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Some Goalies Lose Seat In NHL Game of Musical Chairs

Some Goalies Lose Seat In NHL Game of Musical Chairs

Jason LaBarbera jumped on an opportunity with the Edmonton Oilers, even if it came with a slight paycut from his Phoenix Coyotes salary. (Photo by Clint Trahan / InGoal)

Jason LaBarbera jumped on an opportunity with the Edmonton Oilers, even if it came with a slight paycut from his Phoenix Coyotes salary. (Photo by Clint Trahan / InGoal)

Jason LaBarbera is counting his blessings. The veteran goaltender not only got a seat before the music stopped in the NHL’s annual game of goaltending musical chairs, but he even landed in a place he likes, swallowing a slight pay cut to take a job alongside long-time on- and off-ice workout partner Devan Dubnyk with the Edmonton Oilers.

LaBarbera, whose one-year, $1-million deal was announced in the opening hours of one of a crazy opening day of unrestricted free agency on Friday, knows not everyone will be so lucky.

“There is just so much uncertainty out there and I kind of got that feeling from my agent the last couple of days too, that there’s a ton of uncertainty with the cap going down, teams not knowing what they want to do and a lot of teams tight to the cap and not wanting to spend a lot of money on goalies or backup goalies or depth guys,” LaBerbera, who made $2.5-million over the last two seasons in Phoenix, told InGoal Magazine soon after the deal was signed. “So there was that sense of ‘take the first big offer.'”

LaBarbera was ecstatic his offer came from Edmonton, which is not only a lot closer to his offseason home in Calgary and his parents in northern British Columbia, but also a chance to work with Dubnyk, his summer training partner on and off the ice for the last six years. Playing together was something they’d long talked about, and LaBarbera joked and excited Dubnyk was already trying to find him a house in Edmonton. But the feeling for more goalies heading into free agency was a lot less jovial.

“All summer I was pretty good and the last five days I started to get pretty antsy and a little nervous,” LaBarbera said. “It’s funny how it works because Edmonton was a team I was really hoping would call and they did and they were really interested and it worked out great, but I didn’t want to be sitting here in a day or two with nothing, so it’s interesting out there for sure.”

LaBerbera is right. A day later, the music hadn’t stopped completely, but most of the big chairs had seats and there were still some high-profile names and promising up-and-coming goaltenders that didn’t have a place to sit.

The list without jobs included Tim Thomas, who is trying to restart a Vezina Trophy-winning career after sitting out a year to spend time with his family, as well as enigmatic Russian Ilya Bryzgalov, who was bought out of the final seven seasons of a nine-year, $51-million deal in Philadelphia, and popular backup Johan Hedberg, who suffered a similar fate on the final year of his contract in New Jersey after the Devils’ draft day blockbuster trade to acquire Cory Schneider from the Vancouver Canucks. Rick Dipietro, who was also bought out of a monster contract by the New York Islanders despite finally finishing a season healthy (albeit in the minors), is a free agent as well.

Also without work as Day 2 of free agency started were established NHL veterans Jose Theodore, Chris Mason, Mathieu Garon, and Brian Boucher. The only team that might have an NHL spot left to fill was the Florida Panthers, who still have Scott Clemmensen under contract for $1.2-million next season, and restricted free agent Jacob Markstrom ready for a much bigger role.

As for how the rest of the day played out, the spots went fast, starting with veteran Evgeni Nabokov re-signing with the the New York Islanders for one year and $3.25-million, and recent Stanley Cup champion Ray Emery returning to Philadelphia for one year and $1.65-million, quickly eliminating two of the positions with the most upside in terms of a chance to still be a No.1 goaltender.

From there, LaBarbera went to Edmonton soon after his old team, the Phoenix Coyotes, signed ex-San Jose Sharks backup Thomas Greiss to fill his spot behind the recently re-signed Mike Smith, and winding down with word former Coyotes No.3 Chad Johnson, who many expected to slide into their backup job, instead crossed the continent to sign as the new No.2 for in Boston behind Tuukka Rask. The Bruins, of course, needed help after last year’s backup Anton Khubodin signed in Carolina after Dan Ellis, reportedly talking about a one-year deal with the Hurricanes, instead signed for two with the Dallas Stars, who let Richard Bachman walk as a free agent.

