After a day off to consider how well the Carolina Hurricanes have done at avoiding risky/bad next contracts under Don Waddell over the past two years, today’s Daily Cup of Joe is back on my previous goalie beat.
Today’s part 4 is well-timed with the broader NHL media on the ‘Canes might add a goalie’ train today with Pierre LeBrun from The Athletic including James Reimer in his article listing players who could be traded (subscription required). With Alex Nedeljkovic waiting in the wings, trading Reimer does not automatically mean that the Hurricanes would add an upgrade in net, but it definitely paves the way.
This category of goalie options considers a couple netminders who are under contract for the 2020-21 season or beyond and could be a longer-term option in net.
Crazy effect of the 2020 playoffs
Before I jump into more Canes specifics, let me take a short turn as a beat writer for the broader NHL.
Especially considering the unprecedented lead up with five months off before parachuting directly into playoff hockey, the 2020 NHL Playoffs have had a bizarre impact on the near-term market for goalies. Had I told you in February that the off-season would cause permanent fixture type starters Marc-Andre Fleury, Ben Bishop, Jacob Markstrom and maybe even (though less likely) Tuuka Rask to be entered into the off-season goalie market, you would have told me that it would be more likely that the NHL playoffs would be played in August and September.
And here we are.
In Las Vegas, the playoffs seemed to take one goalie off the market in Robin Lehner and possibly add another to the market in Marc-Andre Fleury.
In Vancouver, Jacob Markstrom went from being nearly certain to be re-signed by the Canucks to possibly being replaced by playoff up-and-comer Thatcher Demko, putting Markstrom on the market.
In Dallas, Anton Khudobin went from being a capable but maybe not incredibly unique veteran backup goalie to a potential Conn Smyth Trophy-winner and hot free agent commodity. If Dallas decides to re-sign Khudobin and keep riding him into the 2020-21 season, there are now rumblings that Ben Bishop could hit the trade market.
In Boston, Tuuka Rask, who has had his ups and downs with the Bruins, opted out of the bubble midway through the team’s first playoff series. Nothing is certain on this one, but could that see Boston move on a year before Rask’s contract expires.
In Toronto, another disappointing first-round exit sees Maple Leafs General Manager Kyle Dubas trying to pull levers to get his team over the hump. Part of that is Frederik Andersen’s being in the rumor mill very shortly after the Leafs’ playoff dismissal.
In Arizona, Darcy Kuemper went from being a good but not especially interesting backup (very similar to Khudobin) to being the next flavor of the month as a career backup who was suddenly ready to be a starter.
Darcy Kuemper with the Arizona Coyotes
Darcy Kuemper was specifically mentioned in LeBrun’s article as possibly being of interest to the Hurricanes. He still carries all of the glow from playing a stretch of strong hockey in the spotlight of the playoffs. He is only 30 years old which means if things work out in the last year of his current contract in 2020-21 he could become a longer-term option. And since he has never been a full-time starter, he does not have any of the negative marks that most starting goalies have from the ups and downs of being a goalie in the NHL.
And therein lies the problem or at least significant risk with Darcy Kuemper. To become a capable or better starting goalie for the Carolina Hurricanes, Kuemper would need to navigate two sizable hurdles. First, he would need to make the transition to a new team. Second, he would need to navigate the transition from being a #2 goalie or the guy who is filling in at #1 because the #1 is hurt to being a #1. I think people navigate how challenging both of these transitions are individually for the goalie position and even more so how challenging it can be to navigate both at the same time. When a skater joins a new team and starts slow, the coach can ease him into a slightly lesser role and dial up minutes and responsibilities as warranted. A team has 17 other skaters who can pick up slack in scoring, defending or whatever. In that vein, Vincent Trocheck arrived from Florida at the trade deadline and played decent hockey but struggled a bit scoring-wise. Despite Trocheck’s slow start, the Canes in total did not really miss a beat, and Trocheck somewhat quietly just kept working get his feet under him in a new situation. But in that same situation of a slow start or tough stretch for a starting goalie, there is nowhere to hide. In net a slow start tags a loss to the goalie’s record with each failed outing, and five or six losses can pile up quickly. At that point, the pressure quickly becomes immense. Similarly, the pressure on an NHL starter is significantly different than on a backup or even 1B. As a backup, if you play well, you see more starts. If you play poorly, you maybe get a longer break and fewer starts. The result is that coaches tend to play backups a bit more when things are going well and can give them time to regroup when things do not go well. As a starter, that is not so much the case. Sometimes there can be reprieve from a backup or 1B carrying a slightly bigger load, but the starter is much more so forced to play his way through slumps.
