The art of goaltending at the NHL level is a tricky thing. One year, you can look like a world-beater. The next year, you’re whiffing on 50-foot shots and digging holes your offense can’t pull you out from.
Netminding in hockey is like pitching in baseball. When you have it, the world’s your oyster, and when you don’t, you’re going to lose far more than you win.
Compounding the highs and lows of goalies is the NHL’s salary cap. And this season, you can see why most of the league’s GMs are loath to hand out long-term contracts, even to those goalies who have excelled for lengthy stretches. The upside may well be that you have cost certainty in arguably your most crucial position, but the downside can hamstring your franchise for years and years.
For example, look no further than the Florida Panthers and veteran goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. The 34-year-old has gotten off to a miserable start to the season, posing a 3.84 goals-against average and .878 save percentage in 12 appearances. In his past four losses, Bobrovsky has allowed 20 goals, including six in Tuesday’s loss to the Calgary Flames.
And the worst part – he’s under contract for three more seasons after the current campaign at a $10-million cap hit. Effectively, he’s untradeable, and a buyout would still hurt them as it would carry a $6.66 million hit for the next three seasons and a hit of $1.66 million for three years after that. The Panthers are stuck with Bobrovsky, for better and for worse, and right now, it’s for worse.
Similarly, the Edmonton Oilers have a goaltending problem with first-year Oiler Jack Campbell, who signed a five-year, $25-million deal this past summer.
Campbell’s individual numbers (including a 4.05 GAA and .875 SP) are brutal, and he’s tied to their cap through the 2026-27 season.
Further west, two of the three California NHL teams also have goalies with subpar individual metrics and contracts that are next-to-impossible to move.
The Anaheim Ducks employ 29-year-old John Gibson, and he has a 4.00 GAA and .894 SP in 18 appearances while carrying a $6.4 million cap hit through 2026-27.
The Los Angeles Kings are in the final season of a 10-year deal with veteran Jonathan Quick that carries a $5.8 million hit. Unless the Ducks or Kings are willing to retain a large chunk of those salaries, they’re bound together for the remainder of the contracts.
Now, there are a handful of goaltending contracts that look good, but it’s no coincidence that most of them are for four years at maximum. In Boston, for instance, Linus Ullmark is thriving on the ice, and he’s got a cap hit of $5 million for only two years after this season. In Detroit, Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman got Ville Husso to agree to a three-year pact for a total of $14.25 million.
On Long Island, star goalie Ilya Sorokin is in Year 2 of a three-year, $12-million deal that is one of the NHL’s best bargains. The same goes for Jake Oettinger in Dallas; he signed a three-year, $12-million deal that the Stars are very pleased with.
And in Manhattan, Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin is in the second year of a four-year, $22.67 million contract that makes him relatively underpaid.
There are exceptions, of course. In Winnipeg, superstar Connor Hellebuyck is enjoying a bounce-back season, and he’s in the second-to-last season of a six-year, $37-million contract.
And in Tampa Bay, Lightning superstar Andrei Vasilevskiy is in the third year of an eight-year, $76-million contract. Vasilevskiy has wobbled this season, but he showed his value as the Bolts’ MVP in their long post-season run last spring. Still, the 28-year-old Russian will be 33 by the time his contract expires, and by then, he may be a significantly diminished asset.
With all that said, it’s understandable why GMs like Kyle Dubas in Toronto and Chris MacFarland in Colorado were respectively willing to allow Campbell and Stanley Cup-winner Darcy Kuemper to leave via unrestricted free agency. Bogging down their cap situation at a position that can fluctuate drastically is a luxury teams can’t afford.
If they can find a goalie who’ll accept a three-year contract and give them more or less the same performance between the pipes, they can use more of their cap space in other areas. Cap management is everything in the modern-day NHL, and goalies can turn out to be one of the biggest pitfalls any GM faces.
At the time, it might have made sense for the Panthers to sign Bobrovsky for a full decade, but for a while now, there’s been buyer’s remorse over that deal in South Florida. More than a few people in Edmonton are also regarding Campbell’s contract as a negative, and he’s only been there a couple of months.
The teams that hand out shorter contracts to goalies may wind up paying more per year, but the commitment they have to their netminder can’t blow up in their faces the way many of those commitments have.
And so, if you see a five-to-eight-year goalie contract handed out by your favorite team, you should worry. The comfort of locking up a goalie may seem like a good idea in the early days of a contract, but in very short order, it can turn into a nightmare.
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