The backup goalie grab has become an annual rite of the early off-season, when the carousel whirls and those left without a suitable Number 2 will inevitably suffer.
Even though meaningful signings have been few and far between since the league hit pause in March, it is notable that a few clubs have used this time to get a jump on shoring up the game’s most important position.
Columbus re-upped both halves of its young tandem, Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins, before they hit RFA status. Boston struck a sweet, one-year extension for one of the league’s premier backups, Jaroslav Halak, for a bargain $2.25-million cap hit. And with Martin Jones underperforming and Aaron Dell scheduled to go unrestricted, San Jose imported 21-year-old KHL prospect Alexei Melnichuk to address its crease depth.
A couple of wrinkles should add urgency to 2020’s backup market. The NHL’s expected-to-be-delayed 2020-21 season could well feature a more compacted schedule, increasing the importance and frequency of starts from your tandem’s second best.
Plus, organizations will make all signings with Seattle’s 2021 expansion draft in mind. Thirty of the existing clubs (Vegas is exempt from Seattle’s draft) must make available an NHL goalie under contract in 2021-22 or a restricted free agent having received a 2021-22 qualifying offer from his team.
While much has been written about the 2020 UFA goalies worthy of a starter’s payday (Jacob Markstrom, Braden Holtby, Robin Lehner) — and Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford has already broadcasted that he’s willing to trade one of Matt Murray, Tristan Jarry or Casey DeSmith — let’s take a tour through the supporting goaltenders heading to market.
Here are the best impending UFA backup goalies, ranked:
1. Anton Khudobin (16-8-4, .930), age 34
With Halak off the market, Khudobin should become the undisputed Number 1 Number 2 out there. Logging 71 appearances over his two seasons in Dallas, the beloved Khudobin is actually improving with age, like the finest Kazakhstan wine. Absolutely, Jim Nill should try to retain the veteran as a safeguard to Ben Bishop’s injury woes, but the GM is tight to the cap and also staring at juicy raises for RFAs Radek Faksa, Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov.
2. Thomas Greiss (16-9-4, .913), age 34
The plan is for highly touted Russian pro and 2014 Isles draft pick Ilya Sorokin to finally make his way stateside this year. So with Semyon Varlamov signed through 2022-23, Greiss would appear to be the odd man out.
The German has been one of the busiest and most consistent 1B goaltenders over the past two seasons, delivering 39 wins in 74 appearances for New York in 2018-19 and 2019-20. Granted, Greiss has benefitted from Barry Trotz’s lockdown defence, but he’s about as certain a bet you can find on the backup market.
Sidney Crosby vs. Thomas Greiss. Schaut euch das mal an. pic.twitter.com/pujdKKbzqz
— NHL Deutsch (@NHLde) May 4, 2020
3. Cam Talbot (12-10-1, .919), age 32
Changing cities without changing provinces was just the cure for whatever ailed Talbot. And his numbers were strong enough that he could’ve well been the Flames’ starter (over All-Star Game attendee David Rittich) had Calgary gone into the playoffs in April.
“That’s why I wanted the one-year deal — I wanted a redemption year,” Talbot, who played for a modest $2.75 million, told Sportsnet’s Eric Francis recently. “I think my record shows that when I’m healthy and on top of my game, I can be one of the best in the league.”
Talbot is open to re-upping in Calgary, but almost certainly that would require a pay bump and, perhaps, some assurance that he’d be given the inside track on Rittich.
“I wouldn’t rule out coming back,” he said, “but obviously my goal coming here was to show the rest of the league that I still have it in me to be a starting goalie, and I think I accomplished that.”
Note to GMs: If you want to go the tandem route, or need a hungry netminder to push your No. 1, Talbot is your guy.
4. Corey Crawford (16-20-3, .917), age 35
Despite the recent upheaval in the Blackhawks’ front office, it is difficult to see Crawford not re-signing in Chicago, where he and wife Kristy just welcomed a second baby boy into the world.
GM Stan Bowman seemingly tipped his hand by trading his other impending UFA goalie, Robin Lehner, to the Vegas Golden Knights at the deadline, and the franchise has a pattern of loyalty extensions when it comes to the core that brought Stanley Cups to the Windy City.
