"Goaltending is 75 percent of your hockey team, unless you don't have it. Then it's 100 percent."
The adage is the handiwork of coach-turned-broadcaster Harry Neale. Or maybe of the late Pat Burns, the Stanley Cup--winning coach who repeated it with such ardor throughout his 14-year career with four teams that sometimes he is credited as its source. The origin is less critical than the point: The primacy of the goalie is conventional wisdom in the NHL. "Our record wouldn't be what it is without goaltending," Predators general manager David Poile says. "As an expansion team, goaltending has been one of the major reasons we've been competitive and have made the playoffs six of the last seven years. It's the foundation."
Poile buttressed his foundation for seven more years on Nov. 3, when he signed Pekka Rinne to a $49 million contract extension, the richest long-term deal for a goalie on an annual value basis in the salary-cap era. The contract had unassailable internal logic. The 29-year-old Vezina Trophy finalist would have been eligible for free agency at the end of the season. "If we didn't give him a seven-year contract," Poile says, "on July 1 someone else would have." (In the Predators' perfect world, Rinne is the domino that topples Nashville defensemen Ryan Suter, another soon-to-be unrestricted free agent, and Shea Weber, who can walk in 2013, convincing them to re-up.) So there's that. On the other hand, the famously cost-conscious Predators have a backup, Anders Lindback, a Rinne doppelganger, who might turn out to be every bit as good and far more cost effective. In this context, handing the fattest contract in the history of this penny-pinching franchise to a goalie who has won one playoff series seems as whimsical as Poile's announcing he had signed a unicorn.
Long-term contracts for goalies generally have been a mug's game. And with the exception of the seven-year deal that Marc-Andre Fleury signed with the Penguins in 2008, and the four-year, $20 million extension that Tim Thomas signed with the Bruins in '09, the mug has not been a Stanley Cup. The Canucks' Roberto Luongo, who in '09 signed a 12-year, $64 million extension, melted down in the finals against Thomas last June, and despite a strong stretch last month when he won four straight and nine of 11, every match seems like a referendum on his play. The Islanders' Rick DiPietro, with his 15-year-goalie-for-life deal, has been a disaster. The eternally goalie-bereft Flyers, belatedly embracing a Neale-ist approach, signed the chatty Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million contract last June after his four seasons in low-pressure Phoenix. He has rewarded their faith with a save percentage of .891, well below the modern Mendoza line of .900. Goalie. Nine years. Philly. Nothing possibly could go wrong here.
"Risky?" Poile repeats. "Every time you sign a player, there's a risk. Say you have a great hitter, a terrific third baseman who might lead the league in home runs. But if you don't have pitching, where are you? Goaltending is pitching."
There is, of course, another goaltending truism, courtesy of Academy Award--winning screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President's Men). Ruminating on an apparently unrelated topic, Hollywood, Goldman could have been referring to the crease when he wrote, "Nobody knows anything."
As Oilers coach Tom Renney says, goaltending is not an exact science—even if Bryzgalov did wax about the vastness of the universe during his recent star turn in HBO's 24/7 Flyers/Rangers: Road to the NHL Winter Classic.
At midseason of 2011--12 the only science that goaltending resembles is the sort practiced by Dr. Frankenstein. Although the first half hardly has been bereft of story lines—Sidney Crosby's ongoing concussion problems; the NHLPA's gloved slap to the face of the league over the proposed realignment, an affront that heralds a duel over a new collective bargaining agreement next summer; a passel of coaching changes; the staying power of the champion Bruins—the goaltending kaleidoscope dominates the landscape because it has affected perhaps two thirds of NHL teams.
The goalie with the most career wins, the Devils' once peerless Martin Brodeur, was tied for 22nd in that category among NHL goaltenders through Sunday, with 13. One of the top-rated goalies, the Blues' Brian Elliott, has made the leap from leaky to bulletproof. And the Carl Sagan of the Crease, Bryzgalov, didn't even play in the Winter Classic, as backup Sergei Bobrovsky ($900,000 plus bonuses) allowed a shaky short-side goal in the Rangers' 3--2 alfresco win on Jan. 2.
Maybe a half season is too small a sample size to definitively pronounce on goaltending's shifting sands—stalwarts such as Thomas and the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist have been exceptional, for example—but Sabres coach Lindy Ruff needed a sample size of three soft goals in just 6½ minutes before yanking all-American puck-stopping machine Ryan Miller in a Nov. 2 loss to Philadelphia. Ten days later Miller ($6.25 million annually through 2013--14) again departed early in favor of the stumpy Jhonas Enroth, this time with a concussion. The '10 Vezina Trophy winner and Olympic standout had been wallpapered at the face-off dot by onrushing and unapologetic Bruins winger Milan Lucic, who skated off with little more than a charging minor. (The Buffalo players' on-ice response to seeing their purported meal ticket run curiously was as mute as the superfluous "h" in Enroth's first name.) Meanwhile Miller's humdrum season—three more losses than wins, a 2.97 goals-against average—drew the arched eyebrow of Sabres owner Terry Pegula. After a humiliating 8--3 defeat in Pittsburgh on Dec. 17, a game in which Miller was pulled twice, Pegula, standing outside the dressing room and practically begging to be quoted, said, "We saw some great goaltending tonight, didn't we? If they think they played well, we've got more problems."