As I pointed out in my last post, the depth of talent among the league's goaltenders has improved substantially in the NHL over the last 15 seasons. Quality talent has never been more readily and cheaply available than now. At the same time, the salary cap has increased parity across teams, resulting in close playoff races nearly every season in both conferences. The simple conclusion to make based on this fact is that no team should accept awful backup goaltending. It doesn't cost much more to get average goaltending than it does to get replacement level goaltending, and bubble teams that are content to let a washed-up veteran or an over-his-head youngster play backup minutes are jeopardizing their playoff chances in doing so.
There has been one NHL franchise in particular that has seemed to not understand this principle, having been repeatedly burned by weak backup goaltending. That team is the Carolina Hurricanes.
Last year, Carolina finished two points behind the Rangers for 8th in the East, despite a terrific season by Cam Ward (37-26-10, 2.56, .923). Ward actually had a better win/loss record than Rangers starter Henrik Lundqvist (36-27-5), but the decisive difference that sent the Blueshirts to the playoffs at the expense of the 'Canes was what happened when neither #1 netminder was in the net. Solid veteran Martin Biron had a .923 save percentage and an 8-6-0 record in New York, while youngster Justin Peters was lit up in his infrequent playing time in Carolina (3-5-1, 3.98, .875). While Carolina saved money with Peters' $525K cap hit, it would have only cost them an extra $350,000 to pay a guy like Biron.
According to Capgeek, the Hurricanes had $9.5 million in salary cap room last season. Would the team's ownership have been willing to spend an extra $400K if they knew there was a good chance it would have helped the team earn the extra three standing points needed to earn millions in revenue from at least two extra playoff home dates? They would surely have agreed to that deal in a heartbeat. The Canes' management can't be entirely faulted, as Peters was a four-year minor league pro coming off a pretty good season in the AHL and he was probably at least somewhat unlucky to post numbers that terrible. On the other hand, one of the main reasons to get a good #2 option is to minimize the risk of a relying on a unknown quantity.
It was a similar story in Carolina in 2007-08. Ward wasn't quite as good back then, but much of the roster was just two years removed from winning the Cup. Despite a .904 save percentage, Ward's record was 37-25-5, easily good enough to put the 'Canes in playoff position. The problem was that backups John Grahame and Michael Leighton combined for a brutal 6-8-1, 3.58, .878, and the team was again left one win short of making the playoffs.
Backup goaltending left the 'Canes out of the playoff picture for a third time in '99-00, as the team finished an agonizing one point out after their backup goalies combined to go 3-7-1, 3.22, .883. Apparently the organizational indifference to goaltending depth was carried over from Hartford, as the Whalers had more or less the same thing happen in 1996-97 (two points out of the playoffs despite a great year from Sean Burke because the backups combined for .887 and a 10-17-5 record).
Over the last 17 seasons, the numbers are pretty staggering for the Whalers/Hurricanes franchise:
#1 goalies: .532 win %, 2.60, .911
Backups: .413 win %, 3.15, .890
Those splits aren't entirely fair because there may have been a few times when the preseason #1 goalie was supplanted by a backup (as was the case in 1997-98 with Trevor Kidd outplaying incumbent starter Sean Burke, for example). However, it is still perfectly correct to say that Carolina/Hartford has had mostly awful backup goaltending for the better part of two decades, and that has likely had a significant impact in causing the team to fall short of the playoffs on multiple occasions.
Scouting, evaluating and predicting goaltender performance is always difficult. Not every bet is going to pay off, and many organizations get decisions wrong. Take Buffalo, for example, a team that has developed and employed a number of top-quality netminders in recent years, yet still paid Patrick Lalime $2.65 million for three years of service where the Sabres went 9-26-5 in games where he got the decision. Lalime probably cost his team a playoff spot in '08-09, posting a 5-13-3 record as the Sabres fell just two points short.
There have been a number of other teams that were left outside the playoff pictures because of the performance of their backup goalies. Sometimes teams missed out because a goalie they counted on to be a starter or take on a significant workload in a platoon role simply had an awful season (e.g. '06-07 Avs, '08-09 Predators). Others simply had a few options behind their starting goalie ('09-10 Rangers, '06-07 Maple Leafs).
Most of these examples of weak backup goalies are dealing with small sample sizes, so it may not be entirely fair to blame the goalies. All the standard problems of relying on win/loss records for goalies apply, although in nearly all cases they had awful save stats as well. There may also have been other factors at work. Perhaps they weren't playing a favourable schedule, or maybe some of them just had puck luck go against them for 200-300 shots. There is the very large advantage of hindsight available to us now in pointing out some of these teams' decisions. Yet when there is a long-term trend of undeperformance, as is the case in Carolina, a reasonable criticism can certainly be advanced about the way the team handled their goalie situations.
The overall point is that while it is not smart to pay huge money for goalies, the depth of available goaltending talent means that you should never, ever have to settle for bad goaltending. If you have a hole on the roster, it really doesn't cost much more to pick up a veteran or an up-and-coming talent from Europe than it would to roll the dice on an unproven minor-leaguer in your system. For a penny-pinching playoff bubble team, it's probably well worth it to invest some decent money in goalie scouting and development or free agency to reduce the risk of having a not-ready-for-primetime backup come in and sink the season.
Over the summer Carolina signed Brian Boucher to a two-year deal worth $950,000 per year, which may be a sign that the organization is more willing to loosen up the purse strings for their backup position. Then again, the 'Canes haven't always gone with a backup like Justin Peters; over the last 17 years there have been a number of veterans who were brought in but didn't pan out. I think there is a good chance that pattern may repeat again with Boucher, a guy turning 35 in January with a post-lockout save percentage of .902. Boucher is expected to take more of the load off of Cam Ward this season, but he'll need to deliver good enough results, especially if the Hurricanes again find themselves in a dogfight in the middle of the Eastern Conference. If he does not, then the hopes of Carolina fans may yet again be dashed by their backup goaltender.