Since the NHL introduced the salary cap in its 2005 collective bargaining agreement, general managers across the league have faced the difficult decisions of how – and where – to spend their limited dollars. Among the most intriguing of those decisions is how much to spend on goaltending.
When it comes to investing between the pipes, teams have traditionally rewarded their starting goalies with the lion’s share of the budget and distributed the scraps among the backups. In fact, spending a small fortune on one goalie and paying peanuts to the other(s) is still the strategy of choice for several NHL franchises (the Boston Bruins’ starting goalie Tuukka Rask makes $7 million per year, while his backup, Chad Johnson, makes $600,000; the New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist is set to earn $8.5 million next season, more than 13 times the $562,500 salary of his backup, Cameron Talbot).
While goalies farther down the depth chart generally fetch a fraction of what starters do, some teams are beginning to place more importance on balance in the crease and spreading their money out accordingly.
While it’s impossible to measure the true monetary value of a backup over the course of an 82-game regular season – not to mention a multi-year contract – there is no questioning the importance of stability in net.
The lack of a bonafide backup goalie may very well have cost the Edmonton Oilers the Stanley Cup back in 2006, when the inexperienced tandem of Ty Conklin and Jussi Markkanen were forced to take over for injured starter Dwayne Roloson. Despite the duo’s decent play, Edmonton came up short in Game 7 against Cam Ward and the Carolina Hurricanes.
Perhaps it is for this reason that a growing number of general managers have begun to spend more on their second string goalies. Here is the list of the NHL’s highest paid backup goalies for the 2013-2014 season.
Note: Given the prevalence of front-loaded contracts and the unpredictability of performance-based bonuses, the figures used are the cap hits of each goalie’s current contract, as opposed to the actual salaries.
10. Nikolai Khabibulin, Chicago Blackhawks: $1.7 million
When the defending Stanley Cup champions signed the 41-year-old Khabibulin to a one-year deal worth $1.7 million last July, they hoped his experience would help solidify their less-than-seasoned stable of backup goalies. Unfortunately, the once formidable “Bulin Wall” has begun to crumble and his second stint with the Blackhawks couldn’t be going worse. Currently sidelined with a lower body injury, the Russian net minder struggled in his limited action before getting hurt (a GAA of 5.00 and a save percentage of .811 in four appearances), resulting in a revolving door of potential replacements. Now in the twilight of his career, esteemed though it may be – his resume includes a Stanley Cup in 2003 with the Tampa Bay Lightning, a gold medal with Russia at the 1992 Olympics and three all-star game appearances – it is likely that Khabibulin’s current contract is the last big one he’ll ever see.
T-7. James Reimer, Toronto Maple Leafs: $1.8 million
Entering the second season of his three-year, $5.4 million contract, Reimer had to be a bit surprised when Toronto traded for 25-year-old Jonathan Bernier last summer. Instead of using the increased level of competition as inspiration, Reimer has struggled while Bernier has shone. With a 10-6-1 record, a 3.25 GAA and a .911 save percentage, Reimer’s numbers are far from horrible, but at nearly $2 million per season, you know the Leafs brass is expecting more. And now in his mid-20s, Reimer must be eager to land a spot as an undisputed starter. With both goalies signed through the 2014-15 season, he has a year and a half to prove he deserves it.
T-7. Anders Lindback, Tampa Bay Lightning: $1.8 million
When the Lightning acquired an unproven Anders Lindback from the Nashville Predators and signed him to a two-year contract worth an average of $1.8 million per season, they clearly had plans of grooming the young Swede into their goaltender of the future. Less than a year later, however, they traded prospect Cory Conacher for American-born goaltender Ben Bishop, who has since solidified himself as the No. 1. As for Lindback, he hasn’t exactly put up a fight. In his limited time with Tampa Bay, he has struggled with injuries and gone 15-21-2 with a GAA over 3.00 and a save percentage under .900. Still, at only 25 years old, the 6’6” Lindback has all the tools to be a great goalie in the NHL. Entering the final year of his contract – and set to earn $2.2 million – it will be interesting to see what the Lightning decide to do with him moving forward.
T-7: Brian Elliott, St. Louis Blues: $1.8 million
When the Avalanche gave up on Brian Elliott following the 2010-11 season, Colorado’s loss was St. Louis’ gain. In his three seasons with the Blues, the 28-year-old native of Newmarket, Ont., has made the most of his opportunity as the team’s backup and earned every penny of his two-year/$3.6 million contract. He even challenged for the starting job at various points, making the 2012 all-star team and leading his team to a first-round victory over the San Jose Sharks in the 2012 playoffs. With the contracts of both Elliott and starter Jaroslav Halak set to expire at the end of this season, it is unlikely the Blues will be able to keep both. But regardless of whether Elliott ends up in St. Louis or elsewhere, his current contract will seem like a bargain.
