Unrestricted Free Agency Promises Uncertainty
Even though NHL free agency officially begins July 1, it’s already been quite the busy offseason in the goaltending market.
The 2017 crop of unrestricted free agent goalies in the NHL is an interesting mix. There are veterans who have shown the ability to lead a team into the playoffs, including one with a Stanley Cup. There are young veterans looking for a chance to re-establish themselves as starters. There are career backups and AHLers still out there competing and following the winter. There are some young guys looking for a shot. And then there’s Steve Mason.
Mason (Age 29, 2016-17 Sv% .908) deserves a more expansive treatment than this preview allows. His time in Philadelphia has been marked by some inconsistency, though for large stretches he showed himself to be a dominant goaltender. He improved his play against breakaways and shootouts, moving to a full butterfly approach rather than a very predictable half-butterfly. His post integration techniques resulted in some less than optimal goals against his glove side RVH, but after switching to a VH technique on his glove side midway through last season, those issues were virtually eliminated. He has shown himself to be a worthy playoff netminder, memorably dueling Henrik Lundqvist in 2014 after missing the first two games of the Flyers’ first round series with an injury. However, his playoff time in Philadelphia will always be marred by this gaffe from 2016.
Mason has been earning a little over $4 million on his current deal, though the market may not bear such fruit for him given the stark lack of teams in need of an unquestioned starter. He has had intermittent injury issues in Philadelphia, though nothing that should limit his effectiveness. Down the stretch this past season, he gave the Flyers a faint glimmer of playoff hope with a strong March after Michal Neuvirth was injured. He projects as a legitimate number one goaltender, capable of carrying a moderate to heavy workload, and taking a team on a playoff run. Whether Philadelphia will have any interest in Mason’s return remains to be seen. Mason’s ideal location is one where he can play a lead role, and be allowed to shrug off an occasional weak game without worrying that he’ll be replaced by a 1B type goalie for a month, as the Flyers were wont to do with Neuvirth.
Ryan Miller (38, .914) also projects as a starter in the right situation, though at this point in his career he is quite selective. His wife and young son live in Los Angeles, where his wife is an actress. Miller made it clear in his previous free agency that he won’t be leaving the Western time zone. He is still a viable option for Vancouver, though at this point in his career he might be willing to accept a nice contract in a backup role in order to be closer to home. Anaheim has been rumored as a destination, and John Gibson’s injury history suggests that the Ducks could use an experienced goalie with starting potential. The Kings also present an opportunity, as their use of Ben Bishop in tandem with Quick toward the end of last season shows.
Also entering the pool just before free agency begins officially is Antti Niemi (33, .913), who was bought out by Dallas. Though Niemi’s recent performance in Dallas hasn’t been stellar, he doesn’t appear to have declined significantly in his physical performance. A change of scenery, and a more structured defense, might allow him to make a significant contribution in a backup/spot starter role.
Brian Elliott’s (32, .910) one year in Calgary didn’t pan out as hoped, and the Flames made it clear that they are moving on with their acquisition of Mike Smith. Elliott is an interesting case. He has shown that he is capable of stretches of phenomenal play, yet the thought seems to be that he is better as one of a tandem than as the anointed starter. Winnipeg has been rumored to be a destination. It’s most likely that Elliott will have to accept a reduced role and short term contract. He’s a well-liked guy and a hard worker who’s been through plenty of ups and downs in his career trajectory, so he could make sense for a team like the Jets, or even the Flyers, who are looking for a placeholder while their young crew of goalies develop.
There’s a few other redemption hopefuls as well, though the opportunities may have to wait. Ondrej Pavelec and Jonathan Bernier fit this category. Pavelec spent some time in the AHL this year, while Bernier seems to have recovered somewhat from the struggles that marked his time in Toronto. He played valuable minutes for the Ducks down the stretch while Gibson was injured, and would love a shot a starter’s net before the next young crop of goalies mature.
Among the backups, Chad Johnson seems likely to re-sign in Calgary. Darcy Kuemper has shown occasional strong stretches, but hasn’t proved himself to be worthy of much other than a short term backup commitment. Former Boston University standout Matt O’Connor was released by Ottawa, and will be looking for a chance. Curtis McElhenny might be a reasonable backup for an established starter, as he was for Frederik Andersen in Toronto.
With Robin Lehner likely to return and Linus Ullmark’s recent one-way signing, Anders Nilsson appears to be the odd man out in Buffalo. However, the 27-year old is rumored to have already found a landing spot in New York, replacing Antti Raanta behind Henrik Lundqvist.
Other established veteran NHL backups like Jhonas Enroth and Keith Kinkaid may have to be willing to accept potential AHL roles and bide their time.
