Free Agency 2017: The Market For Goaltenders

Free Agent Frenzy is almost upon us. We’ve gone through an Expansion Draft, the Entry Draft, and on Saturday, the annual tradition of throwing a bunch of money at players will begin. Over the next few days, I’m going to dive into the unrestricted free agent market and map out who’s available and who’s going to be interested.

Let’s start with goaltenders. This summer’s biggest prize, Ben Bishop, has already been locked up to a long-term deal, but there are still a handful of solid goalies on the market. There are probably more solid goalies than opportunities right now, which could make for an interesting market.

Who’s available? 

Ryan Miller

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When the Canucks signed Ryan Miller to a three-year, $18 million deal back in July 2014, they expected to be competitive. They made the playoffs in his first season, but unintentionally tanked out in the last two. Overall, Miller’s three years in Vancouver were pretty forgettable. That wasn’t his fault, though. Miller posted a respectable .914 save percentage over 150 games with the Canucks, helping keep them in games night in, night out.

Miller isn’t the same elite goalie he used to be, which is expected as he reaches the twilight of his career. But still, he was solid playing in a 1A/1B role alongside Jacob Markstrom, and can certainly still be valuable in that role either with the Canucks or a different team. That said, while a handful of teams might be interested, Miller’s family resides in California, so it’s difficult to imagine him playing for anybody other than the Ducks, Kings, or Canucks. 

Matt Cane’s free agency contract prediction model has Miller signing a deal worth just a shade under $4 million this summer. That sounds about right with a couple years of term, but Miller could be best served on a one-year deal with performance bonus incentives. 

Ondrej Pavelec 

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The Ondrej Pavelec Reign of Terror in Winnipeg is finally over. After inexplicably being handed starting goaltender minutes year after year, the Jets will finally move on from Pavelec this summer. He was waived in October and spent the majority of the 2016-17 season in the AHL, but next season will be the first without Pavelec for the Jets/Thrashers franchise in a decade. 

That’s a good thing. Save for one strong season in 2014-15 in which he posted a .920 save percentage and led Winnipeg to its first playoff appearance since relocating, Pavelec never had a save percentage above .906 in his other four seasons as the Jets’ starting goalie. He could be decent in a backup role, but if the numbers suggest that anybody signing Pavelec to either be a No. 1 goalie or share the net in a 1A/1B scenario is going to have a bad time. 

Cane’s model has Pavelec coming in at $1.6 million annually on his next contract, which is basically the going rate for veteran, backup goalies free agent goalies in free agency. 

Jonathan Bernier 

Acquired by the Leafs back in 2013 to be the franchise’s goalie of the future, Jonathan Bernier found himself on the outs in Toronto after the team acquired and signed Frederik Andersen to a long-term deal. The Leafs sent Bernier, a former 11th overall pick by the Kings, to Anaheim in a separate deal than the Andersen one, and this summer, he’ll reach unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career. 

Bernier is an interesting case. He got stuck behind Jonathan Quick in L.A.’s goalie factory, and was traded with a lot of hype around his name, much similar to Martin Jones a couple years ago. After having a strong showing in his first season, Bernier struggled with inconsistency under the Toronto spotlight, ultimately posting a .915 save percentage in 151 games over three seasons. He was quite good in Anaheim this year in relief of John Gibson, but hasn’t proved he can be the guy at any point in his career. 

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Cane’s model has Bernier pulling in $3.1 million on his contract this summer, which is certainly a worthwhile risk for a team that has a backup plan. His former teammate James Reimer was given a five-year deal worth $3.2 million by the Panthers last summer to split the net with Roberto Luongo. I doubt Bernier gets that term, but he could thrive in a similar situation. 

Steve Mason

Remember when Steve Mason broke in the league, stole the Blue Jackets’ net from Pascal Leclaire, and went on to post a season good enough to win the Calder Trophy, finish second in Vezina Voting, and fourth in Hart voting? He’s been in the league for nine seasons now, and it’s been a rollercoaster. Mason followed up his incredible rookie campaign with three poor seasons before being dealt to Philadelphia in a deal for Michael Leighton and a pick. 

With the Flyers, Mason found his footing. He put up three good seasons in a row, posting a .917, .928, and .918 save percentage, also helping Philadelphia to two playoff appearances. But this season was a struggle. Mason put up a .908 save percentage, his worst since leaving Columbus. A lot of that has to do with the team in front of him, though, as the Flyers’ blueline was one of the league’s worst at giving up scoring chances against. 

It’s odd the Flyers haven’t extended Mason yet. They inked Michal Neuvirth to a two-year extension during the season, but Ron Hextall has suggested they’re still in the mix to get Mason signed too. Cane’s model has Mason making $4.1 million annually, which certainly isn’t too rich for a guy who’s been excellent on a team that doesn’t make life easy. 

Brian Elliott 

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Acquired to be the answer in Calgary’s net, Brian Elliott was a major disappointment in his first, and likely only season with the Flames. He posted a .910 save percentage in 49 games with the Flames, and ended up sharing the net with expected backup Chad Johnson. 

The Flames are the third team Elliott has struggled with. His five seasons in St. Louis? Damn good. He played 181 games and had a .925 save percentage. Everywhere else? Not so good. He had a .903 save percentage in Ottawa, a .891 save percentage in Colorado, and, of course, that .910 mark in Calgary. All three other stops Elliott posted numbers significantly lower than what he accomplished in his time in St. Louis. 

That’s what makes Elliott a sketchy possible signing. Cane’s model has him making $3.6 million annually, which is steep considering the level he’s performed everywhere other than St. Louis. Signing Elliott to start is a massive risk, signing him to be a 1A/1B is reasonable. 