6. Josh Harding, Minnesota Wild: $1.9 million
Nowhere has the importance of a capable backup goalie been more evident this season than in Minnesota. When Wild starter Niklas Backstrom went down with an injury early in the year, Harding stepped in and more than justified his salary of $2.1 million (he is in his second season of a three-year/$5.7 million contract). While Harding is currently out of the lineup with an illness, his numbers before being placed on IR were out of this world: 18-7-3 with a 1.66 GAA, a .933 save percentage and three shutouts. With only one year left on his current contract, you can be sure teams will be lining up to make the 29-year-old their N0. 1 – and paying him the salary that goes with it.
5. Tomas Vokoun, Pittsburgh Penguins. $2 million
Unfortunately, the Penguins haven’t gotten much value out of Vokoun’s current two-year/$4 million contract. Since joining Pittsburgh at the beginning of the 2012 season, the two-time all star has spent most of his time on the IR – first with a lower body injury and more recently with blood clots. When the 37-year-old Czech has been healthy, however, he has shown he still has the goods. Formerly a bonafide No. 1 in both Nashville and Florida, Vokoun has posted a 13-4 record with Pittsburgh, along with a 2.45 GAA, a .919 save percentage and three shutouts. Penguins fans are quietly hoping Vokoun will be ready to go for the playoffs, as starter Marc-Andre Fleury – despite a Stanley Cup championship – has a history of struggling in the post-season.
4. Michal Neuvirth, Washington Capitals: $2.5 million
Ever since Olaf Kolzig left the Capitals in 2008, the team has had trouble finding a clear cut No. 1 goaltender to replace him. Since first cracking Washington’s lineup several years ago, former second-round draft pick Neuvirth has had several opportunities to take over but hasn’t been able to make the jump from backup to starter, never starting more than 48 games in a single season. Still, the Caps displayed their faith in the 25-year-old Czech when they signed him to a two-year/$5 million deal entering this season. But with his less-than-stellar numbers so far (4-6-2, 2.82 GAA, .914 save percentage), he has spent a lot of time on the bench watching Braden Holtby make his case for becoming the team’s goaltender of the future.
3. Viktor Fasth, Anaheim: $2.9 million
Playing behind a goalie as good as Jonas Hiller hasn’t afforded Fasth a lot of ice time over the past couple of seasons, but he has certainly made the most of his opportunities. After showing the Ducks what he can do in a limited role in 2012-13 (15-6-2, 2.18 GAA, .921 save percentage and four shutouts), they rewarded him with a two-year extension worth $5.8 million ($2.4 million this season, $3.4 million next). Unfortunately for Fasth – but fortunately for the Ducks – rookie Frederik Andersen has come out of nowhere this season, all but stealing the backup role from the 31-year-old Swede. With Hiller only months away from unrestricted free agency, however, there is a chance Anaheim will trade their starter before season’s end. If not, Fasth may have to get used to being one of the highest paid third stringers of all-time.
2. Devan Dubnyk, Nashville Predators: $3.5 million (half paid by Edmonton Oilers)
What a difference a year makes. When the Edmonton Oilers awarded Dubnyk with a two-year contract extension averaging $3.5 million per season (up from $800,000 the year before), they hoped the Regina, Saskatchewan, native could finally establish himself as their starter of the future. Fast forward 15 months, and the 27-year-old Dubnyk has found himself competing for a backup role with the Predators. Since arriving south of the border in January (via trade for forward Matt Hendricks), he has played in only two games, going 0-1-1 and allowing nine goals on 60 shots. With Nashville’s starter Pekka Rinne still recovering from hip surgery, Dubnyk is likely to get more ice time in the coming months – and he better make the most of it; with Rinne locked up as the Preds’ undisputed No. 1 through 2019 and Dubnyk’s contract expiring at the end of this season, every start he gets is essentially an audition for a job next year.
1. Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils: $4.5 million
While the winningest goalie in the history of the NHL is more of a 1B than a full-fledged backup, the writing was on the wall when New Jersey traded for 27-year-old Cory Schneider at the 2013 entry draft. Despite Brodeur’s illustrious 21-year-career with the Devils (which includes three Stanley Cups, four Vezina trophies, ten all-star appearances and virtually every goaltending record imaginable), his play has inevitably begun to drop off in recent seasons and, at 41, he can no longer be counted upon to start 60+ games. Still, Brodeur has proven he still belongs in the NHL – albeit in a reduced role – and is paid accordingly (he is currently in the final year of a two-year deal worth $9 million). With his pending unrestricted free agency just around the corner, everyone is waiting with bated breath to see if Brodeur will return for another season – and if he does, whether it will be as a backup with the Devils.