A quick glance at the available free agents suggests that it could be a challenging summer to add a viable #1 in net.
Free agent netminders
James Reimer. He probably rates #1 of the available netminders based on 2015-16 performance. He had a decent season playing behind a weak Toronto Maple Leafs team before being traded to San Jose. His 2.49 GAA and 0.918 Save % are not eye-popping, but the stats are pretty solid when you consider the team in front of him. The 28-year old also has a couple other good seasons behind him including a 2012-13 campaign that saw him lead the Maple Leafs to the playoffs. But mixed in are some pretty ‘meh’ seasons. I actually like Reimer if I could sign him to a short-term deal with a salary that averages out his good and less good seasons. But in a market with limited options at least from the free agent crop, it seems likely that a team could win a bidding war that it later regrets. I just would not do the long term (4 years) and premium $ ($4-5 million) on him.
Chad Johnson. He is another player who had a solid season on a mostly bad team. His 2015-16 stats are were quietly impressive. He was a solid 22-16-4 on a team that was a reversed 7 games below break even without him earning the decision. His underlying 2.36 GAA and 0.918 Save % in front of a Sabres team that was young on the blue line and overall is also impressive. The question is whether the 28-year old journeyman is a late bloomer ready to carry a team for a few years or really just capable of being a good backup.
Cam Ward. From the known quantity category comes Cam Ward. He was better as the 2015-16 season wore on and put together a second half of the season that boosted his stock. But when you look at stats, his 0.909 Save % ranks below both Reimer and Johnson who arguably played behind weaker defenses that gave up higher quality chances. A decision on Ward also brings into play whether GM Ron Francis is just ready to move on to a new era for Hurricanes hockey.
And that is about it
Past the 3 options highlighted above who are not really elite in their own right, the rest of the 2016 goalie free agent options are mostly reclamation type projects or long-time back ups who have never really proven that they could be more.
The options to add a goalie are adding a free agent or prying loose an extra goalie via trade. With (in my opinion) the Canes needing a player capable of being a #1, none of Karri Ramo, Jonas Hiller, Anton Khudobin or the other remaining free agent options look like more than risky lottery tickets.
With a couple other teams also needing help in net, it looks like tough sledding trying to improve at goalie via free agency this summer. The key language is “via free agency.” Another situation could actually make it the perfect time to seek help in net.
Impact of potential expansion draft
The expected impending expansion draft that could happen next summer could have a significant effect on the volume and even cost of options available via trade. The expected (though not finalized) terms of the expansion draft would allow teams to protect only 1 goalie. The upshot is that teams with 2 good goalies have a significant potential to lose 1 of them for nothing in the expansion draft next summer. This will make it more palatable for teams with 2 netminders to collect a return for 1 of them before the expansion draft.
A number of teams jump to the forefront for this consideration:
With goalie of the future Matt Murray rising up thus far in the playoffs, the Penguins suddenly have veteran Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray. The rest of the playoffs could determine which goalie the Penguins value more highly and also how willing they are to play the 2016-17 season with only 1 of them on the roster. Murray is labeled as the Pens goalie of the future but will enter the 2016-17 at 22 years of age and with only 13 games of regular season experience. But he is gradually building experience under even brighter lights with impressive results posting a 1.96 GAA and 0.937 Save % in 8 games thus far in the playoffs. A continued surge by the Penguins in the playoffs with Murray in net could make Fleury and his $5.75 million salary over the next 3 years expendable via trade especially when considering he could be lost for nothing next summer anyway.
I wrote a bit about the Ducks situation in my blog recapping Canes impacts from the first round. A little bit like the Penguins, the Ducks have a young goalie of the future in 22-year old John Gibson and also a more experienced starter in Frederik Andersen. The situation differs significantly from the current version of the Penguins story in that the goalie of the future, John Gibson, did not fare well in 2 playoff games and was relieved by Frederik Andersen who posted much better numbers despite the Ducks ultimately losing the series. Gibson boasts 66 games of regular season experience and solid 2015-16 numbers and is signed for a modest $2.3 million for the next 3 years. Andersen is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights this summer and will be seeking a significant contract. During a normal summer, Gibson’s relative lack of experience and performance in the playoffs might encourage the Ducks to re-sign Andersen and go with a tandem for at least another season. But the potential to lose 1 for nothing next summer if an expansion draft comes to fruition could accelerate the process for the Ducks to make a decision on 1 and collect assets for the other.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Continuing with the theme of duos that include a good veteran goalie and also a goalie of the future is Tampa Bay. Ben Bishop continues to be a solid netminder both in the regular season and playoffs. In a world without salary caps, budgets and possible expansion drafts, there is absolutely no reason for the Lightning to consider parting ways with Ben Bishop. And with 21-year old first-rounder Andrei Vasilevskiy making only $925,000, he slots neatly as a backup today and a starter sometime in the future with no hurry. But with the potential to lose 1 of them for nothing next summer, the decision process for picking 1, and only 1, could be expedited. I find it hard to think that the Lightning would part ways with Bishop but who knows. Things get really interesting if they decide/manage to retain Steve Stamkos. Even if were to take a small discount, the Lightning will be up against the salary cap with a number of other key players scheduled to be restricted free agents this summer and next. Despite Bishop’s strong play, could Yzerman part ways with Bishop and the $5.95 million that he is owed for the 2016-17 season to make the math work, get a return for a good goalie maybe at his peak and push forward to the future in net?
St. Louis Blues
The theme in St. Louis is a little more of an equal 1A/1B tandem, but there is still an older versus younger element with 25-year old Jake Allen and 31-year old Brian Elliott. The elder Brian Elliott has been the #1 in the playoffs (Important to note is that Elliott was pulled after giving up 3 goals in the first period on Monday night, so it is important to watch where that goes.) During the regular season, things were split pretty equally between Elliott and 25-year old Jake Allen. Elliott was slightly better with a 2.07 GAA and 0.930 Save % compared to 2.35 and 0.920 for Allen, but the starts were split about evenly and both posted solid results. The 2 even line up pretty evenly contract-wise with Elliott scheduled to make $2.5 million in the last year of his contract in 2016-17 and Allen earning $2.35 million also in the last year of his contract. A key difference is that Allen will be a restricted free agent next summer whereas Elliott would be free to test the open market as an unrestricted free agent.
Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings have a similar veteran goalie in Jimmy Howard paired with a goalie of the future in 24-year old Petr Mrazek. The Wings situation is different in that the goalie of the future mostly took the starting job during the 2015-16 season. When you couple that with Howard’s big contract and Datsyuk’s expected departure that could see the team trying to retool, it seems almost certain that Howard is available and probably for a modest price. With a $5.3 million cap hit for 3 more years coming off a lackluster 2015-16 season, I put Howard in the category of being high risk relative to price and commitment. But IF Francis and his staff thinks Howard would rebound, he is probably available for a very modest trade cost and also with the possibility that Detroit could retain part of the big salary.
When considering only the free agent options, the options to add a #1-capable goalie this summer look slim, but when you also consider that up to 5-6 appealing options could arise because of the impending expansion draft, the situation actually has the potential to turn into a buyer’s market.
I continue to think that the decision that Hurricanes GM Ron Francis makes on his second goalie could be the most significant for the Canes fate in the 2016-17 season.