Tuesday was a tough day to be on the road. I got off an airplane in Jacksonville just after 1 p.m. and quickly exchanged a few text messages with friends and contacts around the league. Not much was going on at that point. The Caps had already agreed to terms with Mike Green, but I had written about that before leaving Baltimore in the morning. I was hoping for a relatively quiet day on the Caps front, but it turned out to be anything but quiet both in Washington and around the league.
Since then, many words have been written, but few by me. More guys have signed. I’ve had a hot water heater blow on Independence Day (hours before hosting a party here at stately Vogel mansion) and I’ve had some serious wireless woes at the homestead that finally got ironed out yesterday. I’ve got some thoughts on what happened Tuesday, and I started writing them on Wednesday, including the first paragraph of this mess. The thoughts should still hold up; there are no games in the off-season.
Get a seat and a beverage. This one won’t be short.
As we all know, goaltending is important in the NHL. (Which is like saying, “Having tires on a car is important for driving.”) For the last decade, the Caps have gone into every season with Olie Kolzig as their starting goaltender. As the 2007-08 season wore on, it became apparent that Kolzig would likely not be the guy the Caps relied on as their starter in 2008-09. That made getting their next No. 1 netminder a priority.
During the season, the Caps’ pro scouting and hockey ops staff identified a couple of impending UFAs who might fit the bill, namely Cristobal Huet and Jose Theodore. When a trade to obtain Huet became possible at the Feb. 26 trade deadline, the Caps paid the reasonable price of a second-round draft choice to the Montreal Canadiens for the goaltender.
The plan at that point was to have Kolzig and Huet share the netminding duties the rest of the way. The Caps also saw the acquisition of Huet as a nice dovetail into their plan to secure their next No. 1 goaltender. In getting Huet from the Habs, the Caps would now own the exclusive negotiating rights with the goaltender until Jul. 1. This same scenario worked out well for the Philadelphia Flyers a year earlier. The Flyers acquired goalie Martin Biron from Buffalo at the 2007 trade deadline. The Flyers auditioned him and he auditioned the team and the city, and the two sides came to agreement on a multi-year contract before Biron made it to the free agent market.
In a perfect world, the Huet scenario would have played out similarly. Reality is far less than perfect, and the scenario obviously played out far differently.
Huet and Kolzig shared the netminding duties for the better part of a month after the former’s arrival, alternating starts. Both played well; Huet played better. The team thrived.
Kolzig lost in Chicago on Mar. 19, and Huet started and won the following game. Needing points and wins, Caps coach Bruce Boudreau stuck with the hot hand and Huet started and won each of the final seven games of the regular season to push the Caps into the playoffs.
After winning 11 of 13 regular season starts with the Caps, Huet was not as sharp in the playoffs. (How could he possibly be?) The Caps were ousted in the first round. In the two months since, Huet and the Caps had ongoing discussions about the possibility of a multi-year extension in Washington, but ultimately it did not get done. (For more on the discussions, you can listen to general manager George McPhee’s July 1 media conference call.)
Huet decided to test the market, and who can blame him? He’ll be 33 in two months and this was possibly his best shot at a home run contract. Here’s a question for you: If the free agency period began on Feb. 26, what kind of contract would Huet have gotten? He would have likely fared well, still being one of the more attractive UFA goalies on the market. But had he finished out the season as a backup to Carey Price in Montreal, would Huet have gotten four years and $22 million? We can only speculate, of course, but by helping the Caps to the playoffs he may have simultaneously priced himself out of the range of what Washington could reasonably be expected to pay.
Keep in mind the high number of young players on the Caps roster who will need to be paid going forward. Keep in mind the mass exodus from Pittsburgh this summer. Keep in mind that the salary cap is also capable of going down at some point.
I was hoping the Caps would re-sign Huet. He seemed to me to be the best of the available options in goal this summer. Jose Theodore was the second guy on virtually everybody’s list of UFA goaltenders, and maybe a few would have had him at the top. Theodore was another guy whose stock rose on the basis of a strong late surge. At any rate, the Caps liked Theodore a few months ago, too. It’s not like we woke up on Wednesday to read that Ray Emery or Marc Denis will be the No. 1 guy in the District this season.
