Of Goalies and Value. Plus This Week's Mailbag
It was an intriguing day for the goaltending profession.
First you had a 29-year-old netminder who was an eighth round draft pick seven years ago, and after winning his first playoff series last spring, he's been awarded a massive seven-year, $49 million contract.
That's Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators, who went out an pitched a 35-save shutout Thursday night against Phoenix as if to proof his bosses made the right decision.
Then you have a 23-year-old goalie carrying a $2.9 million salary on the basis of the fact that three seasons ago he was viewed as arguably the best young goalie in the game. Since then, however, he goals-against average hasn't been south of 3.00 and on Thursday night he was pulled after an embarrassingly weak performance.
That's Oakville-born Steve Mason, the one-time sure thing of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
For San Jose, you have 25-year-old Thomas Greiss, drafted well ahead of Rinne in '04, but sent to Sweden last season to work on his game. In Silicon Valley on Thursday night, Greiss ($587,500 this season) outduelled Marc-Andre Fleury ($5 million) of the Penguins in a shootout as the Sharks overcame a 3-1 third period deficit.
Finally, you had a 25-year-old native of Spruce Grove, Alta., who played four full seasons at Cornell and, after being undrafted into the NHL, received his first NHL start against all odds on Thursday. Earning a salary of $600,000, he won with a 38-save performance.
That would be Ben Scrivens of the Maple Leafs.
Those would be the extremes of the NHL goaltending spectrum, demonstrating just how difficult it is to assess value to the masked men, even the best of them.
Leaf fans, naturally, were entranced with the work of Scrivens, a young man signed by the Leafs in the summer of 2010 as a college free agent after Jussi Rynnas and with young netminders James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson already in the system. Scrivens turned down offers from teams willing to peg him at No. 3 on their depth chart to join the Leafs at No. 5, primarily because he wanted the chance to work with famed goaltending guru Francois Allaire.
Scrivens wasn't just good in his first NHL game. He was excellent, remarkably poised and calm in the net. Surprisingly smooth and efficient and competent.
So now what do you do? With Reimer still out, the most sensible answer is probably to go back to Gustavsson who has played well enough to win three hockey games in five tries behind a pretty potent offence. But not once in those games did he look as good as Scrivens did in Columbus.
Combine that with training camp in which Scrivens was the better netminder and you have a curious conundrum for Ron Wilson. Gustavsson is two years older and an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, so it behooves the Leafs to get a clear reading on Scrivens now before it's decision time on Gustavsson.
I'd go with Scrivens Saturday night against Boston. See how he responds. My guess, however, is that Wilson will go with Gustavsson, and all this is assuming Reimer isn't ready to return against the Bruins.
The picture is now very, very interesting in the Leaf crease. The absence of a veteran hasn't, to this point, hasn't hurt the first place Leafs. Is it possible that given the chance Scrivens could jump in and run with it and do exactly what Reimer did last year? Seems unlikely, far-fetched almost. Scrivens is a kid, don't forget, who started last season in the East Coast Hockey League, after all.
But with goalies, more and more, you just never know.
Now on to this week's mailbag:
Q: Hi Damien, Love your work, please keep it up. Got a Habs vs. league / media question: How come when the Habs fire an assistant coach, it is considered a classless move by EVERY ONE when every other team can fire its President, GM, Head Coach, Assistant Coaches and it is considered business as usual. I mean, Columbus had POTENTIAL replacements in the stands during a practice which set off rumours and no one complained about the lack of class by that move. Is it just the usual "anything the Habs do is wrong but if anyone else does it, it is OK" hate that the league and media have for the Habs? Even if such paranoia does not exist, the league (as in, the other teams, etc.) and media (the supposedly Toronto-centric one) sure do a dirt-poor job of showing otherwise. Looking forward to your response.
Andy Woo, Montreal
A: Couple of things. First, it's extremely rare that a single assistant coach is let go this early in a season, or ever in a season. I'm sure it has happened, but I can't think of another instance. So that made this unusual. Perry Pearn is very highly regarded in the industry and is also well-liked in the media, which is why I think the reaction was that he was being scapegoated for Montreal's weak start. Finally, it's Montreal - everything gets scrutinized. A lot can happen in Columbus without anyone knowing, but nothing goes unnoticed - or uncommented upon - in Montreal.
Q; I'd like to believe the latest-look Leafs can at least get back into the playoffs, but is that a real possibility with bottom-three goaltending?
Eoin Kenny, Edmonton
A: I'm not sure they have "bottom three" goaltending. In fact, I'm not sure what they have, period. With James Reimer, they appeared to be set, less so when Jonas Gustavsson took over. Now, after Ben Scrivens' scintillating debut, it's hard to know what to think. I'm not saying it isn't bottom-three; I'm saying there are just too many moving pieces at the moment to fully understand what the Leafs have in net.