People might try to point to extenuating circumstances , but Scott Darling was very much a match for Kuemper’s situation. Darling was an older goalie who had never really been a starter except filling in for an injury but had truly excelled in his role. The consensus on Darling when the Hurricanes acquired him was that he was ready for a starter’s role. He seemed to struggle a bit acclimating to a new team, system and environment. Then when things started slowly after an injury, the pressure of the contract and responsibility of being a #1 with nowhere to hide seemed to eat whatever confidence, rhythm or whatever else helped Darling succeed in Chicago. He never recovered.
Playing goalie as a backup, 1B or injury fill in #1 is nothing close to the same as carrying the weight of being expected to be a #1.
In my book, all goalies are some combination of voodoo, black magic and snake oil, so there is risk with any option. In that regard, this is not to say that Kuemper would be certain to fail. Rather, my is to say that Kuemper comes with significantly more ‘transition risk’ than a more established starter who has at least navigated the pressure and the different role.
Ben Bishop with the Dallas Stars
Ben Bishop is an odd name to see on a list like this. More than anything, he is the victim of the weird goalie-affected playoffs. Bishop had a respectable regular season with a .920 save percentage, 2.50 goals against average and 21-16-4 record and entered the playoffs as the Stars starting goalie. Then he was injured and ceded the starting role to Anton Khudobin who has never looked back. Now there are rumblings that the Stars might re-sign Khudobin who is a free agent this summer and trade Bishop to save salary at the goalie position. At a basic level, Bishop is an experienced #1 goalie, but he will also be 34 years old when the next season starts and has missed a good chunk of time to injuries in recent years. If willing to accept the age and injury risks, the $4.9 million per year for three more years on his contract is a reasonable price for a #1 goalie in today’s NHL.
Matt Murray with the Pittsburgh Penguins
Matt Murray represents an interesting option who is unique in a few ways. First, whereas most of the available options are north of 30 years old, Murray is only 26 years old. And with two Stanley Cup wins under his belt already, Murray is battle tested in the playoffs. But that begs the question of why he is likely available via trade with the Penguins. After bursting onto the scene with rookie playoff success a bit like Cam Ward, Murray has had some ups and downs as a starting goalie. His 2019-20 campaign was sub-par with a meager .899 save percentage that yielded his starting job to Tristan Jarry. On the surface, I really like the idea of Murray just being a victim of the Penguins’ ‘iffy’ defense and being primed for a rebound playing behind a superior Hurricanes blue line. But that does not seem to hold water when seeing the fact that Tristan Jarry had a strong 2019-20 season playing behind the same defense. He is a restricted free agent, so he would need to re-signed upon acquisition for a few years. Because of his young age, the high points of his track record and his current downward trajectory, Murray could have the widest of range of possible outcomes with a really high ceiling and a similarly low floor. Acquiring and committing to him would seem to be a high stakes bet that relies on the scouting staff to determine which direction he goes from here.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Do you like Darcy Kuemper despite the risk of transition to a new team and #1 role at the same time a bit like Scott Darling a few years back?
2) What do you make of Ben Bishop? The injury issues are a concern, but unlike most of the higher-end veterans on this list, he did not so much find himself on the trade market because his play warranted it?
3) Any chance that Matt Murray just needs a change of scenery and a better defense to have a Marc-Andre Fleury rejuvenation post-Penguins?