While the expansion draft swiftly approaches, speculation on who the Vegas Golden Knights select runs rampant. Particularly when it comes to goaltenders.
Each of the other 30 teams can only protect one goalie. Although Ben Bishop is off the market after signing a six-year deal with Dallas, the Golden Knights will have their pick from some quality options between the pipes. Although he wasn’t close to signing any sort of a deal with Vegas, Bishop made some interesting comments to the show Hockey Central on Sportsnet in Canada on Monday:
“There was some talk of it. From what I heard, they were thinking younger and a different direction. They’re going to be a competitive team. I definitely would’ve thought of the option if it was there.”
Based on those comments, it sounds like Vegas could be targeting a younger, cheaper option that will be a long-term fit. It might be a cliche, but there’s no more important position than goaltender. This holds even more true for an expansion team.
Select the right goalie like the Florida Panthers did with John Vanbiesbrouck in 1993, and you’re instantly on the path to respectability. Select the wrong goalie, and you’ll find yourself skating uphill for a long time. Fortunately for the Knights, this expansion draft is set up to make sure they’re not a doormat out of the gate.
The big question out of the gate is what direction Vegas goes when it comes to selecting a goaltender, no matter what Bishop’s comments were.
Keep in mind that during the expansion draft, held from June 18-20, the Golden Knights can exclusively negotiate with any UFA or RFA that’s not protected during the draft. If they choose an RFA or UFA, that player would count as their selection from that team. They could go the expansion route, hit the trade market, or even sign a UFA after free agency begins. Vegas is required to take at least three goalies, and they’ll have options. What categories do these goalies fall into? Which net-minders make the most sense? Who are merely stopgaps? Who’s got the most upside? Let’s dive deeper into the list.
Current Backups That Could Become Long-Term Starters (AKA, the next Cam Talbot or Martin Jones)
As long as Braden Holtby mans the crease for the Washington Capitals, Grubauer will have no shot at being a starter any time soon. Holtby is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner and is a finalist for the award again this season. He’s not going anywhere, which means Grubauer will be left unprotected. The 25-year-old backup to Holtby played in 24 games this season, starting 19 of them and going 13-6-2 with a 2.04 goals-against average and .926 save percentage.
Vegas general manager George McPhee selected Grubauer when he was the Caps’ GM in 2010. The Knights’ director of goaltending, Dave Prior, was Washington’s goaltending coach at that time as well, so there’s familiarity. Although Grubauer will be a restricted free agent, that shouldn’t be an issue getting him signed to a new deal if Vegas selects him. He’s one of two netminders that come to mind as possible franchise-type goalies for the Golden Knights.
The other goaltender that jumps to mind as a possible cornerstone for Vegas’s crease is the 28-year-old Raanta. Like Grubauer, Raanta is stuck behind an entrenched number-one goaltender. As long as Henrik Lundqvist remains a New York Ranger, Raanta isn’t being handed the starting gig. However, Raanta played very well when called upon this season, going 16-8-2 in 26 starts with a 2.26 GAA and .922 save percentage. He even outplayed Lundqvist at times, and capably filled in when he was injured.
Raanta has one year left on his contract before becoming an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2018. Lundqvist has a no-movement clause and Raanta will be left unprotected. Like Washington, there’s always a chance that maybe they work out a side deal with McPhee in order to prevent Vegas from taking him. But if he’s available, I believe it’ll come down to either Grubauer or Raanta as the new starting goaltender for Golden Knights.
Veterans That Could Help You Win Games Right Now
The 32-year-old veteran owns two Stanley Cup rings with the Pittsburgh Penguins. His comeback in this season’s playoffs has been one of the biggest stories of the postseason. However, Fleury holds a no-movement clause on his contract at a cap hit of $5.75 million. That deal lasts through the end of the 2018-19 season. Matt Murray, who stepped in for an injured Fleury in the 2016 playoffs and led the Pens to a Cup, is the team’s future at the age of 22. Fleury can still play, and his performance in this postseason following Murray’s injury has driven up his trade value. The only question is if he’d waive his NMC for expansion draft purposes or for a trade elsewhere.
