First, let's give the Avs some credit for the last two games against the Habs and the Wings. They played very well in both games, and both games were entertaining as hell. Can't ask for much more than that. Frustrating end to the Habs game as the Avs allow another late goal to lose (if you are still hoping for wins, I am not), but they seriously outplayed Montreal most of the game and truly dominated the third period with an outstanding forecheck.
The Avs were able to carry that momentum in to Detroit where the energy line scored a quick goal on the first shift. The Avs played well defensively for the rest of the first period and struck again early in the 2nd, and then things got wild. Some undisciplined play and a rare unsporsmanlike penalty, called by a linesman no less, to put the Wings on a 2 minute 5 on 3 changed the face of the game. Snap your fingers and the Avs are down 3-2. The third period was worth the price of admission (or Center Ice) by itself as the score and momentum see-sawed back and forth, with Wolski again dazzling in the shootout and Leo coming up with the final tally.
These games again impressed the idea that the Avs are closer to contention than some people believe. Their ability to play up to good competition and their tendancy to play down to inferior competition is indicative of their youth and goaltending more than anything else (perhaps coaching also?). In any case, the Avs #1 off season priority must be goaltending. I feel comfortable saying that Budaj and Raycroft had their chances this year, and neither of them proved to my satisfaction that they are capable of handling #1 goaltending duties. FG should sign whichever one is cheaper to handle backup duties for the next 2 or 3 years and look for a new #1 keeper via free agency or trade. Let's look at the options, starting with free agency, in order of desirability.
Unrestricted Free Agents in 2009
#1 - Niklas Backstrom - 27-17-2; 2.22 GAA; .926 SV%, 6 SO; 31 years old.
Because of his consistency and his age, Backstrom is the clear #1 option. Should he actually become available this summer, the Avalanche would be stupid to not do everything they can to sign him. I personally do not believe that the Wild will let him go. After losing Demitra and Rolston last off season and the likely departure of Gaborik, I think new owner Craig Leopold risks alienating the loyal MN fanbase if he allows Backstrom to walk as well. I hope I'm wrong, but I just don't see it happening.
#2 - Nikolai Khabibulin - 17-5-5; 2.37 GAA; .924 SV%; 1 SO; 36 years old.
Of the remaining 2009 UFAs, the Bulin Wall is probably the best goalie RIGHT NOW. He's having a stellar year with the Hawks, as he is wont to do in his contract years. Or is it just years when he's playing behind a quality team? That is a question management will have to carefully consider before tendering Khabibulin a contract. The major risks here are that he won't be at the top of his game if he signs a multi-year contract (which he will demand) and/or if he doesn't feel the team in front of him is worth the effort. The other major risk is his age. At what point does his play fall off? I don't think a GM can give him any more than a three year deal in good conscience, which means at best he is a temporary solution. But he is also an elite goaltender with a ring, and that is pretty hard to find on the open market. Chalk him up as a high risk, high reward candidate. If the Avs are truly only a goalie and another player or two away from serious contention, then this would be a good risk to take. If not, his contract could be an albatross that sets this franchise back three years (or more). One plus here is that he is almost a sure thng to become a free agent, so the Avs should be making up their minds now.
#3 - Martin Biron - 17-11-5; 2.87 GAA; .908 SV%; 1 SO; 31 yrs old (32 by camp 2009).
Biron has not had a great year, but has had several seasons worthy of any #1 keeper in the NHL. This is another guy of whom I'm unsure his team will allow to get to free agency this summer. If he does hit the open market though, he is worth a three or four year contract and would be a major upgrade for the Avalanche over anything they've had since Patty Roy left town. While he isn't currently playing at the level of Khabibulin, due to his age and history, he is a lower risk play and for that reason, may be a better fit for the Avs. At 32 by the start of camp, he's got much more tread left on the tire than does Nikolai.
#4 - Tim Thomas - 24-7-5; 2.12 GAA; .931 SV%; 3 SO; 34 yrs old (35 in April).
Under rated throughout his career, Tim Thomas has established himself as a true #1 goaltender in the NHL over the past two seasons. He's not just a fluke or heart warming intermission story anymore. You know Thomas will work hard and bring his A game every night. He busted his ass for too long in the minors to take anything for granted. Again, will the Bruins allow him to hit the market? Well, they will only keep two goalies from Thomas, Fernandez, and Rask - they're not going to pay Rask $3 mill + to play in Providence again. If they decide to let Thomas walk, he would be an excellent option for the Avs.
