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Islanders Crease Party: How the 2009 free agent goalies moved

Although the Islanders have been fairly quiet this free agency period, I knew it would be an interesting summer because the one position they most needed to fill was the one that was flooded with options: A "1A" goalie to share a heavy chunk of the load with a rehabbing Rick DiPietro (best case), or to be the main guy if DiPietro goes down/doesn't come back in time (worst, and -- as it turned out -- actual case).

The debate was so fun -- and we had a few exchanges here before and after their moves -- precisely because it was so wide open. There were several candidates, but on July 1 all of them had mixed track records and uncertain contract demands and/or playing time expectations. Add to that mix the uncertainty over which ones would be willing to come to last season's 30th-place team, and there was no obvious answer.

Which is why the goalie market, with its ample average supply for limited demand, shook out in some interesting, unpredictable ways, and one of the better options fell into the Islanders' lap.

As fans we can't assign scouts to study goalies -- and we can't count on catching Ty Conklin's body of backup work via Center Ice -- so we were at a bit of a disadvantage when assessing this free agent crop. When we're looking at backups with up-and-down trends like Conklin and Scott Clemmenson, or starter aspirants who are trending "up" like Craig Anderson, or quality guys with injury questions like Antero Niittymaki and Manny Fernandez, or even guys who had a starter's run but fell from grace like Martin Biron, we tend to go off of our own impressions and biases of these goaltenders based on who-knows-what kind of sample size and whether or not they have owned the Islanders (*cough* Biron).

To me, that's where the fun comes in: It's easy when there's a clear, long-running statistical advantage pointing to one guy over another. But when there's not? That's when a good ol' barroom debate gets going.

But one thing fans sometimes overlook when doing free agency post-mortem: It is far easier to read the story of the market on July 30 than it is to predict it on July 1. Time, that tricky damn dimension, is not malleable, and teams have to act fast or be comfortable with the potential consequence of their patience. So we knew with all those goalies out there that someone would end up being available cheap, we just didn't know which one. We knew Martin Biron was seeking a #1 role and #1 salary, but we had no way of knowing he would sacrifice the latter so quickly for a shot at the former (with a last-place team, no less) and a chance to turn himself once again into an enticing trade target. You can bet several other teams who quickly signed alternatives didn't realize this either.

As a case in point, this goalie post was originally planned for June 30, but for some domestic reason i never completed it. So aside from some stats at the bottom, the only original bit from that earlier version I'll keep is this: Things I "knew" about the Islanders approach to the market before July 1:

Unless a major strategic shift or shattering DiPietro news is coming, the Islanders need to thread the market needle of a good goalie on a short-term deal. That may only be possible with one of these status-seeking backups who is shut out in a flooded market, and decides to take "a Fedotenko" one-year deal to prove himself and win a longer payday next summer. So:

1. Don't expect any Islanders calls to Nickolai Khabibulin. Wrong fit, wrong expectations.

2. Ditto Martin Biron, who will price himself out of our hands and expect a more certain #1 role, anyway. He was inconsistent at times, but make no mistake: He's good, and someone should find room for him.

3. Manny Fernandez and Antero Niittymaki are interesting, but it makes no sense to replace your injury concern with another injury concern.

4. With the club hope/expectation that Rick DiPietro won't be a full-season load carrier this year but might be in 2010 or 2011, an older, short-term, near-retirement guy like Dwayne Roloson could be ideal. But after the bargaining posturing ends, he and Edmonton will come to a deal. So the Islanders will probably need to shoot for the moon (and miss) for Anderson or overpay Conklin or Clemmensen. To pick up the slack, maybe Yann Danis comes back beggging for another two-way deal.

Boy, aren't I smart? (Or as Borat would tell it: "Hey, boy, aren't I smart-not.")

Basically, the two "top" targets on the market were probably out of the Islanders price range, so they didn't even bother. Except that one of them got the fattest, longest goalie contract of the summer, while the other was forced to completely revamp his expectations and quote, "think outside of the box" to get the Islanders to bother after all. I hope #3 stands on logic alone. And #4 was part right and part complete mis-read.

I think the Islanders made a solid move by getting Roloson, even at the cost of a two-year deal -- but would they have done so if they knew Biron would be available? Heck, would Edmonton have plunged with Khabibulin if they knew Biron would be available so cheap? (Maybe it's because it happened while I was on vacation, but I still can't believe Biron is an Islander.)

Instead, as it happened, the Oilers declined a second year to Roloson ($2.5M per from the Isles) and went all-in with Khabibulin ($3.75M per). Florida, knowing it would lose Anderson, pounced on Clemmensen ($1.2M per). Colorado jumped early and landed Anderson ($1.75M per). Conklin took a backup/1A position in St. Louis ($1.3M per). Niittymaki ($600k) and his hips flirted with the KHL before landing with the Lightning.

Interesting that Clemmensen and Conklin took positions that give them more time than their previous stops, but still by no means a #1 gig. Wonder if they, too, realized the market was flooded?