At 29 years old, Reimer’s contract runs another four years at a cap hit of $3.4 million. Not cheap, but not something that’ll break the bank, either. As long as Roberto Luongo is in net for the Florida Panthers, Reimer seems to be the one that would be left unprotected in the expansion draft. Reimer started 39 games this season when Luongo missed time due to injury and posted a respectable save percentage of .920. He has starting experience with the Maple Leafs, although he was practically run out of town right before Toronto began their rebuild. A starting gig with an expansion team where there won’t be nearly as much pressure could be a great landing spot for Reimer.
Veteran Stopgaps To Hold The Fort For 1-3 Years Until You Find Someone Younger And Better
Halak is 32 and his $4.5 million a year deal ends in the summer of 2018. He’s coming off a season in which the New York Islanders demoted him to the AHL after going with an unusual three-goalie system that also featured Thomas Greiss and Jean-Francois Berube. Halak took the demotion like a pro and then dominated the AHL while the Isles sought a trade that never materialized. When Halak is on, he’s as good as anyone, but he’s had a troubling injury history. The Isles figure to expose Halak to the Golden Knights, and if Vegas decides to select him, they’re only assuming his contract for one year and acquiring a cap number that should help them get to the cap floor.
A solid 32-year-old veteran, he’s an impending UFA after just one year with the Calgary Flames, who acquired him from the St. Louis Blues last summer. Elliott left St. Louis looking to be a number-one guy after platooning with Jake Allen. He got off to a rough start this season and briefly lost his job to backup Chad Johnson before regaining his game with a scorching-hot second half of the season. However, his play faltered in the playoffs as the Anaheim Ducks swept the Flames. A solid stopgap guy who can provide the Knights with some decent goaltending on a short-term contract.
He’s 36 and his best days are behind him, but the impending UFA will probably be looking for a spot where he can still play and be close to his wife, actress Noureen DeWulf, who works in Los Angeles. The three California teams possess number-one goalies who aren’t going anywhere. Unless he wants to stay in a platoon in Vancouver, it’s unlikely he sticks around there. He’d be taking a big pay cut from the $6 million cap hit of his deal that’s about to expire, but Vegas would give him the chance to be the starter right away and he could be a solid veteran presence for a fledgling team trying to find its way.
Impending Veteran Unrestricted Free Agents Under 30
Mason is 28 and due to become a UFA this summer after a contract containing a cap hit of $4.1 million. He struggled this season behind a very porous defensive team in Philadelphia while platooning with Michal Neuvirth. At this point in his career, he probably wants to be a number-one guy, and Vegas wouldn’t be a bad landing spot for that gig. He’d probably have to take a pay cut on a prove-it type deal, though. If he stands out, he could easily parlay that into a longer contract wither with Vegas or somewhere else.
Like Mason, Bernier is also 28 and set to hit the open market this summer. Unlike Mason, Bernier was the clear backup to John Gibson in Anaheim, but when called upon, he played very well, going 21-7-4 with a .915 save percentage in 33 starts and 39 total appearances. His last stint as a starting goaltender in Toronto didn’t pan out the way he or the Maple Leafs would’ve preferred, particularly his final season. Bernier could be an intriguing choice for the Knights after reviving his career with Anaheim. Vegas wouldn’t have quite the same pressure-cooker atmosphere he played under with the Maple Leafs.
The 27-year-old is a bit of a wild card. In back-to-back seasons, Condon found himself filling in for long stretches. In 2015-16, he took over for Carey Price when the superstar Montreal netminder missed most of that season with a lower-body injury. Ottawa then acquired him in a trade from the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier this season. Condon did a very commendable job taking over for Craig Anderson, who took a leave of absence while his wife was undergoing treatment for cancer. While he’s never been a full-fledged number-one starter, his 95 starts in two seasons provide an interesting sample size. The big question is whether or not he could handle a starter’s workload in a slightly more permanent capacity.
