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Are NHL teams better off trying to acquire a top goalie through free agency or the draft?

Sep 10, 2011, 6:44 PM EDT

Mason Raymond Pekka Rinne AP

Finding a great goalie is an inexact science. People love (or loved?) to beat up on the Philadelphia Flyers for their inability to find a genuine No. 1 starter, as if a general manager can just wave a magic wand and make the next Patrick Roy appear in net.

There are so many factors that go into what makes or breaks a goalie’s success. There’s outside forces like the quality of defense in front of him, competition from other goalies in that organization and even the amount of goals his team scores to allow a little margin of error. Even on the individual level, there’s a lot of things that can break one way or another, from a given franchise’s goalie coaches, their patience with the maturation process and developing the mindset to shake off tough goals and tougher losses.

It’s probably a slight oversimplification to assume that every NHL team leans heavily one way or the other, but ESPN’s Alvin Chang conducted an interesting study to explore a tough question: is it wiser to try to draft a franchise goalie or roll the dice with free agency? (subscription required)

The general takeaway of the study focused on how tough it is to find an elite goalie via drafting, with the focus revolving around the Nashville Predators and Pekka Rinne – whom they drafted but could find himself being the most significant free agent netminder in quite some time if the team cannot retain him.

Looking at the Predators’ success, it certainly seems like it. They did their homework on Rinne and selected him in 2004. But it wasn’t just about good scouting. It was also a game of probability.

Five years before Rinne’s selection, the Predators drafted goalie Brian Finley with the No. 6 overall pick in 1999. The following round, they drafted goalie Jan Lasak. And for good measure, they drafted goalie Kyle Kettles at No. 205. But when all was said and done, those three guys played 10 NHL games — combined.

In the following five years, the Predators continued their search for a goalie; they drafted seven more stoppers until they found Rinne with the 258th pick in 2004.

Of course, they had no idea he would be the one to pan out. In fact, from 2006 to 2008, they drafted five more goaltenders and, since 2000, they’ve drafted a total of 13 — second-most in the NHL. But goaltenders are incredibly hard to project, so the Preds sifted for elite goalies the only way they knew how: by drafting a lot of goalie prospects.

For some teams, that approach might not work, but the low-budget Predators probably take that route at least partially out of necessity. The thing is, if you ask me, paying big money for a should-be franchise goalie isn’t exactly a great way to get the job done either. Worse yet, teams spend precious cap space and don’t always get above average work from those top guys.

As you can see from this excerpt from an older PHT post, spending a lot of money on a goalie doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you’ll make the playoffs – even if that guy plays well.

Teams who missed the playoffs despite spending $3.5 million or more on a single goalie:

Calgary (Miikka Kiprusoff – $5.88 million); Carolina (Cam Ward – $6.3M); Dallas (Kari Lehtonen – $3.5M); Edmonton (Nikolai Khabibulin – $3.75M); Florida (Tomas Vokoun – $5.7M); Minnesota (Niklas Backstrom – $6M); New Jersey (Martin Brodeur – $5.2M); NY Islanders (Rick DiPietro – $4.5M); Ottawa (Pascal Leclaire – $3.8M); St. Louis (Jaroslav Halak – $3.75M); Toronto (Jean-Sebastien Giguere – $6M).

To contrast that study, about half of the league’s playoff teams (depending upon how you count the Anaheim Ducks, since Jonas Hiller didn’t play in the postseason) were thrifty with their netminders.

If I were an NHL general manager, I would take a two-pronged approach: draft a lot of goalies somewhere in the middle to late rounds while picking up and/or trading goalies at reasonable prices. Sometimes that would mean some serious uncertainty in net, but considering how much (for example) the Flames are paying Kipper and the Wild are paying Backstrom to not be serious contenders, it seems wiser to spend big money on more proven commodities like forwards and defensemen. That approach might be best illustrated by how well the Flyers did with a healthy Chris Pronger in the 2010 playoffs (although Chris Osgood’s most virulent critics would say that his career, in general, is a strong example of the perks of a strategy that focuses on surrounding affordable but shaky goalies with top talent).

Again, it’s an inexact science, though. Which route do you think is the wisest when it comes to finding that elusive franchise goalie?

  1. hanktheking - Sep 11, 2011 at 12:24 AM

    As per every single position, it is far better to draft and develop your own talent..there is a reason teams let players walk away.

  2. icelovinbrotha215 - Sep 11, 2011 at 12:51 PM

    Via free agency. It’s much harder to draft a franchise goalie than acquire him. It’s like pitchers.

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