Goalies. You can’t win a Stanley Cup championship without one, but do you really need to spend a high draft pick on a netminder? Judging by their actions in recent entry drafts, NHL GMs don’t believe that’s necessary. And why would they? All evidence points to a goaltender marketplace that’s been flooded with talent and regularly provides horror stories on the salary cap front.
If I were a GM in hockey’s top league, I wouldn’t use my first-round pick on a goalie unless he was the surest of sure things. My scouts would have to use at least a couple of their most precious personal appendages as collateral. There’s just too much that could go wrong and first-rounders are too valuable in the salary cap era. Playing it safe and drafting a forward or defenseman is almost always the smarter way to go.
That said, the 2005 NHL draft does give you pause to reconsider a philosophy of not selecting a goalie in the first round. That was the draft in which Carey Price went fifth overall (six spots ahead of Anze Kopitar) and Tuukka Rask was the 21st pick (three ahead of T.J. Oshie). But the year more representative of the peaks and perils of taking a goaltender with a first-rounder came one draft later.
In 2006, four goalies went in the opening round. Two of them – Jonathan Bernier (11th overall) and Semyon Varlamov (23rd overall) – are now No. 1 netminders. The other two – Riku Helenius (15th overall) and Leland Irving (26th overall) never developed into anything close to NHL-calibre talents. Oh, and Varlamov and Bernier never turned into No. 1 goalies for the teams that drafted them: the Kings traded the latter to Toronto last summer, while the former stumbled through his first two NHL seasons as a member of the Capitals before evolving into Vezina Trophy-worthy form after a trade to Colorado.
Small wonder, then, that GMs have subsequently been far more reticent to draft a goalie in the first round. Four of the seven drafts since 2006 have had their first round completed without a single goaltender being selected. The two goalies taken in 2008 (Chet Pickard and Thomas McCollum) have a grand total of one game of NHL experience between them and aren’t likely to pile up more. The message is clear: nobody’s saying goalies aren’t important, but there are very few scenarios in which it makes sense to gamble on a position where second chances and short-lived successes are many, and the odds of an asset remaining with the organization are slim.
Think about it: if you’re a team picking in the upper tier of the first round, you’re likely there because you’re a bad team. Are you going to use your first-rounder to throw a goalie, however highly heralded he may be, into what likely will be losing scenarios in his first few NHL seasons? The New York Islanders tried that when they made Rick DiPietro the No. 1 pick of the 2000 draft and that did not turn out well for either party.
“Okay,” you might be saying, “but look at Marc-Andre Fleury: he’s a goalie who went first overall and he won a Cup before he was 25.”
That is true. Fleury was a big part of the Penguins’ 2009 Cup-winning team, but I wouldn’t be the first to suggest it’s much easier for a young goalie to have breathing room when he’s got the skills of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in front of him. Besides, even with those two superstars on his side, Fleury has had all kinds of trouble replicating that performance since then – and his shaky post-2009 playoff showings have many calling for him to be traded out of Pittsburgh.
That brings me to another reason why a team shouldn’t use its first-rounder on a goalie: rarely does any goalie – even a star goalie – play his entire career with the same team. Martin Brodeur (drafted 20th overall in 1990) has been the exception to the rule – literally, when it comes to goalies drafted in the 1990s. Brodeur was the only one of 20 goalies drafted from 1990-99 who (a) won a Cup and (b) remained in the uniform of the team that called his name on draft day. Each of the other nineteen (including Roberto Luongo, J-S Giguere, Martin Biron and Brian Boucher) have changed employers on numerous occasions. That doesn’t happen nearly as often if you find a star forward or defenseman in the first round.
Neither does the type of disastrous post-entry level contracts signed by goalies drafted with a high pick. Because they’ve got the sheen of a first-rounder on their resume, goalies who do succeed often command incredible amounts of money and contract length. Again, stars such as Price and Brodeur are notable because they aren’t the norm; their relatively cap-friendly deals never hurt their team, but you can point to the 15-year, $67.5-million deal DiPietro signed in 2006 or the 12-year, $64-million contract Roberto Luongo signed with the Canucks in 2009 as examples of albatrosses created in part because of a goalie’s staus as a first-rounder.
If that’s not enough to convince you a team doesn’t need a highly-touted goalie to win a championship, just have a look at the past four years of Cup-winners. The Blackhawks won two in four years with two different goalies: Antti Niemi, who was undrafted; and Corey Crawford, Chicago’s second-round pick (52nd overall) in 2003. The Kings won in 2012 with Jonathan Quick, their third round pick (72nd overall) in 2005. The Bruins won with Tim Thomas, who was taken 217th overall by the Nordiques (!) in 1994.
There’s no template to winning it all, but there’s definitely no requirement that your goalie must have a big-shot pedigree. The position develops more slowly and circumstances with a team can change in an instant – ask Luongo – so imagining you’ll have solved all your problems with a first-round goalie pick is dreaming in Technicolor.
Gamble if you want, but recognize there are much safer bets out there.