NHL off-season goalie market tiers: Why it’s the year of the netminder

Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman discusses the options Vancouver has with Jacob Markstrom and trying to re-sign the goalie but he thinks it's most likely that Markstrom hits the market.

Goaltending is a tricky position.

On one hand, it’s the most important to take care of — if you don’t have good goalies, you’re not winning the Stanley Cup.

On the other, it’s an area where, if you can help it, a team should try to save a little money. The Stars got to the final with both of their goalies counting for about $7.5 million against the cap and the Lightning won the Cup with Andrei Vasilevskiy making $3.5 million. Once those totals shoot up (Vasilevskiy will make $9.5 million in 2020-21), it gets harder to build out the roster in front of the goalie.

Netminders can also just be difficult to figure out in general. Projecting young goalies is one of the more difficult things to do, and knowing when their play will start to fall off is different for everyone.

That brings us to this off-season’s goalie market, which is shaping up to be a fascinating one. Not only are there a number available on the free agent market, from starters to tandem options to veterans and more, but there could be a few available in trade as well. Matt Murray was dealt to Ottawa on Wednesday and earlier Devan Dubnyk was shipped from Minnesota to San Jose.

And we’re just getting started.

There are tons of teams that need a goalie. Calgary, Chicago, Edmonton and Detroit, are some who need a starter and you could add Vancouver to that list if Jacob Markstrom tests the market. Carolina is rumoured to be looking for an upgrade in net, and many more are in search of a backup.

While Alex Pietrangelo and Taylor Hall are the marquee UFAs of the off-season, the goalie market is worth watching on its own.

“There’s a lot of flexibility around the NHL in goal and I think it’s a buyer’s market because the cap is tight and I don’t necessarily think there’s enough chairs for all these guys,” Elliotte Friedman noted on a radio interview last month.

So what does this whole picture look like? We broke the market into tiers of varying levels of workload and availability.

THE UFA STARTERS

These goalies have been No. 1s for their teams and likely will continue to be wherever their next contract puts them.

Jacob Markstrom: He was rock solid for the Canucks all year and posted a .919 playoff save percentage as he led them to a longer run than expected. The Canucks have $13.4 million in cap space with Tyler Toffoli and Christopher Tanev also set to test the market on Friday. Big extensions to Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes are a year away as well. Complicating matters further is the Seattle expansion draft one year away when every team has to leave at least one goalie available — if Markstrom stays in Vancouver, either he or Thatcher Demko would have to be left unprotected. Markstrom would be the best goalie available on the market. Robin Lehner re-signed with Vegas for five years and a $5 million cap hit and that should be considered the floor for Markstrom’s next AAV.

Braden Holtby: Here’s a tricky one. There was a time when Holtby’s name was top of mind in any ‘world’s best goalie’ debate, but it’s been three years since that’s been accurate. His save percentage has notably been in decline, falling to .897 this season and he wasn’t much better in the playoffs. Now at 30 years old, Holtby is being replaced by Ilya Samsonov as Washington’s starter next season and it seems likely Henrik Lundqvist will be signed as his backup. Holtby has name value, but in a flat cap world buyers should be more concerned with the data.

Holtby’s expiring contract came with a $6.1-million cap hit and, perhaps, it shouldn’t be automatic that he continues as a heavy usage No. 1. But once he hits the market, there will be enough teams who need a solution in net that there will be suitors. Given his pedigree, we have to consider the possibility he bounces back for a huge return.

THE UFA TANDEM ‘TENDERS

These are goalies who have been working in a tandem or would fit that mold going to next season. That’s not to say they couldn’t become the lead option if everything falls right, but it’s likely these UFAs would end up with a team that plans to more or less split starts.

Thomas Greiss: If you go back to 2016-17, Greiss actually played 51 times for the Islanders, but he’s 34 years old now and you’d probably feel better about the situation if Greiss had another goalie to share the crease with. Over the past two seasons, Greiss is quietly tied for the NHL’s fifth-best save percentage, though we must factor in that he was playing behind a defensively tight Islanders team. The Islanders will move on and any team needing a backup or a 1B would do well to land the underrated Greiss.

