The NHL's goaltending carousel kept spinning last week when the Flyers' Michael Leighton—the hero of Philadelphia's run to the Stanley Cup finals last spring after he came on in relief of injured starter Brian Boucher in the second round—cleared waivers and was sent to Adirondack of the AHL. The move snipped Leighton's $1.55 million obligation from Philly's salary cap. With his demotion, all four starting goalies from last spring's conference finals have moved on: The Canadiens traded restricted free agent Jaroslav Halak to St. Louis for prospects last June; in July the Sharks passed on re-signing veteran Evgeni Nabokov at the conclusion of his four-year, $21.5 million deal (he fled to Russia and the KHL and is now looking for a new team after SKA St. Petersburg terminated his contract last month in the wake of "family circumstances"); and in August, with little cap room to spare, the Blackhawks let Cup winner and unrestricted free agent Antti Niemi walk. He signed a one-year deal with San Jose.
In the salary-cap era the position that was once a paramount building block for Stanley Cup teams has become a secondary consideration. "Rather than building a team around one goalie, I like having [position players] who can score and can play defense," says Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren. "If I had a guy like [the Sabres'] Ryan Miller, I might feel differently, but we just don't have that." Both Miller and the Devils' Martin Brodeur are near the top of their struggling teams' payrolls. Of the five clubs whose number one goalie is their highest-paid player, four (the Flames, Panthers, Islanders and Wild) are near the league cellar. The deep and balanced Canucks, with All-Star Roberto Luongo in net, are the exception. By contrast, some of the NHL's top teams (the Flyers, Capitals and Red Wings) have less than $2 million in base salary allocated to the goaltenders on their rosters. The days of Ken Dryden, Grant Fuhr, Billy Smith and Brodeur backstopping their teams for a decade are dwindling.
Between 1952 and 1989 no franchise won a Stanley Cup championship without a future Hall of Fame goaltender on its roster. The jury is still out on the last six Cup-winning keepers—Detroit's Chris Osgood has the strongest case of the bunch, but he is no lock. "Look at what's been successful in this league the last six years," says Sharks G.M. Doug Wilson. "It ties into how goalies defend now."
Many around the league feel that the larger, more flexible equipment and emphasis on the butterfly technique—on merely blocking shots rather than controlling every rebound—have diminished the gap between the best goaltenders and the worst. "If you have a big goalie with a good defense in front of him, he can be a shot blocker instead of a guy who actually stops pucks," says Wayne Thomas, San Jose's assistant G.M. and a former NHL netminder. "There are 60 good goalies out there." And the price is right.
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LOU CAPOZZOLA (LEIGHTON)
MOVING PARTS Since playing for the Cup, both Leighton and Niemi (left) have departed.
WARREN WIMMER/ICON SMI (NIEMI)
[See caption above]