A funny thing happened in Anaheim before the playoffs started: the first place team thought it’d be a good idea to start a goalie controversy. Finishing with the top seed in the Western Conference and only one point short of a President’s Trophy, coach Bruce Boudreau decided that the fate his team’s championship aspirations would fall on the shoulders of rookie Frederik Andersen. Oops.
You could see it coming though. Down the stretch the Ducks rode the rookie duo of Andersen and uber-prospect John Gibson with some success. Veteran Jonas Hiller hit a minor speed bump in a long season and seemingly played himself out of the starter’s job for the playoffs. The Ducks’ goalie controversy was upon us.
So when coach Boudreau announced Andersen as his game 1 started versus the Dallas Stars before the playoffs, no one was caught off guard. In fact, the only surprise may have been that Hiller was on the team at all. Gibson was extraordinary in his brief stint and it appeared for a moment that Boudreau would go with the hot hands. Those hot hands didn’t appear to include Hiller.
However common sense prevailed and Hiller was on the team, albeit in a backup role. All Hiller did the past half-decade was provide strong goaltending and with its deepest team since they won the Cup in the 2006/07 season, was poised for a deep playoff run. Of course as with any proud athlete, Hiller was not pleased with his new backup role and voiced his displeasure to the media.
Was it just his play that put him on the bench? Was there something else? Well, maybe.
See, Hiller is about to hit free agency this summer. The 32 year-old Swiss netminder is playing his last few weeks of a contract that pays him $4,500,000 this year and as of the end of the regular season, there were no discussions with the Ducks on an extension. The team was apparently ready to thrust its hopes on the kid duo of Andersen and Gibson. They even inked Andersen to a two-year extension during the season.
But things never can be that simple. Once the playoffs started, Andersen started to play like, well, a rookie. Despite putting up stellar numbers in the regular season, Andersen struggled against the speedy Dallas Stars. His 3.40 goals against average and sub-.900 save percentage led to him being pulled twice, including being yanked in the deciding sixth game after he let up four goals. With the season potentially slipping away, Anaheim played its one last trump card: Hiller.
It’s only been a few games, and the Ducks are down 0-2 to the Kings, but Hiller has provided stability between the pipes. A veteran with 160 regular season wins, a playoff series victory under his belt, and an all-star appearance, he’s finally getting his chance this post-season to backstop the team he helped lead to first place in the conference. Hiller will never be among the game’s elites, but he’s proven to be a strong option for a contender.
Whenever the Ducks’ season ends, it’s going to face some tough questions. Led by forwards Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, Anaheim proved itself this year to be one of the top teams in the league…a Stanley Cup contender. Is it ready to turn over that responsibility of carrying this team between the pipes to a duo of goalies with only a few dozen NHL games between them? No one questions their talent, but can they do it over the course of an up and down season? Put another way: can this team afford not to bring Hiller back?
I don’t think so. The team would be heaping way too much responsibility on the rookie tandem with no safety net if they let Hiller walk out the door. Plus do you really want to let an asset like Hiller walk out the door for nothing? Wouldn’t it be better to get some more use out of that asset?
Putting my general manager hat on, I’d work feverishly to sign Hiller before he hit free agency. Anaheim’s cap situation is in good shape with plenty of space available this summer. It may take a little bit more money than he deserves to resign Hiller…a little “we’re sorry” money. Offer him 3 years for $18 million total. Make sure he knows that there are only limited goalie jobs out there and most of those available jobs will be for teams at the opposite end of the spectrum than Anaheim is. Money and a winning team…not many teams can offer that.
The Ducks had no problems scoring goals this year but could use more depth on the blue line. Shop Andersen around the league and shore up the area. Teams like the Sabres, Islanders, Flames, Capitals, and Jets could be in the market for a young, talented goalie. Could you pry Mike Green away from Washington building a package around Andersen?
With Andersen out of the picture the team clears the path for Gibson to assume the primary backup role for the big club. If he develops as the team hopes, by the end of the second year on Hiller’s contract the two would probably be splitting time pretty evenly. And by the third year of Hiller’s contract Gibson may be the number one and then you have an expiring contract and asset in Hiller to dangle to a goalie-needy team.
Is this team better over the long haul with a duo of Andersen and Gibson and an average defensive corps or with a duo of Hiller and Gibson plus a significant piece on the blue line? It’s a no-brainer.
However seeing the trend in the game is youth, youth, and more youth, it’ll be no surprise if Anaheim lets Hiller walk and rolls the dice with Andersen and Gibson next year (to be fair, Hiller may decide to walk and seek employment elsewhere). However the Ducks would be wise to remember the lessons of this post-season by having Hiller around. The team can set itself up nicely for the present and future, but time will tell if they choose the wise path.