by PuckStopsHere on 05/19/09 at 02:58 AM ET
One of the more surprising things in the playoffs so far is that goaltending has not been able to carry any team deep into the playoffs. The remaining teams do not have elite goaltending. If you made a list of the five best goaltenders in the game today, it would not include any of the remaining goalies in the playoffs. The remaining goalies are mid-level goalies at best. That is an alarming realization. How can these be the best teams in the league when none have elite goaltending?
Cam Ward of the Carolina Hurricanes is probably the best goalie still in the playoffs. He won the 2006 Conn Smythe Trophy, but it was a case of when in doubt give it to the goalie and not a case of him being deserving. Since then Ward has been a solid goalie but he has never wound up in any series Vezina races.
The second best goalie in the playoffs is possibly Nikolai Khabibulin. He too has had playoff success. He won the Stanley Cup in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning. At that point in his career he probably was an elite goalie, though he has shown very few signs of it since. Khabibulin has not been too successful in Chicago. This year has been the best of his Chicago seasons, as he sported a .919 saves percentage and a 2.33 GAA. He hasn’t been able to keep on that role in the playoffs and hasn’t stolen any games for the Hawks in their playoff run. Khabibulin is a four time all star game player, but his last appearance was in 2003. He hasn’t been an elite goalie for a few years.
I would pick Marc-Andre Fleury as the third best goalie left in the playoffs. As the first pick in the 2003 draft he has faced big expectations that he has never lived up to. He is an NHL goalie but has never been a great one. He has never been a Vezina candidate. He has never played in an all star game. His biggest success to date is being the goalie of the 2008 Stanley Cup finalists. The Penguins are an offensively strong team that rarely depends on goaltending and Fleury is that goalie.
Chris Osgood is the weakest of the remaining goalies. His best days are done. He posted some pathetic numbers this year including a .887 saves percentage and a 3.09 GAA. While his playoffs have been better than that so far, he is not the type to steal a few games for you. Osgood was once a Cam Ward calibre goalie and even was running up to the Vezina Trophy in 1996. He has had significant playoff success as the Detroit Red Wings goalie, but has never been seriously considered one of the best goalies in the league. His career has been a case of right place at the right time. Detroit had a Stanley Cup team despite no elite goaltending.
The fact there are no elite goaltenders left in the 2009 playoffs is clear from statistics. The goalies with the top three playoff saves percentages (Jonas Hiller, Tim Thomas and Martin Brodeur) have all been eliminated from the playoffs.
What does it mean that there are no elite goalies left in the playoffs? It does not mean that goaltending is not important to win the Stanley Cup. This year’s result is more fluke than meaningful. It turns out that the best goalies in the league played on teams that were otherwise lacking and got eliminated. It means that parity is strong in the NHL. A team can be the best without elite goaltending. That has not been the case historically. Nearly any team that won the Stanley Cup did so with an elite goaltender in net. This isn’t so true anymore. Part of that is a function of expansion. More teams in the NHL mean more goaltenders in the NHL and more teams without elite goaltenders. If the NHL was a six team league, none of the four remaining playoff goaltenders would be starters in the league. That alone would guarantee better goaltending from the teams with playoff success. Another cause is the salary cap. Teams are artificially limited in how much they can pay players. This has kept some of these teams from acquiring better goaltending. I have no doubt that absent a salary cap the Detroit Red Wings would have a better goalie than Chris Osgood.
As I have written in the past parity is a problem come Stanley Cup playoff time. The playoffs are supposed to be epic battles between elite teams. If none of the remaining teams have elite goaltenders then none of the remaining teams are elite teams. Detroit may come the closest to elite status, but they fail with Chris Osgood in net. The fan is cheated. Fans don’t get to see epic playoff battles between elite teams anymore because the NHL structure prevents the formation of elite teams.
The fact the remaining teams in the playoffs this year do not have elite goaltenders is a symptom of the salary cap. When the salary cap stays stagnant or goes down, due to economic issues in the next year or two things will get worse. Teams in the immediate future will get worse than they are now and right now we are watching a playoff with no elite goalies.
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