Two seasons ago when the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, they did so with Antti Niemi between the pipes. At the other end of the rink, Michael Leighton manned the Philadelphia net. There they were - two goalies who had never played an NHL playoff game before that spring and whose combined salary for the season was just over one-fifth of what the Calgary Flames were paying Miikka Kiprusoff - playing in the last game of the NHL season.
The narrative was written: with high-priced backstops like Martin Brodeur, Ryan Miller and Roberto Luongo shown bowing out early in the playoffs (to say nothing of Kiprusoff, Henrik Lundqvist and others who weren't even invited to the post-season dance), there was no longer any need to spend on the goaltender position - cheap, unproven talent can do the job just fine.
This past spring, that narrative was re-written, as it was Luongo and Tim Thomas - a pair of masked men on the other side of thirty with $5 million-plus annual price tags and impressive resumes full of accolades and playoff appearances - closing out the campaign. Established, elite goalies, it seems, make a difference sometimes.
And so, as Caps' General Manager George McPhee faced another longer-than-planned off-season, he was faced with the decision as to whether to stay the course with his trio (then duo) of young, cheap and relatively unproven netminders or give in to the punditocracy's clamoring and shell out big bucks for an upgrade in goal. Having seemingly made up his mind to stick with the former, things changed for McPhee when Tomas Vokoun essentially came to him and offered... both. Cheap and elite.
Vokoun signed a one-year deal worth $1.5 million - the 35th-highest cap hit of the League's goalies for 2011-12 as of now. To put that in perspective, that's one-quarter of the hit the Wild will take on Niklas Backstrom, and less than one-fourth of the cap hits for Lundqvist, Miller and Cam Ward. (Really? Cam Ward has a $6.3 million cap hit?) For more perspective, add in Michal Neuvirth's $1.15 million, and the Caps will take a smaller cap hit from their top two goalies than the Blackhawks will take with Corey Crawford (and less than the Avalanche will take for some guy named Semyon Varlamov). Hell, throw in Braden Holtby and his $637,777 hit and the Caps are still below the individual hits for Kari Lehtonen, Nikolai Khabibulin and 17 other goalies. You get the point (but if you want more, here you go).
That's the "cheap."
As for the elite, only Tim Thomas has a better save percentage than Vokoun since the lockout (.921699 to .921681; minimum 80 games played), and the Czech netminder finished in the top-five in the League in save percentage in four of those six seasons (he finished ninth in the NHL with a .922 SV% this past season and tenth with a .919 mark in 2007-08). Those numbers should impress Caps fans - no Caps netminder has ever had a single season save percentage higher than Vokoun's combined post-lockout percentage of .922 (Olie Kolzig's .920 is the current franchise mark, minimum 30 games played).
Vokoun's goals against average over that span is a relatively pedestrian 2.57, but much of that can be chalked up to playing the past four seasons for the low-spending and commensurately talented Florida Panthers has faced 32.7 shots on goal per sixty minutes of playing time. If he'd been able to hold constant his post-lockout save percentage but faced the same number of shots per sixty minutes that the Caps allowed last season - 28.47 - his GAA would be a sparkling 2.23 over that span.
More than numbers, though, Vokuon has demonstrated an ability to raise his game a bit against tough competition. This past season he posted a 2.14 GAA and .932 save percentage with four shutouts in 19 games against the League's top-nine teams (by point percentage). Extend that out three years and the save percentage is still up at .927... on a team that has finished 28th in the NHL the past two seasons. And while Vokoun's playoff resume is limited to 11 games total (the most recent of which came in 2007), he's 20-8 with a 1.65 GAA in his last four international tournaments, which include two Olympics and two World Championships.
That's the "elite."
Make no mistake about it - Tomas Vokoun coming to Washington in the manner in which he has is a gift, and potentially the biggest one since the ping-pong balls bounced the right way back in 2004 (or at least since the Kings took Thomas Hickey with the fourth pick in 2007). And it should be noted that not everyone is buying Vokoun as elite (a fair quibble, given that Vokoun has had a worse winning percentage and only a marginally better save percentage and goals against average than his backups in Florida over the past four seasons, albeit Vokoun's workload has been far more demanding). And that's fine. Because whether he's elite or just awfully good, at $1.5 million the Caps have plenty of money leftover to buy the other pieces they believe they need to achieve the ultimate goal come springtime. And maybe, just maybe, next summer's goalie narrative will be about finding a way to get high-end goaltending on the cheap - the best of both worlds.