Chad Johnson

I don’t think many people expected Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson to be of virtually identical value to the Flames in 2016-17. But that’s what happened. Johnson and Elliott each posted a .910 save percentage and a 3.01 and 2.95 goals saved above average respectively. Johnson won’t be back with the Flames next season, as he was dealt to Arizona in the Mike Smith trade. 

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Johnson spent the first five years of his career bouncing between the NHL and AHL for three different franchises. In the last two seasons, he was given more of a solid role in Buffalo and Calgary, and seems to have cemented himself as a perfectly capable backup goalie. Cane has him earning $2.7 million annually this summer, which would be far and away the most Johnson has ever made in his career. 

Anders Nilsson 

Anders Nilsson capitalized on his opportunity when Robin Lehner was injured last season. Joining his fourth franchise in three years, Nilsson posted a .923 save percentage in 26 games, a much better figure than ever before in his career. It’s especially impressive that he managed to do this in Buffalo, as the Sabres iced a putrid blueline last season. 

Lehner, who’s currently a restricted free agent, will surely be Buffalo’s starting goalie next season. There’s no word on whether or not the Sabres and their new front office will bring him back or opt for a more experienced goalie to play alongside Lehner, but Nilsson’s 2016-17 season was good enough to get him another NHL contract. Cane’s model figures it’ll be at $1.8 million, which is $800k more than he made this past season. 

Keith Kinkaid

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Keith Kinkaid had the best season of his career last year. In 26 games with the Devils, Kinkaid posted a .916 save percentage, both of which were a career high. That said, the 27-year-old has no chance at being a starter in New Jersey any time soon. The Devils have Cory Schneider locked up for five more seasons, and barring catastrophe, he’ll be manning the net. The Devils would likely want to bring back Kinkaid, a familiar face who’s spent six years with the organization, but if they don’t, he could be an interesting name to earn a shot in a 1A/1B role elsewhere. 

Mike Condon

After a difficult year in Montreal in which he was thrust in the limelight due to a Carey Price injury, Mike Condon was solid for the Senators. He played 40 games with Ottawa in relief of Craig Anderson who was away from the team for a considerable amount of time to be with his wife during cancer treatment. Condon posted a respectable .914 save percentage, and should certainly be in line for another NHL gig as a backup next season. 

Jhonas Enroth

Jhonas Enroth was signed to be Toronto’s backup goalie last season, but didn’t work out. After just six appearances in which he posted a .872 save percentage, Enroth was dealt to the Ducks. He was quickly placed on waivers, cleared, and spent the rest of the season in the AHL. Still, Enroth is just one year removed from a .922 save percentage season as Jonathan Quick’s backup and has a considerable amount of experience in that role. 

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Curtis McElhinney

Curtis McElhinney was Enroth’s replacement in Toronto. He fared much better than his predecessor, posting a .914 save percentage in 14 games with the Leafs. McElhinney has been  backup goalie in the NHL for nine seasons now, never playing more than 32 games in a season. He isn’t great, but he’s experienced in the role.

What does the market look like? 

Coming into the offseason, the teams most commonly noted as badly in need of a goaltender were Dallas, Carolina, Calgary, and Winnipeg

Ben Bishop, this year’s top free agent in net, has already signed a deal with the Stars. The Hurricanes also made a deal for Scott Darling and signed him to a long-term contract. The Flames traded for Mike Smith, and, for better or worse, he’ll be their No. 1 guy this year. That wipes out three of four teams who needed to upgrade their goaltending situation on the open market this summer. The one left in limbo is Winnipeg. As mentioned earlier, they’re apparently interested in Elliott, but have Michael Hutchinson, Connor Hellebuyck, and prospect Eric Comrie in the system. 

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Who are we left with? Arizona seems to be set with Louis Domingue and the newly acquired Antti Raanta. Boston has Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin, though based on their struggles last year, the Bruins could upgrade their backup goalie. St. Louis is in a similar position to Boston, in that they have a starter in Jake Allen, but they might want to upgrade on Carter Hutton as a backup. The Blue Jackets have reigning Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky and traded picks to Vegas to not select backup Jones Korpisalo. And the Red Wings, Islanders, Canadiens, Predators, Panthers, Sen’s, Sharks, and Golden Knights all appear to be set barring change.

That doesn’t leave a very big market for teams in need of a goaltender. Anaheim, Chicago, Colorado, Edmonton, L.A., Minnesota, New Jersey, the Rangers, Pittsburgh, and Toronto all need backups this summer, while Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Vancouver could be in the market for someone to join the team in a 1A/1B role. All of the teams who needed somebody to fill the starting role have already found their solutions.  

This isn’t the greatest summer to be a starting goalie on the open market. With a handful of tweener goalies and veteran backups on the market and the majority of teams already set in goal, this summer’s market appears to favour the general managers.

Ryan Miller is likely the best goalie available in free agency. Unfortunately, as we know, there are only a select few teams he’ll play for. I suspect he’ll end up back in Vancouver, but if not, a veteran backup role in Anaheim or L.A. would make sense too. Jonathan Bernier, Brian Elliott, and Steve Mason round out the group that are good enough to start, but are likely best suited in a 1B role somewhere. That said, there don’t appear to be all that many situations like that around the league right now.

As we saw in the playoffs with Pekka Rinne imploding in the Final and Matt Murray getting injured, it’s always good for a contending team to have a good contingency plan. If you have the cap room, signing a strong goalie like Elliott, though he’ll be more expensive, could be a smarter plan than relying on a cheap, career backup if possible. For those teams without financial flexibility, there are a handful of solid backup options available.