Cam Talbot: From backup to starter to backup to starter again, Talbot played only 26 regular season games for the Flames in 2019-20, but was so good in the second half that he became their capable playoff starter, posting a .924 save percentage. Calgary has $16.9 million in projected salary cap space and a lot of off-season questions. The blue line has five UFAs and the team’s core could be shaken up after another early playoff loss. David Rittch, still under contract for another season, has faded in back-to-back years so the Flames need another option. It may turn out that Talbot just remains with the Flames, but if not, he’s a good backup to target.

“For me, I’d be looking for more games,” Talbot said. “I wanted to prove that I can do that again, and I think I did.”

Anton Khudobin: In Boston and now Dallas, Khudobin has been the league’s best ‘backup’ for a couple years, though he’s a little more than that. With Ben Bishop “unfit to play” in the playoffs, Khudobin became Dallas’ playoff starter and a hero with a .917 save percentage that carried them to within two wins of the Stanley Cup. He’s 34 years old now and his career-high for games played in a season is 41, so it’s not as though he’ll suddenly become a starter somewhere else. But if you need someone who can be solid for half a season and step up in case of emergency, Khudobin may be your guy. Dallas has $13.9 million in projected cap room and they still need a player like Khudobin, so an extension may come before, or after, UFA hits.

THE 35+ FORMER STARTER UFAs

These are all goalies who were No. 1s at some point in their careers, but are now near or possibly at the end.

Henrik Lundqvist: It was the end of an era when the Rangers bought out the final year of Lundqvist’s contract, but the 38-year-old is not packing it in yet. He’s not a No. 1 anymore, but he’s a heck of a backup to get, especially if you have a young netminder leading the way. This is why Washington is thought to be such a great fit as 23-year-old Ilya Samsonov takes over there. After Round 1 of the NHL Draft, Capitals GM Brian MacLellan acknowledged he’s looking for a veteran backup and that Lundqvist was a “really solid candidate for us.”

Corey Crawford: At 35 years old, Crawford hasn’t played more than half a season of games since 2016-17 — and Chicago’s crease is a busy one these days behind a leaky defence — but he’s hoping to get more work going forward.

“I want to play a ton,” he said at his end-of-season media call. “I don’t want to play half the games and sit on the bench for stretches at a time. I think my value is just not as good doing that. I’m way more valuable playing games and playing consistently. It really depends on how much I’m going to be used. Salary, that can be discussed, that is definitely something that is not as important at this time.”

It’s hard to see Crawford being offered a workhorse job, but a tandem opportunity could come up. The 35-year-old has still posted good numbers when he’s played — .917 save percentage this season — but the Hawks announced on Thursday that he would not be back with them in 2020-21.

Craig Anderson: At 39 years old, it’s possible this is the end for Anderson.

“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,” he said back in April. “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.”

After a decade in Ottawa, the Senators decided not to re-sign Anderson, who will officially be released to the market on Friday. In a busy goalie market with all kinds of options, which other team would bring in a backup who has been floating around a .900 save percentage for three years? A terrific career and an excellent leader, Anderson could be good to have in the room and supporting a younger stopper, but not everyone on this list is going to end up with a chair after the free agent period dies down.

Jimmy Howard: Now 36, Howard has had declining numbers three years in a row, and finished with an .882 save percentage and 4.20 goals-against average this season. Like Anderson, if Howard returns to the NHL on a different team, it likely will be in a backup role.

Mike Smith: It’s quite possible the Oilers keep him and run back the Smith/Mikko Koskinen tandem, but neither performed all that well in the playoffs. Yes, Edmonton has other things to upgrade on and most of GM Ken Holland’s off-season efforts could be spent on those concerns, but if the goaltending isn’t upgraded, it could still hold them back. Smith was fine in the regular season, with some hot stretches here and there, but Edmonton may need someone more consistent who could settle the net for a longer period of time.

