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NHL goaltenders need to prove their worth after underdogs thrive in playoffs

Last spring's playoffs left many in hockey, including its general managers, wondering what is the point of throwing multi-millions at big-name goaltenders.

Jaroslav Halak was earning US$800,000 when he led the Montreal Canadiens to the Eastern Conference final, where they lost to a Philadelphia team with budget-priced veterans Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher.

The Flyers in turn lost to the Chicago Blackhawks and their little-known goalie Antti Niemi.

The big money boys—Roberto Luongo, Martin Brodeur, Evgeni Nabokov and the rest—went home early, while others, like Cristobal Huet in Chicago, Jose Theodore in Washington and Tim Thomas in Boston, had lost the starting jobs to younger, cheaper netminders.

The results suggested there was money to be saved in going with youth and using the extra cash to put a better team in front of them.

And the prospects of a goalie landing a big, multi-year contract weren't helped by the glut of puck-stoppers on the free agent market in the summer. If anything, teams were shedding expensive goalies, with San Jose's Nabokov heading for St. Petersburg in the KHL and Huet shipped to Switzerland.

It is into that financial environment that Florida Panthers veteran Tomas Vokoun may go as he plays out the final season of a four-year deal that pays an average of $5.7 million per year. With super-prospect Jacob Markstrom waiting in the wings, there is already talk of Vokoun being dealt at the trade deadline if the Panthers are out of the playoff race.

But the 34-year-old is convinced it's a passing fad.

''Next spring there could be a $6-million goalie win the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe and then everybody's going to say something totally different,'' said Vokoun. ''But now, for me, it's not so much about money, so I'm sure I'll find a spot.''

The Blackhawks, well over the NHL's $59-million salary cap and forced to shed players, walked away when Niemi was awarded $2.75 million in arbitration. Instead, they got veteran Marty Turco from Dallas for one year at $1.3 million.

Niemi then signed a one-year deal with the Sharks for $2 million.

Frustration is building in San Jose, where the club has been among the league's best since the 2004-05 lockout only to stumble in the playoffs. Nabokov, who had more than 40 wins for three seasons in a row, was among the veterans considered to be post-season underachievers.

Now, for about a third of what they paid the Russian, the Sharks have a third-year goaltender who already has his name on the Stanley Cup, while also paying veteran Antero Niittymaki $2 million.

The other goaltending soap opera this summer was in Montreal. Unable to pay both Halak and Carey Price, the Canadiens traded the Slovak to St. Louis for forwards Lars Eller and Ian Schultz, drawing howls of dismay from fans at the loss of their playoff hero.

Price, who signed a $5.5-million two-year deal, has heard boos from detractors as well as loud supportive cheering from Bell Centre fans through a so-so pre-season and the emotion will only heat up if he stumbles early on.

''Winning solves everything,'' the 23-year-old said. ''(booing) is part of the game here.

''There's nothing we can do but win games and make it stop.''

Veteran Alex Auld signed as a backup at $1 million.

Theodore, the 2002 Vezina Trophy winner, was left waiting until this week to catch on with a new team and only got a one-year, $1.1 million contract from Minneosta after Josh Harding was injured. The Capitals elected to go with youngsters Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth.

The Edmonton Oilers picked up veteran Martin Gerber as insurance with starter Nikolai Khabibulin slated to serve a 30-day DUI sentence in Arizona. Gerber cleared waivers last week, however, and will start the season in the AHL.

The Stars now have former Atlanta Thrashers star prospect Kari Lehtonen and old hand Andrew Raycroft in Turco's place.

The backup goalie carousel got a big spin and put Dan Ellis back in Tampa Bay, John Grahame in Colorado, Chris Mason in Atlanta, Cory Crawford in Chicago and Martin Biron with the Rangers in New York.

Leighton landed a new deal with the Flyers that will pay him $1.55 million this season.

There will be interesting competition for starts in both Toronto, where Jonas Gustavsson will push Jean-Sebastien Giguere, and in Ottawa where Brian Elliot and Pascal Leclaire will have it out.

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