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Charlton's NHL: Chicken or the Egg?

Rick Charlton

November 20th, 2001

Which came first?

The chicken or the egg?

In Toronto, where style often outweighs substance, the Leafs would have you believe the answer is Mats Sundin, a player averaging 76 points over the last four seasons and signed this summer to a monster contract extension averaging $9 million U.S. per season.

That event in turn has left a quizzical expression on the face of a certain Curtis Joseph, whom many would regard as the sturdy pole preventing the Leaf umbrella from folding like a cheap tent in a minor breeze.

Joseph, an unrestricted free agent next summer, free to shop himself to the highest bidder, might do just that as the Leafs try to argue logic, facts and market comparables with their saviour in order to prevent his bolting. But the bottom line is the cash on the table seems noticeably short of the Sundin deal, which effectively values Joseph as a lesser element.

In Calgary at least, a certain sanity can be found where GM Craig Button seeks to state the obvious - goaltending is the most important element on any team - by making Roman Turek the highest paid Flame in history.

And Jarome Iginla, the early leader for the Art Ross Trophy as NHL scoring champion, will undoubtedly come in second to Turek when the cheques are all signed and mailed between now and next summer.

We've made this point ad infinitum in this column - without goaltending, like pitching in baseball; anything else that might be going right with your team is rendered moot in a big hurry.

Just ask Vancouver, falling and now soaring on the relative Jekyll and Hyde performance of their declared, but inexperienced, number one netminder Dan Cloutier.

Mario Lemieux is dandy but the Pens might still be treading water in the second round without Tom Barrasso in the early 1990's.

In fact, goaltending is a lot like money - its only important if you don't have it. And when you don't have it, life gets very hard very quickly.

On the surface, it may seem strange that Turek should walk into such largesse as a relative interloper, only two months into a Flames uniform while Iginla was here in diapers before graduating to manhood.

But such is life in today's NHL where a strong defence is usually the cheapest way to success, more so than trying to find an expensive group of snipers. In today's game, where average scoring totals continue to drop, a defence-oriented team, anchored by a highly capable number one goaltender, is far and away the cheapest way to build a playoff contender.

The goalie himself may be expensive, but the supporting cast needn't be.

In that light it remains an enduring mystery in the NHL as to why goaltenders continue to be graded lower on the relative pay scale after marquee forwards and defencemen when, in fact, they should easily be the highest paid players on any team.

While Joe Sakic and Rob Blake pull down the biggest dollars in Colorado, it is a resurgent Patrick Roy, with three consecutive shutouts, who has prevented Colorado from disappearing off the face of the earth.

This amazing worst to first transformation of the Flames in the standings would not be happening on the back of a Jarome Iginla scoring title or a Norris Trophy season from Derek Morris.

It is a spectacular .940 save percentage from Turek which has been "Large" in transforming the Flames from a terrible defensive team into the best in the NHL.

If there is one statistic coaches can look to which cuts through the crap it's the save percentage of a goaltender.

To put this in perspective, if we were to apply the combined save percentage of Fred Brathwaite and Mike Vernon last year to this season, Calgary would have already surrendered 57% more goals than they have already, tacking on another 20 to the 35 already on the books, or an additional one per game.

And the present would undoubtedly look very similar to the past.

For years, in fact almost a decade, the standard complaint about the Leafs was they weren't really much of a team considering the exploits of Felix Potvin and his successor, Joseph.

This was underlined a number of years ago when the Leafs one night were bombed 44-16 on shots in Dallas but emerged with a 2-1 victory thanks to the unconscious goaltending of Potvin, a long list of games where the former Toronto netminder had recovered points unjustly.

Confronted at last with the fact his team might be of a lesser standard than its record might indicate Burns offered up a retort that will be remembered a long time for its priceless simplicity.

"The goalie is part of the team isn't he?" hissed Burns.

Well ... as a matter of fact, yes he is.

The goalie is an integral, essential part of the Wings, Oilers and the Rangers in New York.

It's easy to say those teams wouldn't be as successful as they are without Dominic Hasek, Tommy Salo and Mike Richter. But that's a moot point. They are what they are and those teams are the beneficiaries of their fine play.

So we'll give Flames GM Craig Button a slap on the back for signing the chicken before the egg. This building around Turek in Calgary is positively formulaic in its predictability, whether the end result is Dallas North, Buffalo West or just plain old-fashioned New Jersey from a few years ago. With the Turek signing, the Flames have taken a "Large" step forward, a signal the rebuilding is over and the winning is coming.