Ryan Miller: If you’d feel good about any goalie in this tier being anything other than a backup, Miller is your guy. Ironically, he’s also the only one who has been a backup for the past three years, playing behind John Gibson. Would he leave Anaheim and California for another shot at the playoffs? Any team looking for a 1A or 1B would do well to land Miller, whose .916 combined save percentage in the past three years ranks tied for 15th among all goalies with at least 60 games played. He is 40 years old now, though, so you wouldn’t want to commit to him as an unchallenged starter, but for 30-35 games? Sure. Depending on the situation, Miller could even wind up in some playoff games for you.

TRADE CANDIDATES

These are goalies with varying contract situations who could be traded. Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray was among them until he was moved to Ottawa on Wednesday.

Marc-Andre Fleury: It seemed like this started when his agent, Allan Walsh, tweeted an edited image of Fleury with a sword in his back and coach Peter DeBoer’s last name etched on the blade, but perhaps speculation of a split was inevitable when Robin Lehner took over Vegas’ net in the playoffs. With Lehner now re-signed and Fleury accounting for $7 million against the cap, the unexpected end of a Fleury-Vegas relationship may be near. Fleury has two more years left on his contract and he’ll turn 36 in November following a season in which he posted a .905 save percentage. Vegas would likely have to retain some of that, or find another team to do it, but if they want to be a bigger player in free agency this off-season, they can’t have two goalies taking up $12 million. The team currently has zero cap space.

Darcy Kuemper: The Coyotes have a new GM, new front office, are capped out, and after being fined first- and second-picks for combine testing violations there will be a desire to stock up on futures again. Kuemper has quietly become one of the league’s elite netminders recently — over the past two years the only starter with a better save percentage than Kuemper’s .926 is Ben Bishop (.927). Kuemper is 30 years old and relatively cheap at a $4.5 million cap hit for the next two seasons. That is all going to make him rather expensive to trade for and in a buyer’s market that may mean he stays put. But he would solidify a lot of goalie situations around the league.

Elvis Merzlikins/Joonas Korpisalo: Going a little younger, both of Columbus’ goalies are seemingly available in the right trade. The two 26-year-olds split time this season, with Merzlikins finishing with the better numbers, but Korpisalo was leaned on more in the playoffs and posted a .941 save percentage in nine games (and had a losing record). Both of these goalies have two years left on their contracts, with Merzlikins at $4 million and Korpisalo at $2.8 million.

STARTERS ONE YEAR AWAY FROM UFA

These goalies are the wild cards who may not be available at all, but who are worth keeping an eye on in this off-season’s market.

Frederik Andersen: In Toronto, Andersen has been remarkably consistent in the regular season and has been trusted for one of the heaviest workloads. But he hasn’t been able to close out a series and his record in elimination games is shaky. The urgency and pressure to improve is now being felt considerably in Toronto and with a flat cap, it’s not clear how or if the team can afford the soon-to-be 31-year-old on an extension. Will they seek someone younger? Could that happen this off-season, or will they ride him for another year until he becomes a UFA?

Tuukka Rask: It’s hard to believe Rask is now 33 years old, but when goalies get to this stage you have to be wary of an age-related decline that can happen rapidly. Rask hasn’t shown any signs of that, other than the fact he needs more regular-season rest than in the past. It’s likely Boston will keep him around, though nothing is certain with today’s financial realities.

Pekka Rinne: With one year left on his contract at a $5 million average annual value, Rinne lost the starter’s role in Nashville this year to Juuse Saros, so it’s time to wonder what happens next. He’ll be 38 in November, 23-year-old Connor Ingram is making a push with a few solid AHL seasons behind him, and the team drafted goalie Yaroslav Askarov in the first-round — though he’s a few years away. Like Rask, it’s likely Rinne remains in Nashville until the end of his contract.

Philipp Grubauer: Grubauer and Pavel Francouz have made for a pretty good duo in Colorado, though the depth of the position was challenged there when injuries hit in the playoffs. Grubauer has a history of injuries, has never played more than 37 games in a season, and 2020-21 will be the last on his $3.33-million cap hit. He’s also in his prime and since the Avs don’t have an obvious replacement as they move ahead with an open Stanley Cup window, if Grubauer can be extended at a reasonable rate it may be the best fit for everyone.

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