There’s a reason that the NHL has not seen a true dynasty since that of the Edmonton Oilers came to an end in 1990. For starters, it’s simply an incredibly difficult feat to accomplish. In that link above, you can see that the NHL only officially recognizes the eras of eight teams as dynasties.
Further to that, the addition of the salary cap factor to the league following the 2004-2005 lockout made what was already a difficult task practically impossible. The salary cap was included in an effort to create even more parity in the league and to ensure that big market teams would not have inherent advantages over those of small markets.
The salary cap has done exactly what it was supposed to, and today we are seeing what happens when great teams are forced to make tough roster decisions in order to stay under the ceiling.
Second Choices in the Second City?
It’s almost impossible to argue that the Chicago Blackhawks aren’t the team that’s been the most affected by the salary cap since its implementation. The talent that has filtered through Chicago’s roster over the years but been lost in cap crunches is almost hard to believe. Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Nick Leddy, Troy Brouwer, Tomas Kopecky, Antti Niemi, Dave Bolland, Michael Frolik, and Viktor Stalberg have all been lost in recent history due to salary restraints. Additionally, the Blackhawks have had to move young assets like Brandon Pirri, Jeremy Morin, and Jimmy Hayes out due to the assured inability to pay those player should they hit their potential.
With such little room for error, it’s extremely crucial that General Manager Stan Bowman makes no mistake in how he structures his team’s roster and salary in order for them to be in a position where they can remain a legitimate Stanley Cup contender down the road. Unfortunately, Chicago’s general manager has already made one rather glaring error.
I’m going to preface this by saying that I don’t think that Corey Crawford is a terrible goaltender, or really even a bad one. The numbers just don’t support that, and he certainly has his moments. But for the life of me I can’t even begin to comprehend why Stan Bowman gave Crawford the contract that he did. Following the 2013 Stanley Cup championship, Crawford signed a 6 year, $36 million contract to lock himself in as the number one goaltender of the Chicago Blackhawks. It’s very important to note that this contract is not Corey Crawford’s fault. He was offered it by the Blackhawks’ brass and he accepted it, like any person in their right mind would.
But it was at that moment that the expectations were raised for Crawford, and rightly so. No longer could he get a pass just by not costing his team games. When goalies are paid $6 million per year, they are expected to be active contributors to their team’s success, and that’s something Corey Crawford was never capable of being.
It fairness to Crawford, he has had stretches of regular season play where he was one of the primary reasons the Blackhawks were winning. This year in particular, he was very good. The team’s defensive performance as a whole slipped noticeably, and Crawford bailed them out in more than a few instances to earn his team points in the standings.
But while this year was a nice venture away from what Crawford has proven himself to be over the years, it was just that, an outlier. Over a 268 game sample size, Corey Crawford’s save percentage is .917. League average in about the same time frame is roughly .915. So in terms of raw save percentage, Corey Crawford is a tick above average. When evaluating the actual inherent quality of a goaltender that Corey Crawford is, one has to consider the impact that playing behind Chicago’s constantly vaunted defense has on his numbers.
In recent years, a lot of work has been done by the analytics community on the effect that players have on their goalie’s save percentage. In the individual case, it appears as though the impact that one player can have on his on-ice save percentage is very much insignificant. But what about at the team level? Maybe Brent Seabrook alone isn’t driving up Crawford’s save percentage, but when you add together the impacts of guys like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Johnny Oduya, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, and Marcus Kruger, I have a very hard time believing that Crawford’s career save percentage hasn’t been inflated over the years by the ridiculous quality of the team he plays for.
For it to be the case in reality that Crawford is at or below league average, it would just have to be the case that the Blackhawks’ defensive ability as a team is good enough to prevent 2 or more fewer goals per 1,000 shots on goal than the average defensive team. This would lower his career save percentage from .917 to at or below the league average mark at .915. I have an extremely difficult time believing that this isn’t the case. How many times have we seen Brent Seabrook stand up a dangerous rush at the blue line with his solid frame? How many times have we seen Jonathan Toews roar in on a backcheck to prevent a potential odd-man rush? How many times have we seen Duncan Keith use his other-worldly skating ability to rush back and completely cancel out an offensive rush? Surely, these qualities that the Blackhawks’ players have must be enough to prevent 2 goals over a 1,000 shot sample.
It’s because of this that I think it’s rather safe to say that Corey Crawford is a below average goaltender. Even if I’m wrong about the Blackhawks and their ability to drive up save percentage at a modest level, the best you could possibly argue Corey Crawford to be is just what the previous number says: 2 goals per 1,000 shots above league average. That’s hardly anything to write home about, and it’s surely nothing worth signing to 6 years and $36 million.
