In hockey there are few controversies like a goalie controversy. It's the kind where everyone's eyes and stats and locker room vocal support can say whatever they wish them to say.
The New York Islanders have not quite a controversy, but certainly an important decision -- or at least need -- regarding their goaltending in 2013-14. The problem is every proposal has a caveat, every solution has a cost.
Before we go further, let's quote an oldie but goodie on the nature of evaluating goalies. From Arctic Ice Hockey (nee Behind The Net Hockey):
If you call up a goaltender and he plays 40 games, sees 1000 even-strength shots and posts a .925 even-strength save percentage, what are the odds that his true talent level is actually league average or worse? Reading off the chart, it's almost 30%.
This is what makes it very difficult to find a good goaltender - you need four years of data to figure out how good he is, but you can usually only get one or two.
That conclusion is three years old, and small figures have changed, but the principle remains the same: When coveting another man's goalie or buying a diamond ring for your own, it's difficult to know the true value of what you're eyeing.
For the Islanders, Evgeni Nabokov's stats -- he's one where we do have plenty of data -- are below NHL average and have been so for his last several NHL seasons. There is no reason to think he'll improve on that when he'll be 38 next season, so the Isles are wise to seek an upgrade, even if their intention is to keep Nabokov as a backup or 1A or mentor.
(As any of his defenders will point out and as he showed briefly in the final third of last season, he is still capable of playing well for stretches of time. One can at least hope such stretches fall in some sort of backup scenario.)
To underline the Isles need for goalie help, we can point to the fact that neither Kevin Poulin (among the Isles receiving qualifying offers, by the way) or Anders Nilsson have enough data to instill confidence, and what data we do have is certainly spotty. Maybe their growth curves are still going up; maybe they'll just never be that good.
Which of the above three would you bet next season on?
So it is we turn to the habit of coveting other men's goalies. A few separate reports had the Islanders in on former Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Bernier, but the Leafs won that auction by providing a young (cheap) depth winger, a legit NHL backup and a 2nd-round pick. The Isles could have provided the first and the third pieces, but not the key middle piece. (If the Islanders had a legit NHL backup -- Nabby, as an unrestricted free agent, doesn't count here -- they might not be in this shopping situation.)
The Bernier situation itself shows how maddening this process is: He was coveted by a few teams, yet even here no one knows if he'll truly be the answer. The Leafs may already have the answer in James Reimer, but now they've spread out their bets (perhaps at their peril).
Some Isles fans hoped the team could land Ben Scrivens if a Leafs goalie addition forced him out of Toronto's top two. Unfortunately, that very addition took him off the market by putting him in Los Angeles' new tandem.
Other Isles fans looked to free agency, with an eye on Minnesota Wild pending free agent Niklas Backstrom. Too bad for those fans: Backstrom has re-signed in Minnesota for three more years.
With Bernier, Backstrom and Scrivens now off the table, the window shopping resumes. Of unrestricted free agents, there is the likely pricey Mike Smith in Phoenix, the (heh) unknown sabbatical-minded Tim Thomas, and the promising but short-on-data Anton Khudobin in Boston. You can also trawl lower and in more uncertain terms with an interesting guy like Alex Stalock in San Jose.
In the "this guy has been good before, can we trade for him?" section, there is the oft-injured Jaroslav Halak in St. Louis, the oft-good but a bit irritable lately Ryan Miller in Buffalo, and the oft-good but contract albatross of Roberto Luongo in Vancouver.
Few teams have an extra goalie burning a hole in their trade pocket like the Kings and Bernier, but Anaheim represents another interesting target. They have a good Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth both under contract taking up $7.4 million on the cap, with the promising (for a goalie, anyway) Frederik Andersen waiting in the wings and entering the second year of his two-year ELC.
Could one of them be shaken loose this summer?
Outside of whether the Ducks would actually deal one of their goalies this offseason, the challenge with Andersen is the same challenge with so many of these options: How do you really know what you're going to get?
In many ways you don't. But given the Islanders' list of shaky unknowns, they are all but obligated to try anyway.