Building from the net out is something you'll hear from time to time from general managers trying to combine all the elements of their managing philosophy into a nice, easy to understand sentence that most hockey fans can understand. How I understand it is this: When you are looking to improve your team, start with the goaltender and move on out - as if this is an order of importance for winning hockey games.
Start with the goaltender. I don't disagree with this part of the philosophy. I do believe the goaltender is the single biggest difference maker a team can have. I believe a mediocre team with a great goaltender will have a better record than a great team with a mediocre goaltender. So absolutely, start with the goaltender if you're looking for the biggest improvement to your team. Of course, this varies from situation to situation, but I'm making the assumption that there CAN BE significant improvement in this area.
After upgrading the goaltender, the next step, if you're using this philosophy, is to upgrade the defense. I have a few issues with this next step, and I'll explain why. Now, if you have a very good goaltender, but one that isn't considered "elite", upgrading the defense is absolutely necessary. You will most likely cut your goals against if you allow 25 shots a game instead of 35, which should result in more success in the standings. Now, if you have an "elite" goaltender, this is where I believe the building from the net out philosophy can fail. Two current teams which are prime examples of this are the Vancouver Canucks and Dallas Stars.
Before I go on, I think its important to note here that I'm talking about the NHL in the cap era. Before there was a salary cap, money wasn't an issue for some teams. They could stack their offense, defense, and goaltending without worrying about salaries to a large degree. In today's NHL, it isn't so easy. It isn't often you can put a team on the ice that isn't somewhat lacking in a particular area.
Roberto Luongo and Marty Turco are, in my mind, both elite goaltenders. But they also have something else in common - they both play behind very good defenses. For Turco, this has been the case for quite a few years. Not only does Dallas always seem to have great players on their back end, but they also play a very defensive system which limits scoring chances for and against. In the case of Luongo, last season was the first time he had playing behind a solid defense. The Canucks have now upgraded their defense going into this season to the point where there aren't many teams that can compete with their depth 1 through 6. Again, its about reducing scoring chances, and the Canucks will most certainly do that this coming season. The problem here is that both the Canucks and Stars finished in the bottom 3rd of the NHL last season in scoring, and as of today, both teams haven't significantly upgraded this area going into the 2007-08 season.
If you have an elite goaltender who could steal a game on any given night, why allocate your resources in such a way that will make his position less a factor? In other words, why spend a ton of money on your defense when you've got a gem of a goaltender that will keep you in most games, no matter how many scoring chances you give up. In today's NHL, in this cap era, is all about getting the most bang for your buck. Putting an all-star defense in front of an all-star goaltender isn't getting the most bang for your buck if it takes away resources needed to upgrade the offense. Teams like the Rangers, Sabres, even the recent version of the Flames have it right. When you have a stud in net, put together an average defense, and then focus on scoring. You might as well have a top 10-15 goaltender if you're going to put a stacked defense in front of him. The elite netminders get paid big bucks to stop a lot of pucks. If you have one, its time to start thinking offense. Open it up, get your defense to pinch as much as they can, and trade scoring chances.