Goalies, they say, are voodoo.
It may be the most difficult position to project but it is, of course, also the most important. If you don’t have a solid netminder then the cards are stacked against you from the word go. Just ask the San Jose Sharks, who finished with the worst 5-on-5 save percentage for the season.
This year brought a bunch of interesting developments at the position that should set up an intriguing off-season for goaltending free agents. Some career-long studs are nearing the end of their careers, while other younger, less well-known players are beginning to emerge to take their place.
Here are the six goaltending developments we found most interesting in 2019-20 so far… with storylines still to play out should the NHL be able to return this summer.
WASHINGTON, AND WHAT OF BRADEN HOLTBY?
We don’t yet know what impact this pandemic will have on the NHL’s salary cap, but it’s hard to see how it would go up at this point. And even if the cap remains flat, the Capitals will have an interesting decision to make in goal.
Right now, Washington has $71.1 million committed to its 2020-21 roster and the only big contract to get done is Braden Holtby‘s. But just how expensive should he really be? If Holtby is rewarded for past performance he’ll return to at least the same $6.1 million AAV as before, if not get a raise. But, he struggled this season and has a save percentage under .900, plus it’s been three years since he was a contender for the Vezina Trophy.
At the same time, rookie and 2015 first-round pick Ilya Samsonov arrived to post a .913 save rate and 16-6-2 record in a little more than half the amount of games as Holtby played. His numbers may have been stronger in a small sample, but would a Cup-winning team feel comfortable moving ahead with Samsonov in his second season minus Holtby as his safety net?
If the cap stays flat, Washington can probably keep them both for next season, but in the summer of 2021, UFA Alex Ovechkin and RFA Jakub Vrana will need new deals and it’s likely the cap will still be impacted by our current situation at that time. Can the Caps manage to keep Holtby around at a manageable rate, or will they have to wade out in the deep free-agent pool to find a tandem partner for Samsonov?
HENRIK LUNDQVIST AND THE RANGERS’ THREE-HEADED GOALIE MONSTER
It’s possible that Lundqvist has played his last game as a Ranger, even if the NHL returns to a 24-team playoff format in which New York would be involved. That’s because his successor, Igor Shesterkin, took the league by storm from his first game in January. The hyped prospect won his debut against Colorado and then beat New Jersey two nights later facing 49 shots. In all, Shesterkin has a 10-2-0 record with a 2.52 GAA and .932 save percentage, and figures to be the No. 1 through the next stage of New York’s transition back out of a rebuild.
It’s even hard to say Lundqvist is the backup at this point because 24-year-old Alexandar Georgiev saw more game action and posted better numbers. He’s an RFA this summer, but shouldn’t break the bank on a re-sign, so the Rangers would appear to have a young duo to move forward with (at least until next summer’s expansion draft, when Seattle could snap him up).
The issue is that Lundqvist still has another season on his contract and has a full no-move clause. Will he retire? Would the Rangers work with him on a trade? Or is it as simple as trading Georgiev in a deflated goalie market and worry about the backup spot next summer? It’s hard to see how the Rangers could go on through another season with three masks in the crease, but the one that makes sense to part with is a franchise legend. There’s no easy solution here, but it also falls into the category of a “good” problem to have.
COLUMBUS’ ELVIS HAS ENTERED THE BUILDING
The Blue Jackets overcame all odds to remain relevant this season and, if the NHL returns this summer, they’ll match up against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 24-team playoff format. Yes, the group of players have come together and completely bought into what John Tortorella is selling, but the fact 26-year-old rookie Elvis Merzlikins came from the Swiss League to post a .923 save percentage with a 13-9-8 record can’t be overlooked.
While Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar run away with the Calder Trophy, it’s worth considering Merzlikins’s candidacy as well. Of all rookie goalies with at least 15 games played, Merzlikins leads in shutouts (5), GAA (2.35) and is third in wins (13).
During the pause, Merzlikins re-upped for an additional two years with a $4 million cap hit, which would be a nice value if he keeps up what he’s done.
— NHL (@NHL) May 23, 2020
NEW JERSEY’S NEW NO. 1 ARRIVES A BIT EARLY
Speaking of rookie goalies, New Jersey’s MacKenzie Blackwood remains with that designation this season after playing 23 games in 2018-19 and he became the team’s leaned-upon starter probably a little earlier than the team had planned. Cory Schneider is still under contract and, it was hoped, could at least work in a tandem with the youngster. But injury and subsequent performance issues thwarted that idea and Blackwood was thrust into 47 games, the most of all rookie netminders.
Considering how disappointing the team was in front of him, it’s at least a positive development that Blackwood had a winning record of 14-8-3 to go with a .915 save percentage. And actually, Blackwood had the second-best 5-on-5 high-danger save percentage among all starters in the league, behind only Tuukka Rask at .870. If that continues, and there’s little reason to bet against the 2015 second-round pick, the Devils could at least move ahead confident with what they have at the most vital position.
CALGARY’S 1A, 1B SITUATION AND CAM TALBOT’S COMEBACK
This is David Rittich‘s crease and since he’s the only NHL netminder under contract with the Flames next season, it’s likely to remain that way. Still, though, Talbot was making things interesting before the pause by putting up better numbers than Rittich since December and earning more and more starts to bring this closer to a tandem than a starter-backup situation. There was even a case building for Talbot to be Calgary’s playoff starter and had we seen the regular season conclude as normal, it may have played out that way.
After this break, however, it’s hard to imagine the Flames not going into a potential playoff with Rittich as the starter. He just may be on a shorter leash than previously expected. But Talbot’s 12-10-1 record, 2.63 GAA and .919 save percentage will make him an interesting goalie to watch on the free-agent market. Remember, he was Henrik Lundqvist‘s backup in New York and played well enough there to be brought in as a starter to Edmonton. It worked for two years, but his play tailed off over the next two and led to him becoming a backup again. It’s unlikely he’ll get a similar opportunity with his next team as he got in Edmonton, but he’s at least shown some bounce-back potential, and at 32 could still be a tandem target for a team in need of support at the position.
NASHVILLE BEGINNING TO PASS THE TORCH
It was bound to happen eventually, but age appears to be starting to catch up to 37-year-old Pekka Rinne. Can he recover? Sure, we’ve seen it before when he had a down 2015-16 and then won the Vezina two years later. But it’s going to get harder for that to happen — at some point he’ll just be done as a heavy-usage starter and that line may have been crossed this season.
At the time of the pause, 25-year-old Juuse Saros had earned the start in 14 of Nashville’s last 19 games and had to relieve Rinne in two of his five. Saros’s save percentage was 19 points higher, his GAA nearly half a goal per game lower and he had a 17-12-4 record compared to Rinne’s 18-14-4. The elder Finn is still under contract for another season so we’ll probably see them both back in 2020-21, but the split may begin going more in Saros’s favour. The Preds need to start seeing what they have in him, and how confident they can be possibly moving ahead with Saros as their main guy after Rinne’s contract expires and he potentially retires.