Contracts are always going to be signed on the basis of past performance. But the ONLY thing that matters is future performance. Since the Caps missed out on Huet and settled for Theodore on Tuesday, there has been a sharp difference of opinion among some Caps followers and fans as to how the Caps fared in the swap of ex-Canadien goaltenders. That’s not surprising; it was the same way last season when the Caps signed free agents some of the fans perceived as stiffs.
What is surprising is that some are painting the situation black (and bleak) despite the relatively small difference in the two goaltenders statistically. (Japers does a better job than anyone of illustrating the statsitical differences.) Let’s face it, neither Huet nor Theodore has ever won a Stanley Cup. Hell, Huet’s next Stanley Cup playoff series win will be his first.
What’s a little untoward (to me, anyway) is that some are using the Theodore situation to point out how negligent the Caps have been in not having addressed this goaltending issue years ago via the Entry Draft. To me, that kind of thinking is misguided. Here’s why.
Washington has drafted several netminders (six in the last five drafts) in the hope that one of them will emerge at some point down the line. Over the years, the Capitals have chosen 36 goaltenders in the NHL draft, an average of about one per year.
Two of the 36 have played as many as 100 games for the Caps. Two. Still think they should have been poking around looking for their next goalie in the draft for the last decade?
Kolzig (19th overall in 1989) was the 19th goaltender drafted of these 36. The 20th was Jim Carey (32nd in 1992). He was drafted three years after Kolzig, yet he reached the 100-game level before Kolzig did. Carey was out of town (traded to Boston) by the time Kolzig played his 100th game for Washington. Only two of the other 34 (Peter Sidorkiewicz and Byron Dafoe) ever played as many as 100 games in the NHL. Most of the Caps’ prominent goaltenders over the years — Ron Low, Wayne Stephenson, Mike Palmateer, Al Jensen, Pat Riggin, Pete Peeters, Clint Malarchuk, Don Beaupre, Bill Ranford — came from other organizations.
And guess what? That’s the rule around the NHL these days, too. Looking at the 30 starting goaltenders for NHL teams at the close of the 2007-08 season, how many of them were continuously with the team that drafted them?
Eleven out of 30. Meaning that nearly two-thirds of the teams in the league either made a deal with another team or signed a free agent to get their starting goaltender. Meaning the way of the world is to let someone else draft and develop your goaltender. Until Kolzig and Carey came along, it was how the Caps operated for the first two decades of their existence.
Some of those folks who say the Caps should have been more diligent in finding Kolzig’s replacement say the Caps should have been actively drafting goaltenders five years before 2006, when Simeon Varlamov was chosen in the first round and Michal Neuvirth in the second round. But here’s another eye-opener for you.
How many goaltenders from the last five Entry Drafts (2003-07, since the ’08 class has not yet had a chance to play in the league) are now among those 30 starters? Two. Marc-Andre Fleury and Carey Price. Price is the reason the Caps were able to get Huet in the first place. Fleury and Price were both top five picks, too. And they were the only goaltenders taken in the top five from 2003-08.
Al Montoya went sixth in 2004. He has played three years pro and has already been traded once, but his next NHL game will be his first one.
Here are a few more interesting (I think so, anyway) facts that should tell you quite a bit about the science of drafting and developing goaltenders.
* Twelve of the aforementioned 2007-08 starting goaltenders were drafted in this decade. One of them (Ward) has won a Cup. Eight of them have yet to win a playoff series.
2000: Rick DiPietro, Dan Ellis, Henrik Lundqvist, Ilya Bryzgalov.
2001: Pascal Leclaire, Martin Gerber, Mike Smith, Cristobal Huet
2002: Kari Lehtonen, Cam Ward
2003: Marc-Andre Fleury
2005: Carey Price
* Half of those netminders (DiPietro, Leclaire, Fleury, Lehtonen, Ward and Price) were first-rounders.
* All the others were drafted in the 1990s.
1990: Martin Brodeur
1991: Chris Osgood
1992: Nikolai Khabibulin
1993: Manny Legace
1994: Jose Theodore, Marty Turco, Evgeni Nabokov, Thomas Vokoun, Tim Thomas
1995: J-S Giguere, Miikka Kiprusoff, Martin Biron, Vesa Toskala
1996: Mathieu Garon
1997: Roberto Luongo
1998: Jason Labarbera
1999: Ryan Miller
* Twelve drafted in the “oughts,” 17 in the 1990s (only three of those 17 were first-rounders) and one (Minnesota’s Niklas Backstrom) was not drafted at all. I’m counting seven Cups and some long playoff runs from those 1990s-drafted goaltenders.
