Goaltending, goaltending, goaltending. It can make ya, it can break ya. And with just three teams left standing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it's interesting to take note of each of their situations in net.
The Tampa Bay-New York side of the bracket has an obvious storyline focused in the crease, as the well-proven Andrei Vasilevskiy and the currently arriving Igor Shesterkin duke it out. Both are vital to their respective team's success -- Shesterkin in helping the Rangers overcome some of their unfriendly underlying numbers, and Vasilevskiy for his elimination-game reliability and 2021 Conn Smythe Trophy with the Lightning.
In the West, conference champion Colorado had to move a first-round pick plus to get Darcy Kuemper for a year, and he did solidify the Avalanche's most obvious need last off-season. The fourth-ranked regular season goalie by Goals Saved Above Expected and fifth by save percentage (.921), Kuemper's playoffs haven't been as outstanding, but he doesn't have the bad blowups and has lost twice in 10 games. He may be injured now (and Pavel Francouz is a nice backup), but Kuemper was key in getting them to the final, and a player the Avs went out and got to help improve their Cup chances.
Of course, you can't just snap your fingers and get a No. 1 goalie in your crease. There just aren't enough to go around for all 32 NHL teams.
“Do I want a No. 1 goalie, a stud? Yeah. I think 32 teams want that,” Oilers GM Ken Holland said at his year-end press conference. “It's like NFL quarterbacks — there's not 30 (legit starters). It's a unique position, so there's only a small amount of those. And many of those are homegrown. They're drafted. They're developed.”
Two of Canada's top Cup contenders will walk into this summer with perhaps their biggest questions in net. For Toronto, the choice is about Jack Campbell. Should the team pay him upwards of $5 million per year on a new contract, or try their luck in free agency or the trade market? Campbell's season start was excellent, but that waned in the second half and though he certainly was not to blame for the team's first round loss, he also didn't elevate them.
For Edmonton, Mikko Koskinen's anchor of a contract is coming off the books and 23-year-old Stuart Skinner is in line to get a look in at least a backup role, if not as a split-duty netminder. But there's no guarantee Mike Smith will be back now as he didn't commit to continuing his career at 40 years old -- and is a Skinner-Smith combo going to make Oilers fans sleep easy at night? Finding a fix for their situation in net is a vital piece of business for Holland this summer.
The biggest-name UFA goalies this summer include Campbell, Kuemper and Marc-Andre Fleury, but signing any of those options would stress an already tight cap picture for both Toronto and Edmonton unless any take less to join those teams. Trading for someone like, say, John Gibson would be expensive in what you'd have to give up.
The challenge will be to find value.
Toronto did that with Campbell in the first place. In February 2020, the Maple Leafs picked up Campbell and Kyle Clifford in a trade with Los Angeles, sending back just Trevor Moore and a couple of thirds. Campbell was insurance for Frederik Andersen at that point, and not an obvious fix or upgrade in net. But he became that for the Maple Leafs.
Campbell had the pedigree as an 11th-overall pick from 2010, but he didn't stick with an NHL roster until 2018-19 and even then only as a backup. When the Leafs acquired Campbell, he wasn't even having a very spectacular season, with his .900 save percentage falling well below league average. But because of his pedigree and a pretty good showing in 31 games the year prior, there was a path for Campbell to become what he did for the Leafs.
Maybe that's the kind of goalie Toronto and Edmonton will have to think about trying to acquire this summer.
While the three remaining playoff starters mentioned above would qualify as No. 1s, it's also important to mention the other takeaway from these playoffs: you need more than one goalie capable of stepping up in big moments. Injuries have been a major factor and it's been important to have a solid backup as well.
So, is there a netminder out there who could be had as a tandem or backup choice, with the potential to grow into more of a role? That's the $1-million question.
If you're looking for your favourite team to make a big splash in the goalie market this summer, this is most certainly not the list for you. Rather, we're exploring six goalies who have some combination of pedigree or small window NHL performance that, even if you have to squint, you can see a path where they could elevate and surprise at value.
They're not supposed to be obvious solutions. Campbell wasn't at the time he was acquired either.
