One area where a team can spend its money very efficiently is on its backup goalie. A team with a workhorse starter may only need their backup to play 10 games all season, which makes it inadvisable for them to pay that person a huge salary to mostly sit on the bench. The goalie market is also stocked with talent, and there are several ways to find a quality goaltender at a discount price, including convincing a veteran to take a pay cut to stay in the NHL contract, taking a chance on a prospect on an entry-level contract, or signing a European netminder with a track record of success in his domestic league.
On the other hand, it is important not to go too far in the other direction. There can be real downsides to paying peanuts for unproven players. A good example of that is Carolina's Justin Peters in 2010-11. With four years of AHL experience under his belt and a solid nine-game NHL audition in 2009-10, the 'Canes figured Peters was ready for primetime in support of Cam Ward. Unfortunately, the result was a 3-5-1 record with a 3.98 GAA and an .875 save percentage. Peters only cost $575,000 against the cap, but Carolina still must dearly regret that roster decision, as the team wasted a great year by Cam Ward and finished just two points behind the eighth place New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference.
The other major consideration is that a backup goalie is a team's insurance policy in case the starter goes down with an injury. A contending team would be wise to avoid taking the chance of a mishap derailing their Cup hopes, and in that situation, it may be very worthwhile to spend a bit more on the number two goalie position. The key, as with any salary cap decision, is to maximize value, seeking the most value possible for the least amount of cap dollars.
To rate the best and worst value backup goaltenders in the league, a combination of Tom Awad's VUKOTA projection system, which predicts every goalie's production in terms of GVT this year, and Rob Vollman's Goals Versus Salary method, which adjusts GVT in relation to a player's cap hit, will be employed. Salary cap numbers were taken from capgeek.
One of the most difficult parts of projecting the impact of a backup goalie is estimating their playing time, especially for teams where the starting role may be still up for grabs. VUKOTA projections are based in large part on a goalie's track record and not entirely on the goaltender's team situation. As a result, the projected games played for each starter and backup were adjusted to ensure that they added up to a total of 82 games, with all VUKOTA numbers prorated accordingly.
Many would have likely have selected Ray Emery as one of the best value backups. Acquiring the former Cup Finalist is a move that could certainly pay off handsomely, especially given Emery's low salary of $600,000, but Chicago's backup goalie ended up outside of top five on this list. Other dark horse candidates to take over one of the top spots by season's end could include Calgary's Henrik Karlsson, Nashville's Anders Lindback, or Los Angeles' Jonathan Bernier.
Best Value Backup Goalies
1. Tuukka Rask, Boston, $1.250 million cap hit, 6.7 GVS
Boston has an abundance of riches in the crease at the moment with Rask and Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas. Most NHL observers rate Rask as a starting-caliber netminder, and the numbers certainly back up that subjective viewpoint (.926 save percentage in 80 career games). Rask impressed in 2010 while briefly taking over the starting role from Thomas, and the budding Finnish star will likely be counted on for at least 30 games this season in Boston.
2. Cory Schneider, Vancouver, $0.900 million cap hit, 5.3 GVS
Another team that is stocked with goaltending talent is the Vancouver Canucks, with Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider. It will be interesting to follow the Canucks' crease situation this year, with many fans disenchanted with the incumbent Luongo after the disappointment of losing in Game 7 of the Finals. By playing well, Schneider could certainly put a lot of pressure on his veteran creasemate, but it seems unlikely that Luongo will give way to the young American this season.
3. Brent Johnson, Pittsburgh, $0.600 million cap hit, 3.8 GVS
Brent Johnson was a terrific bargain for the Penguins last year, providing excellent numbers in support of Marc-Andre Fleury (13-5-3, 2.17, .922), and doing so for a bargain basement price. Johnson's contract is still barely above the minimum, which means that he certainly has the potential to provide a lot of value to Pittsburgh. The only warning sign is that Johnson's career track record does not seem to suggest that he is a good bet to repeat that .922. In fact, last year was the first year since a six-game stint as a rookie in 1998-99 where Johnson's save percentage was above .908. The projection may be a bit rosy here, but if Johnson can provide even average level goaltending at a bargain price, it will still be just fine for Pittsburgh.
