Tondar's Daily Rant

Prepare yourself for the writings of Tondar the Destroyer, Baron of Atlanta, Rightful Heir to the Throne of Spain, from whom all babies come. As his will be blogged, so let it be done.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

TIME TO BEAT UP CZECHS ON ROLLERSKATES

Seth on the latest retirement of Dominik Hasek...

Publicly: We are very saddened at this time to lose such a great player, who as our starting goaltender helped the Red Wings post the lowest goals-against average in the National Hockey League this year, and led Detroit to a president's trophy and Stanley Cup Championship. Hasek retires a champion and a superstar, and will be remembered with Terry Sawchuk as the two greatest netminders to ever wear the winged wheel, over almost a century of great hockey.

Privately: About fucking time.

Seriously: It's the right time. Osgood said when they brought Hasek to Detroit in '01 that there would come a day when Ozzie is a better goalie than Dom. I wrote in November '07 that this had finally occurred, and it was made plain for all the world when Babcock pointed at Osgood for Game 5 of the Nashville series, and 14 wins later, found himself hoisting a rather nice-looking cup.

I think a Hasek-Osgood duo in '08/'09 would be better than any other goalie combination in the league, with the possible exceptions of Lehtonen/Hedberg and Brodeur/whoever the guy is who sits on the bench and watches Brodeur. Four really great tandems -- Nabokov/Toskala, Giguere/Bryzgalav, Vokoun/Mason, Huet/Price -- were all broken up this year. That means, with Hasek's retirement, there isn't a team in the NHL with a true 1A/1B combo, i.e., two guys who you would trust to start the playoffs and compete for the Conn Smythe. I think having two top-flight netminders (and at bargain price) was what put these Wings over the top, even though on the outside it looks like a total luxury. And it wasn't just Dom's excellence in the regular season that did it; having Ozzy enter the playoffs four games into the 1st round, I think, made a big difference. You saw this when a still-fresh Ozzie was beating out a noticeably fatigued Marty Turco, and still posting back-to-back shutouts two games into the Stanley Cup Finals.

Goalie is a team's most important position. Some teams are lucky enough to have a Hall of Fame guy: a Brodeur (NJ), Luongo (Van) or Lundqvist (NYR) who can carry a team on his own from start to finish. The next rung down from the superstars, though, are the "franchise" goalies, guys who can be unbeatable at their peaks, but can wear out and become vulnerable, especially if overused: Nabokov (SJ), Kiprusoff (Cal), Turco (Dal), and Giguere (Ana) among the proven, and Lehtonen (Atl), Ellis (Nas), Price (MtL), Fleury (Pit), and Backstrom (Min) among the young netminders with the potential to become such. Even those guys are hard to find. What we're talking about, then is the next step down, typically called Tier 1 or "1A" in scouting reports: Ryan Miller (Buf), Jose Theodore (Col), Manny Legace (StL), Cristobal Huet (Was), Tomas Vokoun (Fla), Chris Osgood (Det) and Dominick Hasek (Det).

Note something very important: I just gave you a list of 19 guys, covering 18 teams. If I was to cover the next 11 guys, the "starting" guys, you still wouldn't see a repeat in the team column until near the very bottom of the list. In fact, the only other teams besides Detroit whose 2nd goalie is better than someone else's 1st goalie are Pittsburgh and Colorado (if you can convince yourself you'd rather Colorado's Peter Budaj in net instead of Ottawa's Martin Gerber).

Detroit's goaltenders were 1 and 3 in goals-against-average this year (ozzy/dom respectively). The next highest duo that's still together: Eastern Conference Champion Pittsburgh, with Marc-Andre Fleury (12) and Ty Conklin (18), who, by the way, were 2nd and 4th among goalies in save percentage.

Ummmm...pattern?

When a team has two goalies roughly equivalent in ability, teams like to say "we have a 1A and a 1B guy." This was popularized years ago, and is now way overused, applied by coaches whenever they're singing the praises of a hot kid who's spelling a slumping starter. I'm not talking about teams that keep switching starters because nothing works, but the ones who have two guys playing well who get relatively equal opportunities. Under such a paradigm, the only other teams I can think off off-hand to truly employ the tandem concept are early 2000s Carolina (Irbe/Weekes) and the Minnesota Wild before Backstrom's emergence (crazy Jacques Lemaire, always ahead of the game), with the famous Fernandez/Roloson combo.

