Net Gain or Loss?

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.

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17 Comments on “Net Gain or Loss?”

  1. gusty161 Says:

    I’d like to comment but I figure this is going to take a couple of hours to read. Do they pay you by the word? Great post.

  2. Anthony Says:

    Umm, as far as I know, the capitals organization doesn’t pay him directly for “dumpnchase” at all, its Mikes own blog.

  3. Mike L Says:

    The only time you want Jocelyn Thibault in goal for your team is if the game is the last regular season game at an arena. He’s 3 for 3 in arena closers, winning the last game at Maple Leaf Gardens (as the visiting goaltender with Chicago), at the Montreal Forum (when he played for Montreal and they beat Dallas) and, of course, at the old Capital Centre (again with Montreal). He is an adequate backup goalie and that’s about it.

  4. gusty161 Says:

    Hey Anthony, that’s called humor. You didn’t really think I was serious when I asked if they pay Mike by the word, did you?

  5. pucksandbooks Says:

    One of the interpretations this analysis seems to invite is that since the Caps have been rather lousy at drafting netminders since the Kolzig and Dafoe draft of ’89, they therefore ought to allow other organizations, who are better at it, do the drafting and development. This may well be feasible and practical, and yet, I’m not sure it’s an ethos any NHL club ought to aspire to.

    Coverage of the 2006 draft, in which the Caps went with Varlamov and Neuvirth up high, noted Dave Prior’s being uniquesly vested in the selections. It made me think — why wouldn’t your goalie coach be so with every selection of every goalie in every draft?

    Maybe this is an operative analogy: elite NHL clubs tend to have success in finding gems in the late rounds of drafts. This was a criticism of the Caps, especially in the later David Poile and early George McPhee years. McPhee bolstered his scouting resources, and with recent drafts, the club seems to be finding pro hockey material late. Still, the comparison is flawed, for as you note, there just is something peculiar about the goaltender position, making scouting it perhaps as difficult an endeavor as there is in the sport. But that’s a challenge I think every team should rise to meet.

  6. Anthony Says:

    Wow thats for that, I know it was humor, that doesn’t mean it was funny.

  7. dumpnchase Says:

    It sounds flip, but it may not be a bad idea for teams (not just the Caps) to let other teams draft and develop goaltenders for them. By and large, that’s what’s been going on for years now anyway. Why spend a pick on a goalie if you can get another player who might be ready for the NHL by the end of that first entry level deal?

    I agree with what you’re saying about teams rising to meet the challenge, but what a challenge it is! I’ll point again to the fact that most goaltenders who signed with their drafting teams out of the 2003 draft have now concluded their entry level deals. Only one (Fleury) is starting for his team. He was the first player taken overall. The next 24 goalies drafted have played 27 NHL games, total. Yet this is the season in which their teams must keep them on the roster as a backup at the very least, or expose them to waivers in order to send them down.

    Most of the starting goaltenders in the NHL now were drafted in the mid-90s. You could take that to mean that the Caps should have been looking for Kolzig’s successor virtually from the day he took the starter’s reins in Oct. 1997. Half of the starting goaltenders in the NHL at the end of the ’07-08 season were drafted before Oct. 1997. I see a total of one Stanley Cup (Ward) among all those drafted since.

    Fewer and fewer goalies are ready at younger ages now. Fleury and Price are the exceptions. I suspect that if I had the time to analyze the goalie/draft history of the other 29 teams in the league, it wouldn’t be that different from Washington’s.

    It may well be easier (not to mention more economical) to sign goalies as free agents or pick them up off the scrap heaps than it would be to draft and develop them. With about two-thirds of NHL teams going in that direction, I don’t see much evidence to the contrary.

    And yes, Prior is vested in the selections every year. I don’t know if I’d say “uniquely” vested, because I’m not sure how other organizations handle it. Dave’s background is a bit different than that of a lot of goalie coaches, and as a result, his job responsibilities are as well.

    Like you and many others, I’m hoping one of the kids at camp this week will prove to be an exception, too.

  8. usiel Says:

    There is something different about drafting developing goalies. There are so few that end up even in the top 5 with their original team. It seems based following NHL drafting for the past 18+ years that it simply takes longer for a goalie to dev into a legit starter or backup and vogs you did a yeomans job at trying to explain this.

    With the new CBA and all that it entails it just seems like the climate is easier to acquire goalies especially with younger ones that are stuck behind an encumbent which is why I don’t fret too much about the goalie situ. Maybe its just because its a bit of a crapshoot I just don’t get bent out of shape when it comes to a goalie prospect panning out. Luckily both Varlamov/Neuvirth have been developing well since they were drafted and that is all one can hope to continue.