The Statistics that Say Whatever You Want them to

What follows at the end of this too-long post (sorry) is a look at the recent stats and conditions around the three most talked about candidates for the Islanders when free agency began. (This is the other part of my original draft that I'm keeping here.)

But before that, check out Copper & Blue''s look at the best NHL goalies since the lockout, based on even-strength save percentage (which eliminates the vagaries of a great or poor penalty kill, albeit must necessarily omit whether a guy can stand on his head on the PK and still play a solid game). They've been goalie crazy lately at Copper & Blue, part of the stats-crunching Oilers blogosphere (maybe that's why UFAs supposedly don't choose Edmonton -- heh, too much numerical accountability?). So check out C&B's other recent posts and their links to other ones, like this one on why the Oilers needn't have been the ones to pay the highest dollar for their keeper.

But anyway, on that list of top goalies since the lockout, you'll find some analysis that is pretty interesting. You'll find numerical case for Manny Fernandez being target #1 this summer (although there will always be those who say he benefits from a Lemaire-like system, and I stand by his injury concern being a deterrant fr the Isles). You'll find numerical case that Anderson/Conklin/Clemmensen have been better than a healthy DiPietro -- albeit in less exposure. And you'll find case that Biron is below them all over the past four seasons -- but only because of one two-team season that kept his numbers from being in the upper tier.

What's more: As always, the unknown factors that cannot be numerically captured, such as whether a guy is in decline (Khabibulin?), has a worsening/poorly healing injury (Fernandez/Niittymaki?), or even has a different goalie coach which might depress his game (hello Hiller and Guiguere). That's the stuff that makes this topic good for debate. That's the stuff that tells us coaching and technique have made many goalies good, while only a few are truly great.

Craig Anderson | Florida | 2008-09 salary: $575,000 | Age: 28

2002-03  (CHI)
6 270 0 3 2 18 4.00 125 107 .856 0
2003-04  (CHI) 21 1205 6 14 0 57 2.84 602 545 .905 1
2005-06  (CHI) 29 1554 6 12 4 86 3.32 757 671 .886 1
2006-07  (FLA)
5 217 1 1 1 8 2.21 116 108 .931 0
2007-08  (FLA) 17 935 8 6 1 35 2.25 535 500 .935 2
2008-09  (FLA) 31 1636 15 7 5 74 2.71 977 903 .924 3

Anderson, master of the 50-save night, is said to want a chance at a clear #1 gig. The problem is, there really aren't many of those available (and in the "new NHL," there probably shouldn't be). When the music stops playing for Goalie Musical Chairs 2009, will he have a seat? Or should he take the next-best job description, the MacDonald role -- much-used backup for an injury prone goalie?

He's an interesting case: His numbers in Chicago were no good -- on a no-good team -- yet as  Panther he put in game-stealing performances, as both the Islanders and the Oilers know too well. He also put up heady AHL numbers during the lockout and during the 2006-07 season after he bounced around on waivers before landing in Florida.

Scott Clemmensen | New Jersey | 2008-09 salary: $500k | Age: 32 by the beginning of next season

2006-07  (NJ) 6 305 1 1 2 16 3.15 144 128 .889 0
2007-08  (TOR-AHL) 40 2363 23 14 2 96 2.44 1070 974 .910 1
2007-08  (TOR-NHL) 3 154 1 1 0 10 3.90 62 52 .839 0
2008-09  (NJ) 40 2356 25 13 1 94 2.39 1138 1044 .917 2

Clemmensen will turn 32 this summer having played in 68 NHL games, 40 of which came last season in admirable relief of Martin Brodeur. That was a career high, surpassing the whopping 13 he played for the Devils three seasons ago. Before re-signing with the Devils, he had an awful stint with a bad Maple Leafs team (three games) and a pedestrian season with their AHL affiliate. Does that sound like a fit for the Islanders? Can anyone anticipate which version of Clemmensen they'd be buying?

Ty Conklin | Detroit | 2008-09 salary: $750k | Age: 33

2006-07  (CBS, BUF)
16 718 3 5 2 40 3.34 330 290 .879 0
2007-08  (PIT) 33 1866 18 8 5 78 2.51 1013 935 .923 2
2008-09 (DET) 40 2246 25 11 2 94 2.51 1033 939 .909 6

The NHL's madatory Winter Classic goalie is 33. His best two seasons were his two most recent -- hey, it took Dwayne Roloson a lot of years and several teams to finally get his regular NHL shot, too -- when he played backup for Stanley Cup finalists. Yet this year's Stanley Cup runners-up went with Chris Osgood, he of the epically bad regular season, to backstop them in the playoffs. Maybe that's those haunting six playoff minutes in Edmonton, 2006, talking -- or maybe the Red Wings knew their team system just requires an adequate, steady backup. The Islanders require much more.

A Merciful End to This Tome

In the end, to my surprise, they got much more. So did Edmonton, but at a price (or more precisely, term) that looked high then and even higher now, after Biron's discount deal. Even when the goalie market looks flooded and predictable, you really don't know what you're going to get.