NHL goaltenders play musical chairs again in free agency
The annual game of musical chairs that is the life of a free agent goaltender started on July 1 but based on earlier indications most of the goalies has agreed to swap seats before the music was cued up.
Before free agency even officially opened, InGoal confirmed reports Carter Hutton was headed to the Buffalo Sabres, who parted ways with both members of last season’s tandem, and learned that former Buffalo backup Chad Johnson was on his way to take Hutton’s spot with the St. Louis Blues.
Add in since-confirmed reports Jonathan Bernier, whose spot with the Colorado Avalanche was taken when they acquired Philipp Grubauer from the Washington Capitals for a pick at the NHL Draft, agreed to a three-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings, and Cam Ward was set to sign a one-year contract with the Chicago Blackhawks, and the seats were filling fast before the market opened.
With 18 goalies that played at least one NHL game set to hit the open market, including Petr Mrazek and Robin Lehner after they did not receive $4 million qualifying offers from the Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers, respectively, and 33 UFA goaltenders overall, it was always going to be a frenetic week.
That was before you factored in a number of teams trying to trade a goaltender.
The Winnipeg Jets freed up salary cap room by trading Steve Mason’s remaining season at $4.1-million to the Montreal Canadiens, who quickly bought him out and added him to the free agency pool for a second straight summer. The Ottawa Senators are shopping veteran Craig Anderson, who reportedly asked for a trade. And the Islanders are doing the same with Thomas Greiss, apparently eager to follow what the Sabres model of starting from scratch by ridding themselves of last year’s tandem entirely.
With all those options, the Sabres going with a totally new tandem, the Islanders trying to do the same with new general manager Lou Lamorello, and only one year left on to-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky’s contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets, there promises to be no shortage of movement – on July 1, and beyond. InGoal takes a quick-but-closer look at each deal, starting with the four that were for more than one season, and what’s left, both in terms of free agents and teams in need of help:
Buffalo Sabres, three years, $2.75 million average annual value (AAV)
As reports began to link Hutton to the Sabres late last week, many seemed to worry about overpaying for a 32-year-old coming off the best season of a career spent almost exclusively in the backup role. Those types of concerns should have ended when the hottest goaltending target of this summer signed for $8.25 million over three seasons, but they may have been over-stated anyway given how well Hutton fits in Buffalo.
After walking away from Lehner and Johnson, the Sabres made it clear they were committed to promising 6-foot-4 prospect Linus Ullmark, who has a .917 save percentage in 26 NHL games over his first three seasons of professional hockey in North America. But Buffalo also made it clear they didn’t want to hand the role over to the 24-year-old Swede, so Hutton comes in as a perfect partner for Ullmark.
Hutton showed he is capable of a bigger role by going 17-7-3 with an NHL-leading .931 save percentage last season, earning ice time ahead of No. 1 Jake Allen as the season went on. But perhaps just as important to Ullmark’s future, Hutton also showed he is capable of doing so while still supporting and mentoring, rather than undercutting, his playing partner. And if Ullmark does continue to grow into a No. 1 role while Hutton is still there, the Sabres already have one of the best backup’s in the NHL there to work with him.
Statistically, Hutton was eight in the NHL over the past three seasons with a .921 save percentage. In the past two seasons, according to CorsicaHockey.com, his 5-on-5 save percentage of .9317 was seventh among goalies to play more than 2,000 minutes, and was 0.67 above his expected .9250, which ranked 11th.
Detroit Red Wings, three years, $3 million AAV
Bernier was hoping to stay in Colorado, with reports he wanted three years and they offered two before acquiring Grubauer instead and re-signing him for three years and $10 million, a contract that looks better and better as the free agent signings piled up. Bernier, who spent one season with the Anaheim Ducks and one with Colorado, gets the stability he wanted from the Red Wings. The last two playoffs haven’t been kind to Bernier, who gave up four goals on 16 shots in a tough spot replacing injured John Gibson for Game 7 against the Nashville Predators two years ago and was replaced by Andrew Hammond after posting a .883 in Colorado’s first round series against the Predators this season. But neither team gets to the postseason without Bernier in the first place. The 29-year-old went 21-7-4 with a .915 save percentage while filling in for an oft-injured Gibson in Anaheim in 2016-17 and was 19-13-3, including nine straight wins, with a .913 save percentage doing the same for Semyon Varlamov last season. Given Jimmy Howard’s struggles to stay healthy in Detroit, Bernier makes sense as a goaltender comfortable with the role and expectations of a backup, and won’t hurt you while filling for prolonged stretches as the starter.