* Two of the starters (Giguere and Legace) were drafted by Hartford. One (Khabibulin) was drafted by Winnipeg. One (Thomas) was drafted by Quebec. That’s four of the 30 who were drafted by teams no longer in existence.
* One more for ya. Fleury was chosen with the first overall pick in 2003. Him, you’re familiar with. The next 24 goalies drafted that year (in rounds 2-9) have combined to play a total of 27 games in the league. Then there’s the guy Montreal took with pick No. 271 in the ninth round. That would be Jaroslav Halak, who has played 22 NHL games.
How prepared have other teams been for similar situations? Who is the heir apparent to Martin Brodeur in New Jersey? Did the Blackhawks really just “replace” Khabibulin (one Cup) by signing a guy who no playoff series wins who is about three years younger? Detroit has Jimmy Howard in the pipeline, and Dominik Hasek just retired. Perfect situation to work the kid in as Osgood’s backup, right? Nah, they signed Ty Conklin.
I guess what I’m saying here is when it comes to goaltending, it doesn’t always make sense. On or off the ice. Goaltenders who succeed are first-rounders like Brodeur, undrafted guys like Eddie Belfour, and late-round finds like Khabibulin. The roadside is littered with first-round failures (Jimmy Waite, Eric Fichaud, Maxime Ouellet and Brian Finley, to name a few) while late-rounders often prosper. Though they may prosper late.
Which leads me to my final point here.
You draft a goalie. He’s 18. Let’s say he plays two more years of junior. He’s 20. Now, he signs a three-year entry level deal. He might need all three of those years pro (as we’ve seen, Fleury and Price are the exceptions) to determine whether or not he’s capable of handling the job at the next level. He’s 23 now. Is he ready to start in the NHL? How many guys are ready to excel in the NHL at 23?
Since the Caps came into the league in 1974-75, here’s a list of goaltenders with the most wins between the ages of 23 and 25:
1. Martin Brodeur (114), 2. Mike Vernon (106), 3. Henrik Lundqvist (104), 4. Chris Osgood (95), 5. Tim Cheveldae (93), 6. Grant Fuhr (91), 7. Patrick Roy (89), 8. Nikolai Khabibulin (86), 9. Pete Peeters (85), 10. Mike Palmateer (83).
Four guys still active. The Caps have the guy who’s fifth among active goalies (and 19th overall) on that list. His name is Brent Johnson (69 wins). Theodore is 28th with 62. Only nine of the top 30 are still active (and the Caps have two of them), but two of them (Emery and Jocelyn Thibault) aren’t guys you want right now.
If the Red Wings really believe Howard (the third of the 24 goalies chosen between Fleury and Halak in 2003, by the way) is Osgood’s eventual replacement, then Conklin doesn’t make the team this year. Howard’s entry level deal is up; he has played three years pro and now has to clear waivers to go back to Grand Rapids. Three years (and 82 games) at U. of Maine, three years (and 141 games) in the AHL and eight NHL games. Howard is 24 now. Is he ready?
Chicago’s Corey Crawford was drafted a dozen slots ahead of Howard in the same draft (second of the 24 between Fleury and Halak). How ready is he? He has seven NHL games under his belt. And he has Huet and Khabibulin (for now, anyway) ahead of him on the depth chart.
In many — if not most — cases, three years won’t be enough. The goalie will be cast aside and he will prosper elsewhere. Like Giguere, Kiprusoff, Khabibulin, Vokoun, Ellis, Bryzgalov, Legace, Toskala and Huet.
Carey won 70 games for the Caps before his 23rd birthday. And none after. Kolzig won two games for the Caps before his 25th birthday. And 299 after. We’ll see soon enough how Theodore fares in the District now that he has become the latest in a long line of goaltender imports here in D.C.
While we all watch, we’ll root for Daren Machesney. We’ll urge Simeon Varlamov to greatness. We’ll follow the exploits of Michal Neuvirth. We’ll trace the doings of Dan Dunn. And we’ll hold out hope for Braden Holtby.
Even though history and the odds say that the Caps’ goaltender of the future is currently minding the twine in another NHL organization.