by PuckStopsHere on 06/05/09 at 03:28 AM ET
I started a bit of a controversy when I claimed no elite goalies are left in the playoffs during the semi-finals. I stand by that statement. The statement is part of a bigger problem that I have discussed in the past - how to identify a team that is among the greatest of all time. How to find the historically elite teams is an interesting problem.
Historically elite teams do not exist in the NHL every season. In the salary capped NHL they are rarer than ever before. I argue (based on historical precident) that a historically elite team necessarily has several core players (who may include the goalie) who are on Hall of Fame tracks (it is reasonable to project them to making the Hall of Fame in their careers) and they must have a top goalie (one who can arguably be called one of the top five in the game). These conditions are not sufficient to make a team an elite one. Obviously there are many other factors. The players must play well together as a team. Without the elite players, including a top goalie, a team cannot be an elite one. They need the players as well as a top performance.
The benefit to this argument is it is easier to identify potentially elite teams. There are certain conditions that they must satisfy. If they do not, then they cannot be historically elite. If they do satisfy (or potentially satisfy) them, then there is a chance that we might be seeing one of the greatest teams of all time. It is time to take a closer look.
This season I argue that no team makes the just to the elite level because the remaining teams do not have sufficiently good goaltenders.
There were sixteen number one goalies in the playoffs: Jonas Hiller, Tim Thomas, Miikka Kiprusoff, Cam Ward, Nikolai Khabibulin, Steve Mason, Chris Osgood, Carey Price, Martin Brodeur, Henrik Lundqvist, Martin Biron, Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Mason, Evgeni Nabokov, Roberto Luongo and Semeon Varlamov. Which five of those goalies would you want on your team if a new season were beginning right now? Which one gives you the best chance of winning? We will all have slightly different choices but our lists would more or less converge. I argue that the best choices are Brodeur, Lundqvist, Luongo, Nabokov and Thomas- one might also make a case for Kiprusoff or Steve Mason - but one cannot argue that all or most of the bunch are elite goalies. If you do that you run into the nonsensical Lake Wobegon effect. The word elite makes no sense if nearly every number one goalie in the playoffs qualifies.
This clearly doesn’t mean that a team will win merely by having one of the elite goalies. Teams win games. Individual goalies do not. Top goalies sometimes have poor performances. Sometimes lesser goalies outplay them. That is the nature of hockey.
Of course it is possible that either Osgood or Fleury could get hot and be the story of the finals. It is unlikely - though for the first two games of the finals it looked like Osgood might do it. Four games into the finals, both teams have allowed the same number of goals. Both teams lost the two times they outshot their opponent. This series is playing out approximately as would be expected given the observation that neither team has one of the best goalies in the game.
It is hard for a fan to admit their goalie is not among the best in the NHL. This is especially true when the goalie and team are on hot streaks. That doesn’t change the fact that neither Osgood nor Fleury is among the elite goalies in the NHL today. That fact keeps Detroit and Pittsburgh back of the pack when discussing the historically elite teams. That seems to be partially a consequence of the salary cap. The salary cap makes it very hard to impossible to build such a team. The NHL has traded off truly great teams for financial gains for the owners. That troubles me. From the comments I have received in the past it is clear that doesn’t trouble a lot of fans (at least as long as their team is winning). If that is the case then the NHL may have made the right move. Fans may not care if they no longer see historically elite teams playing for the Stanley Cup.
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