If you were to make a list of the things wrong with the 2013/14 Oilers it would be a long list, and somewhere near the top you'd undoubtably have goaltending. There's no nice way to put it, the Oilers have not gotten very good goaltending this season; excluding Ben Scrivens' wonderful performance on Wednesday night of course. That game from Scrivens and Bryzgalov's play against the Canucks on Monday has nudged the Oilers 5-on-5 save percentage up to 0.909, good for 29th in the NHL, three points ahead of the last place Flames.
This drop off is not something that many fans expected. Even with Nikolai Khabibulin appearing in 40% of the team's games, the Oilers had posted 5-on-5 save percentages of 0.925 and 0.921 (14th and 18th overall) in 2013 and 2011/12. With Khabibulin gone and a capable, or so we thought, backup in place there was every reason to think the Oilers would once again get goaltending that was average, or slightly above. Clearly that did not happen.
You know the story, but since it's such a happy tale allow me to recap it for your enjoyment. Devan Dubnyk posted a 0.897 save percentage at even strength - 20 points below his average over the previous three seasons - and eventually Bryzgalov was brought in the help stop the bleeding. He wasn't much better between the pipes, and so Dubnyk was moved to Nashville and Scrivens came to town by way of Los Angeles.
The early results with Scrivens have been good, and it's probably a safe bet to think that the Oilers would like to see him return to the team next season, but he's an unrestricted free agent so that's up to him. Looking past Scrivens there is nothing. Well not quite nothing but pretty close to it. As of right now the only goalies the team has under contract for next year are Laurent Brossoit, Tyler Bunz, and Frans Tuohimaa. The Oilers are going to have some big decisions to make when it comes to who tends net for them next season. And because of the salary cap it's always worth considering: spend or save?
To know whether you should spend or save it's a good idea to first know who is available. Using a combination of capgeek.com and hockey-reference.com I compiled the following table of soon to be unrestricted free agents.
That's a list that I don't find all that exciting. Thomas is the only goalie who has played a meaningful number of games over the last three years and posted a save percentage above average. There are a couple of players having strong campaigns this season, including Scrivens, but none who I would be willing to say is a certain number one goalie and would therefore be willing to spend handsomely to bring to Edmonton.
So where does that leave the Oilers? As I see it there are two options: trade for a legitimate number one, or go dirt cheap between the pipes.
A trade isn't a bad idea, but the Oilers have a lot of holes to fill and only so many assets that can be moved to fill them. Is it worthwhile to move one of the few assets you have in order to bring in a big money, number number one goalie if he's going to be stuck playing behind one of the worst defences in the NHL? If money was spent efficiently around the NHL it might not make a difference, a six of one, half dozen of the other kind of thing, but there are inefficiencies in the NHL, and the goaltending market is one of the most inefficient. Gabriel Desjardins looked at the efficiency of the goaltending market a couple of years ago and reached the following conclusion:
I think we're finally at the answer here: there's huge value available in the second tier of goaltenders, though teams have difficulty evaluating them as they do with all other goalies. Given that uncertainty, it is almost certainly better to spend less money on goalies and to give them the shortest contracts possible; forwards and defensemen are much more likely to be sure things, and you're better off paying for certainty.
Now it is possible that NHL General Managers have become a smarter bunch in the year and a half since that was written but I have my doubts. So the smart thing to do would be for MacTavish to put the goaltending failures of this season out of his mind and to re-sign Scrivens and another UFA (Khudobin maybe) as a tandem for next season. With a little luck he should be able to average goaltending for around $3.5M total. You could spend more and (possibly) get a slight upgrade, but every additional dollar spent on goaltending is a dollar not spent elsewhere in the lineup. That's a tradeoff that simply doesn't make sense given the options available for the Oilers right now.
That's what he should do. Unfortunately I don't think that is what will happen. Kent Wilson does an excellent job of explaining why.
The risks of paying too much for a goalie in the NHL are therefore likely swept away by probability blindness because the perceived risks of having poor goaltending are far more obvious and anxiety provoking to an NHL general manager. No single player exerts more influence on a clubs goal differential than it’s goalie and that’s true in both directions – a good puck stopper can save a club 20-30 goals above a similar replacement level player. On the other hand, a bad one can cost a team 20 or 30 goals. That’s a huge swing in results in a league with as much parity as the current NHL, meaning the rewards for purchasing a good goalie are potentially big, while the adverse effects of playing with a sub-par goalie are conversely huge (and unpleasant).
Maybe the best thing we can hope for is that Scrivens continues to play like a legit number one, convincing MacTavish that all he needs is a capable backup, eliminating the possibility of a big money UFA signing or a significant trade. Then all we would need to worry about is how much he overpays Scrivens. Have I mentioned lately that I hate goalies?