The day wound down with Nikolai Khabibulin returning to Chicago to take the spot vacated by Emery.

Whew … deep breath … got that all? No, well let’s break down this wacky game of goalie musical chairs one by one:

Nabokov remains an Islander

New York Islanders goaltender Evgeni Nabokov

Evgeni Nabokov stayed with the New York Islanders for another season. (InGoal photo by Scott Slingsby)

According to New York Newsday, the Islanders had interest in Emery, but when they realized he was intent on a return to the Flyers, quickly circled back to Nabokov, who led them to the playoffs with solid season.

“You want to go where they want you,” Nabokov told Newsday, adding talks with New York had gone quiet in the weeks leading up free agency. “It’s nice to go where you want, but the organization has to want you, as well. That’s how it worked out.”

Nabokov, who turns 38 on July 25, was 23-11-7 with a 2.50 goals-against average and .910 save percentage in 41 games with the Islanders last season, helping them into the playoffs for the first time since 2007. You could argue there might have been more upside in a similarly-aged Thomas, but don’t discount the leadership impact of the veteran Russian netminder on a young team last season.

The only question now is whether the Islanders stick with their promising young goaltenders alongside Nabokov. Kevin Poulin played five NHL games last season after Dipietro was demoted to Bridgeoport, but is a restricted free agent in need of new contract, while Anders Nilsson, who spent all year in the AHL, is still on a two-way contract for next season.

Emery Returns to Flyers

Ray Emery

Ray Emery went back to Philadelphia. (InGoal photo by Ken DeNardo).

The Philadelphia Flyers gave Ray Emery a chance to resume his career in 2009-10 after a one-year exile to Russia, but his return was cut short by a devastating hip injury that threatened to – and probably should have – mark the end his career.

Emery, who had a bone taken out of his shin and used to rebuild his hip, went on to make a remarkable comeback, first with Anaheim and then two years with the Chicago Blackhawks, culminating in 17-1 record, .922 save percentage, share of the William Jennings Trophy, and ultimately hoisting the Stanley Cup this season. It wasn’t always pretty, and there are questions among the goaltending fraternity about how his limited lateral mobility post-surgery will work behind a Flyers team that gives up a lot more open looks and tic-tac-toe plays in the more open Eastern Conference than the stingy Blackhawks ever did in the west. But Emery told InGoal this season that his hip benefitted from the time off during the NHL lockout, and at the end of the day he just finds a way to make saves.

Perhaps more importantly to the Flyers, who are also trying to nurse a comeback out of former Columbus Blue Jackets Rookie of the Year Steve Mason, Emery has also found a way to be a great teammate and support system for his playing partner, even if the chance to be a No.1 again was admittedly always part of his desire to return to Philadelphia.

“I’ve changed my outlook,” Emery, 30, said during a conference call. “When I was younger I wanted to play all the games and kind of got a pouty attitude when I didn’t. You start to realize that if the team is successful, then everyone does well and it’s a better working relationship that way. Just a kind of a different philosophy. You learn and you grow and that’s where I’m at. It’s fun having a great group of guys and everyone gets along well and [you’re] sharing success.”

With a $1.65-million salary for one year, Emery is a low-risk bargain with plenty of upside, including being a good role model for Mason, who after early success has taken a few years to learn some of the hard lessons about and professionalism.

“I skate with Mason in the summer,” Emery continued. “He’s a great young goalie, a guy who started off as a Calder winner, a guy that’s had success and he’s going to continue to get better. I look at it as a tandem relationship. Last year with me and Corey it was more about the team’s success and we both helped each other get better. As far as I know that’s the best way to treat a goaltending relationship. I’m excited to work with him, to teach him what I know about the game, what I’ve learned about the game.”

The Flyers also boosted their goaltending depth with the addition of Yann Danis, who was Edmonton’s No.3 last season.

LaBarbera buddies up with Dubnyk

Despite a lot of confusing buzz about Oilers being in on discussions for No.1 goalies like traded Canucks goalie Cory Schneider that suggested new Edmonton general manager Craig MacTavish might not have complete faith in Devan Dubnyk, the team went the other way in free agency, signing LaBarbera as a compliment to, rather than a replacement for, the incumbent.