4. Jason LaBarbera, Phoenix, $1.250 million cap hit, 3.6 GVS
VUKOTA also likes Jason LaBarbera, who like Johnson is coming off a successful season as a backup (2.13, .928). However, this is in large part based on assuming LaBarbera will get a relatively high number of starts for a backup goalie, which is not guaranteed and will depend on the play of not just LaBarbera but also starting goaltender Mike Smith. Smith has a projection of a negative GVT for 2011-12, a level of production that usually ends up in reduced playing time and could open the door for more starts going to his backup. LaBarbera was a dominant netminder at the AHL level but has not seen that translate yet to lasting NHL success.
5. Michal Neuvirth, Washington, $1.150 million cap hit, 2.9 GVS
In a surprising move, Washington coach Bruce Boudreau started Michal Neuvirth in the Caps' home opener, ahead of expected number one Tomas Vokoun. Boudreau obviously trusts Neuvirth, having started him 45 times in 2010-11, which means that the Czech youngster could still take on a frequent workload behind his veteran countryman. Neuvirth has posted two straight seasons at .914, an above-average save percentage that is even more impressive considering the goaltender's young age (23).
Worst Value Backup Goalies
1. Rick DiPietro, New York Islanders, $4.500 million cap hit, -16.1 GVS
The Islanders' crease situation is unsettled at the moment, with Al Montoya starting the season as the top guy in net and Evgeni Nabokov waiting for his turn as well. However, assuming for the moment that Rick DiPietro is the Isles' primary backup, then he would easily win the title of the worst-value backup goalie. The only way it could be worse is if future salary cap commitments were included in the calculation, to reflect the ten years remaining on DiPietro's lifetime contract in Long Island.
2. Nikolai Khabibulin, Edmonton, $3.750 million cap hit, -14.8 GVS
Devan Dubnyk got the opening night start in Edmonton, and if he posts numbers anything like he did last year, then the Saskatchewan native is likely to remain in the starting role for the Oil, relegating the pricey Khabibulin to playing second fiddle. Khabibulin had a forgettable year last year (.890 save percentage in 47 games played), and is set to turn 39 in January, neither of which bode well for him and his team in 2011-12 and explain why his production is expected to fall well short of that demanded by his salary cap figure.
3. Jonas Gustavsson, Toronto, $1.350 million cap hit, -6.7 GVS
Things have not gone as expected for Jonas "The Monster" Gustavsson since the Leafs brought him to North America with huge fanfare in 2009. Perhaps those skeptics who suggested that Gustavsson's 2008-09 season for Farjestad was something of a flash in the pan should feel vindicated by the Swede's subsequent NHL performance (.898 in 65 career games played). Gustavsson really struggled last season, and will likely have even less of an opportunity to play himself into form with the emergence of James Reimer in Toronto.
4. Brian Elliott, St. Louis, $0.600 million cap hit, -5.7 GVS
The good news is that Brian Elliott is cheap. That bad news is that he posted a save percentage in the .890s for two different teams last season, and all evidence suggests that he is a marginal talent at the NHL level. St. Louis will have to hope that starter Jaroslav Halak is able to return to form, rather than having to rely on Elliott shouldering a large workload this season.
5. J.S. Giguere, Colorado, $1.250 million cap hit, -4.2 GVS
It looks like J.S. Giguere is nearing the end of the road, injuries and age having taken their toll on the formerly top-tier netminder. Even if the veteran is over his lingering hip and groin problems, it won't be easy in Colorado playing behind a questionable defense that allowed the most goals against in the league last season.
Philip Myrland is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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