While there’s never a good time to find yourself lacking in the most important position on the ice, the offseason at least usually presents an opportunity for NHL teams to address the issue. This year, that won’t be so easy.
The free-agent pool promised to be a shallow one this summer, and that was before the Penguins acquired the rights to Tomas Vokoun and signed him to a two-year, $4 million deal on Monday to keep him off the market.
Trade options could be limited too, especially now that Tim Thomas has made it clear he’d rather take his ball and go home to his bunker than play this season. Even at 38, the two-time Vezina winner would have been an attractive option for teams in need of a starting goalie, but now the only option the Bruins may have to deal him is to send him to a team struggling to reach the cap floor.
For a cash-strapped team, Thomas’ $5 million cap hit could still be appealing, especially since they won’t have to spend any actual money if Thomas makes good on his threat to sit out the season. That could really mark the end of Thomas’ career too. While the Bruins may be hesitant of tolling the contract and risk having $5 million of dead money on their cap again the following year, a team looking for a cheap way to reach the floor may just enjoy the $5 million boost for as long as possible until Thomas officially retires.
That, of course, assumes that the cap floor remains in the next CBA. The current deal expires in September, and no one knows for certain what the next agreement will entail. That uncertainty extends to all moves this summer, as the league’s general managers have to navigate some uncharted waters in building their teams for next year without knowing exactly what the economic landscape will look like for the upcoming season.
But regardless of the regulations in place, teams know they can’t afford to be weak in goal. There are a number of clubs coming off disappointing seasons that reinforced that basic fact of NHL life. Now the likes of Toronto, Columbus, Tampa Bay and Chicago, among others, could find themselves the odd ones out in a costly game of musical chairs, as there are not as many proven netminders available as teams seeking them.
Toronto, which squandered a strong start to the season and fell out of the playoff picture for the seventh straight season as James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson faltered down the stretch, was reportedly interested in Vokoun. Philadelphia, which already committed $51 million over nine years to Ilya Bryzgalov last summer, was also contemplating a run at Vokoun to have a better backup to push Bryzgalov.
Columbus is desperate for help with Steve Mason unable to regain his Calder Trophy-winning form from 2008-09 over the past three seasons, and may look to land a true franchise goaltender when they finally part with Rick Nash, though that may be easier said than done with few of Nash’s suitors having such a netminder to spare.
The winners in all this could be Vancouver and Los Angeles. The Canucks have gone from a awkward situation with youngster Cory Schneider appearing to supplant veteran Roberto Luongo to a position of strength with Luongo, despite having 10 years left on a 12-year, $64-million deal, being the only proven veteran No. 1 netminder potentially available.
The Kings, as if they need any more help now that they’re one win away from the Cup, could also reap the benefits of a bidding war if they make Jonathan Bernier available. Bernier is blocked by emerging star Jonathan Quick in L.A., but is just the kind of cost-controlled, promising young netminder (one year left at $1.25 million and still a restricted free agent after that) that a GM like Tampa’s Steve Yzerman would love to build around after 42-year-old Dwayne Roloson proved unable to deliver an encore to 2011’s surprising playoff run.
Beyond those potential trade targets, the goalie market is pretty lean on the free-agent front. New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur is up for a new deal, but he’s not leaving the Devils unless it’s for retirement. Minnesota’s Josh Harding might have starting potential and there still could be some upside left in Al Montoya. Otherwise, the likes of Scott Clemmensen, Martin Biron, Johan Hedberg, Alex Auld, Chris Mason and Dan Ellis could fill backup roles, but don’t offer much more optimism in a No. 1 spot than the aforementioned fellow UFAs Gustavsson and Roloson.
That leads to the teams that could face the biggest risks this offseason. Boston, Vancouver and Montreal have restricted free agents in Tuukka Rask, Schneider and Carey Price, respectively, who could be awfully attractive in such a lean market. Traditionally, rival GMs have eschewed the use of offer sheets to attempt to poach RFAs, but will the looming end of the current CBA and the lack of alternatives force a team desperate for a goalie to resort to such means?
The Bruins, with Thomas’ unexpected departure likely leaving them with $5 million less of cap space to work with, could be the most vulnerable. At the very least, Rask, who like Thomas is represented by Bill Zito, has a lot more leverage and will cost the Bruins more to re-sign, making Peter Chiarelli‘s job to fill out the rest of the roster as he desires more difficult.
After having had the luxury of having both Thomas and Rask for the past three seasons, Chiarelli won’t get much sympathy from his fellow GMs, especially not the ones scrambling to find just one reliable netminder this offseason.