Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Ed Belfour: Biggest Star To Europe Yet

Before the lockout, all the best hockey players in the world came to play in the NHL. From the point of view of a fan, this is the best possible situation. It guarantees the best possible level of player in the NHL hockey that will be available. Since the lockout, this situation is beginning to erode. More and more talented NHL calibre players are choosing to play in Europe. This is happening in part due to the growth of the European market and due to the artificial salary restrictions places on some NHL players that allow them to earn more money in European leagues.

James Mirtle has been compiling a list of these players departing for Europe. Most are not frontline players. Some are young and potential laden such as Stanislav Chistov and Mark Giordano and have the potential to become very good NHLers if given the chance. Others such as Alexei Yashin and Nils Ekman are proven quantities who would be given considerable icetime on an NHL team if they had signed with one. Others still, such as Aleksey Morozov and Sergei Zinovjev appear to have chosen to play the rest of their careers in Europe instead of returning to the NHL where they could be very successful.

The biggest name to add to this list is future Hall of Fame goaltender Ed Belfour. He has signed a contract to play with Leksands IF in the Swedish Second Division. I usually write a career summary post when future Hall of Famers retire. I am not going to do this yet with Belfour, because he is not retiring (though his NHL career may be done).

Belfour is one of the better goalies in NHL history. He is a two time Vezina Trophy winner. He has won the Stanley Cup once. He is third all time in career wins for a goaltender. It is a shame to see his career end this way. He still has NHL hockey left in him.

Last season, Ed Belfour was the Florida Panthers starting goalie. He won 27 games, posting a 2.77 GAA and a .902 saves percentage behind the often shaky Florida defence. He is a still one of the 30 best goalies in the NHL (though likely on the low end of that group) and could be a starter somewhere. At worst, he could be a solid backup who plays a significant portion of his team's games.

The problem is that under the NHL CBA system any player 35 or older who signs a multi-year deal will have their salary count against the salary cap whether they play or not. This has prevented teams from signing players like Belfour to longer than one year deals. With a salary cap in place, teams cannot afford to carry extra players on one-way contracts. This forces them to decide early in the summer who will be their goaltenders in the season and to stick with those selections unless the goalie plays significantly worse than expected or injuries occur. There are only so many spots that open up in a summer and some teams lock in goalies who are not the best available for various reasons (they are already under contract, they produced them in their system, they expect the starter to play the vast majority of the games so they found a minimum wage backup...) and inevitably some talented goalies will get left out once all the positions have filled. When a goalie has to go through free agency annually (as he is over 35) the chances that eventually he gets left without a team increase.

Ed Belfour is clearly better than many goalies who have NHL jobs. He is likely better than some goalies who will start on NHL teams this year (Columbus, Phoenix, Tampa Bay), but he did not get an NHL. In part this is likely due to the fact that Belfour wants to play and was less than willing to accept a role as a backup. In part this is because Belfour is coming off a season where he played well with a small contract and feels he is due for a raise. At any rate, he is one talented NHL capable goalie who will not be playing in the NHL this season. The NHL is worse off because of it.

This CBA has been a very good thing for European hockey leagues. It has given them a chance to sign talented NHL players who they would not have signed under previous CBAs. The NHL has not intended this. The last thing they want is to give their competition an edge to help them become world class rival leagues to the NHL. This hasn't happened yet, but as more and more players chose to play overseas instead of in the NHL it could happen.

Here is TSN's story on Ed Belfour signing in Sweden.

I would say Belfour's off-ice bar incidents are the real reason why no NHL team has signed him. He clearly can still stop the puck well enough for a 1B/2A role, but he's just not worth the hassle.
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