Thursday, December 11, 2008

Backup Starters and Tango-ing with Tandems, the Goaltending Issues of the NHL

Well as people care less and less about the Avery debacle, and even less about where Sundin ends up, it seems the new issue among the hockey media is goaltending controversies, and the rewards from cheap free agent signings. I'll gladly take the league minimum and provide some quality "door-opening and supportive butt-slapping" in the NHL, all homo-erotic tendencies asside. [ESPN]

It doesn't feel all that long ago, but I still remember the days of getting Score and Upper Deck hockey cards, and finding those duds within the pack of the season's awards winners. One I distinctly remember was the William Jennings Trophy, and the lock that Patrick Roy and Brian Hayward had on the hardware in the late 80's. The Jennings was created in order to reward "the goalkeeper(s) having played a minimum of 25 games for the team with the fewest goals scored against it." Obviously, Patty was pulling the majority of the weight for that Canadien tandem, but at that time in my young, idealistic mind it made sense to me that two is better than one. Nowadays, all we talk about is your #1 goaltender, and his typically overinflated salary, and his counterpart, the poor, pennyless backup, relegated to "door-opening and supportive butt-slapping."

But as we've been discovering, #1's are vulnerable, and their backups are playing like they've got nothing to lose, because in all reality they don't. Its like that brutal Keanu Reeves/Gene Hackman football movie The Replacements, "they've underestimated you, you're playing like there's no tomorrow, because there is no tomorrow, and that makes you all very dangerous people! (sic)" They've been through it all, been told they'd never make it, they don't have the tools, then work their way through the minors, paying their dues, only to finally make it, get waived, or traded for a bag of pucks, they've seen it all. Craig Anderson turned heads last year with two back-to-back shutouts for the Panthers, and now you're seeing him get more playing time than multi-millionaire Tomas Vokoun. You look at Vokoun's old digs in Nashville, as Scott Burnside points out, he was replaced by Chris Mason, who was replaced by Dan Ellis, who is in the process of being replaced by Pekka Rinne. Chris Mason who state-hopped over to St. Louis was supposed to be Manny Legace's backup, or his tandem partner? He's now playing just as much as the Olympic goaltender.

And that brings us to the issue, is it better to have a #1 goaltender to play 60 odd or more games through the season, or to have two capable goaltenders that each have equal amounts of trust from the head coach and brass?

Due to the cap, and these ridiculous contracts lately, the tandem occurence is more of an accident, than the actual modus operandi of a GM. Take the Boston combination at the moment right now. You've got Tim Thomas, the definition of a journeyman backup goaltender who has taken what may have been his final opportunity to make a career out of it, and become a big reason the Bruins are having the success they have had this year. And then you've got Manny Fernandez, who was injured all of last year, which gave Thomas his shot, and had played poorly before that, has now re-invented his game and is splitting time in the net, and coming up with some solid wins. Fernandez too, has an interesting history, he was once part of the accidental goaltending tandem with Dwayne Rolosson back in Minnesota. Rolosson was eventually supplanted, shipped to Edmonton, where Nik Backstrom popped up, played great, and pushed Manny out of Minnie, (after collaborating to take the Jennings). And now, there's a lot of talk of Fernandez being shopped at the deadline for whatever the Bruins might need for the push. Personally, I would rather take two solid goaltenders into the post than one, barring injuries to any key players.

Is it ego, or accounting that has destroyed the notion of using two goaltenders to win it all? Goaltending is always the bottom line when it comes down to the playoffs, so why have two capables. Pittsburgh felt pretty comfortable last year all the way to the SC Finals. After losing Fleury for a good part of the year, Conklin stepped up and played great. If Therrien had to pull Marc-Andy would the Pens had any less faith in Ty? And look at the Champion Red Wings, who was their #1? Dominic Hasek who watched from the Zamboni doors, while Chris Osgood won them a Cup. And now in a bit of irony, Conklin signs with Detroit, and is now pushing Osgood out of Detroit.

We've seen star goaltenders like Brodeur, Luongo, and Kiprusoff just completely fizzle out in the post because there's nothing left in the tank, they're exhausted. And we don't trust their peanut-earning backups to play more than 10 or 12 games throughout the regular season, and probably only expect them to win two or three anyway.

Now I realize that there is a short of quality goaltending on the planet, (in our beer league we haven't had the same goaltender play more than two games, if we even get one for the night), and most teams can't land two equally competent goaltenders. And I understand that all players have cold streaks, bad seasons, and go down to injury. But is paying one #1 boatloads of money, whose frailty, both mentally and physically holds the weight of an entire franchise, and fan base?

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