As Tuukka Rask’s post-season brilliance reminds us all, good goaltending is paramount to NHL success.
Of the top 15 in 2018-19 team save percentage, all but three clubs (Arizona, Anaheim, Montreal) qualified for the playoffs.
So, with the needle about to drop on the annual game of goaltending musical chairs, it’s worth looking at which teams are well set up contractually to fill their crease and which GMs have their work cut out for them.
A handful of rosters — Tampa, Dallas, Boston, Minnesota and Nashville in particular — are set up lovely at both the starter and backup position and have little to worry about in this department.
Several others have locked up a sure-fire No. 1 and should have little issue re-signing a second netminder; Winnipeg, Anaheim, Vegas and Buffalo come to mind.
Once St. Louis re-signs breakout RFA Jordan Binnington, the Blues should be set, with Jake Allen already in the fold.
While Florida has two goalies, Roberto Luongo and James Reimer, in place, that $7.933-million tandem under-performed, hence the rumours Dale Tallon will bid for marquee UFA Sergei Bobrovsky.
But it’s the collection of teams that don’t have the option to sit pat that most intrigues us, especially when you consider there simply aren’t 62 safe-bet NHL goalies to go around.
Here’s the complete list of pending UFA goalies who made a minimum of 20 appearances this season: Bobrovsky, Semyon Varlamov, Robin Lehner, Mike Smith, Keith Kinkaid, Petr Mrazek, Anders Nilsson, Cam Talbot, Cam Ward, Curtis McElhinney, Brian Elliott, and Ryan Miller.
Now here’s a list from that group who registered a save percentage at or better than the league average (.910): Lehner, Bobrovsky, Mrazek, McElhinney and Miller.
Which is why Bobrovsky is on the brink of a Brinks truck in the driveway and why 27-year-olds Lehner and Mrazek — the only two UFAs who are both under 30 and have a better-than-average save percentage — are primed for bidding wars.
Here, in order of sheer panic, is a look at the seven NHL clubs most in need of solidifying their crease in the 2019 off-season. Let that carousel spin.
As remarkable as the Canes’ playoff run — three series deep! — was this spring, and as much cap space as budget-conscious Carolina has to manoeuvre (approximately $20 million), next year’s roster is going to look much different.
Regulars Sebastian Aho, Justin Williams, Michael Ferland, Brock McGinn and Greg McKegg are all headed to free agency, and the prices at the Jerk store just went up.
Think the forwards are a puzzle? Carolina was the only NHL club operating without a goalie under contract for 2019-20. Scott Darling’s future as a professional goalie is in question, and the overachieving tandem of Mrazek and McElhinney — who made a paltry $2.35 million combined — is headed toward the open market and significant pay raises.
Behind them is impressive but unproven 23-year-old prospect Alex Nedeljkovic — and he’s an RFA.
We can see Mrazek getting lured by bigger bucks elsewhere, while McElhinney could re-sign short-term for a pay bump.
Owner Tom Dundon’s top priority is franchise star Aho, but signing a proven NHL starter to give his group a chance to carry forward this spring’s momentum must be second.
Did impending UFA Bobrovsky even unstrap his pads before he listed his Columbus condo for sale?
Goalie Bob’s weave out of Ohio to become the most desirable netminder on the open market leaves the Jackets without a sure-shot No. 1 for the first time in eight years.
Complicating matters, neither backup — deadline insurance Keith Kinkaid (UFA) and the underwhelming Joonas Korpisalo (RFA) — has put pen to paperwork for 2019-20.
Is that Elvis Merzlikins’s music we hear?
No. Jarmo Kekalainen — who has all those contracts coming off the books — should look at re-signing Kinkaid but has to be aggressive in finding a goaltender that gives a good team a shot to build off the greatest season in franchise history.
Is that a lucrative, multi-year pitch to pry Lehner or Mrazek from his division rivals? A one-year gamble on a veteran like Smith or Varlamov? We’ll see.
As far as parting gifts go, Peter Chiarelli’s final act as Oilers GM — re-signing KHL stud but unproven NHL import Mikko Koskinen to a mind-boggling three-year, $13.5-million extension — was akin to leaving a flaming bag on Ken Holland’s doorstep.
Koskinen is virtually untradeable, so the Oilers will try to work with what they have, while seeking a better option to realize Holland’s stated goal of returning the club to the post-season in 2020.