LaBarbera, who has worked out off and on the ice in the summers with Dubnyk for six years, believes it’s a perfect fit.

Look for a complete Ask a Pro from InGoal’s chat with LaBarbera in the coming days.

Greiss gets $750,000 for one year in Phoenix

InGoal is aware of at least two other teams that had strong interest in the German national for their No.2 spot, which says something about the perceived skill set of a goalie that played 44 games over four seasons in San Jose, and was just 1-4 for the Sharks despite a .915 save percentage last season.

That said, it will be interesting to see how Greiss, who is listed a tad generously at 6-foot-1 and more of a pure skater, adjusts to life in Phoenix, where goalie coach Sean Burke has used the Benoit Allaire goal line-out philosophy to turn around the career of the larger Smith. Not that Burke can’t coach other ways. With Greiss he may have to.

Dan Ellis gets two years, $1.8-million in Dallas

Dan Ellis left Carolina for a two-year deal in Dallas, where he was originally drafted. (InGoal photo by Buren Foster)

Dan Ellis left Carolina for a two-year deal in Dallas, where he was originally drafted. (InGoal photo by Buren Foster)

He may not be the medical miracle that Emery represents, but Ellis deserves a lot of credit for working his way back after tearing a groin muscle right off the bone two years ago with the Anaheim Ducks. Ellis signed an AHL contract with Charlotte to get himself back playing games during the NHL lockout, and turned that into an NHL deal with the Carolina Hurricanes soon after it ended.

Ellis went 6-8-2 with a .906 save percentage in 19 games for the non-playoff Hurricanes, and there was talk he would be going back on a one-way, one-year deal. Instead he returned to the Stars team that drafted him in the second round of the 2000 NHL Draft, getting the security of a two-year contract. For Dallas, Ellis represents a more proven insurance policy for star Kari Lehtonen, who has improved his health and durability significantly since arriving there, but still tends to miss short stretches most season.

Ellis, who shared tips on improving reactions and reading shots and overcoming bad games in an InGoal Ask a Pro, and helped his personal coach Corey Wogtech of W Goaltending demonstratedthe importance of progressive repetition last summer, has a .908 save percentage in 184 NHL games and comes with the bonus of being a good puck mover. He should not only provide more relief to Lehtonen strong, but also the ability to carry a No.1 load for stretches, something he did for a full season in Nashville and periods in Anaheim, if Lehtonen gets hurt again.

Khudobin for one-year, $800,000 in Carolina

Essentially, Khudobin gets the contract many expected Ellis to land.

Less proven, but still very promising at age 27, it might be tempting to ask why the athletic Russian didn’t just stay in a comfortable situation in Boston for another year, but given Cam Ward’s struggles to stay healthy – and the Hurricane’s desire not to play him into the ground yet again – there is a chance to play more in Carolina.

In six seasons in North America, Khudobin has played just 21 NHL games, but 14 came with Boston last season, when he posted a .920 save percentage and 9-4-1 record, with one shutout. Overall, Khudobin has a .933 save percentage in his limited NHL appearances.

“Anton proved to be a very capable NHL backup for the Bruins last year,” Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford said.

Bruins turn to Chad Johnson for $600,000

With Khudobin gone and Swede Niklas Svedberg, who was named AHL Goalie of the Year in his first pro season in North America, still in need of more seasoning, the Bruins went cross country and gave the 6-foot-3 Johnson, who was 2-0-2 with a 1.21 goals against average, .954 save percentage and one shutout last season in Phoenix, a one-way contract to back up Rask.

Johnson, 27, also played six games over two seasons the New Yorks Rangers and has a .929 save percentage in 10 NHL career games. That he spent time under Benoit Allaire in New York and had success under a similar philosophy from Burke makes the move away from Phoenix – and the Coyotes move to Greiss – a bit perplexing as Johnson seemed a perfect fit for the Coyotes, and ultimately cost less.