Crawford has managed to put up excellent numbers while battling injuries and watching the blue line in front him decline from the glory years. But he hasn’t exceeded 40 games played since 2016-17 and thus needs a dependable crease partner.
Is the recently acquired Malcolm Subban (RFA), already on his third organization, ready to take that step? Does cap-friendly prospect Collin Delia, 25, get a prolonged shot to stick at the NHL level?
Since Crawford is over 35, a bonus-heavy, short-term extension could make a ton of sense for both sides here as the Blackhawks gradually continue to pass the baton to the next generation.
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5. Aaron Dell (12-15-3, .907), age 31
The signing of Melnichuk signals that Doug Wilson hasn’t exactly been content with his goaltending of late. Nor should he be. But while No. 1 Martin Jones has been handsomely compensated for two straight seasons of sub.-.900 work, the undrafted, late-blooming Dell has been fine as a support player, posting a career .908 save percentage and actually taking starts away from Jones prior to the pause.
The Alberta native is unlikely to command a high salary and could be a low-risk bet for GMs looking for an affordable security blanket behind their starter. He’s also the youngest guy on our list.
6. Mike Smith (19-12-6, .902), age 38
There is so much fight in Smith that, even as he knocks on 40 and has 600 games in the rearview, we could see him wanting to keep playing.
Signed ostensibly to be the Oilers’ backup to Mikko Koskinen, Smith outperformed the Finn for stretches this season and was on the verge of yet another 20-win showing. If he wants to keep playing on another bonus-loaded, $2-million deal, why not?
Edmonton is devoid of Grade-A goaltending prospects, so if the Oilers move on from Smith, they’ll have to explore a trade or look elsewhere on this list.
7. Brian Elliott (16-7-4, .899), age 35
In terms of save percentage, Elliott posted his worst mark in nine years. Yet he won more often than not and contributed nicely to both the Flyers’ resurgence to playoff status and prodigy Carter Hart’s development.
There is a comfort level here between wise veteran and the team that could make for an easy one-year extension. With Hart one more season away from RFA (and a significant raise), it certainly doesn’t feel like the right time to go bidding for a high-end goaltending free agent.
As long as the price is right (heck, throw a couple bonuses in the mix), we can totally see Elliott returning for a fourth run in Philly.
8. Craig Anderson (11-17-0, .902), age 39
We’re inching into potential retirement territory here, which is why we’ve rated Anderson this far down the pecking order.
Would Anderson — forever the starter in Ottawa and nearing 40 — be willing to uproot his family and take a severe pay chop from his $4.5 million AAV to keep his Cup dreams alive?
“I haven’t put too much thought into future plans,” Anderson said during a post-pause conference call. “We’ll cross the bridge as far as future plans down the road, but as of right now I am missing the game like crazy. I want to be on the ice, I want to be there competing with my teammates, so right now that would be the way I’m leaning, that I want to compete. And continue to do what I love every day.”
The Senators have a backlog of goaltending prospects. Anderson would be a fantastic mentor, if he wants that gig, but it’s time to see more of the future, like Marcus Hogberg.
9. Ryan Miller (9-6-0, .907), age 39
Miller rather quietly made the transition from Grade-A starter to Grade-A backup, happily supporting John Gibson with 20-plus appearances in each of the past three seasons — at a fraction of his usual cost.
It’s virtually impossible to envision Miller moving out of California at this stage. Does he really want one more crack? Or is time for the Ducks to give an extended look to 26-year-old Anthony Stolarz, who posted a .922 save percentage in AHL San Diego?
In an interview conducted Thursday, our puntastic pal Gene Principe asked Miller about his future.
Miller didn’t commit to playing next season but said the desire to compete is still in tact. Schools may still be closed in California this fall. Naturally, the goalie is concerned about his five-year-old son’s education and home life.
Miller is stuck at 387 career wins. He’d love to pass Dominik Hasek at 389 and reach 400, but he’s not certain that will happen.
More UFA backups: Jimmy Howard, Louis Domingue, Laurent Brossoit, Michael Hutchinson, Keith Kinkaid, Anton Forsberg, Alex Lyon, Antoine Bibeau, Oscar Dansk, Garret Sparks