  9. Tom in FL Says:

    Mike: Historically, goalies have never been drafted as high as other positions, other than exceptions like Barasso, Fleury, DiPeitro and a few others. I remember Jamie Storr going high and not panning out as well as Finley. Storr was #7 and maybe Finley was #6. However, if no team picked goalies then no team would have goalies. It’s a Catch-22. The solution I feel is to change the CBA to make it four or five years before a player can become a RFA or exposed to waivers. With the salary cap in place, the players would be voting basically to have the current players get more at the expense of the draft picks, because the pool payout will be the same. This is why and how basketball was able to amend its CBA, because the current players essential took money away from undrafted players.

    To make this more equitable, you would have a system where the 4th and 5th year guys would be eligible for arbitration so they couldn’t be sold down the river.

    I’m not saying I have the answer, but I can say if the current system makes teams do something ridiculous to avoid the syste, then the system isn’t working.

    Your analysis is very good. The most compelling answer to change the system is perhaps Kolzig himself, with two wins at age 25. Obviously, the position of goalie, like a quaterback in football and a catcher in baseball, just takes more time. Teams should therefore be allowed to have that time. If the Caps are forced to rush Varlamov and neuvirth to the NHL just to meet an arbitrary deadline, it doesn’t really do anyone any good.

  10. […] Net Gain or Loss? Tuesday was a tough day to be on the road. I got off an airplane in Jacksonville just after 1 p.m. and quickly […] […]

  11. doug Says:

    Really a good piece, Mike. Well researched and presented. The thesis point is that goal tenders are very tough to draft and develop in “your own” system. The stats simply point that out. Let’s hope either Varlamov or Neuvirth is the “real deal”. Otherwise, we’ll be the goalie development farm team for some other NHL team.

  12. dumpnchase Says:

    You’re right about goalies mostly not getting drafted as high as other players. But with guys like Luongo, DiPietro, Fleury, Lehtonen, Leclaire, Finley, Storr, Price and Montoya all drafted in the top eight in the last 15 years, the trend appears to be swinging. The “modern” draft began in 1969. In the 1970s, there were three goalies chosen in the top eight (Ray Matyniuk, Bunny Larocque and John Davidson). There were three more in the 80s (Fuhr, Barrasso and Jimmy Waite). So in the last 15 drafts there have been more goalies chosen in the top eight than in the 25 drafts before that.

    If no teams picked goalies, they’d get signed as free agents. Realistically though, teams will keep drafting them. The lure of finding a Henrik Lundqvist late or a Roberto Luongo early is too strong to resist.

    You’re absolutely right that the three-year entry level deal under the current system isn’t enough to identify whether most goalies can play or not; that was my main point. Most goalies need more time, and they can’t get it under this system.

  13. pepper Says:

    Thanks Mike, great read. I assume that most other teams, over the same course of years as the Caps’ history, have had better success at drafting goalies who regularly play in the NHL (100 GM benchmark) than 2 for 36. But of course, as you point out, it doesn’t matter because most of those successful picks are going to find their success wearing another (goaile size) sweater, and better to let another club expend the resources to develop that goalie.

    I guess this is obvious, but the G position is unique simply because there’s no way to ease in a young goalie like there is at other positions. You can’t put him on a “fourth line” and give him 5-10 min of ice in a rookie season. He’s got to play the whole game in which he’s dressed to play (barring some quirky period-by-period rotation of goalies within a game).

    And there’s no one to backstop the backstop. A young winger who makes a poor play of the puck might be helped out by a D man or linemate on the ice to mop up. Not so with the goalie – the mistake is in the net. Its just such a tremendously stressful, and isolating position. No wonder its such a crapshoot.

  14. Tom in FL Says:

    Mike: Very good story on the goalies. Would it be possible to interview McPhee and ask his opinion on negotiating, with the next CBA, a change in the entry-level contract from three years to four? I’m unsure of the specifics, but I believe baseball has more time before a player is “out of options.” Goalies are maybe like baseball pitchers in the amount of time it takes to master the techniques involved in the position. I know they always say how highly-talented pitchers dominate as youngsters and then must transition from “throwers” to “pitchers.” Very few come up to the bigs and become established before age 25. It seems with one more year to the first contract teams would have that extra time to allow for player development.

  15. chris waite Says:

    […] and contacts around the league. Not much was going on at that point. The Caps had already agreed to not hunting Lion king: Swann – Fox SportsSwann said Carlton was also close to re-signing gun […]

  16. buzz Says:

    Does it not mean anything that Simeon Varlamov plays on Russia’s National Team? Is it considered the same as playing in the Juniors or even the minors?

    Where is his development compared to that of Michal Neuvirth?

  17. NewHockeyFan Says:

    Dumpnchase, maybe it’s been explained somewhere else before but, why when everyone is talking about goalies is there never any mention of Brent Johnson? Isn’t he still one of the goalies? Everyone is mentioning Theodore, Huet, Kolzig, and the new goalies (Varlamov, Neuvirth, etc.), but no one ever says anything about Johnson.
    Isn’t he still a back up goalie or did I miss something? Thanks.

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