Q: Hi Damien, great article today on whether the Leafs are "for real". Another factor to consider is the Leafs extremely poor penalty kill. I'm not calling for Wilson's head (as of right now), but how many chances does he need to get the special teams right. There is no way we can maintain success long term without competent special teams. And that's all that’s really needed COMPETENCY, and we dont' even have that. Your PK or PP will save you or really hurt you in the dog days of the season between December and February. The recent Senators game as a prime example of the hurt!
For a team that's hardworking, it’s perplexing how we can't find success in something that the majority of the time simply requires hard work. Right now, this team is NOT for real. Expect a swoon in those "dog days" of the season if the special teams are not drastically improved. Thank you, and would appreciate your opinion on this. Tell Bob I said Hi!
Dilraj Sandhu, Mississauga
A: Will do re Bob. On the Leaf PK, it worked better against Columbus, but that was because Scrivens was sharp. Look, to me goaltending plays a huge role in penalty killing, and is often the culprit when the percentages go down. In terms of strategy/personnel, the one very noticeable thing is that when given a chance to clear the Leafs don't clear the zone. So they get trapped with tired penalty killers, start making positional errors and the PK looks awful. But yeah, it's hard to believe the Leafs will continue winning at this pace if they can't clean this area up at least a little.
Q: Hi Damien,
The Leafs went on a very good run right after Colton Orr got hurt last season. This year after 10 games in which Orr has played either 1 or 2 (same with Jay Rosehill), Leafs are near the top of the league. None of the Toronto sports media (print, radio or tv) have commented on this. What's your take on it? I think that with Phaneuf and Komisarek they don't need a designated tough guy. Phaneuf could win the Norris and Hart this year.
Allan Price, Toronto
A: I think ALL of the Toronto sports media have commented on this. Orr's absence has been duly noted. The Leafs are winning without a goon. Apparently they don't need one, although you can bet Brian Burke doesn't necessarily approve.
Q: I was watching a Leafs PK the other night and witnessed one of the defenders' stick break -- a problem, as we all know, with composite sticks. It made me wonder why players don't switch to more reliable wooden sticks on the PK, since PKers usually don't need to fire off blistering shots but do need active sticks for deflections, passing lane obstructions, and of course, clearing the zone.
Eric Ginestier, Toronto
A: Have often wondered this very issue myself. I guess the answer is that players want the best stick they have, period. I think we're going to be getting to the point soon that few NHLers will ever have played with wood. Hard to find, too. But the difference between wood and composite is so significant even in weight I'm guessing few NHLers would want to make the adjustment in game.
Q: Damien, re your pre-World Series article about the Colby Rasmus trade: It was always pretty clear this year here in St. Louis that it was vital for the Cardinals to unload Rasmus and his dad. Fortunately, the Cards obviously received great value for him. That trade was likely the biggest factor in bring the Series trophy to St. Louis this year. St. Louis wishes Colby and his dad well, but we're glad they're not here.
Victor Perrin, St. Louis
A: And all of Toronto desperately hopes you're wrong. But congrats!
Hi Mr. Cox,
As always, I enjoy your writings. Why isn't there any talk on the upcoming unrestricted free agent status of Grabbo?
Dean Menchions, St. John's
A: Yes, interesting. Only Mikhail Grabovski, John-Michael Liles and Gustavsson loom as potentially serious UFAs. Grabovski is at $2.9 million now, which means he'll want to get north of $4 million en route to $5 million. They'll want to keep this guy, and this could well be something that gets completed during the season. But I agree - it's been very quiet so far.
Q: You're a hockey dad to a 13-year-old who plays net and some guy writes in to let you know you know nothing about the goalie position. Priceless!
My question is to you as a hockey writer in a major market with far more insider knowledge than the average hockey fan. Will you name four or five relatively big name NHL forwards along the lines of, say, Weiss in Florida, who will be available via trade by around mid-season should their teams be faltering that Burke would want on the Leafs? Personally, besides Weiss, I'd love to see Ottawa start a rebuild and make Spezza available to the highest bidder. I see fans always wanting Crosby for Bozak type trades, but realistically, who might the Leafs be chasing should they become available?
Gordon Steadman, Toronto
A: Can't. It depends so much on how the season develops. If Ottawa, for example, continues to succeed, they'll be far less likely to want to move the likes of Jason Spezza or Daniel Alfredsson. You hear Rene Bourque's name in Calgary, but his status depends on the Flames' ability to stay in the Western Conference race. We can guess that Kyle Turris will ultimately sign and be traded by Phoenix, but if it doesn't happen by Dec. 1st, Turris can't play this year. On Weiss, having moved David Booth, Panthers GM Dale Tallon is likely to be less interesting in moving his best centre. And what about the youngsters in Long Island, say somebody like Josh Bailey? Right now, Burke likes his team. The only name I would link at all to the Leafs should he become available would be Ryan Malone of the Lightning. Burke loves this guy. But Tampa would really have to fall off to move him.