Are long-term goalie investments worth it?

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Watching Antti Niemi backstop the Chicago Blackhawks to its first Stanley Cup title since 1961 one might think some general managers would be rethinking how much of an investment they make in goaltenders.

Niemi, after all, was hardly an established NHL star. Nor was Michael Leighton; the goaltender Niemi faced in the final with the Philadelphia Flyers. Leighton was – and, for that matter, remains – a journeyman who had never played more than 34 games in a single NHL season.

Yet they were the two goaltenders left standing when the final two teams met for the Cup.

Will teams suddenly start to trim payroll by cutting costs in the crease?

“I don’t see that happening,” said veteran general manager Jim Rutherford of the Carolina Hurricanes, a former big-league goaltender himself. “I really don’t think you can make the playoffs in our league without a great goaltender. I guess you could go out and try to light it up every night, but I really don’t see too many teams trying that strategy.”

Bryan Murray, GM of the Senators in Ottawa, echoed the sentiment expressed by his colleague from Carolina:

“You need great goaltending most of the time,” Murray said. “I have been in situations in my career where I had phenomenal teams and lost playoff series that we probably should have won because the goaltending wasn’t there.”

Funny thing: the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, but elected not to re-sign Niemi who then signed a one-year deal worth $2 million with the San Jose Sharks. A contract well below the money splashed on goalies over the past few years. In Philadelphia, and for his efforts in finishing as runner-up to Niemi, Leighton was rewarded with a two-year, $3.1 million extension.

So how does one explain why both weren’t quickly signed to long-term extensions by their respective teams?

“What people fail to realize is those guys had career years,” Rutherford explained. “You then have to ask yourself if they are capable of being consistent over the next three to five years before you sign them to long-term contracts.”

In 2006 the New York Islanders hitched its wagon to first overall draft pick Rick DiPietro to the tune of 15 years, $67.5 million. Last season Roberto Luongo signed a 12-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks for a total of $64 million. In Boston, Tim Thomas parlayed his Vezina Trophy win in 2008-09 into a four-year, $20-million extension.

Upon further review, most of those deals have not worked out. DiPietro has been injured most of the previous two seasons while Thomas lost his starting job in Boston to up-and-comer Tuukka Rask. In Vancouver Luongo, it must be noted, is still regarded as one of the best goalies in the NHL although there is a school of thought that suggests until he wins a Cup, he will remain somewhat overrated, if not vastly overpaid.

In fact, as the number-crunching in our Puck Money analysis shows, sometimes an inexpensive young goalie can play like the big-money stars. Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick was the top-rated netminder by the‘s methodology, while Detroit’s Jimmy Howard was second.

Will the value seen in Quick and Howard prompt general managers around the league look at the aforementioned decade-long deals and get gun shy about giving goaltenders too many years?

“I really don’t think so because the same thing can happen with your position players,” Edmonton Oilers GM Steve Tambellini said. “You have young guys coming through that have good years and you have to make the decision if you want to lock them up for an extended period of time.”

Added the Senators’ Murray:

“I can understand why some teams sign their guy to a long-term deal. If you had a Patrick Roy or Martin Brodeur you’d want to lock them up for their entire careers.”

A valid point.

Suffice it to say there is no set formula for what teams will do with its goalies in terms of contracts. Maybe last season, with two relative unknowns making it to the final, will start a new trend.

Probably not, though.

“For the most part your goaltender still has to be one of your team’s most valuable players,” Rutherford insisted.