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(David Zalubowski/Associated Press)
(David Zalubowski/Associated Press)

David Shoalts

For NHL GMs, finding a great goalie should be top priority Add to ...

There’s a funny thing about the NHL – despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there are still plenty of people who argue that finding a goaltender doesn’t need to be at the top of every general manager’s to-do list.

Put together a great team, they say, and a good but not great goaltender will do. Don’t waste a first-round draft pick on a goaltender. You can get a decent one in a trade any old time.

While there is some evidence to support this – pick any year the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup with Chris Osgood in goal – in today’s NHL, teams go nowhere without great goaltending. The difference between the best and worst teams has never been closer, so a big save is usually the difference between a win or a loss. As our Eric Duhatschek notes in this piece on Martin Brodeur, whose work as he approaches his 40th birthday is keeping the Devils in playoff contention even if he did get chased Tuesday night by the Calgary Flames, there are no easy nights for teams or goaltenders any more.

You do not have to look any further than the rest of Tuesday’s games to see how true this is.

Stop first in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs remain undefeated in 2012, thanks to The Monster, Jonas Gustavsson, rediscovering the form that made him such a coveted free agent in 2009. His work in goal Tuesday in a 2-0 win over the Buffalo Sabres extended the Leafs’ winning streak to four games.

Gustavsson’s renaissance came just in time for the Leafs, as their wunderkind of a year ago, James Reimer, went into a long funk after suffering a head injury earlier this season. It was Reimer’s unexpected emergence last January that allowed the Leafs to finally think about making the NHL playoffs after years of inconsistent goaltending doomed their chances.

The other side of the goaltending coin was evident in the Leafs game, too. Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller was the best goalie in the NHL by the end of the 2009-10 season, but as he slid down the list, so did the Sabres.

The Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle points out farther down in his game story that Miller’s decline began last season and grew worse this season. This, more than anything, is the answer to a question asked a lot these days – why are the Sabres still so bad after new owner Terry Pegula let GM Darcy Regier spent a ton of his money on new players?

However, life as an NHL GM does not suddenly get easy if you get yourself a couple of candidates as Hall-of-Famers. The salary cap dictates that you must make a choice between them, because there is seldom room to pay two star salaries in goal, and trade the other for needed assets elsewhere on the roster. Then you pray you made the right choice.

That was the decision that faced Montreal Canadiens GM Pierre Gauthier in the summer of 2010, just after Jaroslav Halak seized the No. 1 goaltender’s job from the Habs’ other young star, Carey Price, and led them to the Eastern Conference final. When Gauthier decided Price was going to be the goalie of the future, the always-volatile fan base erupted in rage.

Almost two years later, despite Halak’s triumphant return to Montreal on Tuesday that was chronicled by our Sean Gordon, it’s obvious Gauthier made the right decision. Both Halak and Price have roughly the same statistics since the trade but where Gauthier went wrong was the paltry return he got on a prized asset (Lars Eller and Ian Schultz). Only Eller is playing for the Canadiens and he is not reminding anyone of Rocket Richard, even if he did get five points in a game last week.

Halak, in the meantime, illustrates another side of the importance of goaltending. When he had a slow start this season, the Blues turned to backup Brian Elliott, a newly-signed free agent who failed to impress anyone in stints with the Ottawa Senators and Colorado Avalanche.

But Elliott suddenly turned into Terry Sawchuk. With the Blues struggling to prove they were as good as management billed them (which cost head coach Davis Payne his job in favour of Ken Hitchcock), they stuck with the hot hand. Halak’s starts decreased even though his contract is much, much bigger than Elliott’s.

As Gordon points out in his story, Halak has been back to his customary form in recent weeks, but Elliott is still playing just as well. So Hitchcock is still unwilling to risk upsetting a winning formula at such an important position and Elliott will get the start in the Blues’ next game.

“Now they’re even. Elliott starts on Thursday and we’ll go from there,” Hitchcock said.

Finally, speaking of the Blues, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has a nice salute to one of the NHL’s great characters, former Blues GM Ron Caron, who died Tuesday.

Follow on Twitter: @dshoalts

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