We may not be in full-blown goalie controversy territory yet — take it easy, it’s early — but just one week into this youth-dominated 2016-17 season, a handful of teams are already showing symptoms of goaltending concerns.
The reasons are myriad. Some teams are coping with sudden injuries, others are puzzling contracts under the salary cap, and a few are trying out new No. 1s who may or may not be able to live up to their promise.
Through 50 games played, scoring is up nearly a goal per game — splendid news for fans who prefer stuff like this or this over goaltending duels.
The list of proven goaltenders on contract years is significantly deeper this season than last. Pending free agents Ben Bishop, Brian Elliott, Robin Lehner, Ryan Miller, Steve Mason, Jonathan Bernier, Ondrej Pavelec, Michal Neuvirth, and Thomas Greiss have all been 1s or 1bs in 2016.
Looming over all of this is the expansion draft, with the Las Vegas ______ Knights licking their chops and cranking up the ol’ General Fanager simulator every lunch break.
We’ll stretch out our groin here and predict that you’ll see goalie movement sooner than later this season. Here are six teams facing early uncertainty in the blue paint. (Fear not, Habs fan, Montreal isn’t on the list. Thanks to Al Montoya’s league-best .962, Carey Price’s Old Testament–calibre case of influenza is of no biggie.)
One of three teams in California dreaming of winning the Stanley Cup, the Los Angeles Kings sit dead last in the NHL after Week 1. Starter Jonathan Quick went down in the first period of the season and is out approximately three months — i.e., long enough to bury a middle-of-the-pack team.
Quick underwent a nonsurgical procedure to improve a groin injury while backup Jeff Zatkoff (formerly third-stringer in Pittsburgh) has managed just a .839 save percentage. Zatkoff’s backup? Peter Budaj, a 34-year-old stopgap who’s played 82 NHL minutes since 2013-14.
As strong as the Kings are defensively and possession-wise, we can’t see them staying in the hunt without an upgrade. A trade will take work as GM Dean Lombardi has a cap cushion of just $1.53 million. Potential targets include Winnipeg’s Pavelec, New York’s Greiss, Pittsburgh’s Mike Condon, Philadelphia’s Mason or Neuvirth, and Florida’s Reto Berra.
Berra ($500,000 cap hit), a third-stringer playing in the AHL, or Isles backup Greiss ($1.5 million) may provide the best value. Both become UFAs at season’s end.
The Coyotes are calling Mike Smith day-to-day with a lower-body injury after their No. 1 left Tuesday’s game. He was spotted with a brace on his left knee.
Backup Louis Domingue filled in nicely when Smith went down last season, and we expect the Coyotes — a rebuilding club with even less cap wiggle room than the Kings — to stand pat.
“It’s a situation I’ve been in before, so I gotta use that experience in my favour to try to help the team get some points on the road,” Domingue, who starts Thursday in Montreal, told reporters. “It’s a big task for me [and] important road trip for the whole team.”
Oh, boy. So the Calgary Flames flirt with a Bishop trade but end up going for Brian Elliott, who is quickly finding out just how good the defence in Ken Hitchock’s St. Louis is.
Elliott’s save percentage of .818 is the NHL’s worst (small sample size alert), and the Flames rank 30th in goals against. This team needs time to adjust to a new head coach and two new goalies (we see you, underrated Chad Johnson and your .923 save percentage), but Elliott must find his groove if he is to keep the No. 1 gig and cash in on free agency next summer. There was a report on Sept. 27 that extension talks between Calgary and Elliott were underway. We’re guessing those chats have cooled.
A couple weeks before the season began, Ryan Getzlaf joked that Frederik Andersen had the chops to become the Maple Leafs’ undisputed No. 1 goalie, if the Toronto media let him.
Well, after Andersen (and Toronto’s troubled defence) failed to hold onto another multi-goal lead Wednesday in Winnipeg, we’re getting warmer to blame the media territory.
Not unlike Jonathan Bernier before him, Andersen arrives from playing behind an excellent defence in California and is given the ball to run with. To be fair to the big Dane, he did suffer an upper-body injury prior to the season. But what if we find out that backup Jhonas Enroth at $750,000 is much better than Andersen at $5 million?
This goalie conundrum is the most compelling, personally. The good news is that Calder-eligible Matt Murray (broken hand) returned to practice Thursday with a smart three-year, $11.25-million contract extension, a.k.a. the Andrei Vasilevskiy heir apparent deal with a Cup ring bonus.
We expect Tampa Bay to try to win a Cup with Bishop this season; Vasilevskiy knows he’s No. 2 for now. The situation in Pittsburgh, however, is more intriguing. Marc-Andre Fleury, who deserved to be in the Vezina conversation last season, looks solid again, but the veteran is still signed for three seasons at a $5.75 million cap hit. Pittsburgh doesn’t want to go the way of Dallas or Detroit and tie up more than $9 million in goaltending every year, does it?
Fleury will likely be the subject of trade rumours until he’s moved or scooped up by Vegas.
A legitimate NHL goaltending tandem for a total salary cap hit of $1.82 million? That’s what Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is hoping the unproven Michael Hutchinson, 26, and Connor Hellebuyck, 23, can become, as he sent former No. 1 Pavelec ($2.9 million) down to the minors.
The Jets have surrendered an average of four goals through four games and rank 24th in that category.
“I don’t think our goalies have stole a game yet,” Cheveldayoff told Hockey Central at Noon Wednesday. “I would rate it as a work in progress.”
Not good enough — yet — for a team with playoff aspirations, making Pavelec either a candidate for a trade or a recall.