Why Ducks goalie John Gibson could be the NHL's answer to the NFL's Russell Wilson
On Feb. 2, 2014, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson led his team to a dominant 43-8 victory over the Denver Broncos to claim the franchise's first Super Bowl championship.
That same day, on an exponentially smaller stage in Hershey, Pa., Anaheim Ducks goaltender John Gibson was playing for the AHL's Norfolk Admirals. He allowed three goals on 37 shots versus the Hershey Bears and took the loss behind an exhausted road team that didn't put up much of a fight.
For Gibson, who had a remarkable season in his first year as a full-time professional puckstopper, the defeat in Hershey was his first regulation loss in AHL action in over a month. He managed a .952 even-strength save percentage during that five-start stretch in January, and won three of his next four decisions following the loss in Hershey, too.
Those flashes of dominance served to convince the Ducks that Gibson, a second-round draft pick in 2012, is their goalie of the future. When faced with a Game 7 in the playoffs several months later, the Ducks turned to Gibson. He admittedly coughed it up a bit, but the decision spoke volumes.
The Ducks have created an environment favorable to Gibson's chances of emerging as a starter in short order.
Here's the critical context: the Ducks jettisoned veteran Jonas Hiller this summer and, despite signing veteran Jason LaBarbera to a one-way deal, have been explicit about their plans to roll with Gibson and Frederik Andersen as their goaltending tandem this season.
An estimated grand total of zero observers would be surprised were Gibson to emerge as Anaheim's outright starter by the new year.
The Pittsburgh-born goaltender has excelled at every level and seems a solid bet to provide the Ducks with above-average goaltending in 2014-15. If he does ultimately start for the Ducks, a team with a contender's pretensions, his contract will instantly become one of the best bargains in the NHL.
The 30 highest-paid NHL goaltenders (we'll use that as shorthand for starters) will head into this season with an average cap hit of $4.7 million. So the average NHL starter takes up 6.8 percent of his team's total salary cap allowance of $69 million. Gibson is on an entry-level contract with a minuscule cap hit ($721,667) and if he breaks camp with the team he'll take up only 1.1 percent of Anaheim's upper limit allowance.
In a salary cap league, team building is essentially an efficiency competition, something that's particularly imperative for a team like Anahiem. The Ducks don't generally spend to the upper limit of the cap and are stuck in a loaded Pacific Division, so every marginal bit of incurred cap savings helps them level the playing field.
For Anaheim, a team whose window to win will be open in each of the next two seasons, Gibson isn't simply a talented young goaltending prospect; because of his contract he's a potential game changer.
The Wilson Effect
Gibson's possible impact is really a watered down version of the Wilson effect on the NFL's Seahawks. The 25-year-old Wilson slipped to the third round at the 2012 NFL Draft due to concerns about his size, and, because he was drafted in the middle rounds, the Seahawks were able to get him under contract with a four-year, $2.99-million contract.
Wilson had a $681,085 cap hit against the NFL's $122 million upper limit during the Seahawks' Super Bowl-winning season. He took up slightly over half of one percent of Seattle's cap space, and for that extraordinarily modest price provided the club with above-average play from the league's most premium position (the top 30 NFL quarterbacks have an average cap hit of $10.58 million this season).
The flexibility Wilson's contract provided allowed the Seahawks to add players like Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, and Percy Harvin - all critical contributors during their championship season.
Similarly for the Ducks, thanks to savings incurred in goal, they were able to bring in Ryan Kesler and Clayton Stoner this offseason. They also have $10 million in cap space left to play with should they sense a need to add a final piece during the season.
Gibson is expected to receive a long look at Ducks training camp and during the preseason, and seems to have a credible shot at winning a starting job as a 21-year-old. Should Gibson pull that off he could emerge as the owner of one of the NHL's most efficient contracts, and hockey's answer to Russell Wilson.
[NHL salary data per Capgeek.com, NFL salary data per Sportac.com]
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