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An Expensive Goalie Is Not Your Ticket To The Stanley Cup

We all know that a strong performance from a goaltender is crucial for Stanley Cup playoff success. But shelling out the most money for a goaltender might not be the answer.

As we are well into the third round of the National Hockey League’s pandemic postseason, we’ve seen less and less star power in net. Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, the league’s highest paid at his position over the past two seasons, turned in an all-world performance in the Toronto bubble this summer, but he and his $15 million salary couldn’t get the team past the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round.

Most of the league’s highest-paid goaltenders have been watching the bulk of the playoffs from home. The goalies who did make it out of the first round — the Jacob Markstroms, Pavel Francouzes and Anton Khudobins of the world — earn much less than goalies like Price, Sergei Bobrovsky and even the 38-year-old Henrik Lundqvist.

Most of the highest-paid goalies are already home

NHL goalies making at least $5 million during the 2019-20 season with their playoff outcomes

PLAYER TEAM PLAYOFF OUTCOME SALARY
Carey Price Canadiens Round 1 loss $15.00m
Sergei Bobrovsky Panthers Qualifiers loss 11.50
Marc-Andre Fleury Golden Knights Conference finals 8.50
Henrik Lundqvist Rangers Qualifiers loss 7.00
Jonathan Quick Kings No bubble 7.00
Martin Jones Sharks No bubble 6.75
Tuukka Rask Bruins Left in Round 1 6.50
John Gibson Ducks No bubble 6.40
Connor Hellebuyck Jets Qualifiers loss 6.00
Semyon Varlamov Islanders Conference finals 6.00
Pekka Rinne Predators Qualifiers loss 6.00
Cory Schneider Devils No bubble 6.00
Ben Bishop Stars Conference finals 5.50
Jake Allen Blues Round 1 loss 5.20
Mikko Koskinen Oilers Qualifiers loss 5.20
Frederik Andersen Maple Leafs Qualifiers loss 5.00
Robin Lehner Golden Knights Conference finals 5.00
Corey Crawford Blackhawks Round 1 loss 5.00
Braden Holtby Capitals Round 1 loss 5.00
Antti Raanta Coyotes Round 1 loss 5.00

Bolded goalies are still playing in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Sources: Hockey-Reference.com, CapFriendly

Tuukka Rask could have made it to the second round with his Boston Bruins had he not opted out of the postseason after two games in the first round. Instead, he joins our list of expensive goaltenders who didn’t make it past the first round of the playoffs, or didn’t make the postseason at all, despite their salaries.

The salaries of goalies who did advance to the second round look very different.

The goalies who made it past Round 1 aren’t making as much

NHL goalies who played at least one game in the second round of the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs, by salary for the 2019-20 season

Player Team Playoff outcome Salary
Marc-Andre Fleury Golden Knights Conference finals $8.50m
Semyon Varlamov Islanders Conference finals 6.00
Ben Bishop Stars Conference finals 5.50
Robin Lehner Golden Knights Conference finals 5.00
Jacob Markstrom Canucks Round 2 loss 4.00
Andrei Vasilevskiy Lightning Conference finals 4.00
Philipp Grubauer Avalanche Round 2 loss 3.90
Thomas Greiss Islanders Conference finals 3.75
Anton Khudobin Stars Conference finals 2.50
Jaroslav Halak Bruins Round 2 loss 2.25
Brian Elliott Flyers Round 2 loss 2.00
Pavel Francouz Avalanche Round 2 loss 0.95
Thatcher Demko Canucks Round 2 loss 0.90
Carter Hart Flyers Round 2 loss 0.70
Michael Hutchinson Avalanche Round 2 loss 0.70
Daniel Vladar Bruins Round 2 loss 0.70

Sources: Hockey-Reference.com, CapFriendly

Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is the highest-paid at his position left in this year’s playoffs, but through most of the playoffs, he has played backup to lesser-paid netminder Robin Lehner (though Fleury did get the start for Vegas in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.) Lehner, who was acquired by Vegas from Chicago ahead of the NHL’s trade deadline in February, has earned the majority of his team’s starts throughout the postseason.

“Robin has done what you want players to do when they show up with a new team,” Golden Knights head coach Pete DeBoer told The Athletic. “He has played at a level, not just in games but also through camp, where we have had to give him the net. This is not about [Fleury] not doing something. He has been great. Robin has just been at a different level.”

This isn’t the first time Fleury has had to ride the pine behind a lesser-paid goalie. When the Penguins faced off against the San Jose Sharks in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, the team opted for a hotter hand in Matt Murray — who was making $667,500.1 Fleury was in the first year of a four-year, $23 million deal that paid him $5.8 million that season.