The Gold Standard of Goaltending
Another development coming out of the analytics community of late is a much fuller understanding of just how volatile the performance of goaltenders can be. Stephen Burtch at SportsNet.ca has done some wonderful work showing that there really is not much discrepancy from goalie to goalie in this league. At the extreme level, he showed that a goalie like Devan Dubnyk is fully capable of matching the performance of Carey Price in a given season.
But that is at the extreme level, and elite goaltending is worth paying for. Sure, teams can catch lightning in a bottle with a career-long marginal goalie and get .925 performance out of him for 50 games. Devan Dubnyk did it this year. Last year, it was Josh Harding and Anton Khudobin. In my opinion, however, there is extreme value in reliably elite goaltending. As long as they are in their primes, guys like Henrik Lundqvist, Carey Price, Tuukka Rask, Cory Schneider, Pekka Rinne, and really anyone who you can reliably expect to keep a team at around a .925+ save percentage are worth paying out the nose for.
But I don’t think salaries for goaltenders should be tiered the way they are for forwards. Consider this: Phil Kessel has a cap hit of about $8 million, and I think that’s pretty much exactly what he’s worth. You could argue it a little bit lower, but there’s no way he’s worth less than $7.5 million. A player who is similar to Kessel in terms of role but not necessarily his ability would be Carolina’s Jeff Skinner, whose cap hit sits at 5.725 million. That sounds about right, doesn’t it? Since Skinner broke into the league, Kessel’s goal per game rate is .402, while Skinner’s is .342.
Both of those guys are paid to score goals, and both of them do it at a very high level. However, Kessel’s maximum output in a season is higher than Skinner’s, and he’s more likely to perform in a given season than Skinner is. That’s why Kessel is paid at an elite level, while Skinner is just paid at a very good level.
This isn’t how goaltending works. Once you’re beyond the aforementioned Lundqvist/Rask/Price tier in which I also would lump Schneider and Rinne, goaltending performance in a given season is basically impossible to predict. That next group that contains goalies like Crawford, Ben Bishop, Frederik Andersen, and Steve Mason is subject to high amounts of variance on a year to year basis. Corey Crawford is pretty much just as likely to put up a horrendous .903 season as he did in 2011-2012 as he is a sterling .926 season like he did this year. Steve Mason just played at a near Vezina level this season with a .928 save percentage over the full year. The year before, he had a .917 with Philly. In 2011-2012, he had a .894 in 46 games with Columbus. This is a guy who has a better save percentage over the last two years than Crawford does.
In a league where every salary cap dollar is valuable, you simply cannot pay top dollar to these unreliable goalies. Their most likely outcome is roughly at league average performance, but they are just as capable of going .905 and completely ruining your season as they are of going .925 and earning you just one of 16 spots in the playoffs. And once they get there, as we’ve seen with Crawford this year (and in other years), there’s no guarantee whatsoever that they maintain their performance when the level of competition rises.
Going back to the Skinner/Kessel example, just because Henrik Lundqvist’s expected save percentage is around .922 while Corey Crawford’s is around .915 does not mean that Lundqvist is worth about $8 million while Crawford is worth about $6 million. These days, Lundqvist is a stone cold, lead pipe lock to give the Rangers at the very worst a .920 save percentage. He hasn’t been under that mark since 2008-2009, which you’ll note is a long time ago. It’s the certainty and reliability that the Rangers get from Henrik Lundqvist and the Canadiens get from Carey Price that makes them invaluable, not just the fact that they’re capable of going .930 and winning the Vezina in a given year.
Corey Crawford isn't good
— Kyle M. (@KyleWIIM) May 26, 2015
So yeah, Corey Crawford was bad last night, and he probably cost the Chicago Blackhawks the game. He’s also won them games this year and in this postseason run on more than one occasion. Corey Crawford is what he is, a solid goalie that won a championship with an all-time great caliber team in front of him. In many ways, it’s unfortunate for him that this led to him becoming so overpaid and being subject to so much scrutiny. While he’s now a problem for the Blackhawks (whether their FO sees him that way or not, he is), he could have had tremendous value to other teams as a league average goalie at a reasonable price.
These long, expensive contracts that goalies get which they can’t possibly live up to surely take a toll on their psyche. Remember Roberto Luongo’s tenure in Vancouver? “My contract sucks,” he said. You could almost hear the regret dripping out of his mouth when he spoke those words. Corey Crawford is by no means the only overpaid goalie in this league, but he’s the one that’s most consistently under a huge microscope for his performance, and if he can’t bounce back and help lead the Blackhawks to a seven game victory over Anaheim, perhaps it will be time for Chicago to wonder if they can win a Stanley Cup in the salary cap world while paying a goalie who isn’t elite $6 million per year.