Future Free Agents is a semi-regular feature on NHLNumbers profiling players from 2017’s potential free agency class.
Ben Bishop is the biggest name set to hit this year’s free agency market. It’s obvious at this point that his time with the Tampa Bay Lightning is coming to an end, but which teams would be interested in throwing a bunch of money at a franchise goaltender this summer?
How good is he?
Bishop is typically regarded as one of the NHL’s elite goalies. When you look at the boxcars he’s put up over the past few seasons, it’s pretty easy to see why.
After finding a home in Tampa back in 2013, Bishop has put together two Vezina-calibre seasons. In 2013-14, he had a .924 save percentage over 63 games. His value to the team became noticeable when he was injured right at the end of the season and the Lightning were swept in the first round with Anders Lindback in net.
In 2014-15, he had a pretty forgettable season but a dominant playoffs and was key in helping the Lightning reach the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in franchise history. Then, in 2015-16, he put it all together. He posted a .926 save percentage over 61 games, and carried that performance into the playoffs, managing a ridiculous .939 save percentage over 11 games in shared duty with Andrei Vasilevskiy.
And finally, there’s this season, in which Bishop has been pretty bad. Of course, some blame can be shouldered by the team, as both Bishop and Vasilevskiy have numbers below their career norms, but it begs the question: Is Bishop’s status as an elite goaltender the result of team or individual success?
As we know, goalies are voodoo. They’re tremendously difficult to understand, their stats usually aren’t as effective of an indicator of their skill as player stats are, and they seem to heat up and cool down for no apparent reason. Well, if you weren’t a goalie yourself that’s probably what you think. Since I don’t know goalies well, and don’t want to pretend to, I figured I would ask my pal Ian Fleming (the father of the SAVE chart you’ll see below) to get his thought on what Ben Bishop is all about.
Over three years, where we can actually get a decent enough sample of shots, Bishop (compared to an actual elite goaltender doesn’t really stand up). Though he’s far more protected than Lundqvist, he trails in every major metric. Those swings I mentioned? They’re bigger and occur more often than they do for Lundqvist.
This goes some decent way toward answering your question about how Bishop can be good one season and bad the next. It’s because he’s a very slightly above average goaltender with a tendency to be inconsistent. Add in that even a full season isn’t a large enough sample size to stabilize around a goaltender’s true talent level and it starts to make even more sense.
So, then looking to actual game footage, how can this gigantic guy not be as good as he’s made out to be? Pretty simple, actually. He’s a shot blocker, not a shot saver. He’s best when he just tries to be big and limit his movement, but it’s a blessing and a curse. If a shot doesn’t hit his big frame, it’s probably going in. He’s just not that good at saving something that isn’t going to hit him anyway.
Not to forget that sometimes he gets a bit adventurous anyway, which is his complete undoing. There are times that he, apparently, just doesn’t feel like keeping to proper mechanics.”
— LilyNHL (@LilyNHL) January 4, 2017
How much is he going to cost?
Although there’s evidence that suggests Bishop may not actually be as good as his basic numbers suggest he is, there isn’t much doubt that he’s a coveted asset around the league. In 2014 and 2016, Bishop finished in the top three in the NHL in Vezina Trophy voting. Who votes for that award? The league’s general managers.
So while it might not be valid, and his underlying numbers may be underwhelming, it’s safe to assume that there are a lot of general managers around the league who believe Bishop is a very good goaltender who could make their team better.
Aside from his entry-level deal, Bishop has never had a contract in the NHL with a term longer than two years. After the Lightning acquired him in 2013, they quickly locked him up to a two-year deal that took him to unrestricted free agency. After his first full season on that deal, he was signed to a two-year extension worth $5.95 million annually.
This summer, Bishop will test free agency for the first time. And not only will he be looking for an increase on his current annual salary, he’ll also certainly seek a deal with more stability than he’s had in the past.
Can the Lightning afford it?
I don’t even need to work through comparable or crunch any numbers to say that the Lightning can’t afford to keep Ben Bishop around. This has been knowledge for quite some time that his days in Tampa Bay are numbered.
The team made it very clear when they inked Andrei Vasilevskiy to a three-year, $10.5 million contract extension last summer what their plans are moving forward. Beyond that, the Lightning also already have $60 million committed to their 2017-18 roster and need to figure out contracts for Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and others.
Also, based on the way the Lightning’s season has been going, Bishop may be gone sooner than we expected. A goaltender with playoff success will be a coveted asset at the trade deadline and the Lightning would be smart to get something of value for Bishop before he’s gone.
If he hits the open market…
This actually becomes pretty tricky to predict. As I’ve said, Bishop is clearly highly regarded around the league. His boxcar stats are good, he’s had two successful deep payoff runs, and he’s finished in the top three in Vezina voting twice in three years.
But how many teams are actually going to be in the running for a franchise goaltender right now? And how many of those teams actually view Bishop in that way?
There are a lot of teams that can be crossed off the list immediately because they already have solid goalie situation. Or, well, they’re already paying someone a lot of money to stand in their net. Anaheim, Arizona, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Colorado, Columbus, Detroit, Edmonton, Florida, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Montreal, Nashville, New Jersey, the Rangers, Ottawa, Pittsburgh, San Jose, Toronto, Vancouver, and Washington can, more than likely, be crossed from the list.
So we’re left with Calgary, Carolina, Dallas, the Islanders, Philadelphia, and Winnipeg.
The Flames have two impending UFA goalies, Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson, who could fill the role. Neither has the track record Bishop does, but both would come at a smaller pice tag. The Islanders and Flyers are in the same boat as Calgary. They could be in on Bishop, but they could also go the cheaper route and re-sign their current options, Steve Mason and Thomas Greiss instead.
The Hurricanes have Cam Ward and Eddie Lack locked up for another year, but have hoards of cap space. That said, they also have highly touted prospect Alex Nedeljkovic in the system. The Jets also seem like an obvious fit, but they have two decent young goalies, Michael Hutchinson and Connor Hellebuyck, and top prospect Eric Comrie in the AHL.
Dallas would certainly be looking for an upgrade in net because their terrible goaltending has held them back for years. But Kari Lehtonen and Anti Niemi are both signed for another year at a combined cap hit of $10.6 million. One or both would have to go in order to fit Bishop in.
Then, of course, there’s Vegas. What happens with the Golden Knights could go a long way in determining Bishop’s market. I mean, Vegas could grab a pretty good starting goalie in the expansion draft or they could swing deals with teams like Florida and Pittsburgh to not snag, say, James Reimer or Marc-Andre Fleury in exchange for draft picks. Then they could come out with some draft assets and throw a bunch of money at Bishop instead. Who knows!
What I do know, though, is that the market for Bishop’s services looks fairly thin. We won’t know exactly who’s going to be in until the expansion draft happens, but right now, there aren’t many teams who are capable of adding a $6-7 million goaltender through free agency.
Ben Bishop is clearly going to be the biggest name to hit the goalie market this summer.
At a quick glance, based on his numbers, playoff success, and how valuable a franchise goaltender is around the league, he seems like a prime candidate to get a decent pay raise on his $5.95 million annual salary. But it may not go down that way. Bishop’s underlying numbers suggest he doesn’t belong in the elite goaltender category, and this summer’s market doesn’t seem to feature many teams who will be willing to pay big dollars for an upgrade in net.
Surely a handful of teams will be interested in Bishop, and we’ll get a better of who after the expansion draft, but it’s difficult to see him getting the massive $7 million, long-term contract many assumed he would be signing this summer.