Thursday, February 23, 2012

Back Up Goalies: A Risky Proposition

Trade talk has been the focal point of all things Blue Jackets lately. In nearly every rumored deal a goaltender is seen coming back to Columbus. In the Vermette trade there were a few brief moments where some people thought Curtis McElhinney was actually going to tend goal for the Blue Jackets. Obviously Rick Nash is the big fish being dangled, and nearly every trade possibility floated has a goaltender being brought back. The three goalies most often mentioned have been Cory Schneider, Jon Bernier and Tuuka Rask. While all three have been very good in net with their current teams, I hesitate to think any one of them would be the answer for the Blue Jackets. Historically speaking, it has been a very risky move to bring in a career back-up netminder to be a starter. Numbers drop dramatically and in many cases the goalie flames out horribly. I took a look back at all goaltenders who went from a primarily back-up role to being a starter elsewhere, and this is what I found:

  • Semyon Varlamov: Played 59 games for the Capitals, sporting a .917 save percentage and a 2.39 goals against average. He also had some playoff experience as a starter with the Caps. He was traded for 1st & 2nd round picks, and put up a .902, 2.90 post-trade. He also managed to lose his starting spot to J.S. Gigure.
  • Jaroslav Halak: Played 101 games for the Canadiens, although 45 his final year as part of a tandem with Carey Price. He put up a .919, 2.62 in Montreal. Traded for Lars Eller & Ian Schultz. His save percentage dropped slightly while his GAA actually improved with the Blues to a .915, 2.29.
  • Craig Anderson: 109 games as a back-up in Florida and Chicago, where he had a .911, 2.87. He signed as a UFA with the Avs for 2 years, $1.8m. He was excellent his first year in Colorado and then given away his second year. Since becoming a starter, his numbers have jumped slightly to .914, 2.78.
  • Dan Ellis: 111 games with Nashville and Dallas, sporting a .912, 2.64. He signed as a UFA with the Lightning for 2 years, $1.5m. As a starter he put up a 0.900, 2.76; and lost his job to Mike Smith, then traded to Anaheim where he reclaimed a role as a back-up goalie.
  • Ilya Bryzgalov: 69 games as a back-up in Anaheim, although he had some playoff starting experience. In Anaheim he had a .909, 2.48. After being claimed by the Coyotes on waivers he has put up a .915, 2.57 as a starter. Since leaving Phoenix his numbers have plummeted, raising the question of whether he is as good as everyone thought, or whether the system played a major role in his stellar play.
  • Mike Smith: In 44 games as a back-up in Dallas, he had a 0.909, 2.34. Traded to the Lightning for Brad Richards (along with Jussi Jokinen). In 118 games primarily as a starter with Tampa he had a .905, 2.85. He lost his starting job to Dan Ellis (although he won it back again, then lost it when they traded for Dwayne Roloson), and wasn't re-signed.  He has since been excellent in Phoenix this year, which raises the questions mentioned earlier about Bryzgalov.
  • Vesa Toskala: Played 115 games as a back-up in San Jose, sporting a .914, 2.34. The Leafs traded a 1st, 2nd & 4th to acquire him. He put up an abysmal .895, 3.06, lost his starting job to Jonas Gustavsson, was dumped to Anaheim, then subesequently dumped to Calgary. Toskala is now out of the NHL.
  • Mathieu Garon: 43 games as Canadiens back-up, with 0.914, 2.49. Traded to the Kings for Radek Bonk and Cristobel Huet (who was still a prospect in Europe then). In 95 games with LA, Garon had a brutal .898, 3.03, lost his starting job to Dan Cloutier, and then let go as a free agent after two years.
  • Marc Denis: 28 games as the Avalanche back-up, with a 0.916, 2.55. The Blue Jackets traded a 2nd round pick for him, and he put up a .904, 3.01 as the starter in Columbus and later Tampa. Afterwards he started in the AHL for a couple of years, and was out of hockey at age 31.
  • Miikka Kiprusoff: The prime example of how trading for a back-up can be a success. While this was pre-lockout, Calgary traded a 2nd round pick for the San Jose back-up.
  • Cristobel Huet: Huet started in Montreal for a short time and then in Washington, although he primarily had been a back up/tandem. In Chicago he failed spectacularly when leaned on to be a full time starter. He was signed to a 4 year, $5.625m per season contract, and is still the 7th highest paid goalie in the NHL.
  • Andrew Raycroft, Martin Biron, Alex Auld, Ty Conklin, Manny Legace, Martin Gerber were all close, but started at some point with their prior team before going somewhere else to be the go to guy and failing miserably.
That is not a very pretty list of names. Historically speaking, it has been a terrible idea to poach another team's back-up to be a starter. Also of note, the low prices to acquire these players. Only Mike Smith was acquired for a big name player, which worked out terribly for Tampa. It is interesting to note the Lightning have acquired four of the goalies on this list, and none of them are even their current starter. Also interesting that they are the only team that has had worse goaltending this year than the Blue Jackets. Look at the goaltenders above who were a success: Halak, Bryzgalov and Kiprusoff. They are the only three who really became goaltenders anywhere near the "franchise" caliber goaltending that every team pines after. Halak was traded for a good prospect and a mediocre prospect (think Boone Jenner & Dalton Prout), Bryzgalov was acquired on waivers, and Kipper was traded for a 2nd round pick.

