Two games separated by 24 hours and three time zones highlighted, once again, the perils of overvaluing goaltenders and signing them to big-money, long-term deals.
The first was Friday night when Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, owner of a seven-year, $59.5 million extension that will take him past his 39th birthday, was allowing four goals on 19 shots in a 5-3 loss to the New York Islanders. The second was Saturday night, when Martin Jones, a 23-year-old undrafted free agent signing who is making $550,000 at the NHL level, was tying the NHL record for the best start to a career with a 3-2 shootout win over the Colorado Avalanche.
Since signing his extension with the Rangers Dec. 4 – which also coincided with him wearing new state-of-the-art pads that are supposed to make him move faster and help him direct rebounds into the corners – Lundqvist has gone 2-4-2 with a 3.40 goals-against average and an .874 save percentage. During his run, Jones has gone 8-0-0 with a 0.98 GAA and .966 SP.
We’re not about to suggest that Jones has usurped King Henrik after fewer than 500 minutes of NHL work, but the contrast does bring into focus the conundrum facing GMs in the NHL when it comes to dealing with goalies. And when that happens, most of them blatantly ignore the laws of supply and demand. And they often do it at their own peril.
You can understand the GM who feels he has a keeper of a keeper on his hands and wants to lock him up long-term. Almost all of them do it when they have a chance. But there’s a reason why coaches don’t get 10-year deals. It’s because there are only 30 NHL jobs available and hundreds of people qualified to do them. It’s also why coaches aren’t wildly overpaid.
The same thinking, then, should go for goaltending, shouldn’t it? There are only 30 No. 1 jobs in the NHL and even more qualified to fill the role. And when guys such as Martin Jones emerge from nowhere – well, not exactly nowhere since he did play for the Canadian junior team and in a Memorial Cup – it brings that fact into sharper focus.
But yet teams insist on paying these guys, often for a relatively small period of excellent work, big money and big term, ignoring the fact that there are often guys who are just as good or better, sometimes even in their own organizations. Cases in point: the Chicago Blackhawks and the Kings.
Before backstopping the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup last season, there was little to suggest Corey Crawford could be a franchise goaltender. He had spent five years in the minors before becoming a full-time NHLer in 2010-11 and had been running hot and cold through his first three years. But after one terrific truncated season, GM Stan Bowman rewarded Crawford with a six-year contract extension worth $36 million that kicks in next season. Then what happens? Crawford gets hurt and the Hawks find they have a very good replacement in Antti Raanta.
Same thing in Los Angeles, where Jonathan Quick led the Kings to the Stanley Cup in 2012 and signed a 10-year deal worth $58 million after one spectacular season. Then he struggles and goes down with an injury, only to see Ben Scrivens run with the starting job before losing it to Jones.
And it’s not as though these are isolated cases. One look at the NHL stats shows that on 13 teams, almost half the league, the player who was supposed to start the season as the backup is posting significantly better numbers than the starter.
And that includes New York, where Cam Talbot has been far superior to Lundqvist in a very small sample size. Chances are Lundqvist will regain his form, but one shudders to think what the next seven years will be like if this is the start of a decline for him. The Rangers likely would have been better off giving him a short-term deal or allowing him to walk, then going out and finding their own Martin Jones.
That’s because we’re in an era when, while goaltending has never been better, with few notable exceptions, nobody is able to sustain a high level of play and NHL teams seem to be guessing from one year to the next which goalies are going to shine and which ones will struggle. And that’s a market that’s far too volatile at which to devote valuable money, cap space and term.
WHAT WAS HE THINKING?: The Canadian world junior team has the opportunity to have history repeat itself at this year’s tournament, thanks to Swedish forward and Washington Capitals prospect Andre Burakovsky.
In a move that should have his teammates slapping him upside the head, Burakovsky shot his mouth off to a Swedish website and was quoted as saying, “I know what Canada brings and if I look at what they have and what we have, I think I can say that we have a better team on paper. We are more well rounded, more skill mixed in with physical games.”
Burakovsky might have wanted to consult with Peter Forsberg before making his comments. Like this year, the tournament was held in Sweden in 1993. The Swedes, like this year, were loaded with talent and a favorite to win the gold medal. Prior to the tournament, Forsberg predicted Sweden would defeat a less-talented Canadian team.
These kinds of comments actually do motivate teenagers, even more than they do seasoned pros. The result was Canada defeated the Swedes 5-4 in the first game of the tournament, then went on to win the gold medal.
The Swedes have changed their entire mentality when it comes to international competition. They might still be the most cordial people in the world, but they’ve got a bit of a swagger when it comes to hockey now. And that’s a good thing. But someone should tell their players there’s absolutely nothing to be gained by making those kinds of statements. Burakovsky may very well be right, but the risk of having it shoved down his throat is far too great for the potential reward.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. To read more from Ken and THN’s other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.