The reason nobody keeps uses the 1A-1B formula, even as it's become more and more obvious that it's the secret to success, is that 1A goalies are expensive, normally running you $6 million per year (some have good years, get overrated, and rake in $8), and with a salary cap of $42 million, you can't justify putting over a quarter of your cap space into one position, even if you could acquire such guys (teams will part with a guy like Toskala, but clear 1A guys, especially young ones, get franchised).

That's why Ilya Bryzgalov (formerly of Anaheim), Cristobel Huet* (formerly of Montreal), Tomas Vokoun (used to be in Nashville) and Vesa Toskala (the latest Shark phenom to be run out of town to placate Nabokov's ego) found themselves starting for crummy teams by this year's trade deadline, rather than backing up the franchise boys on their former squads. (*Note: in the case of Huet, the team stopped being crappy once he came along, which is another way of saying yes, Olaf Kolzig was the problem).

Keep in mind, guys get hot or go cold (human guys, that is. Brodeur's not human). So a Tier 1/Tier 2 tweener goalie like Boston's Tim Thomas or Philadelphia's Martin Biron can go on a tear and play like a franchise guy for a month, just as Kiprusoff or Turco can develop temporary holes. Some guys -- the Islanders DiPietro comes to mind -- are either lock-down awesome or total sivs. You take their value from the median.

Hasek's median had him among the top 15 goalies in the game. Osgood's 07-08 campaign put him among that top 15 tier as well.

It was Ken Holland's genuis to get a 1A-1B tandem for the ridiculous bargain of $3 million for '07-'08 -- half of what teams usually pay for one guy at that level. We simply lucked with Osgood, signing him cheap (under $1 million) and then watching him blossom late (or just get really really hot).

If another team spent even $4 million on goaltending, they'd end up with Martin Gerber and Ray Emery if they're lucky, and Jason LaBarbera and Dan Cloutier if they're not.

With Hasek, we got him at a substantial cut: $2 million, with $2 million more in potential bonuses. His agent hates, absolutely hates, the deal. Dom wanted to make sure he could play for Detroit under the salary cap, and offered to half of his market value to do it. I wonder why nobody talks about that.

Dom also, by the way, paid back a substantial portion of his salary that year he came back and displaced ($8 million) CuJo.

Without Hasek, our tandem becomes Osgood/Howard. Jimmy Howard is a perennial AHL All-Star, considered the Red Wings' top prospect, above Jonathan Ericsson, above Jacob Kindl, above Helm, Abdelkader, Emmerton, Mursak, et al. He projects to be a 1A goalie, with an upside, I'd say, akin to Nashville's Dan Ellis. That is to say good, with an upside really good. On a normal NHL team he's ready to be the Ellis c. 2005-06, behind Osgood (who's on par with Vokoun c. 2005-06). But he's not Hasek. He's not even 43-year-old Hasek. He's probably going to be Tim Thomas, who's good, but inconsistent. At the moment, he's probably Tim Thomas during Tim Thomas' rookie year, which made a splash, then became, well, inconsistent.

It's the right move for Dominick, though. A star of his stature should not languish as a backup, or even as the 1B guy. It's demeaning. It subjects him and his memory to the fickleness of fans, even the remarkably knowledgeable fans in Detroit. It's like having Luc Robitaille (and Igor Larionov) on your 4th line. And Howard is never going to develop into the 1A guy we want him to be whilst whittling away for another season in Grand Rapids. Osgood's 35, and he has nowhere near the talent of Hasek to last another seven years without a substantial dropoff. He's going to need an heir.

Today, Dom can leave with a cup and his head held high. He wasn't bad -- it's just that Osgood, who is now much more technically sound than his '98-'00 self, closed the gap, and supplanted him. Hasek backstopped the Wings to the President's trophy. He was as important to the team this year as Draper, or the Mule. It's a fitting end to a Hall of Fame resume. It's the guy who's never done things like he's supposed to, finally coming to grips with reality, the end its own means, an analogy for aging and wisdom.

It's not what's good for the Wings. It's just time.

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