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Scratch high-priced goalies, it's about getting quality backups

by | Staff Writer

Bruins goalie Tim Thomas has been getting plenty of kudos so far this season for what has been by any definition a remarkable start. In fact, earlier this week he was named one of the NHL’s three stars for October, a month in which he went 6-0 and allowed only three goals.

It was particularly notable because Thomas began the season as a backup Boston had been actively trying to get rid of. And that wasn’t really surprising even if the late-blooming veteran won the 2009 Vezina and earned the first big contract of his career as a result.

Mathieu Garon has won his last two starts by shutout and is 4-0 for Columbus. (Getty Images)  
Mathieu Garon has won his last two starts by shutout and is 4-0 for Columbus. (Getty Images)  
Thomas had some injury issues last season didn’t look particularly sharp when he was healthy, eventually losing his starting job to rookie Tuukka Rask. It made Thomas expendable last summer to a team that was cap-stretched and left his name in the rumor mill throughout the off-season.

Fortunately for the Bruins, there weren’t any takers for a 36-year-old with three years and $15 million left on his contract because the presumed backup has become the No. 1 guy again in Boston and he is playing lights out hockey.

Thomas, of course, is not your typical 'backup' given his recent resume and circumstances. But the trend that has been developing in several places around the league so far this season has been to use those who are, particularly since backups have been doing better jobs than the starters and more important, winning games for their teams.

The natural upshot to all of this obviously is a series of goaltender controversies being created around the league. Most of them are really artificial because they involve a struggling starter that organization’s need to ultimately get the job back, but in the meantime, teams are being forced to make real decisions about sitting a supposed go-to guy because important points on the line.

One team dealing with that challenge right now is the Columbus Blue Jackets, who had Mathieu Garon pitch his second consecutive shutout Thursday to raise his season’s record to 4-0. Meanwhile, franchise goalie Steve Mason is coming off a sophomore slump and has played twice as many games for the surprising 8-4 Blue Jackets, but the former rookie of the year’s numbers are nowhere near those of Garon’s.

"The way we play makes it easier," Garon said. "The team in front of me is working really hard."

Funny thing is that Brent Johnson has been saying essentially the same thing all year in Pittsburgh too, which in itself has to be a concern for a coach because it isn’t helping the guy it should. The 33-year-old Johnson has been a backup in a few NHL stops since the lockout, but this season he has outplayed Stanley Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury by such a wide margin, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma has been forced to constantly defend his franchise netminder while being unable to actually count on him.

A similar situation is going on in Ottawa, where Pascal Leclaire got hurt for the umpteenth time in his career and gave Brian Elliot a regular gig that has helped get the Senators back at .500. Meanwhile, injuries to expected starters opened the door for rookies Sergei Bobrovsky in Philadelphia and Michal Neuvirth in Washington, and both have been good enough to make themselves Calder Trophy candidates. And in Vancouver, perpetual prospect Cory Schneider has played so well in his few games for the Canucks, many people are wondering out loud about the downside of being locked into Roberto Luongo for the next dozen years.

Luongo got the lifetime deal before last season because he has come to be known as one of the NHL’s elite level goalies. Thing is he’s never really won anything other than the gold medal in February that some would say Team Canada claimed in spite of, rather than because of him. And his postseason record has been so dismal it almost naturally makes him a poster child for those who question the value of high-priced goalies.

That’s a debate that intensified last spring when marquee names like Luongo, Buffalo's Ryan Miller and New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur were all gone by the second round of the playoffs while two unknowns led their teams to the Stanley Cup Finals. The Sabres and the Devils are having worse luck this season, while the Canucks are only recently recovering from a slow start, and it all gives more credence to the idea that spending big bucks on goalies may not be the best investment.

It’s a notion Red Wings GM Ken Holland has championed for several years, and was essentially echoed by Sharks GM Doug Wilson over the summer when he let Evgeni Nabokov walk and signing two free agents for much less combined.

One of those goalies is Antti Niemi, the rookie who took Chicago to the Stanley Cup but got squeezed out by salary cap issues. Niemi hasn’t transitioned particularly well yet to San Jose, but Antero Nittymaki has and together they give a still very-deep Sharks team the goaltending they need. And at half the price.

"If you look at the trends in this league the last four or five years in particular and the dollars that are dedicated to that position, teams are having success with lower paid goalies," Wilson said.



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