As much as Iginla has dominated this year, we would still assert that Turek, impending UFA status or not, was the high priority signing, a deal that had to get done.

After all, where would they be without him?

"THE MEDIA SEEMS TO PUT AN OVER-EMPHASIS on the spending part and overlook the coaching, playing, managing and scouting part." - Mike Smith, GM of the Hawks.

IT WAS SOME YEARS AGO THAT NEW JERSEY GM Lou Lamourillo was waxing poetic on the subject of team building. His advice to those in the beginning stages of a building cycle was to accumulate young assets and hide the wallet in the closet. He reasoned that spending a big pile of money on free agents was simply a waste of time since the youngsters would be a drag rather than a help for a number of years. He added the point to open the wallet was when your youngsters had gained sufficient experience to be a benefit, rather than a hindrance, to the progress of the team. With many of their young players, names like Morris, Iginla, Gauthier, etc, now with three to five years of NHL experience under their belts, the time for the Flames to start spending, according to the Lamourillo model, is now.

AS MUCH AS I'VE BEEN RIDICULING THE VANCOUVER GOALTENDING SITUATION I couldn't help but notice Dan Cloutier has a save percentage of .911 and a GAA of only 2.23. He's starting to settle down and not coincidentally, the Canucks are starting to climb out of the abyss. I've said all along the Canucks are a pretty good team waiting for goaltending to give them a hand. Cloutier is starting to step up.

THE FLAMES TOOK A ROUNDHOUSE SHOT TO THE HEAD THIS SUMMER when some local media circles tied the resignation of Dr. WIllem Meeuwisse, head of sport medicine with the Flames, to alleged efforts by upper management to force injured players back into the lineup before they were ready. Never mind that Meeuwisse himself was quoted as saying the Flames were actually better than average in that regard compared to other management teams around the league. Interestingly, we have seen a number of instances this year where coach Greg Gilbert and his group have held quasi-healthy players out of the lineup, in spite of a desperate need for bodies on one of the most injury riddled teams in the league. Gilbert's contention is he would rather have a player at 100% for the rest of the season rather than having someone at 90% risking a recurring injury. The Flames record has clouded the fact they have been short-handed most of the year, leaving us to wonder how good they might be if they actually had a full lineup.

HAVE THE WASHINGTON CAPITALS SUPPLANTED the feel-good New York Rangers as the team you'd most love to see die a lingering death? The Caps are the team Vancouver GM Brian Burke points to as "nuts" because of their impending $30 million operating loss - more than the entire Flames payroll - this coming season. Washington, also dogged by significant injuries, has started the year at 7-11-2, in spite of the occasional presence of a seemingly disinterested but expensive Jaromir Jagr, and other stars like Petr Bondra and Adam Oates.

"IT'S UNCONSTITUTIONAL THAT I CAN'T SAY WHAT I WANT about the officials. It's against my rights as an American." - Brett Hull, in full bore blabber-mouth mode again, complaining of the monetary risk he would face if he said what he really thought about officiating in the NHL. I agree with Hull. He should be able to say anything he wants about referees. Then again, we'd never see him again for the rest of his natural life. He'd be in the box constantly.

ONE OF THE MORE INTRIGUING THOUGHTS OUT THERE is the comparison being made of Peter Forsberg's year off to that of former holdout Alexei Yashin. While the rationale that has led to Forsberg sidelining himself is different than the blatant holdout of Yashin in Ottawa, the underlying consequence is much the same. An arbitrator eventually determined Yashin owed the Senators a full year on his contract as it was stated. Similarly, Forsberg is in much the same position, in danger of having a deal that might have an additional year tacked on should the Avalanche request it. Would the Avs be that wicked?

"IT'S LIKE I WAS DRIVING ON A HIGHWAY and I took my eyes off the road for a second and now I'm in a ditch." Goaltender Manny Fernandez in Minnesota, where his goals against average has rocketed to 3.98 from last year's 2.24 and his save percentage had gone to a sub-par .872 from .920.

AFTER A FEW STELLER WEEKS, A TON OF ANALYSTS ARE READY to declare the Rangers the victors in the Eric Lindros deal. Which reminds me that the same analysts were doing similar high fives when the Rangers picked up Pat Lafontaine in 1997-98. The former Islander and Buffalo star, a victim of multiple prior concussions, cruised through much of the season, racking up 23 goals and 39 assists for 62 points in 67 games before being abruptly flattened. And that was it. Retirement. Over and done with. And that's the way it is with Lindros and the Rangers. They're winning now but could be losers, literally, in the blink of an eye.



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