Brian Elliott is second in the NHL with a .937 save percentage and was recently rewarded by the St. Louis Blues with a two-year contract extension at an average annual value of $1.8 million.
But have the Blues made a mistake?
The payroll value of a good goalie in the NHL is much debated, because while it's an important position in hockey, it's also one that has a surplus of bodies. It's a volatile position, and de facto "street" free agents can turn in seasons for the ages. This surplus of bodies has driven the market asking price down, but it hasn't kept NHL teams from investing more than they need to in the position.
The Philadelphia Flyers are one such team, responding to alleged playoff goalie woes by signing Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year deal last at a whopping $5.67 million cap hit. The concern among fans wasn't just that Bryzgalov's credentials as a great goalie are debatable; it also revolves around how nine years is a long time for such a major cap hit at this position.
The Flyers routinely spend to the NHL's salary cap, so they can afford to splurge. But they also have the second-highest amount of cap space tied up in the goalie position -- and it's not for elite goalies. (The highest-spending team, the New York Rangers, devotes it to an unquestionably elite goalie in Henrik Lundqvist.)
Back to the Blues: They already tested good judgment when dealing two prospects to the Montreal Canadiens for Jaroslav Halak when Halak's market value was at its highest -- right after he'd backstopped the Habs to an unlikely run to the conference finals. The Blues compounded that risk by immediately signing the restricted free agent Halak to a four-year contract with a $3.75 million cap hit.
Halak did not perform as expected in 2010-11, so the Blues invited Elliott to compete for the backup job in 2011-12. Surprisingly, despite an awful 2010-11 with Ottawa and Colorado -- sub .900 save percentages in both stops over 55 games -- Elliott has been good this year for the Blues.
And yet, it's only 22 games for Elliott -- 22 games that should not erase his previous 142 games in the NHL. Elliott, who had a poor NHL record entering this season, has received a contract from the Blues at the height of his market price. I'm not sure why Blues GM Doug Armstrong was in a hurry to sign Elliott to an extension, but those may turn out to be the biggest 22 games of his life.
As Gabe Desjardins at Winnipeg Jets blog Arctic Ice Hockey has noted, the only thing 15 nice games in the NHL gets you is "another 45 games to prove that you're not good."
This season, with Elliott making near-minimum wage, the Blues are appropriately mitigating the risk that Halak could turn in another poor year. But by signing Elliott to that extension, they've assured that they'll devote $5.5 million to the goaltending position in 2012-13 -- an expenditure that puts them in the top third of the league in that spending category.
Here's a look at how much cap space NHL teams have committed to their goaltenders in 2011-12, as well as how much is committed at the NHL level in 2012-13. As you can see, spending a lot is hardly necessary. But the Flyers and Blues should know that if you're going to do it, you should make quite sure it's on the right man.
|Team||2011-12 Goalies||11-12 Cap||12-13 Cap|
|NYI||DiPietro, Nabokov, Montoya||$5.07m||$4.50m|
The Blues are in ownership limbo right now and cannot spend to the cap. Is the Elliott commitment one they'll end up regretting?