It’s not uncommon for a cheaper goalie — relative both to his backup and the rest of the league — to catch fire in the playoffs. But even when established, well-paid players remain as their teams’ starters and make a deep run in the playoffs, many have found themselves losing the Final against a less-expensive option. Since the 2004-05 lockout, only one goalie has won the Stanley Cup as the league’s highest-paid player at that position: Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick in 2014, at the expense of Lundqvist and his New York Rangers. In that same span of time, Quick and Luongo were the only goaltenders to make the Stanley Cup Final as the highest-paid goaltenders in the league.

Lesser-paid goalies have won more often than not

Goalies who started Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final since 2006 (with winners in bold), by salary rank among all NHL goaltenders

Year Goalie Team Salary Rank
2019 Jordan Binnington Blues $650.0k 130
Tuukka Rask Bruins 7,000.0 6
2018 Braden Holtby Capitals 7,000.0 5
Marc-Andre Fleury Golden Knights 5,750.0 13
2017 Matt Murray Penguins 575.0 124
Pekka Rinne Predators 7,000.0 6
2016 Matt Murray Penguins 667.5 87
Martin Jones Sharks 3,000.0 28
2015 Corey Crawford Blackhawks 6,500.0 8
Ben Bishop Lightning 2,400.0 29
2014 Jonathan Quick Kings 7,000.0 1
Henrik Lundqvist Rangers 5,125.0 11
2013 Corey Crawford Blackhawks 2,250.0 24
Tuukka Rask Bruins 3,500.0 16
2012 Jonathan Quick Kings 1,800.0 26
Martin Brodeur Devils 5,200.0 9
2011 Tim Thomas Bruins 6,000.0 8
Roberto Luongo Canucks 10,000.0 1
2010 Antti Niemi Blackhawks 826.9 45
Michael Leighton Flyers 600.0 65
2009 Marc-Andre Fleury Penguins 3,500.0 13
Chris Osgood Red Wings 1,700.0 21
2008 Chris Osgood Red Wings 800.0 36
Marc-Andre Fleury Penguins 1,600.0 18
2007 Jean-Sebastien Giguere Ducks 3,990.0 10
Ray Emery Senators 925.0 38
2006 Cam Ward Hurricanes 684.0 42
Dwayne Roloson Oilers 1,672.0 19

Sources: CapFriendly.com, HockeyNut, HockeyZonePlus, NHLPA

On the flip side, NHL teams have often shown that they can achieve success with lower-paid options in goal. Consider the most recent champion, the St. Louis Blues. The team went on a run that saw them defeat the Boston Bruins in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final. Jordan Binnington split time between the Blues and their American Hockey League affiliate, the San Antonio Rampage, before becoming St. Louis’s top goaltending option in the playoffs. His starts came at the expense of Jake Allen, who made $4.4 million that season.

Take, for example, the first Stanley Cup Final after the 2005 lockout, between the Edmonton Oilers and Carolina Hurricanes. The Oilers turned to Dwayne Roloson to start the series, but when an injury forced him out of the net in Game 1, the Oilers relied mostly on backup Jussi Markkanen, who made $850,000 that season. But Markkanen, who helped the team reach Game 7 in that year’s Final, was still earning more than Cam Ward, goaltender for the eventual champion Hurricanes. Ward made $684,000 in 2005-06 and himself began the playoffs as a backup to Martin Gerber, who earned over $1 million that season.

And consider the 2010 Stanley Cup Final between Philadelphia and Chicago, which featured two starting goalies making less than $1 million. Michael Leighton, who was making $600,000, started the series for the Flyers over Brian Boucher, who was earning $925,000 that season. On the other side, Antti Niemi, who started all six games for the champion Blackhawks, was making much less ($826,875) than backup Cristobal Huet ($5.6 million).

Will this trend change how general managers spend on goaltenders? Lately, that hasn’t seemed to be the case.

Bobrovsky, the Florida Panthers’ starting goaltender, just finished the first year of a seven-year, $70 million contract, which carries a $10 million dollar cap hit each year through 2026. Also in 2019, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy signed an eight-year extension worth $76 million — with a cap hit of $9.5 million per year starting next season and going until the end of his contract. As of now, the $12 million in salary he’s set to make during the 2020-21 season will be tied for fifth-most among NHL players.

Teams know they need to invest in a quality goaltender to lead them to the promised land. But recent history suggests that investment doesn’t have to be the highest dollar figure to get them the Cup. In fact, paying top dollar for a netminder may not help at all.

Footnotes

  1. The Penguins would prevail in six games.

Julian McKenzie is a freelance journalist based in Montreal. His work can be found in the Canadian Press, the Montreal Gazette, Yahoo Sports, the Sporting News and elsewhere, and he is a co-host of The Scrum Podcast.

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