Stevie Y traded some significant assets for Nashville goalie prospect Anders Lindback the other day – not a bad return for Dave Poile, considering Lindback is a former 7th round pick. Lindback is a big guy (almost as big a Ben Bishop) and has played a combined 38 games in the NHL to date with good numbers, albeit in a terrific defensive system. And so the assumption is that he is ready to carry a team on his own.
This strikes me as flawed logic, but it’s about as conventional a concept as you’ll come across in today’s NHL. We’ve worked up a narrative: a club will have a veteran starter and a young backup. When the backup has a few good games – let’s say he hits 20 games played in a season – the analysts start talking about him being ready to be a starter, and how the club has a decision to make. This creates a little bit of drama to write around, an excuse to use the term “goalie controversy,” and subsequently a market for this new “starting” goaltender.
My fundamental skepticism is derived from the notion that playing a game every other week isn’t the same as playing 60+ games in what seems like the most psychologically demanding position in professional sports. There are plenty of examples of these young goalies being handed the keys to a franchise only to flounder.
Toronto traded for Calder-winning Andrew Raycroft, and immediately signed him; despite a bad season, he had hardware to his name, and was considered not only a solid prospect, but a goaltender young enough to provide stability in the position for a decade. After Raycroft bombed out, the club traded 1st and 2nd round picks to San Jose for Vesa Toskala, with hilarious results. Toskala’s numbers playing behind Nabokov in San Jose were very respectable, but he was considered sub-replacement level with the Leafs.
Mike Smith was traded from Dallas to Tampa Bay after being mentored by Marty Turco, and was a central asset in the package that brought Brad Richards to Dallas. Smith was treated as the solution to Tampa’s longstanding problems in net. (As Lindback is now treated.) The irony being that the most stability the franchise has enjoyed in years was due to a 42 year old Dwayne Roloson standing on his head. Mike Smith was unceremoniously released, and signed on the cheap in Phoenix.
Josh Harding in Minnesota has had trade rumors around him for years, but a few key injuries kept other teams from biting. Likewise, goalies are being mentioned in several of the potential packages for Rick Nash, and I pity to poor soul who gets traded to Columbus and billed as the team’s savior in exchange for their franchise player and captain. Columbus is likely to trade their best player for tomorrow’s Josh Harding.
And it’s not just the desperate clubs, without UFA options or prospects. Some go so far as to call Vancouver’s Cory Schneider not only a starting goaltender, but an “elite” “franchise” player. He played 33 games this season, a career high, with very good numbers. But how does he fare playing twice that, in a market that expects to win a Cup? You can say a lot about Luongo and that terrible contract, but he’s a starting goaltender, and probably top ten in the league. To me, it’s just nuts to think that he’ll be traded for next to nothing when Schneider seems as much as a risk and can probably yield you much more in a trade.
So what does all of this have to do with Ottawa? Well, the Sens are in the relatively novel position of having some prospect depth in net. The club has two exciting young netminders in Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner, and has stated that they intend to draft another goalie this year. And while I’m usually one to go with quantity when it comes to goaltenders, I have to wonder if the market for prospects is getting too good to pass up.
Let’s say this season gets off to a poor start, and Ottawa looks like it will miss the playoffs. (We’ll have plenty of season prediction posts in due time, but it should be evident if you’ve read my soapboxing that I think this is likely.) Bishop is right on the cusp of being considered one of those goaltending prospects just waiting to become a starter. With nothing to lose, the club could get him his experience and drive up his value. In the offseason next year, with Bishop still an RFA, any number of teams who feel they were one quality save away from being where they wanted to be gets a phone call. Could Murray turn the 2nd rounder he gave up for Bishop into something much better, or even make Bishop the cornerstone of some silly package for next year’s Rick Nash?
And then there’s Lehner, who is younger than Bishop but entered some elite company after winning playoff MVP on last season’s Calder Cup winning Binghamton team. I’d hate to see him go, but his stock is definitely on the rise.
Goaltending is so fickle that it’s hard to understand why GMs risk any amount of money or picks on supposed “sure things.” I’d feel about as comfortable heading into a season with a mix of three or four cheap veterans and prospects as I would with an anointed starter on a big ticket contract. But the offseason is here, and GMs are about to get nutty. Ottawa would do well to exploit the panic of others.