The value of goaltending depth in the NHL

The value of goaltending depth in the NHL
By Nick Valentino

What’s the value of a goaltender in the NHL? More than any other season, it seems, capable goalies seem to be at a premium.

Playing the Los Angeles Kings on Friday, the Ottawa Senators watched first hand as another team demonstrated the need for three NHL-calibre goaltenders in an organization. With starter Jonathan Quick out long term and backup Jeff Zatkoff suffering his second injury of this young season partway through the game, the Kings once again turned to Peter Budaj, whose NHL resumé the past two seasons included just one game. Budaj, of course, played nine seasons in the NHL, but was never more than a career backup or, at best, a fringe starter. Now, the Kings playoff hopes rest solidly on his shoulders.

Of course, the Senators themselves offer an excellent example of this organizational need for goalie depth. On October 3, the Ottawa Senators defeated the Vancouver Canucks 1-0 thanks, in no small part, to a

On October 3, the Ottawa Senators defeated the Vancouver Canucks 1-0 thanks, in no small part, to a jet-lagged and sleep-deprived 26-year-old goalie who, until last season, had never played in an NHL game. Mike Condon’s shutout followed an emotional game by the team’s number one, Craig Anderson, who himself blanked the Edmonton Oilers after revealing his wife had been diagnosed with cancer.

The presence of Condon, especially since he followed up his introductory performance with a strong 27-save shootout win, allowed Anderson to return to his wife’s side briefly and puts the team in a position to continue granting Anderson periodic leave through his family’s trials.

But, what really sparked Ottawa to make the trade for Condon was the injury to backup Andrew Hammond. Hammond has suffered several injuries since the miraculous 20-1-2 run that propelled the Senators into the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs and kicked off his NHL career. The opportunity for that run was, in itself, afforded by injuries to both Anderson and then-backup Robin Lehner. The injuries that Hammond has experienced since have resulted in prospect Matt O’Connor getting a

The injuries that Hammond has experienced since have resulted in prospect Matt O’Connor getting a now-infamous debut start in the first game of last season and pressure on Anderson more than once in 2015-16 to carry the entire goaltending load with no relief behind a defensively weak team.

In short, the Senators have challenged their goalie depth significantly over the past few years. With the intense pressure the team is under to return to the playoffs, inconsistent goaltending is not a situation with which general manager Pierre Dorion wants to flirt.

And, yet, for the past several seasons, the Senators have risked exactly that, making do with two NHL goalies and filling out their depth positions in the minor leagues with prospects or career minor leaguers. When they have found themselves with a third NHL-capable goalie, he has quickly become trade fodder, for better (Lehner for a 1st-round pick) or worse (Ben Bishop for Cory Conacher).

It remains to be seen if the Senators will continue this trend by divesting themselves of Condon once Hammond and Anderson both make their full-time return. Presumably, so long as Anderson needs flexibility to miss time or Hammond’s injury keeps him out of the lineup, Condon’s employment in Ottawa will continue.

It’s a three-goalie rotation that, while unusual, could work for the time being. Certainly, it has the potential to work better than, say, the Islanders’ current situation.

In Brooklyn, the team continues to carry three goalies for a second consecutive season. The team claimed Jean-François Berube off waivers from the Los Angeles Kings just before the season began when starter Jaroslav Halak was lost to injury. The young netminder played well enough in limited action last season to warrant another contract from New York, which has only exacerbated a confused and confusing goalie triumvirate for the team.

All three of Halak, Berube, and Thomas Greiss have played well in various stretches for the team. The Islanders are most interested in moving Halak, due to his $4.5 million cap hit over the next two seasons and his history with injuries. But, with trade talks cooling, one wonders whether the market so undervalues the goaltending position that Halak’s deficiencies are enough to make him untradeable.

The question, though, has become whether capable goaltending needs to be more highly valued. As teams experience devastating injuries to their goalies, their depth is being tested in the same way Ottawa’s has been.

