Over the past few seasons it has become an accepted belief that NHL goalies are both: a) plentiful and b) so unpredictable as to not be worth significant investment.
Sure, there are teams that defy this, teams that have invested big and long in real (Roberto Luongo) or alleged (Marc-Andre Fleury) stars. And then there are the Philadelphia Flyers, who appeared to invest money and term in Ilya Bryzgalov more out of desperation than out of forethought.
Yet even those teams have had moments of buyer's ennui if not outright buyer's remorse, and by and large the rest of the NHL finds it just needs an average goalie who is as capable of getting hot as the next guy.
(Having Tim Thomas and a record-breaking season, as the Boston Bruins had in their run to the 2011 Stanley Cup, certainly works. But the problem is there is only one Tim Thomas, and even that Tim Thomas did not look like this Tim Thomas the season before his Vezina- and Cup-winning season.)
Which brings us to the goaltender market approaching the NHL trade deadline. It's a market that always holds more promise than delivery. Two seasons ago the Chicago Blackhawks approached the postseason with sheer angst over their goalies yet did nothing at the deadline. In the playoffs the angst continued and they switched Cristobel Huet and Antti Niemi like fantasy owners ... on their way to winning the Cup. They promptly dumped both in the offseason and started the goalie-go-round all over again.
The two seasons before the Hawks won it all, the Detroit Red Wings made repeat visits to the finals with a mix of Chris Osgood (who is a Hall of Fame candidate in win total only), the shell of Dominik Hasek and the persistent rind of Ty Conklin. Osgood, usually an average goalie, did not have great regular seasons but got hot in the playoffs. The cheap, safe recipe.
TEAMS IN NEED
As it happens, two of the aforementioned teams are contenders that still have goalie issues in 2012. The Blackhawks do not seem at all confident in their tandem of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery, but what else is new.
The Red Wings like Jimmy Howard -- no really, they do -- but he's injured until the end of the month (around the Feb. 27 trade deadline, incidentally) and his backup is Conklin, who hasn't had a .900 save percentage in two seasons nor a winning record in three. Behind Conklin is Joey MacDonald, whose best attribute may be that Detroit knows him. Some expect the Red Wings to go shopping.
The Flyers don't know what Bryzgalov will bring them from night to night and peers wouldn't be surprised if they tried to add insurance.
The Colorado Avalanche have received disappointing returns from Semyon Varlamov after burning a first round pick to acquire him but still hold on to playoff hopes. They have J-S Giguere as insurance and are unlikely to repeat the Varlamov mistake by spending big to import another goalie.
TEAMS WITH SURPLUS
Will any of these teams bid for an established goalie? There aren't many on the market with much appeal, but Evgeni Nabokov just might be one. He has the cache of a long NHL track record and he's cheap, earning near minimum wage. He has a .920 save percentage and a 2.31 GAA with a decent record (11-12) for a team that's not had many decent results. In theory, he fits the profile established above of an average goalie who can get hot.
Nabokov might be cheap insurance, except that he's been the Islanders' healthiest goalie and they might not want to let him go for the market bargain price. With injuries hitting multiple Islanders goalies, GM Garth Snow has paid at least lip service to keeping Nabokov all season.
In one of just two major goalie trades in 2010-11, the Islanders shipped Dwayne Roloson to Tampa Bay Lightning for overripe defensive prospect Ty Wishart, yet after 20 games last season Wishart hasn't sniffed the NHL this year.He's even been overlooked in favor of two young prospect callups. Snow may very well determine the development of his prospects in the AHL is more important than fetching a third-round pick and rushing one of those prospects to fill Nabokov's place.
The Red Wings -- who originally signed Nabokov from the KHL before the Islanders claimed him on waivers -- might be interested, but rather than spend anything worthwhile they might simply hope to survive until Howard gets back.
The San Jose Sharks would love to be rid of Antero Niittymaki but couldn't find any takers for his $2 million salary even when offered via waivers. The Edmonton Oilers would probably like to get rid of Nikolai Khabibulin's contract but ... the contract, it has another year left at $3.75 million.
At the other end of the spectrum from the Islanders and Nabokov and the pricier, older goalies are the teams that have perceived "future franchise" goaltenders sitting behind present franchise stars. The Canucks have Cory Schneider behind Luongo, the Bruins have Tuukka Rask behind Thomas, and the Nashville Predators have Anders Lindback behind Pekka Rinne.
But even there we return to the same problem: Those teams will want a hefty price to part with their still inexpensive potential franchise goaltenders (and current cheap insurance). But who wants to spend a lot on a young goalie, unpredictable as they are?
If history is a guide, probably not the Blackhawks. Probably not the Red Wings. Those teams are hurting in goal, but like goaltender performance, that hurt is likely to change with the weather, and any offers won't be worth the sellers' time.