Gambles on goaltending are proving to be losing bets for many NHL GMs

The Sharks are just one team that gambled on mediocre goaltending for 2019-20. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The Sharks are just one team that gambled on mediocre goaltending for 2019-20. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Coming into the season, much was made of San Jose’s decision to roll its two goalies from last year once again.

Understandably so. The Sharks had the worst goaltending in the league, and to gamble that they would turn it around was risky at best, especially given the age of many of the Sharks’ best players. While you could perhaps reasonably project that Martin Jones’s terrible, awful, no-good, very-bad season was a blip on an otherwise perfectly average record, to do so with Aaron Dell (whose subpar track record speaks for itself) was unwise.

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That the Sharks started out poorly wasn’t entirely on that tandem, but even with this latest turnaround, those two have continued to be sub-.900 and there’s not really much hope that things suddenly turn around.

And while those two certainly got the headlines this summer, that wasn’t the only big mistake NHL teams with legitimate aspirations made in assessing their goaltending situations. New Jersey is another disappointment specifically because they had no real plan other than to hope Cory Schneider’s second half of last season was going to turn itself around, and the idea that Mackenzie Blackwood was as advertised in his 23 games from last season.

Hasn’t worked out, and look at the Devils now: Blackwood has only been a little bit below average (but still costing the team points), while Schneider looks absolutely washed and just got assigned to the AHL.

Of course, money plays a role in both San Jose and New Jersey: Those teams invested heavily in their goalies who, through bad luck, injuries and aging curves, turned out to be awful.

The same can be said in Minnesota, where their goalies have consistently been bad for the last few years, and it should therefore be no surprise they’re lurking around the bottom of the league.

Florida is in a different situation because Sergei Bobrovsky hardly looks like he’s worth the $10-million AAV he’ll earn for the next seven seasons, and he’s already past 30. In Nashville, it turned out 37-year-old Pekka Rinne really couldn’t keep it up forever, and now the team is struggling badly as a result.

You might be able to make a similar argument in LA, but at least no one really cares over there because the Kings are supposed to be tanking. The gamble in Detroit to not-trade Jimmy Howard last year but then sign him to a tradeable deal has not worked out (except they’re tanking, too).

But what really remains of interest are the two teams who were thought to be among the best of the best on paper and just figured, “Well, we don’t need any insurance for our backup goalie positions.” I had the stat the other day, but Toronto’s a well-over-100-point team in front of Freddie Andersen, and a team with a point total in the teens with Michael Hutchinson or (yeesh) Kasimir Kaskisuo between the pipes. In just seven appearances, they’ve combined to cost the Leafs more goals below expected than Blackwood has for the Devils in 14 — and again, he’s having a pretty bad season.

The Leafs, like the Sharks and Devils, were constrained to some extent by money. But as mentioned the other day when talking about all the things that were and were not Babcock’s fault, the goaltending situation being putrid (because Andersen, for the record, has been about 0.3 goals above expected, which isn’t saving anyone’s bacon) falls firmly into the latter category. Not sure what anyone’s supposed to do when you can’t get a save in back-to-backs.

The other team to which these concerns apply is Vegas: Marc-Andre Fleury isn’t setting the world on fire — aside from that nasty save last night on the Leafs — but only seven other goalies have more goals saved above expected than he does this year. The problem, then, is that the three other goalies they’ve used have cost Vegas twice as many goals below expected (6.88) as Fleury, the eighth-best goalie in the league to date, has saved them (3.24). No wonder, then, that they’re largely seen as a disappointment.

The question is how all these GMs bet so wrong this summer. Credit Kelly McCrimmon/George McPhee for at least having bodies on hand to throw at the problem, but Dubas had an AHLer with mediocre career numbers as his only insurance policy in case Hutchinson turned back into a pumpkin. Ray Shero, Dale Tallon, David Poile, Doug Wilson (and maybe even Bill Guerin)? None had any plan whatsoever in case their goalies were what they’ve appeared to be in recent history, or worse.

There are, of course, not a lot of NHL-caliber goaltenders out there and apparently very few coaches who can take on charity cases and turn them into even average NHLers. Roster constraints and cap commitments obviously play a role here as well. 

But to just say, “Well, we’ll see if these guys are any good even though we have plenty of reason to suspect they won’t be,” when your expectations are so high? Feels like you have to do better than that in a seven-figure job.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats/salary info via Natural Stat TrickEvolving HockeyHockey ReferenceCapFriendly and Corsica, unless noted.

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