In the opening weeks of this season, it seemed half the teams in the league had one or even both of their NHL goalies experience an injury:

  • As already mentioned, LA’s Quick was felled by the ever-ambiguous “lower body injury” on the season’s opening day only to have backup Zatkoff go down to a “lower body injury” himself just nine days later.
  • The Leafs’ Fredrick Andersen missed the World Cup and much of training camp.
  • Pittsburgh’s loss of playoff hero Matt Murray to start the season led to the claiming of Condon off waivers from Montreal.
  • Lehner, now Buffalo’s starter, missed the opening of the season due to illness, as did Montreal’s Carey Price, whose knee injury last season completely derailed the Canadiens’ season and resulted in the trial-by-fire that Condon underwent with the team.
  • The Senators themselves, before their own troubles started, saw the effects of losing a starting goalie up close when Arizona’s Mike Smith left a game early, to be replaced by Louis Domingue who, to put things kindly, fared less well than hoped.
  • Boston’s Tuukka Rask, felled by a suspected hamstring injury to start the season couldn’t come back in time to fill in for his backup, Anton Khudobin, when he got injured in practice in late October, forcing Boston to look to its own minor league prospects to fill in.

How teams have reacted to these woes has been varied. For example, Florida,

For example, Florida, for fear of Roberto Luongo missing substantial time due to off-season surgery, acquired both Reto Berra and James Reimer during the off-season. When Luongo’s recovery progressed fast enough to see him join the team in training camp, the Panthers were forced to send Berra, a veteran backup with a one-way $1.45 million contract, to their AHL team in Springfield. Yet, with all the injuries to goalies this season, they still haven’t traded him. Unlike how Pittsburgh’s general manager Jim Rutherford held onto Condon until he could secure an asset he deemed acceptable compensation for his foresight, Florida could keep Berra in case of emergency, an idea implied in comments made by team president Dale Tallon.

Like Los Angeles, Boston did not acquire reinforcements despite also having to rely on their AHL tandem for a good part of October. With $3.5 million in cap space, the Bruins could afford to acquire another goalie, but chose to run with prospects Malcolm Subban and Zane McIntyre when both starter Tuukka Rask and backup Anton Khudobin were injured.

With Rask back with the team, the pressure to make such an acquisition is off for now. But, having McIntyre, who marginally out-played Subban during the emergency period, sit and watch every night instead of getting playing time in the AHL as was the plan, probably won’t help the young goalie’s development.

Los Angeles does not have any solid goalie prospects to ruin at this point. When both their goalies went down, former Montreal backup Budaj carried the load. His backup was, and likely will be again, Jack Campbell, a reclamation project acquired this off-season when Dallas got fed up with his lack of development.

That this tandem has fared “not well enough” at times is qualified by the fact that the Kings have managed to stay in the playoff hunt so far. It helps their cause to play in the weakest of the NHL’s four divisions, in which Vancouver, a team thus far incapable of averaging two goals for per game, remains out of the division’s basement due to the presence there of the Arizona Coyotes and their more than 3.5-goals-against per game, as well as the Calgary Flames and their ongoing struggles.

With Zatkoff injured again and Quick not returning for at least two more months, the Kings have to be regretting not only the loss of Berube, but other decisions that put them in this predicament, including past trades of Jonathan Bernier and Martin Jones, the failure to retain former prospect Patrik Bartosak, and even the many questionable signings that led to their current salary cap crunch.

Because, in the Kings’ case, the reason behind sticking with a marginally capable goaltending duo is the cap situation. According to CapFriendly.com, the team has less than $900,000 in cap space for this season. The team has suffered from cap pressures for several seasons and are lucky not to be paying a heavier price for that in this period when their goalie depth has been so severely tested.

All of this is to say that, by the end of the season, the Senators rather agile move to secure more depth at this key position might prove to be the most important transaction Dorion will have made. This will be especially true if goaltending performances, like those that Anderson and Condon have put in so far, turn out to be the difference in the team’s quest for the playoffs.

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