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Phoenix adds new wrinkle to the NHL goaltending debate

Nov 15, 2011, 2:34 PM EDT

Mike Smith

Tonight in Toronto, it’s the tale of two vastly different goaltending situations.

The Leafs will start rookie Ben Scrivens in goal. He’ll get the nod over third-year pro Jonas Gustavsson, who was originally tabbed to be the starting netminder after sophomore sensation James Reimer got hurt.

The Coyotes, meanwhile, will counter with Mike Smith, a six-year veteran on his third NHL club. He’ll be backed up by Jason LaBarbera, a 31-year-old journeyman.

The two teams are at opposite ends of the goaltending spectrum stylistically…and statistically.

Toronto has the fourth-worst GAA (3.41). Both Scrivens and Gustavsson have save percentages below .900.

Phoenix has the NHL’s 10th-lowest GAA (2.47). Both goalies have solid save percentages — Smith: .931, LaBarbera: .900.

“[Nobody's] been more important to the club so far this season than Smith,” writes CBC.ca. “Since allowing six goals in the season opener, the netminder’s goals-against average is 1.88.”

Smith’s ascension to a top-flight, No. 1 netminder is the latest in the ongoing debate of how NHL teams should approach the goaltending position. There’s no shortage of opinion on how to do it. Some say find a proven veteran and lock him up long-term. Others suggest grooming a less-expensive (and less-proven) youngster. Some say spend big while others preach frugality. Some say declare a clear-cut No. 1, others opt for the platoon system.

Thing is, Smith’s situation in Phoenix doesn’t really fit into any of those. When the Coyotes signed him to a two-year, $4-million deal back in July he was a run-of-the-mill 29-year-old goalie with marginal starting experience. (At $2 million per, he was being paid exactly like that — either a cheap starter, or a pricey backup.)

The thought was at best he’s a decent 1b to someone else’s 1a; at worst he’s one of the league’s better backups. Many assumed he’d be Phoenix’s starter, but they also assumed Phoenix would have the worst goaltending duo in the league.

Whoops.

Now granted, some of Smith’s success this year is due to Phoenix’s defensive style of play. But looking around the NHL right now — yes, Toronto included — there are more than a few clubs that could probably use Smith at $2 million per:

– The team he left, Tampa Bay, had to yank Dwayne Roloson again last night.

– Columbus’s goaltending woes are well documented.

– New Jersey is still on the lookout for 39-year-old Martin Brodeur‘s heir apparent. (And if Smith wasn’t the heir apparent, he could’ve been a useful stopgap considering Brodeur’s backup, Johan Hedberg, is 38.)

It’s still early in the year and hey, Smith’s never played more than 42 games in a single season — this could still go pear-shaped. But for now, Phoenix has added yet another viable option as to how NHL teams should approach the goaltending position.

I’m just not sure how to describe it.

  1. kwells44 - Nov 15, 2011 at 3:26 PM

    Coyotes’ management has a lot of faith in Sean Burke’s ability and they seem to put a lot of thought into what goaltender he can make the biggest difference with.

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