Intriguing storylines also include former highly touted prospects like Jean-Francois Berube. Berube was drafted by the Golden Knights as a third goalie but may not sign, and could possibly return to the Islanders. Columbus’ Oscar Dansk, only 23, did not receive a qualifying offer from the Blue Jackets, and therefore becomes an unrestricted free agent as well. Toronto’s Antoine Bibeau and New York’s Mackenzie Skapski are among others joining this list.
These unrestricted free agents all find themselves staring down the ice at a strong buyers’ market. The expansion process resulted in little of the anticipated drama, but several transactions prior to the Expansion Draft significantly altered the free agent landscape. Vegas drafted Marc-André Fleury from the Penguins, as was long expected, and added depth with Calvin Pickard from the Avalanche. Jean-Francois Berube was also chosen, though he has the ability to become a free agent rather than sign with the Golden Knights.
Carolina traded for the rights to Scott Darling, and ultimately signed the former Blackhawks backup and inaugural Bunny Larocque Award winner to a 4-year contract. Darling’s signing will likely have some effect on the tandem of Eddie Lack and Cam Ward. Given Ward’s longevity in Carolina, it’s hard to imagine him being moved or bought out, so Lack may find himself joining the UFA roster as well.
Dallas had been expected to be in the market for a starting goaltender after tiring of their two-Finn experiment with Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi. However, shortly after hiring Ken Hitchcock to replace Lindy Ruff, the Stars acquired former Lightning goalie Ben Bishop from Los Angeles, and signed the veteran to a 6-year extension. Niemi was subsequently waived for the purpose of a buyout on June 26, adding another name to the free agent mix.
Calgary had also been rumored as a potential trade destination for Fleury, but instead became the new home for 35-year old Mike Smith, whom the Flames acquired from Phoenix. Chad Johnson was traded to Phoenix as part of the deal, but it’s expected that the unrestricted free agent will re-sign with the Flames to back up Smith.
While rumors flew around Antti Raanta of the Rangers during the expansion draft, it was the Coyotes who acquired the Rangers backup in the deal that brought them Derek Stepan. Raanta becomes the presumed starter, with Louis Domingue as his backup.
Mike Condon signed a 3-year contract in Ottawa, joining Andrew Hammond behind Craig Anderson on the Senators’ depth chart.
Though as yet unconfirmed, former Buffalo draft pick and Notre Dame standout Cal Peterson may well be headed to Los Angeles for tutelage under Professor Quick.
Another intriguing free agent story would have been Pheonix Copley, but Washington recently signed Copley to a 2-year contract. The Caps appear ready to install him as Braden Holtby’s backup if they are able to trade qualified, restricted free agent Philipp Grubauer, who is eligible for arbitration on July 5. Grubauer’s availability by trade further complicates the free agent market.
All of this activity makes the number of open positions in the NHL quite small.
Philadelphia protected the injured Anthony Stolarz, has Michal Neuvirth under contract for 2 years, and as yet have chosen not to re-sign Steve Mason. With a slew of young prospects, the Flyers are certainly in the market for a veteran capable of taking them into the playoffs until youngsters such as Carter Hart and Felix Sandstrom develop, but there won’t be any long-term security handed out this offseason by Ron Hextall.
Vancouver could still reach an agreement with Miller rather than turn the crease over to Jacob Markstrom. However, this is another short term job prospect, with Thatcher Demko developing in Utica and the newly drafted Michael DiPietro following behind.
Buffalo’s Robin Lehner could easily find himself on the hot seat, but the Sabres recently traded a 2nd round pick to keep Linus Ullmark after signing him to a 2-year, one-way contract, so it’s unlikely that they’ll be looking to commit significant money and term to a third NHL veteran.
Winnipeg, unhappy with Connor Hellebuyck’s opening NHL season, might also be in the market for a starter. Both Mason and Elliott have been rumored to be in talks with the Jets. Again, this is a short-term proposition. Hellebuyck looks likely to have a bounce back year in 2017-18 after adjusting on the fly to NHL competition last season, and InGoal correspondent and long-touted can’t-miss prospect Eric Comrie may well be ready for a long look as well. Backup Michael Hutchinson is also under contract through next season.
In summary, the free agents hitting the market this weekend are facing a great deal of uncertainty. The flurry of trades and the expansion process have combined to significantly limit opportunities for even the most established NHL veterans. Add to that the number of teams with strong young prospects nearly ready for the pro club, and even the most needy destinations may only be willing to offer short-term commitments. Although free agency begins promptly on July 1, it’s more than likely that many of these storylines will continue well into the summer.