Does it pay for Caps to spend money on goalies?

Does it pay for Caps to spend money on goalies?
August 6, 2013, 5:00 pm
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(Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Look around the NHL and goalies are a problem. No, not always on the ice, but on the books. A big contract at such a volatile position can cause massive headaches for executives.

Under a strict salary-cap system, a team can’t afford to waste resources in net unless it has a truly elite player. If Henrik Lundqvist is on your roster, fine. But hand out a long-term deal to a player like Roberto Luongo and suddenly you have a goalie you literally can’t give away.

For the Capitals, at least, that hasn’t been a problem. The team has been content to sign relatively cheap veterans on short-term deals, but supplement them with talented in-house options in case they falter. And that’s fortunate because their valuable salary-cap space is spoken for elsewhere on the roster.

If draft picks like Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby hadn’t panned out at all in recent years, Washington might have been tempted to overpay in net. Ask the Philadelphia Flyers how that’s worked out.

The philosophy is no different entering the 2013-14 season. According to the web site CapGeek.com, the Caps are set to spend $4.35 million on their two goalies this season. That total expenditure ranks 24th in the NHL at the position. Holtby ($1.850 million) and Neuvirth ($2.5 million) both signed contract extensions earlier this year.

Now, sometimes you get what you pay for. But in Washington’s case it hasn’t hurt. In 2007-08 the Caps used three goalies with a combined, pro-rated salary-cap hit of about $6.9 million (Olie Kolzig, Cristobal Huet and Brent Johnson) and the team save percentage was .900, tied for 24th in the NHL that season. But that save percentage rose each of the next three years even as the money spent dropped all the way to $2.28 million in 2010-11. The save percentage that season? Neuvirth, Varlamov and Holtby combined for a .920, fourth-best in the league.

That number, of course, plummeted to .909 the next season despite the addition of veteran Tomas Vokoun to go with Neuvirth and Holtby. But last year it was back up to .916 with Holtby and Neuvirth running the show and AHL Hershey recall Philipp Grubauer making his NHL debut. It wasn’t elite goaltending, but it was good enough for 11th overall at a combined $2.4 million for the three goalies. And all three men are under contract for 2014-15, too.

What the Caps have actually done with that financial flexibility is a story for another post. But they’ve consistently held to this philosophy and executed it. Grubauer is the next potential cheap option in net if he has a strong year at AHL Hershey this season.