Minding the net

One year ago, the Flyers and Blackhawks defied hockey convention by reaching the Stanley Cup Finals with untested, budget-friendly goaltenders; Philly's Michael Leighton earned just $600,000 while Chicago's Antti Niemi drew $826,875. Meanwhile, the teams backstopped by $7.5 million Olympic champ Roberto Luongo (Vancouver) and $6.25 million All-Star Ryan Miller (Buffalo) were bounced early.

In the offseason, the Cup-winning Hawks let Niemi leave for San Jose in favor of the unheralded Corey Crawford. The Flyers juggled three goaltenders in the playoffs. The defending champs were ousted in the first round, and Philly was swept in the second. Goaltending, particularly for the Blackhawks, wasn't solely to blame, but the early ousters still raise the question: Which year is the fluke? Even team brass can't decide.

"We didn't lose because of our goalie," said Flyers GM Paul Holmgren after his team's series-ending defeat. "We lost because their team outplayed our team."

Maybe so. But a trusty goalie is always an asset. "I don't buy the theory that you don't need good goaltending because the defense is collapsing around the goal and the goalie can just let the puck hit him," says Kings GM Dean Lombardi. "For me, it all starts from the back."

Under the salary cap, though, the math only sometimes allows for a proven (read: expensive) goaltender. Each year since the 2004-05 lockout has shown that the dominant-goalie model (think Patrick Roy or Martin
Brodeur) isn't the only route. Says
Detroit GM Ken Holland: "The sentiment today is there are lots of different ways to win the Stanley Cup."

Cup winners in point: In 2006, it was rookie Cam Ward for Carolina; in '07, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, already a Conn Smythe winner, with Anaheim; in '08, supposed has-been Chris Osgood and Detroit; in '09, former first-overall pick Marc-Andre Fleury with Pittsburgh; and in '10, the Hawks and the unsung Niemi.

In this postseason, the remaining four goalies -- Tampa Bay's Dwayne Roloson, San Jose's Niemi and Vezina candidates Luongo and Boston's Tim Thomas -- have credentials any netminder would envy -- and, not coincidentally, all earn more than $2 million per season.

But that's just this year's formula.

Lindsay Berra is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow her in the NHL Experts Blog.