It's arguably the most important position in the NHL, and it's also the most difficult to draft and project long-term success for: the goalie.
They can be an evil seductress that lures us in with their incredible athleticism and limitless potential, only to take forever to develop, experience plenty of growing pains along the way, all while never really reaching the lofty expectations we set for them. And you're probably just as likely to find a good one in the seventh round as you are in the first round. It's why teams rarely take them early in the draft, and it's something the four teams in this year's Conference Finals all have in common: their current starters weren't top picks or big-money free agent acquisitions, but guys that were picked late (or not at all) or found at the bottom of the NHL's bargain bin.
Since 1979, there have only been 13 goalies selected in the first 10 picks of their respective draft class: Grant Fuhr, Tom Barrasso, Jimmy Waite, Jamie Storr, Roberto Luongo, Brian Finley, Rick DiPietro, Brent Krahn, Pascal Leclaire, Kari Lehtonen, Marc-Andre Fleury, Al Montoya and Carey Price. Only three of them have been starters on Stanley Cup winning teams (Fuhr, Barrasso, Fleury), while many of them were never heard from in a meaningful way on the NHL stage. Price was the most recent goalie to go in the top-10, taken fifth overall by the Canadiens in 2005. He was supposed to be the player that carried on the goaltending legacy in Montreal, eventually helping to return the team to the top of the hockey world.
The Canadiens, of course, are one of the four teams remaining in the NHL's second season, four wins from their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1993. And it is, in fact, a goalie that's helped lead them here. It just hasn't been Price, the celebrated, much-hyped first-round pick.
No, he's spent most of this improbable -- and incredible -- playoff run planted on the bench, while a seventh-round pick from two years earlier, Jaroslav Halak, has become a king in Montreal. The two split the starts for most of the regular season, before Halak finally wrestled away the No. 1 job in the second half. All he's done in the playoffs is stop more shots than any other goalie, and help lead a team that's been woefully out-shot in the first two rounds to a pair of seven-game series wins over the top two favorites in the Eastern Conference. And 270 players -- including 25 goalies -- were picked before him in 2003.
As for the three remaining teams...
San Jose Sharks: Over the years the Sharks have been a goaltending factory of sorts, having produced Evgeni Nabokov, Miikka Kiprusoff, Vesa Toskala and Johan Hedberg (actually drafted by the Flyers, but spent three years in the Sharks system before making his NHL debut); all of whom have seen some sort of success as starters in the NHL. They've also made a habit out of hoarding as many goalies as humanly possible at the draft. In 19 years they've selected 22 goalies, and six times picked more than one in a single class, including four during the 2004 draft. Think of it as a safety in numbers type of thing. If you collect enough of them, sooner or later you're probably going to hit on one. Or four. Out of all the goalies they've selected, they've never taken one before the third round, while their current starter, Nabokov, was a ninth-round pick (No. 219) in 1994.
Chicago Blackhawks: It's a situation that's somewhat similar to the one Montreal, but different. If that makes any sense. Instead of having a former top pick sitting on the bench, the Blackhawks instead have a big-money, cap-crushing free agent along for the ride in the form of Cristobal Huet. Chicago signed him to a whopping four-year, $22.4 million dollar contract prior to the 2008-09 season, and his first two years with the team have been the worst of his career (previously spent with Los Angeles, Montreal and Washington). He was eventually replaced by 26-year-old Antti Niemi ... an undrafted free agent that signed with Chicago in 2008.
So here we are; four teams remaining, and only one has a goalie that would have been considered a No. 1 starter at the beginning of the season (Nabokov).
Between them, they're a seventh-round pick, a ninth-round pick, an undrafted free agent and an in-season waiver pickup. And they've managed to knock off a pair of top-five picks (Fleury and Luongo) and an all-time great (Martin Brodeur). It's an absolutely maddening position.