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Odd Men Out: Veterans Face Daunting Goalie Market

Odd Men Out: Veterans Face Daunting Goalie Market
Joni Ortio is ready for steady NHL time, giving the Flames three goalies for the upcoming season.

Joni Ortio is ready for steady NHL time, which means the Calgary Flames will have three goaltenders for the upcoming season.

The Calgary Flames have a dilemma. Joni Ortio is NHL ready and must pass through waivers to be sent to the AHL but the Flames have two NHL goaltenders already. In fact, they signed Karri Ramo to a one-year, $3.8M contract just this summer.

Three goalies on one-way contracts–nearly $9M dollars wrapped up in the position--and one of those will have to play for a team other than the Flames. According to some reports, that could be Jonas Hiller, an experienced NHL goalie, now 33 years old and battling in training camp for his starting spot.

It’s far from a new story, but something about this season makes the situation seem starker than normal. Outside of elite starters, the market for NHL goaltenders is over saturated. For some players this has meant taking a chance on a Professional Try Out (PTO) arrangement. For others, like Hiller, it means facing the possibility of waivers.

Teams like the Flames, the Minnesota Wild and the Washington Capitals find themselves with more veteran goaltenders than they need. Some, like the Wild, also have vets in camp on PTOs. On the other side of the equation, however, are very few teams who are truly in the market for goaltending help.

It is possible that the Boston Bruins or Tampa Bay Lightning could take a chance on one of the vets. Both have a potential opening at the NHL backup position. In response to that possibility, both have invited goalies with NHL experience to camp on PTOs–Jonas Gustavsson for Boston and Ray Emery for Tampa Bay.

However neither team is likely to want to invest in an aging goalie on a long term contract, like Hiller or Minnesota’s Niklas Backstrom. Both have top-end prospects in their system ready for at least some NHL time—Malcolm Subban for Boston and Andrei Vasilevskiy for Tampa Bay.

Will the Bruins promote Malcolm Subban tomthe NHL full time?

Will the Bruins promote Malcolm Subban to the NHL full time?

Subban could stand another half a year in the AHL—or at least the team might consider that a slightly better situation than having him sit on the NHL bench behind Tuukka Rask. The Lightning are committed to Vasilevskiy and to Vasilevskiy being in the NHL now, but he’s out for another month and a half or more while on blood thinners. Both teams could conceivably solve their problems by rotating young goalies in and out of the AHL for a time.

At this moment the San Jose Sharks appear to be willing to head into the season with a Martin Jones-Alex Stalock tandem. It is unusual to see a team relying on two goalies with very little NHL experience for the duration. But the Sharks are a team that can’t make up its mind to rebuild. Two goalies on very easy contracts might be just the ticket to a higher than expected finish—or a higher than expected draft pick.

Should Jonas Hiller become available on waivers would San Jose take the chance? It wouldn’t be the worst idea. It could be harder to justify taking on Backstrom’s contract or even investing in Ortio, given their team situation. Hiller provides another year with a moderately solid goaltending floor to make up their minds what direction they want to go as a franchise.

The Anaheim Ducks are another team seemingly planning on riding inexperience into the regular season. In fact, they extended prospect John Gibson for three years on Monday. You don’t extend a player for NHL money if you don’t already believe he’s NHL ready or very, very close.

This leaves the Ducks with Frederik Andersen and Anton Khudobin in their NHL net, while also trying to ensure that Gibson progresses enough to give value for that $2.3M per year they’ll be paying him. It’s a strange bet to make when you’re hoping to win a Cup before the window closes on your star forward core.

The Ducks are seemingly prepared to rely on Frederik Andersen to carry the bulk of the starter's load.

The Anaheim Ducks are prepared to rely on Frederik Andersen to carry the bulk of the starter’s load.

The best logic going for this combination is that there isn’t a better bet available in the market, unless you count the guy they parted ways with two years ago. In any case, it’s pretty safe to count the Ducks out of the market for a veteran backup. For now.