#5 - Dwayne Roloson - 20-13-4; 2.68 GAA; .917 SV%; 1 SO; 39 yrs old (40 in Oct).
Another guy that is playing well right now, but how much longer can he keep it up? He'd be a temporary solution (2 yr deal?), but a quality temporary soution if he plays like has this season. Will Edmonton even let him go though? Trading Garon would seem to make that less likely, but I have no idea how high they are on Drouin-Deslauriers.
Thus concludes the list of healthy, proven, legitimate #1 NHL goaltenders. The Avalanche cannot afford to take another chance at the goalie position, so if they decide to go the free agent route, they should be targeting one of the above five players. However, you can see the problems. Not only is this list short, but really only Khabibulin is close to a sure thing to even be a free agent at all this summer. The Avs may be SOL when it comes to the above group, or if only one or two of those five become available, their consequent prices may be so high as to not be a wise investment. So as much as I hate to think about it, other options may be considered. So here they are, starting with a few guys who have been quality #1 keepers in the past, but are injury risks.
Manny Fernandez - 14-3-3; 2.15 GAA; .925 SV%; 1 SO; 34 yrs old (35 in August).
The numbers don't lie; Manny is an excellent goalie. He put up stellar numbers for four seasons playing for Uncle Jacques while splitting time with Roloson in Minnesota. Injuries have derailed his time as a Bruin, but when healthy this season, he's shown that he still has it. Whether or not he becomes a free agent most likely depends on this stretch run and then the fortunes of the Bruins in the playoffs. I believe that it's more likely that Manny is the odd man out in Boston at seasons' end, but if he carries the Bruins to a certain level of success in the playoffs, that won't happen. In the fall he'll be 35, injury prone, and sporting his notoriously, uh, quirky attitude. However, he might jump at the chance to stick it to the Wild if given the opportunity. A high risk/high reward play on the same order of Khabibulin, but at least he won't cost as much barring a Bruins run to the Cup on his shoulders.
Olaf Kolzig - 2-4-1; 3.66 GAA; .898 SV%; 0 SO; 38 yrs old (39 in April).
Kolzig suffered a ruptured biceps this season. Will he be willing and/or able to return for another campaign? Last season with the Caps he posted a 25-21-6 record with a 2.91 GAA, a .892 SV%, and 1 shutout. Not great, but the Caps weren't exactly a defensively minded team. By way of comparison, this season the Caps have a 2.81 GAA as a team and a .904 SV%. Not a big improvement, even though Huet was brought in at the deadline last season and the Caps subsequently signed Theodore in the offseason. My point is that Kolzig isn't necessarily washed up provided he can come back from his injury. Don't get me wrong, I don't want to see Kolzig in an Avs uniform, but he'd still be an upgrade on their current roster. Again, he would be a very temporary solution.
That's really about it. I personally don't consider Lagace, Gerber, or Nittymaki guys worthy of the #1 job. They all have had opportunities in the past, and all three have fumbled those opportunities away. This Avs franchise cannot afford another fumble.
Another way the Avs could go is to sign one of several veteran backups that have played very well this season. At the top of this list is Scott Clemmensen (25-11-1; 2.31 GAA; .920 SV%; 2 SO). This 31 year old American has had a stellar year filling in for the injured Martin Brodeur. Is he another Tim Thomas? Or has he just had a hot streak on the biggest stage of his life? Beyond the fluke risk, there is the real risk that he is a product of the Devils famous (or infamous) defensive system. But can you really just throw anyone in net for this Devils team and post those numbers? It will be interesting to see how NHL GMs value his performance this offseason. And will the Devils try to deal him at the deadline if Brodeur is back in action?
Beyond Clemmensen there is Craig Anderson (10-4-5; 2.49 GAA; .929 SV%; 3 SO) who has played well in limited time for Florida. Anderson will only be 28 by the start of next season, and could be looked at as a longer term solution. Here again the problem is the sample size of his work. The Avs would essentially be in the same spot as they were at the beginning of this season - giving a relatively unproven guy a shot at establishing himself as a #1 goalie. Same problem with the last guy I would consider in this category - Joey MacDonald (12-23-4; 3.22 GAA; .903 SV%; 0 SO). He's played pretty well for a god-awful Islanders team.
That's enough (too much) for this entry. Feel free to leave your comments about these options or to say that your favorite UFA was not included. Next installment will include RFA options and potential trade targets. Until then, keep hoping for that lottery pick!