from the Leafs not being a team designed to keep pucks out of their net but rather put them in the opposition’s net as the priority.
“You can teach a big goalie with good structure to work in a good, structured [defensive] system,” the scout suggested. “Like Pheonix Copley in LA, Akira Schmid in New Jersey, and Adin Hill in Vegas. They won’t be top of the league, but they will get you at least league-average goaltending, maybe slightly better.”
That quote is a line from a San Jose Hockey Now article by Sheng Peng, the article touches on the idea of big, athletic goaltenders being similar to running backs as well and offers three examples of dropping a goaltender into a system that seemed to work. Hill is a tremendous success story for Vegas while the Schmid story runs parallel to what the Leafs experienced with Samsonov this season. There is a very good chance that once Dougie Hamilton returns to New Jersey, Schmid will coincidentally figure out his game as well. The idea that having a big, athletic goaltender available who is priced cheaply enough to try behind a defensive system they are compatible with has a lot of appeal. The Leafs potentially have that with Joseph Woll, but we’ll see how things go once he returns from his injury. It seemed like Martin Jones could have been that but that was essentially a strong run of games followed by crashing back down to earth, but it also points to one of the better courses of action being avoidance of chasing some of the bigger name goaltending options with lengthier contracts and instead the Leafs might wish to take a trade deadline approach looking at Mackenzie Blackwood in San Jose or Daniel Vladar in Calgary and using the bulk of their assets and cap space on building their defence to give the goaltenders a better offensive line.
Looking at the larger picture of where goaltenders fit into the NHL marketplace as draftees, free agents, and trade chips, we’ve already seen the NHL move towards devaluing the position in a way similar to how running backs have become a lower priority in football.
From Peng:
“In the 1950s, 40 running backs were taken with top-10 picks (and 48 in the much-shorter first round). In the 60s, those numbers were 30 top 10 picks and 43 in the first round. Then 17 and 44 in the 1970s, 17 and 50 in the 1980s, 12 and 34 in the 1990s, then just 7 and 32 in the 2000s.”
And since 2010, 8 in the top-10 and 21 in the first round.
It’s a similar story with goaltending in the Draft, just a little behind: From 2000 to 2009, seven goaltenders were selected in the top-10, while 22 were picked in the first round, both decade highs since the inception of the modern NHL Draft in 1969.
Since 2010, there have been zero goalies drafted in the top-10, and just 10 in the first round.
In addition to being drafted as highly as they previously were, goaltenders are finding a limited pay day in free agency, with some exceptions like Sergei Bobrovsky, Carey Price, John Gibson, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and Connor Hellebucyk being exceptions. Some of those goaltenders represent true difference makers who are hard to find and deserving of major paydays. Others represent a poor read on how truly dominant they are and come with risky price tags for someone who will likely only start in 50-60 of their teams’ games, if that.
The Carey Price and Sergei Bobrovsky contracts also come with significant warnings about giving goaltenders term. While the Connor Hellebucyk $8.5M AAV for the next seven seasons looks great at the moment as Connor has been a model of consistency and is at the height of his game, seven years is a long time for a goaltender that is already 30 and is unlikely to maintain his 60+ starts per season rate he enjoyed through his 20s. The other way that goaltenders tend to be like running backs are that their injuries are career altering and certainly lend themselves to a higher frequency of reoccurring.
The above graph of save percentages shows the league average and Maple Leafs save percentage contrasted against 5 perceived high-end goaltenders. And what we have seen is that consistency is a not just a Leafs issue and is impactful to topflight goaltenders as well. Shesterkin and Saros are two goaltenders most teams would love to get their hands on but presently sit below the league average save percentage. Thatcher Demko is a goaltender that many Canucks fans were ready to write off last season, but you can see that his numbers were a blip, largely from a poor offensive line in front of him. The Canucks organization has aggressively addressed that through trades, signings and a coaching change.
Markstrom has had his ups and downs as much as the Leafs have and they seem to run opposite. What is interesting is that Brad Treliving did have a sound defensive team in front of Markstrom during his time there and last season even had a coach who preached defence in Darryl Sutter. Markstrom’s inconsistencies are a bit of a buyer beware warning about spending $6M on a goaltender.
And what can be said about John Gibson? There is certainly a belief that he will be better when he gets out of Anaheim and I don’t think anyone should doubt that, but by how much is the question and it’s hard to justify a $6.4M AAV for three more seasons to find out.
Goaltenders and running backs are absolutely risks. For every Barry Sanders or Andrei Vasilevskiy there is a Jack Campbell who briefly had his moment and needed to be stepped away from as the Leafs did.