There really are no other teams in the market for goaltending help, either of the starter or backup variety, even the ones who probably should. Both Pittsburgh and Nashville have clear starters they’ve built their systems around and backups it’s past time to walk away from. Neither is going to do that or give their young prospects much NHL time.

New Jersey has Cory Schneider and then basically no one, but they’re almost certain not to get Schneider any help. Granted that Ray Shero isn’t Lou Lamoriello, but is he Ray Shero. Never say never and all of that, but it’s hard to imagine the Devils taking on another goaltender at the end of camp.

In essence, by the time the regular season rolls around, even the few veterans who managed to obtain invites to audition for NHL teams will be facing cuts once again. And this time they might just be joined by a few more players put on waivers. Two of the three teams who might be reasonably considered to be testing the waters also have NHL goalies in camp on PTOs.

This is what a buyer’s market looks like. For all trade craziness of last draft weekend, teams want young, inexpensive players who might yield future assets, preferably players they’ve groomed themselves. The tightness of this season’s cap only strengthens that imperative. If you’re going to deal with uncertainty, you can’t afford to pay more than the very minimum for it, especially when the salary cap is as tight as it will be this year.

Is this perhaps an indication that NHL goalies will be getting as younger over the next few years? So far the trend towards youth that skaters have seen has not made major inroads among goaltenders. It is possible that this will change, should GMs decide that younger goaltenders give them as good of a chance to build a winning team as experienced ones do. Or, when the cap rises again in the next few seasons, will they return to paying for veteran presence at the back end?

For now, at least, it seems that market pressures may drive teams to stick with younger players, leaving some veterans out in the cold earlier sooner they expected.

About The Author

Clare Austin

Clare Austin is a reluctant "stats nerd" living in Nashville, where she has never worn a cowboy hat or boots.

7 Comments

  1. Rob McGregor

    Imagine a few clubs might be in ‘wait and see mode’ – an injury, a dip in form. As a UFA next summer, Hiller could be an ideal, short term fix for a team with goaltending problems this year, while Ramo could be a solid number two for someone (have to come back to New Jersey everytime we talk about teams in need of a backup).

    Personally I think Calgary would be better moving forward with Ortio and Hiller, with the former slowly replacing the later as #1, but it depends whether the Swiss stopper would be happy with that gradually reduced role to finish his career.

    • Clare Austin

      It wouln’t be the first time someone was wrong about a team’s opinion on a player. And maybe they will be able to sneak Ortio through waivers at the beginning of the season, given how everyone seems pretty set on the goaltending front. If siomeone’s smart and has room, though, like Washington right now, they’ll grab him because he either better or readier than anyone else they have. You make the hockey decisions you need to make and then you make them fit.

  2. Mike

    “New Jersey has Cory Schneider and then basically no one”

    Keith Kinkaid did an outstanding job last year backing up. I wouldn’t call him no one.

  3. Gretchen

    It will be fascinating to see how my Sharks handle the Jones/Stalock tandem. Stalock has proven himself to be slightly lacking (mediocre is the nice word). Jones is a gamble. He could become elite, or, with the porous SJ defense, struggle mightily, he struggled last season in his few starts even with the vaunted LA defense.

    IMO, the Sharks will be out of contention by the deadline or close to it. Stalock will finish his deal then be gone from the league, Jones will end up a career #2 behind someone the Sharks trade for–I think they’ll be missing Niemi sooner than they think.

  4. Ethan

    Wouldn’t be surprised to see scrivens traded, Anders Nilsson has shown really well for Edmonton.

  5. Bates

    Don’t count Jones out yet, he looked great last year and stoned the young Canucks yesterday. I think he has a real upside

  6. Paul Ipolito

    Hiller might be a good fit in Buffalo. I’m not convinced Lehner is ready for primetime and there truly is no one behind him.