There’s an idea gaining momentum in the NFL that “running backs don’t matter” (RBDM). Not that you can write the position out of your playbook and be successful in the league, but there’s growing evidence that it’s perhaps not prudent to pay up for a name player at the position.
It’s argued that running backs are interchangeable. You still need a player talented and strong enough to compete at the highest level of the sport (any schmo won’t do), but we’ve seen there’s a big pool of capable players at the position who can be had on the cheap, and that factors around running backs have a lot of influence in how they perform.
Take last year’s Pittsburgh Steelers for example. Their star running back, Le’Veon Bell, sat out the entire 2018 season due to a contract dispute, so the team had to lean on his former backup James Conner. Conner was 23, a third-round draft pick, and had just 14 NFL games to his name when he took over from Bell. At the end of the year, Conner was 11th in rushing yards and his 4.5 average yards per carry were better than what Bell averaged (4.0) in 2017. Choosing between the two in a vacuum, everyone would prefer to have Bell — he’s more dynamic and the better pass catcher. But in a cap system, Conner comes at a much cheaper price tag. And behind Pittsburgh’s line and in their offence, he didn’t hurt the Steelers.
Todd Gurley was the NFL’s best running back last season, finishing second in rushing yards per game (89.4), 11th in yards per attempt (4.9) and led the league with 17 rushing touchdowns. In 2017 he was also second in rush yards per game and first in touchdowns. But in 2016 he was 17th in rushing yards and scored less than half as many touchdowns as he has the past two seasons. The difference? The then-St. Louis Rams struggled with a worse offensive line and a less offensively-inclined coach.
So when top-end running backs hold out for more money — as we’re seeing currently with Melvin Gordon and Ezekiel Elliott sitting out the start of training camp — the drumbeat is growing that teams shouldn’t cave in to demands. Odds are they’ll have someone else capable of taking on the role and performing at a level that won’t set the team back.
In hockey, goaltending is more directly important to team success than running backs are in the NFL — a bad goalie can single-handedly sink your season, where a bad running back doesn’t have to. In that sense you could compare netminders to quarterbacks. But when analyzing the cost effectiveness of spending big on a goalie relative to the cap, there’s an argument to be made that “goalies don’t matter” — though we wouldn’t be as definitive with that statement as our NFL counterparts.
On Monday, the Tampa Bay Lightning locked up Andrei Vasilevskiy for eight years and a $9.5 million cap hit. His current deal didn’t expire for another season so he’ll actually play through 2019-20 at $3.5 million before the extension kicks in. Unless someone else signs a bigger deal in the next year (more on that later) Vasilevskiy will be the third-highest paid goalie in the game behind Carey Price ($10.5 million) and Sergei Bobrovsky ($10 million).
And he’s great! We’re not saying Vasilevskiy is overrated, but it’s worth questioning if goalies should be valued like running backs when we’re discussing finding cap value. Just last season we saw Robin Lehner (Vezina finalist) and Petr Mrazek excel on cheap contracts. Previously, Antti Raanta was excellent when healthy in Arizona — and when he was injured Darcy Kuemper posted a .925 save percentage behind their top-notch team defence. There are certainly cautionary tales (Cam Talbot, Scott Darling) so perhaps paying up for the security of knowing you’ve locked down the position is worth it for some teams. But is full term necessary?
Goaltenders don’t have the same high injury risk as NFL running backs do, and their production window is open much longer. Still, with a good defence and enough scoring, teams can find value in net. Perhaps it’s a situational approach, but at the base of it, is it better to spend less on a goalie so you can improve the team around one?
Goaltender workloads are also trending down in the regular season as the NHL moves in the direction of tandems (in the NFL “bellcow” running backs are similarly being replaced by committees), so their general impact is lessening from October to April.
Sampling of goalies that were in the top 10 of Goals Saved Above Average last season on Corsica:
Thomas Greiss, Robin Lehner, Jaroslav Halak, Alexander Georgiev, Jacob Markstrom, Laurent Brossoit, Darcy Kuemper
Don't pay for saves
— Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) July 29, 2019
Vasilevskiy’s cap comparables for his $9.5 million AAV are obvious at the highest end, but where he really sticks out is relative to RFAs close to his age. While Price was about to turn 30 when he signed his deal and Bobrovsky was a 30-year-old UFA, Vasilevskiy was just 25 at the time of his signing. So to get an idea of where his contract really fits into the league-wide picture, we have to look at other mid-20s goalies and what they got on their extensions.