Statistically, Bernier has a .914 save percentage over eight full NHL seasons. Over the past two seasons, he has a 5-on-5 save percentage of .9272, which is .28 below expected based on the shots he faced, according to CorsicaHockey.com, and a negative Goals Saved Above Average of -4.41 over that stretch.
Dallas Stars, two years, $2.5 million AAV
Khudobin makes some sense for a Stars team that needs someone they can rely on behind oft-injured No. 1 Ben Bishop. It appeared for most of the season Kari Lehtonen might re-sign in that role after his lucrative contract expired, but after succeeding in spot duty behind Bishop early, he struggled when asked to take over as the starter late in the season and Dallas decided it was time to move on. Khudobin, 32, pushed Tuukka Rask for playing time early last season, even taking over as the starter for a stretch, but predictably cooled off with fewer starts in the backup role while playing a more active, rhythm-reliant style.
Statistically, Khudobin finished the season right around the NHL average with a .913 save percentage, but his 5-on-5 saver percentage of .9243 was 0.6 better than expected based on the shot quality metrics of CorsicaHockey.com. Stylistically, Khudobin is an undersized (5-foot-11) battler who reminded some of Tim Thomas, and he seemed like a good fit in Boston, which made the decision to let him leave, reportedly over a small difference in money, curious, especially given his replacement’s deal:
Boston Bruins, two years, $2.75M AAV
Halak is coming off his worst statistical season in six years playing behind the defence-optional Islanders, so the signing was greeted with a level of disdain among Bruins fans fond of the acrobatic, engaging Khudobin. But the reality is Halak’s .9234 5-on-5 save percentage last season was 0.49 above expected and similar to Khudobin, and he has been statistically superior the past three seasons. Stylistically, Halak is a middle-depth goalie who forces shooters to beat him around the edges, and while he might not be as entertaining as Khudobin, with a decent defense he could easily be an upgrade, at least on the ice.
Chicago Blackhawks, one year, $3 million
This could end up being the most scrutinized contract of the bunch, a litmus test for theories the Carolina Hurricanes style under former coach Bill Peters suppressed the save percentage of its goalies. It’s a theory that will also be tested in Carolina without Peters and in Calgary now that he is the coach of the Flames, but Ward was the poster child. Ward, who won the 2006 Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy as a rookie in 2006, has struggled statistically since before Peters arrived, however, with a negative GSAA for the past decade. Stylistically, he updated elements of his technical game over the past three seasons, but still has a -28.63 GSAA over that stretch, the worst total in the NHL. Ward’s .9065 5-on-5 save percentage in that time was 0.68 below expected and the eighth worst among goalies to play more than 3,000 minutes, with ex-Hurricanes backup Eddie Lack and current Carolina starter Scott Darling among those behind him.
How much of it was a system that didn’t seem to give it’s goalies many easy shots to pad their statistics and feel good in a game remains to be seen. At least Ward should have an easier time behind a Blackhawks system that has historically been better dealing with second chances, but it’s hard to imagine that will be enough should No. 1 Corey Crawford, an early Vezina favourite last year, struggle with injuries again.
Ward, who is also an excellent puck handler, may have signed as a back up but the Blackhawks value his time as a starter after Anton Forsberg struggled with consistency as Crawford missed the final 47 games.
“There’s a lot of examples around the league of guys that were great in a limited role, and once you put them in that No. 1 role, it’s not easy to do,” GM Stan Bowman told the Chicago Sun Times. “For that reason, we were looking to try to bring someone in that has a pedigree of being able to handle that.”
Ward still has that pedigree in terms of work load. The question will be save percentage.
Carolina Hurricanes, one year, one way $1.5 million
Ward was replaced in Carolina by Mrazek, who was traded by the Detroit Red Wings to the Philadelphia Flyers late last season only to finish it watching, at various times, Alex Lyon, Michael Neuvirth and Brian Elliott all start ahead of him before the Flyers declined to qualify his contract at $4 million.
The 26-year-old posted a .921 save percentage in Detroit in 2015-16 and looked ready to supplant Jimmy Howard as the Red Wings No. 1, but has been undone by inconsistency as an over-aggressive style that relied too often on spectacular reactive saves started to catch up with him. If second-year Hurricanes goalie coach Mike Bales can reign in and harness all that athletic potential, this could end up being the best signing of the off-season, but he certainly won’t be the first NHL goaltending coach to try.