With the help of former NHL scout Jason Bukala, here are six potential value goalies who may not have you jumping up and down with excitement if acquired this summer, but may look back on with a smile one day.
A fourth-round pick from 2014, Husso was part of St. Louis' plans a few years ago and if not for an injury at the time, it could have been him getting the first chance to turn St. Louis' 2018-19 season around instead of Jordan Binnington. But the latter took his opportunity and ran with it, winning a Cup and turning into a $6-million AAV goalie.
Husso got his chance this season and took the net back from a struggling Binnington in the regular season. Of course, he lost it again in the playoffs, where he had an .890 save percentage and allowed four or more goals in four of six starts, so that will give you some pause. But he's a free agent, won't cost you assets in a trade, and likely won't require the same dollar investment as the top options.
Scout's Take: "He went on a positive run in the regular season and had the net to start the playoffs. He's 27 and likely a finished product in terms of NHL goalie. He's a bit of a 'buyer-beware' target, in my opinion. St. Louis plays a structured game. Husso requires the team in front of him to clear traffic and take care of their men off the puck. His tracking is average-plus. His rebound control needs to improve. His pads are far too active and give up second chances. The fact he looked like he ran out of gas, mentally, is a concern."
What a curious case. DeSmith was never drafted, but in 97 career NHL games, he has a .916 save percentage and hasn't really had a "bad" season yet. He played 36 games in 2018-19, posted a .916 save percentage, and earned a three-year contract extension from the team. But then the following season he was the victim of Pittsburgh's goalie depth and spent the entire year in the AHL, with Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry leading the NHL team.
DeSmith played 26 games for the Penguins this season, posted a 2.79 GAA and .914 save percentage and saved 5.52 Goals Above Expected (per Hockey Reference), which ranked 24th in the league. Now he's an unrestricted free agent and might be the most intriguing of the potential values.
Scout's Take: "At 6-foot, 180 pounds, he isn't the biggest goalie in the net, but he plays with sound crease composure. A goalie that I would describe as efficient. DeSmith isn't the most athletic, quick or dynamic-looking goalie in the NHL. He plays between his posts and at the top of the blue paint, taking away the net. Rebound control is generally reliable. Gloves are average-plus. One area he does struggle with is playing the puck. He isn't a goalie who gets out and outlets very well. He's 30 years old and figured out how to play with poise at the NHL level. A UFA that is a 1B option."
There are two sides to Kahkonen. On one hand, you have a fourth-round pick who quickly shot up after his draft year as a potential NHL starter in waiting for the Minnesota Wild. He spent his first two seasons in North America in the AHL and won that league's best goalie award in 2019-20 with a .927 save percentage. In 2020-21, he was OK in backup duty behind Cam Talbot and, since he was still young and growing, there was a lot of speculation the Seattle Kraken could get a pretty decent netminder for free in the expansion draft.
That brings us to the other side of Kahkonen. The Kraken didn't want him, choosing Philipp Grubauer and Chris Driedger instead, but then even the Wild traded him at the deadline, shipping him to San Jose for Jacob Middleton to add beef to the blue line. That's not really a move you make for a 25-year-old goalie you still believe in. Kahkonen is an arbitration-eligible RFA and the Sharks could have plans for him, with James Reimer and Adin Hill still also under contract. Trade option? Perhaps, but given the sort of player San Jose gave up for him, asset management comes into consideration -- they won't likely now be trading him for less than a Middleton-type.
Kahkonen won just two of his 11 games in a San Jose uniform but did post a .916 save percentage. No one's acquiring him to be their heavy-load No. 1, but what about believing in his potential enough to bring him in as a backup or tandem option, and crossing your fingers he blossoms into more? Goalies do tend to take a little more time.
Scout's Take: "He's 6-foot-2, but his deep stance and low-sitting butterfly positioning make him smaller in the net. He's athletic and competes to make second saves. When teams get him moving laterally, they can expose him over his pads/below his gloves. He's still young by NHL goalie development standards."