JOHN GIBSON, ANAHEIM DUCKS
Contract length: 8
Cap hit: $6.4 million
% of cap: 8.05
Age at signing: 25
Like Vasilevskiy, Gibson signed an extension with Anaheim one year before his active contract expired, so this deal will just begin in 2019-20. Although the Ducks were a tire fire in 2018-19 Gibson was excellent for the most part. The first half of his season was especially outstanding, but an injury got in the way of his second half. That’s the downside with Gibson. He does have a track record of getting hurt, but when he’s in the net, he’s elite. Check out his numbers next to Vasilevskiy’s at the time the two signed their extensions.
Vasilevskiy is a two-time Vezina finalist and one-time winner of the award, and that’ll bring a higher contract demand. But this really highlights the tremendous value at which the Ducks kept Gibson.
CONNOR HELLEBUYCK, WINNIPEG JETS
Contract length: 6
Cap hit: $6.16 million
% of cap: 7.76
Age at signing: 25
The Jets netminder had far less of a track record when he extended last summer. He really had only the one good season, finishing 2017-18 as a Vezina finalist with a .924 save percentage. His follow-up in 2018-19 (the first of the new contract) was a little less inspiring with a .913 save rate. The jury is still out on where Hellebuyck fits in relation to other goalies around the league. Remember even in 2016-17 he struggled so much Winnipeg chose to sign Steve Mason in the summer.
JORDAN BINNINGTON, ST. LOUIS BLUES
Contract length: 2
Cap hit: $4.4 million
% of cap: 5.4
Age at signing: 26
He came out of nowhere last season, but ended up as the starter (and some may say saviour) of the Stanley Cup champions. Binngington didn’t even start the season as the first goalie in line for a call up. It was definitely wise for the Blues to not lock into Binnington for too long yet because there’s still a chance he doesn’t land as a year-in, year-out reliable starter. It’s such a volatile position. It was probably wise for Binnington too, because he still gets paid a competitive salary for the next two seasons, but if his trajectory keeps pointing up, he’ll be in line for one of these big pay days when he becomes a 28-year-old UFA.
BRADEN HOLTBY, WASHINGTON CAPITALS
Contract length: 5
Cap hit: $6.1 million
% of cap: 8.54
Age at signing: 25
In terms of what Vasilevskiy’s contract means for the next crop of free agent goalies, one name stands out. Braden Holtby will turn 30 years old in September and is one year away from UFA. He’s regarded as one of the top netminders in the game, is a two-time Vezina finalist, a one-time winner of the award, and a Stanley Cup champ. But his past two regular seasons have been subpar for himself, so cumulative over the past five years he is tied with Marc-Andre Fleury and Lehner with the 11th-best save percentage (.918).
With the market what it is for goalies, it seems the number for Holtby starts at $10 million on his next contract, but it’s a wonder if that works for the Capitals or for how long they’d want to pay a 31-year-old that kind of money. Today Washington is without any cap space and Nicklas Backstrom is also entering the final season of his deal before becoming a UFA. The centre should take priority.
But Holtby has been one of the best playoff goalies of his era, and with Washington still chasing Cups, that factor can’t be ignored. In all of NHL history, Holtby’s .928 post-season save percentage is sixth-best among goalies with 30 games played, and his 2.09 GAA is tied for 15th. Even this past season when Washington was upset in Round 1, Holtby showed well.
Here’s where it’ll be important to get Ilya Samsonov some NHL games in 2019-20 to see how he adapts. The 22nd overall pick in 2016 had terrible-looking season-long AHL numbers in 2018-19 (his first in North America) but from mid-January on he was a very impressive 15-3-1-1 with a 1.78 GAA and .930 SV%. At just 22 years old Washington still has lots of control over Samsonov since he still has two years left on his ELC.
If there’s any cross-over between “running backs don’t matter” in football and “don’t pay up for a goalie” in the NHL, this season’s Capitals will be an interesting case study.