Blackhawks bring back the Bulin Wall

Nikolai Khabibulin went back to Chicago after four years in Edmonton. (InGoal file photo)

Nikolai Khabibulin went back to Chicago after four years in Edmonton. (InGoal file photo)

With Emery gone to Philadelphia, third-stringer Henrik Karlsson off to Europe, and fellow minor leaguer Carter Hutton signing with the Nashville Predators, the defending champion Blackhawks needed to bolster their depth between the pipes even after signing promising Finn Antti Raanta during their run to the Stanley Cup. That they chose to bring back 40-year-old Nikolai Khabibulin on a one-year deal with $1.7-million in base salary and $300,000 more in bonuses may be a surprise to many, especially Raanta himself. But Khabibulin, who stubbled at times during four years in Chicago while the Blackhawks were rebuilding from 2005 to 2009, still has elite skills, posted a .923 save percentage in his final season in Edmonton, and can be very good as long as he doesn’t get overplayed.

Nashville banks on Hutton

With Pekka Rinne coming off serious summer hip surgery and a stated desire to move on from Chris Mason, the Predators steered away from recycling one of the experienced names on the market, instead signing Carter Hutton, who has played one NHL game, to be their backup. Hutton is on a two-way contract that could keep the door open for another addition, but Nashville appears intent on going with the 27-year-old, who has spent most of his four pro seasons in the AHL, including the last two with the Blackhawks’ affiliate.

Depth signings could be key

In addition to Danis, who was rumoured to be on his way to Hershey before Philadelphia swept in, several teams bolstered their goaltending depth, which could be even more important if the impending NHL equipment reductions lead to injuries early in the season and goalies try to squeeze shot a 5-hole the league intends to open up with smaller kneepads and shorter thigh rises.

Columbus, which has to wait another year for promising young Swedes Oskar Dansk and Anton Forberg, added two goalies to play behind their NHL tandem of Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovksy and Curtis McElhinney. InGoal regular Mike McKenna and former Nashville No.3 Jeremy Smith were both signed to two-way deals that will likely seem them start with Springfield in the AHL.

The Oilers replaced Danis by signing Bachman, who shared his tennis ball-based eye-hand co-ordination warm up with InGoal Magazine last season, to a two-way deal Saturday.

Look for more of those deals in the coming days, though interestingly some promising goalies – perhaps most notably Jussi Rynnas because of how many rave reviews InGoal heard from his AHL peers last season – already have offers to play overseas on the table, and may have priced themselves out of the market for depth positions in North America.

About The Author

Kevin Woodley

Kevin Woodley is a rec-league target and former contributing editor of the Goalie News magazine. He has written about the Vancouver Canucks and NHL for The Associated Press, USA Today, Sports Illustrated and The Hockey News for the last decade, and covered the 2010 Olympics for The AP.

6 Comments

  1. Paul Ipolito

    I’m sorry, but someone has to do it:

    “Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be goalies”

    Reply
  2. Alec Sader

    Why not? We are A list athletes and we are quite important to the leagues. Mothers should want a goaltender-son because we learn so much about life while tending goal.

    Reply
  3. Michael Leppert

    Here we go again, with goalie equipment adjustments. One big reason for goalies stopping more shots today than in 40 or more years ago, is the lightness of the gear. Leg pads weigh a fraction of the old horsehair & leather pads of the Dryden-Esposito days. A goalie with fast reflexes can actually move his legs in today’s game. Secondly, if the NHL wants more scoring, all they have to do is make it illegal for any player not a defenseman to block shots. No forwards blocking the lanes. Simple and effective.

    Reply
    • Jamaal James

      Further to this, if they really want more scoring, then just get rid of the blue lines. It’ll open things right up…much to our chagrin as keepers.

      Reply
  4. OgTheDim

    The low scoring problem is not the goalies but the suffocating defensive style most teams play. BORRRING. Let’s have wide open, 80’s Oilers style play. Shrinking goalie equipment won’t do that.

    Reply
  5. Dezi Wright

    And Michael Leighton? He’ll be playing hockey [where]? I thought he did pretty good job opening the door for all the players. Is Columbus not bringing him back? Maybe Bizonette should teach him how to tweet if he wants to keep a bench job. Maybe the Flyers will let him sit on the Phantoms bench again.

    Reply

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