Florida Panthers, one year, one way, $1.3 million
Hutchinson, 28, was considered by several NHL goaltending coaches InGoal talked to as a safer, and perhaps even better, option for less money than many of the more established names in free agency after dominating the AHL with a .935 save percentage last season. Instead he got a little more money than they expected and settled for a No. 3 role behind Roberto Luongo and James Reimer. Given Luongo’s injury history the past two seasons, it’s a smart bet for the Panthers, assuming none of those other teams need a goalie when Hutchinson inevitably has to clear waivers to be sent down to the AHL in the fall.
Winnipeg Jets, one year, one way $650k
Brossoit, 25, replaces Mason and Hutchinson in Winnipeg as the presumptive backup to Connor Hellebuyck, who he got to know on and off the ice at the NET360 camp last summer in Kelowna. Coming off an up-and-down season with the Edmonton Oilers (.883 save percentage in 14 games) that ended in the AHL (.912 save percentage in 29), Brossoit will battle Eric Comrie for the chance to be Winnipeg’s No. 2.
St. Louis Blues, one year, one way $1.75 million
Johnson is coming off a miserable season (.891 save percentage) behind a bad Buffalo team, but posted save percentages of .910 and .920 in the previous two seasons, respectively, and is a true student of the position, all of which make him a good fit to replace Hutton in St. Louis. The shorter term was key for the Blues, who are cognizant of not blocking 23-year-old prospect Ville Husso for too long after he posted a .922 save percentage with San Antonio in his first season in the AHL last year.
Minnesota Wild, one year, two-way, $650k in NHL/$300 in AHL
Hammond replaces Stephen Michalek, who signed with Red Bull Salzburg, as the Wild No. 3 and has the potential to at least push backup Alex Stalock, who is in the final year of a contract worth $650k. Four years removed from his record-setting 20-1-2 debut with the Ottawa Senators, the 30-year-old has overcome injuries since and improved technically, which should help with consistency, and showed while posting a .933 in three playoff games with Colorado that the ability to steal games is still there.
Detroit, one year, one way, $650k
Sateri is a depth signing as Detroit’s No.3 after the active Finn acquitted himself well in a similar role for the Panthers last season, including a .911 in nine NHL games, and can probably count on some time in the NHL again given Jimmy Howard’s long injury history with the Red Wings.
Buffalo Sabres, one year, two way, $650k in NHL/$350 in AHL
With Ullmark moving up, Wedgewood provides depth experience in the No. 3 role.
Anaheim Ducks, one year, two way, $650k in NHL/$450k in AHL
Replaces Reto Berra, who signed in Switzerland, as a No.3 with experience.
Ottawa Senators, one year, two way $700k NHL/$175k AHL
Hard to imagine a better mentor in the No. 3 role for Ottawa’s top prospect Filip Gustavsson in the AHL, and given the uncertainty above him, McKenna could also get some well deserved NHL time.
Vegas Golden Knights, one year, (two way details unknown), $650k
Fucale has exhibited some of the patience Vegas goalie coach Dave Prior prefers in his puck-stopping projects but will have to battle with Maxime Lagace, who signed a similar contact with Vegas on July 1, and Oskar Dansk, a restricted free agent, for the opportunity to reclaim his career in the AHL.
Pittsburgh Penguins, one year, two way, $650k in NHL/$55k in minors
Muse, 29, split time between the AHL (.919 save percentage in 15 games) and ECHL (.931 in 26) last season, posting impressive numbers in both leagues, but will be fourth on the Penguins depth chart.
New Jersey Devils, one year, one way, $650k
Lack chose to stay in a No. 3 role rather than go overseas, banking on the faith of goaltending coach Rollie Melanson and offseason hip surgery for Cory Schneider could create opportunities in the NHL.
Arguably the best UFA goaltender available from a talent perspective, Lehner has yet to find his spot on the carousel. The Islanders are only team in need of a starter, but there are questions about how a spirited goalie not afraid to speak his mind might fit under Lamorello’s tight structure.
Late into the free agency pool, Mason didn’t enjoy the same ability to use the courting period to find a fit and could also be a fit for the Islanders, but if he’s willing to take a cheaper one-year deal having already banked his buyout money from Winnipeg, the Calgary Flames might be a perfect fit. An exceptional puck handler, Mason would help reduce the drop off and confusion when No. 1 Mike Smith isn’t playing.
Statistically, Lehtonen should already be off the board in a backup role. But his struggles to fill in as a starter, along with rumblings he might just retire, could leave him without a place to play.
Had a bit of a bounce back on a one-year deal with the New York Rangers under Benoit Allaire but his .910 save percentage marked the sixth time in the past seven years he’s been below league average. Even with an adjusted save percentage that’s 0.4 above expected for the past three seasons, it may be hard to find a fit.
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