Kings bring back Peter Budaj in trade, leave Lightning with gap to fill
The Los Angeles Kings brought on goaltender Peter Budaj at the recommendation of development coach Dusty Imoo in the summer of 2015.
Now, three years later, he’s on his way back to the sunny streets of LA. He was dealt back to the Kings on Wednesday morning, getting swapped for depth forward Andy Andreoff.
When Budaj first joined the Pacific Division team, he was coming off of a startlingly fast fall from grace, having been ousted unceremoniously by the Montreal Canadiens to make way for then-promising backup prospect Dustin Tokarski. He’d been dealt, just prior to the start of the regular season, to the Winnipeg Jets – who immediately sent him to the AHL’s St. John’s Ice Caps.
That season, Budaj didn’t win a single game. In his first year back in the minors since hitting the NHL running in 2005, he went 0-9-6, posting a .888 save percentage in all situations while sitting as third-in-line behind Winnipeg heir apparent Connor Hellebuyck and fellow top prospect Eric Comrie.
IceCaps goaltending coach Imoo enjoyed his attitude, though, and was impressed by the work ethic of a then-31-year-old veteran who took his demotion not as a reason to pout, but as an opportunity to re-shape his game to match his age.
When the Kings needed to add a veteran number three to their system, Imoo – who had just moved to join the California club as a development coach earlier that summer – told them he thought Budaj would be a great fit for the organization both on and off the ice.
His first year in California was as good as it got. He played in 60 regular season games as the consensus starter for the AHL’s Ontario Reign, posting a .932 regular season save percentage before carrying the team to the third round of the playoffs.
The next year, though, was much more difficult. Scarily short on goaltending depth in their system, the Kings found themselves scrambling to dress someone by late fall of 2016. Jonathan Quick was injured just one game into the 2016-17 season, then Jeff Zatkoff – who had been struggling as his number two to begin with – got hurt as well. Budaj became the clear NHL starter with reclamation project Jack Campbell, who was still in need of serious work himself , as his backup – and the AHL was left with no one to put on the ice at all. At one point, the Kings were dressing Imoo’s son Jonah on an ATO for games, and Dusty himself sat as backup to his own son one iconic night as a tandem made up of the team’s goaltending coach and a 22-year-old with just three games of pro experience (one in the SPHL, two in the FHL).
Desperate to make a final playoff push, the Kings decided to go all in on a rental in Lightning starter Ben Bishop in February – and Budaj was sent out in the other direction.
Wary of a similar situation, the Kings did more to fill their system the following year, bringing in free agent Darcy Kuemper for the NHL and signing undrafted prospect Cal Petersen to join Campbell in the minors.
Across the nation, Budaj was supposed to fill in as a veteran presence and backup for goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy in Tampa. An injury and poor stats to start the season left him on the outside looking in, though, as the Lightning added Louis Domingue to serve as their number two instead.
Now, he’ll return to California to reunite with the team he gave so much for just a year prior.
In LA, his presence is an easy one to explain. The Kings dealt away Darcy Kuemper at the deadline this past season, making way for Jack Campbell to finally make his long-awaited debut as an NHL backup down the spring stretch.
He still hit some road bumps, though, and the goaltender brought back the other way was a struggling Scott Wedgewood. By adding Budaj, the Kings have someone they know will give them his best efforts and encourage Campbell while improving his own game with both LA coach Bill Ranford and Reign coach Imoo.
For Tampa Bay, though, there’s now a curious hole to fill.
Vasilevskiy is, undoubtedly, the number one for Tampa moving forward. He had a pretty solid year transitioning into the starter role, posting a .920 save percentage in the regular season despite playing in a whopping 65 games. He earned a nod as a Vezina finalist, and his deep playoff run likely inspired confidence for his team and coaches alike.
Behind him, though, Domingue had another lukewarm season. He finished the year with a respectable .914 save percentage in 12 games for the Lightning, but has been notorious for slow starts to his seasons and still has a .856 save percentage for Arizona to open up last year hanging over his head. He’s a restricted free agent this summer, as well, and is arbitration-eligible – although his inconsistent numbers may make it hard for him to push for much of a pay bump over the $1.05 million he made last season.
Behind him, the Lightning are now woefully thin on goaltending depth options, themselves. There’s youngster Connor Ingram, who did well in 35 games for the Syracuse Crunch but shouldn’t be relied upon to reach the NHL this season. Eddie Pasquale did remarkably well himself, posting a .938 save percentage in the regular season, but only played in 15 games and is set to hit free agency this summer. With zero games of NHL experience by age-27, it’s hard to imagine the Lightning would want him in their depth chart as a number three.
With Budaj out, that now leaves the Lightning open to sign another veteran – but with little cap space, the real question will be who they’re going to find.