So where does that leave the Leafs today and in the future regarding goaltenders?
The first thing that stands out is that their best path to improved goaltending is through improved defence and the Canucks modeled that well with bringing in a coaching staff to reset their current personnel, followed by the additions of Hronek, Soucy, Zadorov, as well as new role players like Ian Cole and Mark Friedman as well. They cut ties with Oliver Ekman-Larsson who was not going to fit in their system and made the tough decision to remove a popular veteran. You can also point to teams like Vegas that have made a tough blue line to cross their philosophy and you can see how that has allowed them to save cap space on goaltenders and play their way through numerous goaltender injuries without impacting their place in the standings.
In the short term the Leafs would be wise to get out from under Samsonov’s contract. Even if Samsonov is improving, a $3.55M commitment to iffy goaltending is money better spent on the blueline and there is the potential for the Leafs to address the position in other cheaper ways. The goal isn’t so much to have the best goaltending in the league at this point but instead find their way back to league average and that likely comes from the Leafs using their goaltender experts to identify underperforming netminders who have experience with playing in a system similar to the Leafs and the goaltending coaches feel comfortable they can work with.
In the longer term the Leafs are already doing something right and that is how they draft goaltenders. They aren’t looking to use picks from the first couple of rounds, but they’ve been making sure to bring in a goaltender every draft or so to the point that it becomes a challenge to find places for their prospects to play. I would say that the Leafs should have been a bit more open to exploring the hot start of Hildeby in the AHL and giving him a shot in the NHL as goaltenders/running backs might only have a finite time that they are at their peak, and this could be Hildeby’s peak.
There is also the realization that Ilya Samsonov and Martin Jones won’t be back with the Leafs next season and with that comes the need to address goaltending once again. And once again the options look limited.
There are only eight goaltenders in unrestricted free agency who have played more than 10 games already this season and have a save percentage over .900. Martin Jones is one of them and it is unlikely the Leafs nor Petr Mrazek are looking to reunite, so we’re talking about six potential options: Laurent Brossoit (WPG), Alex Nedeljkovic (PIT), Cam Talbot (LA), Casey DeSmith (VAN), Jonathan Quick (NYR), and Anthony Stolarz (FLA). Of that list only Nedeljkovic is in his 20s, and none of those goalies have recently strung together two successful seasons in a row (staying healthy is considered part of that). If we are still looking at the goaltender/running back comparison, one of the ways the two positions differ is you are hard pressed to find this number of older running backs sticking around the pros.
Just off the fact that there are 77 UFA goaltenders in total next year and these are the eight most viable, the potential for overpayment is there and Talbot, Quick, Brossoit, Mrazek, and especially Nedeljkovic’s contracts will all be hard for them to live up to.
What seems like the best course of action is look around the NHL and find the balance that fits the running back mold. Who might not have had a great year last year but generally has more good years than bad ones? Who doesn’t have an excessive amount of term left on their contract to make them an acceptable risk? For me that is Elvis Merzlikins, who has been above league average for save percentage in 4 out of 5 of his seasons in the league. His $5.4M is higher than anyone should like, and his 3 years term pushes the boundaries of what is a reasonable window on him, but if Columbus has to take salary back in order to move Merzlikins, the Leafs can close that gap and some of that risk disappears with questionable contracts departing. Given the risk associated with the goaltender position 3 years seems like the peak term teams should be interested and anything in excess of $5M AAV for a goaltender is in overpayment territory.
Another way to look at it would be with the salary cap being $87.5M next season and teams 23 player rosters, on average a player will make around $3.8M. That seems like a $7.6M budget for goaltending is reasonable but one that ignores the potential to save money to spend elsewhere. A $5M total goaltending budget that utilizes the extra $2.6M towards defence will probably see better or at least more consistent results. Toronto having a solid $766,667 option in Joseph Woll for next season and with Dennis Hildeby progressing as a bargain for future years, the Leafs have the potential to control their cost while still being able to dabble in less risky options.
For all the different things that can be explored from the goaltenders are like running backs perspective the one that Toronto needs to zero in on the most is the defence = offensive line comparison. The offensive line might not be the most exciting thing in football to prioritize but you can see where it is foundational in the best teams. The Leafs need to consider that model and that approach doesn’t need to come with excessive costs either. The combination of the right coach, the right system and the right personnel there too will help make the goaltender position a strength for the Leafs, even if the incumbent does change every year or two.
Data from Hockey Reference and Capfriendly

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