For Emergency Use Only: The NHL Embraces Insurance Players

UNIONDALE, NY - JANUARY 12: Sean Bergenheim #20 of the New York Islanders skates with the puck against Kirk Maltby #18 of the Detroit Red Wings at the Nassau Coliseum on January 12, 2010 in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

A year really does make a huge difference in the NHL.

A year ago, I would have read something like Tim Panaccio’s report on Philadelphia’s goalie glut and I would have thought: ‘That’s crazy! The Flyers need to dump some goalies at some point.’

But after last years playoffs, and even after the end of last season, I’m now thinking: ‘Is four goalies enough? Do they need more insurance?’

The NHL has been moving away from the star-driven system in general, as the chasm between rich teams and poor teams has gotten bigger. There are quite a few teams that can’t afford to sign stars, goaltending ones or otherwise.

In Philadelphia, the lack of a big-name goaltender isn’t a financial issue; it’s more of a cultural one. The Flyers haven’t placed much stock in spending on goaltending in quite a few seasons. And after seeing how well goaltending-by-committee worked out for them last year, I’m not sure the Flyers will ever spend more than a couple of million per year for a single goalie again.

This has been a funny off-season in that the Devils, a team that kind of pioneered the non-star driven approach to building a team (with the notable exception of the goaltending position) has thrown a ton of money at a star and now need to dump solid players in order to stay under the cap.

It’s not that guys like Dainius Zubrus and Bryce Salvador are such important players, but they’re both guys who can step-up if a more important player is hurt, or even if a bigger name isn’t having a great game.

Dumping Zubrus and Salvador doesn’t necessarily make the Devils an appreciably worse team. But it does leave them without a safety net. Depth is what allows teams to survive the grueling NHL season and the Devils are basically gambling a roster pocked with older players can avoid injury.

Contrast that with the Red Wings, who signed veteran Kirk Maltby to a two-way contract. Sure, a lot of that deal is just taking care of a player who spent 14 seasons wearing the flying wheel. But there’s also a legitimate awareness that if the Wings suffer injuries to the extent that they need to dip into their minor leagues, in certain situations they might be better off with an elderly-but-proven NHL player rather than a young-but-inexperienced AHLer.

The idea of players as insurance isn’t a particularly sexy one. It’s much more of an NFL concept, where most players are more chess pieces than personalities, but it allows teams to remain competitive in the face of injuries without going over a salary cap.

We could be just a few years away from a certain class of NHL player that has to stand behind glass. When a team in desperate enough, perhaps they’ll have the option of breaking the glass and activating the player.

Don’t worry. The player will be wearing some kind of protective gear.