Intriguing Players That Could Hit Or Miss
Once upon a time, Mrazek’s name was synonymous with being Detroit’s goalie of the future. He stepped in during the 2015 playoffs and nearly delivered the Red Wings to a first round upset over the Tampa Bay Lightning. In 2015-16, he continued to progress. This season, Jimmy Howard badly outplayed him. Throw in the younger, cheaper Jared Coreau, who is not exempt from the expansion draft, and the Wings have an interesting conundrum. When Mrazek is on his game, he is nothing short of spectacular. However, he’s equally brutal when he’s off his game. Mrazek and Coreau are both 25 and have one year left on their contracts. Mrazek’s cap hit is $4 million while Coreau’s is at $612,500. Does Detroit go cheaper and expose Mrazek?
Much like Grubauer and Raanta, Korpisalo is stuck behind an established veteran who’s not going anywhere in Sergei Bobrovsky. However, the Columbus Blue Jackets’ backup is only 23-years-old. He’s shown flashes of talent when given the chance to start. However, he still has yet to see much of an NHL workload. Korpisalo is an unknown at this time in terms of his long-term outlook. If Vegas were to select him in the expansion draft, it probably wouldn’t be for the purpose of having him start right away. However, if paired up with one of the stopgap options mentioned above, he could eventually be in line to take over the starting gig for the Golden Knights a couple of years down the line. Especially since he’s still very young in goalie years.
The “We’ll Take This Bad Contract Off Your Hands If You Give Us Prospects Or Draft Picks” Options
Kari Lehtonen and Antii Niemi
With Bishop’s arrival in Dallas, the writing is on the wall for both of the Stars’ netminders. Only one of them is sticking around for next season. Dallas could end up making a trade, buying the other one out, or they could hope that whoever their kicking to the curb gets picked by the Golden Knights. This seems highly unlikely unless Stars GM Jim Nill gives George McPhee some extra incentive to do so. It would have to be a pretty sweet deal for McPhee to eat either Lehtonen’s contract or Niemi’s even if it’s just for one season.
As previously mentioned, Howard is in the middle of a goalie conundrum in the Motor City. He has two years left on his contract at a cap hit of over $5.2 million. Vegas probably wouldn’t choose him unless they need to get to the salary cap floor and they’ve already found someone to be their established starter. The 33-year-old Howard had a solid season in Detroit until he got hurt back in December. At his age and cap hit, it’s hard to envision the Knights choosing Howard due to his injury history and inconsistency.
Cam Ward and Eddie Lack
The Carolina Hurricanes, much like the Dallas Stars, put their incumbent goalies on notice when they acquired a newcomer. They traded for Chicago backup Scott Darling and signed him to a four-year contract. That’s not something you do unless you’re certain that the guy you’re trading for is going to be your starting goalie headed forward. Neither Ward or Lack were impressive in Carolina this season, although either of them could be intriguing backup options for the Golden Knights. Ward’s cap hit is $3.3 million and Lack’s is $2.75 million. Not enough to break the bank, but enough to help Vegas reach the cap floor.
The 2014 Vezina Trophy finalist is 29 and coming off major hip surgery while also dealing with groin issues. The longest of the long shots, it’s highly unlikely that McPhee and the Golden Knights choose Varlamov due to his injury problems and his inconsistency since that Vezina nomination. Part of his struggles have also been due to the poor team in front of him, but he’s also failed to provide the quality goaltending he gave the Avalanche during his first couple of seasons in Colorado. It would take a Godfather type of offer for Vegas to choose Varlamov.
Malcolm Subban, Michal Neuvirth, Jean-Francois Berube, Linus Ullmark, Anders Nilsson, Michael Hutchinson, Peter Budaj, Laurent Brossoit, Marek Mazanek
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