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Why it’s always risky to spend big on NHL goaltending

Vasilevskiy was rewarded with a handsome new contract. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

It isn’t that Andrei Vasilevskiy doesn’t deserve the contract extension he received from the Tampa Bay Lightning this week. As a player, you deserve every cent a team is willing to give you. (And frankly, probably more than that.)

The issue, instead, is whether this is a worthwhile investment for the Lightning.

Let’s be serious here: $9.5 million is a lot of AAV to give anyone, and with NHL goaltending being as unpredictable from one year to the next as it is, it’s a shocking amount to give to a netminder.

As of next season, Vasilevskiy will be the third on the goaltender AAV list, a million bucks behind Carey Price and Sergei Bobrovsky, and a million bucks ahead of Henrik Lundqvist. Other goaltenders, like Tuukka Rask and Pekka Rinne, have made similarly large signings as a percentage of the salary cap over the years as well. To say the results on those deals have been mixed — obviously excepting the Bobrovsky deal that hasn’t actually started yet — seems fair.

Lundqvist’s is a deal that probably feels like it was earned; he’s been good and occasionally great, but also had two below-average seasons since the deal began in 2014-15. The Rangers paid him more for what he’d done in the past (as he was probably the best goaltender in the league from 2010-14) versus what he, in his age-32-to-40 seasons, would do in the future. Those chickens are coming home to roost­­, as he’s now 37, coming off his second down year in three seasons, and won’t come off the books until summer 2021.

No one’s mad about it and maybe they shouldn’t be. You can’t say the same thing about the Price contract, which only started last season and already looks like a pretty rotten deal that will only get worse. Here, too, there was a four-year stretch where he was probably one of the two or three best goalies in the world (though he was injured for the bulk of 2015-16), but they signed him at age 30 to an eight-year deal that started when he was 31. He’ll be 32 in a couple of weeks, and even if he’s coming off a decent season (he was 22nd in goals saved above expected), that ain’t worth $10.5 million against the cap and he’s only going to lose quality as he ages.

You can make similar arguments for Bobrovsky, who has two Vezinas in his back pocket and signed a max-term deal with Florida at age 30 for the same AAV as Price. One imagines that deal follows a similar trajectory to Price’s: Maybe good for a few years, then almost certainly bad for the back half.

Rinne’s big-money deal ($49 million over seven years) is now over, and was more bad than good. He won a Vezina, but only played 373 games over seven seasons and had only two seasons out of those seven in which he stopped more goals than an average goalie would be expected to. And just two years before that Vezina campaign, he was one of the worst goaltenders in the league.

Rask is only six years into his deal, with a couple more to go, and like Rinne (whose deal went into effect a year earlier) carries a $7-million AAV. Over that time, he’s been better in terms of expected goals against in four of those six seasons so far, and he’s probably the best comparable of those listed above because his cap hit at the time was roughly the same share of the cap (11ish percent) as Vasilevskiy’s will be next season. He was also 26 when the deal started, as Vasilevskiy will be.

The problem was that the Bruins wanted Rask to be among the best goalies in the league, and over the length of the deal to date he’s 26th in goals saved above expected (11.28). Marc-Andre Fleury has been considerably better (29.3 GSAx) in a similar number of minutes. And that’s not to say Rask is bad — as many in Boston would suggest — but he probably hasn’t been worth the money, save for the two runs to the Cup Final, which is arguably all that matters to teams in the end.

Rask helped the Bruins reach the Stanley Cup Final in 2019. (Photo by Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Put another way: The Rangers, Predators, Canadiens, and Bruins would rather give their guys 10-plus percent of the cap than roll the dice on finding a, say, Robin Lehner on the open market. It makes sense to pay a premium for the extra likelihood that you’ll have more up years than down.

But as we’ve seen, it doesn’t usually work out that way, no matter how good the guy seems to be and regardless of whether he’s 26, 29, or 31. Why? Because there’s no statistical correlation between AAV and any goaltending metric you want to come up with. Every year, everyone’s all over the place. Sometimes guys making $1.5 million on a one-year show-me deal win the Vezina, and it can happen a year after a previously overpaid 35-year old stands on his head for an entire season out of nowhere to suddenly earn a big chunk of the money that was previously squandered.

It’s difficult to argue you shouldn’t appear to overspend on a guy like Vasilevskiy, whom you have good reason to suspect will be better than average for five or six years of an eight-year deal. GMs are in the business of job preservation and trading away a guy like Vasilevskiy is usually going to make you look pretty foolish if you can’t come up with a reasonable replacement.

But because the NHL is so random, guys like Lundqvist or Rask, who consistently outperform expectations, are hard to come by, and it’s impossible to predict whether any given year is the one where the previously elite goaltender suddenly goes .908. That, too, can make you look foolish.

It’s equally likely that some random Cam Talbot type comes out of nowhere and drags an otherwise unimpressive team to the playoffs for a fraction of the cost. So while you’re paying for a little more certainty, you’re probably not getting what you paid for.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats/salary info via Natural Stat TrickEvolving HockeyHockey ReferenceCapFriendly and Corsica unless noted.

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