A second-round pick in 2014, Nedeljkovic had won best goalie honours at lower levels in the OHL and AHL and then finally got his break into the NHL last season, finishing as a Calder Trophy finalist. So when the Carolina Hurricanes traded him to Detroit for essentially not much at all (Jonathan Bernier and a third-round pick) to avoid his next contract, it was a head-scratcher. Carolina, a team that had a weakness in net for so long, moved out a then-25-year-old who had just posted a .932 save rate.
Turned out to be the right call for them.
While Andersen settled Carolina's goalie situation in the regular season, Nedeljkovic struggled a lot more as a sophomore with the Wings, finishing with a .901 save percentage and one of the lowest Goals Saved Above Average totals in the league. But that was also behind a team that doesn't exactly thrive on defence or supporting its goalies. It was one extreme to the other in two years for Nedeljkovic -- perhaps the reality is somewhere in between.
Nedeljkovic's AAV is $3 million for one more season, after which he'll be a UFA, so perhaps the Wings would be open to trading him again and the acquisition cost shouldn't be prohibitive (and if it is, walk away). But again, we have a goalie with pedigree, awards and even an outstanding NHL season behind him. Is there potential for a bounce back here?
Scout's Take: "If Detroit is entertaining offers, he's an interesting target. His $3-million AAV is fair when considering his year in Carolina two years ago. His season in Detroit will make some question his ability to be a 1B. He's not a No. 1 on his own. A butterfly goalie who tracks pretty well, has good gloves and can steal a game on occasion. He was under siege more in Detroit than Carolina, and it shows in his stats. A team playing with structure can trust him to make saves. There were some nights he made puck plays, or let shots beat him, that left me dazed and confused."
A second-round pick back in 2013, Comrie has basically been an AHL goalie his entire professional career, with spot NHL performances over the years. In 2021-22, he finally became a full-time backup, playing 19 games behind Connor Hellebuyck's heavy workload and outperforming the starter with a .920 save percentage and 2.58 GAA. Comrie was just behind Hellebuyck in goals Saved Above Expected this season, and about on par with the likes of Mike Smith and Cam Talbot.
Comrie wasn't an award winner in the AHL, and has played just 47 games total between the AHL and NHL over the past three seasons, so it is hard to get a read on this player. But the latest data is promising that the soon-to-be 27-year-old may still be about to turn the corner in his career. He's a Group 6 UFA, meaning he qualifies as unrestricted because he didn't meet the games played threshold by age 25.
Scout's Take: "He has the look of a goalie who is on the verge of being able to play more games and contribute as a solid No. 2, at worst. Lateral push is quick and structured. He tracks well and doesn't get outside his posts often. When he does get into scrambling, his size in the net can become a bit of an issue. Not for lack of compete, though. He's simply a smaller goalie when down in the butterfly or in desperation mode. Comrie has good feet, quick pads and decent rebound control. As a Group 6 free agent, he is worth the risk on a deal that makes sense."
Another second-round pick, Blackwood was selected by the Devils as their goalie of the future in 2015 and the early NHL returns were quite good. His rookie year brought a .918 save percentage in 23 games and his sophomore season a .915 in 47 games. He was top-20 in Goals Saved Above Expected in both of those seasons and, even after a much less notable 2020-21 season, there was some belief that a good start could allow Blackwood to even play his way onto Team Canada's NHL players Olympics roster as the third-stringer.
Injuries have complicated this picture to be sure, but Blackwood is now looking back at two below-average seasons, with 2021-22 being the worst: an .892 save percentage and 3.39 GAA. The Devils have a lot of promise up and down the lineup but goaltending remains a sore spot. Although the 25-year-old Blackwood could maybe still be the solution, there's much less confidence surrounding the player now. The Devils are poised to be involved in the goalie market this summer and if they can find an upgrade, Blackwood could then become trade fodder before becoming an RFA next summer.
Two years ago, you might get excited about acquiring Blackwood. Now he'd be a risky add, but the upside remains and he's still young enough to hypothetically achieve it.
Scout's Take: "It's been a roller-coaster. Let me keep it short and sweet. He's a big body who has most recently struggled tracking the play from distance. Pucks have beat him over his gloves from long range. In tight, his wide stance has resulted in goals sneaking between his legs. His salary is that of an upper-tier backup but, for me, he's not a trustworthy NHL goalie right now."