Behind Koskinen on the depth chart sits impending UFAs Anthony Stolarz and Al Montoya. The Oilers need to move salary out if they are to bring in help for Koskinen.
No exec knows Mrazek — the good and the bad — better than Holland, the man who traded him to Philadelphia amidst the Red Wings’ rebuild. While we’re curious where that relationship sits now, we’re not betting on a reunion.
“Sometimes there’s things that I think about certain situations I can’t tell you people,” Holland said, cryptically, upon trading Mrazek in 2018. “I don’t think it’s fair to all the people involved.”
If No. 1 Corey Crawford, 34, can remain healthy throughout the final year of his contract ($6 million cap hit), there’s less of an issue here. But considering Crawford’s injury history — it’s been two seasons since he’s been fit to appear in half of the Blackhawks’ games — that’s a massive if.
The one-year Cam Ward experiment was a fair gamble but hardly a success, as the veteran’s .897 save percentage is unlikely to earn him another shot here, especially with 24-year-old Colin Delia worthy of a backup look.
Still, with Ward’s $3 million coming off his payroll, GM Stan Bowman would be wise to shore up further support for Crawford.
With Brad Treliving facing legitimate cap concerns, there is a sense the 37-year-old Smith, who earned $5 million last season and is heading to free agency, has played his last game in Calgary.
RFA David Rittich, who platooned with Smith throughout the season but rode the bench come playoff time, is due for a nice raise on his $800,000 salary and should at least get a chance to run with the starter’s gig come October. He opted out of the world championship to rest up for what should be a heavy workload.
“There’s things he can do to allow himself to be able to play more games too moving forward as far as his ability to look after himself with nutrition, with everything that goes along with that, to making a real solid commitment to being a pro, a big-time NHL pro,” coach Bill Peters told reporters last month.
“I think he’s got the ability to do [be a full-time starter], but until you’ve done it and been there, everyone is going to question it, right?”
Everyone will question Treliving if he doesn’t find a safety net for Rittich.
“I believe in David a lot. I go back with Smitty, his contract’s up. We’ll see. I guess it’s a question where we’re going to go with goaltending, but certainly David is, I think, is a real good young goaltender in this league,” Treliving said.
There’s promising youth in the system. Jon Gillies, 25, and Tyler Parsons, 21, are Calgary’s goaltending prospects in Stockton, and Treliving recently signed 23-year-old Russian Artyom Zagidulin to a one-year deal.
Whether it’s convincing Smith — who showed well in the playoffs — to take a pay cut or bringing in someone else, a veteran would certainly help.
No list of goaltending crises can be taken seriously unless the Flyers make an appearance. With GM Chuck Fletcher stubbornly ignoring our suggestion to throw a mask on Gritty — some execs just can’t think outside the box — it appears Carter Hart is poised to be Philadelphia’s goalie of the present as well as the future.
Easily the best of the Flyers’ 23 starting goalies in 2018-19, Hart was stellar after his mid-season call-up, leading the club in wins (16) and save percentage (.917) despite seeing only 30 starts.
Philly can tidy up its goaltending roster’s quantity-over-quality approach this summer, as Cam Talbot, Brian Elliott, Michal Neuvirth and Mike McKenna will all come off the books.
Still, the 20-year-old Hart needs support. Surrounding what looks to be the most exciting thing to happen to the Flyers’s crease since Ron Hextall with a proper veteran battery mate is critical.
We’re skeptical Miller would welcome a move back east, but it would be worth kicking tires on McElhinney and Smith.
As if Lou Lamoriello didn’t have his hands full this off-season with all the free-agent forwards knocking on his door for raises — Jordan Eberle, Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, Valtteri Filppula, Anthony Beauvillier and Michael Dal Colle are all due — the man who backstopped his team to a first-round sweep of mighty Pittsburgh is scheduled to walk on July 1.
Robin Lehner is a William Jenning Trophy co-winner, a Vezina Trophy finalist and a Masterton Trophy favourite. He’s only 27. He could get — what? — a 400 per cent raise from the $1.5 million he made on his one-year, prove-it deal on Long Island.
Lamoriello has time to work on keeping Lehner in the fold, but the goalie will never have a summer like this again, where he could ramp up a bidding war for his services.
The Isles still have 33-year-old Thomas Greiss under contract at $3.33 million for one more season, and he was stellar as Lehner’s 1B.
But if Lehner does walk, New York will need to fill that role. Greiss isn’t a 60-game guy, and if your identity is winning through defensive hockey, that last line better be rock solid.