Judging from those players above, it's a crapshoot to grab another teams back-up and make him your starter. Two teams traded for a San Jose back-up with stellar numbers. One got Miika Kiprusoff and he carried them to the Cup finals. The other got Vesa Toskala, and even paid a much steeper price for him. In general, goalies play worse when leaned on for the starting job after being a back-up elsewhere. Some stats:

Average games played as back-up: 75gp
Average save percentage as back-up: .913
Average goals against average as back-up: 2.52
Average save percentage as starter: .905
Average goals against average as a starter: 2.81

That turns into a drop of .08 in save percentage and 0.29 in goals against average. Now let's look at the rumored goaltenders and see where they would end up if their numbers dropped the average amount:

Jonathan Bernier: $1.25m, with 1 year remaining before RFA status. Has played 43 games as a back-up in Los Angeles, sports a career .908, 2.57 numbers. Would drop to .900, 2.86 (very similar to the .899 put up by Steve Mason since his rookie year).

Cory Schneider: RFA after this season, played 56 games as the Canucks back-up. Has a .922 sv%, 2.42 gaa. He would drop to .914, 2.71 (worse than Sanford's .915, 2.52 this year).

Tuuka Rask RFA after this season. Played 100 games mostly as the back-up, although stole the starting job from Tim Thomas for most of the season in 2009-10. Sports a career .926. 2.22. Rask would end up at .918, 2.51.

Now of course their numbers aren't going to fall exactly at the average. But the Blue Jackets have been a terrible defensive team for three seasons now. These three goaltenders have been playing in front of three of the better defensive teams in the league. There is no way their numbers don't drop in union blue. Would marginally better goaltending than Curtis Sanford really be worth Rick Nash? Absolutely no way.

Furthermore, the only two I would be looking at (I wouldn't even be considering Bernier) are both restricted free agents this offseason. They Jackets could simply wait until the offseason and tender and offer sheet to either Rask or Schneider for the max level at the 2nd round compensation, which would be near $3.25m per season. Or a better idea is to tell the Bruins or Canucks they plan on placing an offer sheet but would prefer to make a trade. They could then offer them slightly more (say the Ottawa 2nd acquired from Phoenix along with the Blue Jackets 2nd), and then sign the acquired goalie for a longer term at lower cap hit. This would also stop any other goalie hungry team (cough*Tampa*cough) from trying the same offer sheet move.

Even though the numbers favor Rask, I think Schneider is the better target than Rask. The Bruins have more cap room and more impetus to keep Rask, as Thomas is older than Luongo. The age of Thomas and the future of the Bruins makes it more likely that Rask wants to stick around in Boston. Schneider will likely want a starting job this offseason. And how many starting jobs are going to be available? A couple of teams could use an upgrade in net, but really only Columbus and Tampa have wide open starting jobs for next year. If I were running the Blue Jackets, I would be waiting for the offseason to find a goaltender. I would make a play for Rask, then go after Schneider hard. If neither of those work out, I'd take a long look at Josh Harding and Al Montoya as unrestricted free agents. If I'm rolling the dice on a starting goalie, I'm not giving up Rick Nash to do it. I'm making a shrewd deal at the going rate for a back-up tender (~2nd round pick) or signing Harding/Montoya and hoping for a Craig Anderson-esque performance.

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