We are still at least more than a week away from Game 1 of a Stanley Cup final, and also without one of its two participants, but we can already size up one of the key matchups. That’s because no matter who makes it through between the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference final, the goaltender that emerges will hold a sizeable advantage over their counterpart from the Colorado Avalanche.
In fact, whether it is Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy or New York’s Igor Shesterkin, they will be aiming to continue a very reliable trend in the Stanley Cup playoffs, which is an insistence among championship netminders to be homegrown. Colorado’s Pavel Francouz, having been undrafted, would be loosely considered that, too, if he’s indeed turned to with Darcy Kuemper still dealing with an injury, but Vasilevskiy and Shesterkin are far more archetypal, having been drafted and developed for several seasons before turning an organizational investment into a centrepiece role.
There are some netminders who weren’t drafted by the team that oversaw the key stages of their development, such as Tuukka Rask, but, save for Jean-Sebastien Giguere in 2006, teams have leaned exclusively on goaltenders that have come through their system to win hockey’s greatest prize in the salary cap era. Vasilevskiy, of course, has accounted for two of the most recent Stanley Cups himself.
In other words, we routinely see teams punished in the NHL, and in the Stanley Cup playoffs in particular, for cutting corners with the most important position on the ice.
There are probably several reasons for this – some of which would be considered coincidental. That said, when there is an investment in talent worked at over many years, teams are more likely to avoid overpaying, misevaluating, and being left holding the bag without quality netminding when it matters most.
Because they have seen the entire process through.
This is, however, easier said than done. In fact, there are far more teams unsure about their goaltending situations than teams to have successfully drafted and developed a netminder they can confidently bank on for elite-level contributions at the position.
The goaltending carousel has whirled and whirled in recent seasons, leaving a countless number of teams dizzied by the results.
For every Jacob Markstrom that switches sweaters, there are the immense frustrations borne out of the decisions to back acquisitions like Philipp Grubauer, Petr Mrazek, and Alex Nedeljkovic.
To say it lightly, it is exceedingly difficult to get it right when choosing from a list of goaltenders (and developments) that teams are willingly giving up on.
One general manager left at the alter in recent offseasons is the Edmonton Oilers’ Ken Holland, who has tried and failed to upgrade the goaltender position since taking over the reins of the roster construction around Connor McDavid, only having to settle for a combination of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen. He bemoaned the lack of options after meeting with the media after the Oilers were eliminated in four games by the Avalanche in the Western Conference final, and essentially admitted that what he had not been good enough. He’ll explore that market again this summer, sifting through the information he’s provided in an effort to finally land a netminder with the ability to backstop a championship team.
But there are absolutely no promises, a reality which threatens the organization’s ability to parlay having two of the best players on the planet into a championship.
Another team that has failed in the area of drafting and developing a netminder is the Toronto Maple Leafs, who face a decision which may define the future of the franchise.
Initially brought in as a backup after his development began again, Jack Campbell grew into the starter role in Toronto and is now due a new contract. Campbell will be asking for starter’s money in his first real chance to cash in as a professional athlete, even though he was limited to 49 games in his first season as the unquestioned No. 1 netminder. After showing cracks in their ability to evaluate the position by signing the aforementioned Mrazek to a three-year deal worth decent money, the Maple Leafs must make the right determination on Campbell, or risk losing all they have built.
Whether it’s Francouz or Kuemper for Colorado, the Avalanche could offer teams hope in proving in the Stanley Cup final that it’s possible to catch a wave. Though we should not diminish what the Avalanche have built since identifying and securing Francouz’s talent as a free agent out of the KHL, it would serve as evidence that strong goaltending, and not a high-end and dominant netminder, is all that’s required to survive four rounds.
But if it Vasilevskiy or Shesterkin who shines when east meets west, and winds up playing an indispensable role for the 2022 Stanley Cup champions even if either Francouz or Kuemper refuse to flop, it will be just another regularly scheduled reminder that the voodoo that is hockey’s goaltending position is best addressed within.
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