One of the many catchphrases that Eddie Olczyk has been trying to “fetch” for more than a decade is “Goaltending: If you don’t have it, you got no chance.” Like most of the things Eddie O says, it probably sounds way cooler and more clever in his head. It’s not a play on words, it doesn’t rhyme, it’s not lyrical in any way, it’s just a collection of words that he thinks sound pithy.
Somewhere beneath the rubble of that is the truth though. NHL teams aren’t going to go very far in the playoffs if they can’t get saves. Gone are the days when a team can Patrick Roy its way to a Cup, where all it needs is a goalie on a heater. But there is a baseline of play from the netminder needed, and that baseline is pretty high.
The problem is that getting that level of goaltending tends to be pretty expensive. Quarterback is the most important position in sports, but goalie isn’t as far behind as some would like to think. Like a signal-caller in the NFL, if you have a wayward clown in net, he’ll sink the whole operation. Look around, and the best take up a big chunk of cap space. Andrei Vasilevskiy makes $9.5 million. Carey Price $10.5 million. Marc-André Fleury $7 million. Same for Tuukka Rask. Connor Hellebuyck comes in at a cool $6.1 million, which is a bargain considering what he provides.
Given the NHL’s salary cap, and its current flat status, spending big bucks somewhere means you’re going to have to find bargains or massive efficiency somewhere else. The Penguins thought they could get away with trying to economize the goalie position this year to keep their expensive top nine forwards and more than cheap top-four defense. Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith make $4.7 million combined, which allowed the Pens to have nine forwards that make over $3 million per season (Jeff Carter included) and four d-men making over $4 million (and John Marino will make that five next year).
Sometimes, you get what you pay for.
Tristan Jarry was the Penguins’ coupon, and it didn’t work. They moved Matt Murray along to Ottawa before the season, before they had to pay him serious cash, and gave the job to Jarry. And he was terrible in this series against the Islanders, putting up a .888 save-percentage. He had the worst goals-saved-above-expected, according to Moneypuck.com, at -7.9. That was nearly four goals worse than the next guy on the list! The Isles picked and picked at his glove-hand, and then when that got into his head they went everywhere else in Game 6. The Penguins simply never got the big save that could have turned this series.
The oddity of it is that the Penguins did just about everything else right. Over the six games, they dominated the attempts-count at even-strength, to the tune of 59.4 percent. That’s something of a quirk with the Islanders, who are comfortable giving up equal or more attempts than they get, as long as they limit how dangerous those attempts are. But they didn’t really do that this series. The Penguins had a 55 percent share of the expected-goals at even-strength in the series, and were over 60 percent in the last two games. This being hockey, and hockey being strange, the only two games the Penguins had less of the expected-goals were the only two they won.
So in one sense, trying to save money with their goaltender did work in that their forwards, including the midseason infusion of Jeff Carter, were able to push the play and create enough chances to win. It was just undone by the jalopy in the mask.
Where it leaves the Penguins now will be perhaps the most entertaining story in the NHL’s offseason. They brought in a new GM in Ron Hextall in the middle of the season, with professional hemorrhoid Brian Burke above him. Burke may not actually have any power or say, but he is there, and he’s already been bellowing about making the Penguins “tougher” before belching and scratching himself. The Penguins are never going to be ready for a rebuild until Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin retire, but Hextall’s one strength as a GM in Philadelphia was his drafting record. The Pens don’t have time for that. When it came to augmenting that young Flyers talent with free-agent signings and trades, Hextall’s record wasn’t good; he has a lot of ground to make up. And if Burke gets his way and they really do try and pivot to being the Charlestown Chiefs, the Pens time in the executive club will decidedly be over.
If the Pens want to do simple, and just try and run it back but with better goalies, the free-agent market doesn’t have too many options. Phillipp Grubauer is the big name that’s available, but the Avs might not be so eager to let him traipse off and even if they do, he’s going to be very expensive. Trying to coax one more run out of Rask? Count on Antii Raanta to actually stay in one piece for more than a week? Let Freddie Andersen break your heart in a Game 7?
And even if the Pens do want to shell out for a goalie, the lint left in their pockets isn’t going to pay for it. They’re projected to be over the cap for next year as is. Getting Jason Zucker’s $5.5 million off the books is just a start. Will they have to lose Brian Dumoulin as well? Brandon Tanev and/or Bryan Rust? Will there be another summer of whispered Malkin trades? The depth the Pens created by going low in the crease is probably going to have to go away.
But that’s how the NHL works. You have to get cheap help somewhere that overplays its station in order to bolster another area. The Avs’ greatness at the moment is heavily based on the fact they get galactic play from Nathan MacKinnon for the price of a second-line winger ($6 million). The Pens tried it in goal. Sometimes a bargain is too good to be true.