It is often said that the most important position in sports is that of the goal-tender. While not every sport has a goal-tending position, you’d be hard pressed to find a player, coach, or member of management in sport’s like hockey and soccer that would disagree with the above. In the NHL, General Managers looking to build their team from the ground-up will agree that “It start’s in the crease”, and that “…you must build from the net, out-ward”.
The goaltending situation in the 30 cities of the NHL varies. Some teams like the Montreal Canadians, Nashville Predators, New York Rangers, and Carolina Hurricanes don’t worry about goal-tending much on a year to year basis. They have already found a long-term solution in net, and likely have an established tender signed to a big fat contract. Other team’s, such as the Tampa Bay Lighting, Toronto Maple Leafs, Colorado Avalanche, and Chicago Blackhawks often opt for a different approach in respect to the goaltending position. These are teams that you often see actively in trade rumors when talented goalies are available or in the months leading up to free agency when a quality net-minder looks headed to a new city. While most would agree that having an established, 55-60 game starter makes managing a professional hockey team much easier, “patch-work” goal-tending has proven equally effective. In reality, team’s need goaltending adequate enough to get into the post-season. Once your there, all it takes is for either the team, goalie, or both to get hot, and all of a sudden your in contention for the most prestigious trophy in pro-sports. Look at Michael Leighton for example. A journeymen NHL-backup and AHL Starter, Leighton nearly hoisted the cup with the Flyers two seasons ago before losing to the Blackhawks in 6. Since then, Leighton has played almost exclusively for the Flyers AHL affiliate in Adirondack. Leighton’s opponent in that final, Antti Niemi, never played for the Hawk’s again after winning that cup. Niemi departed from Chicago that summer after just one NHL season, and has been the starter for the San Jose Shark’s ever since. Leighton, the Flyers third string at the start of the year versus Niemi, a rookie who only started 39 regular season games that year; neither player seemed qualified to be starting in the Stanley Cup Final.
There are several NHL teams considering changes in goal for next season. To reiterate, just about every NHL GM will tell you they’ll take the best goalies they can find to comprise their NHL tandem. Most team’s are able to find a veteran back-up or a split-starter through free agency each summer. While a talented and still somewhat young Josh Harding looks to be available in free agency, most team’s will likely have to look to the trade route to achieve the upgrade in net they’d like this summer. The situation in Vancouver makes the trade-market for goalies very interesting, as Robert Luongo is arguably the best established goalie to be involved in trade rumors in quite some time. Signed to a monster contract, there are only so many NHL team’s that can even financially commit to the remainder of Luongo’s contract.
Luckily, the NHL is becoming seemingly crowded with young, talented goalies just begging for an opportunity to show they can be a starter in the best league on the planet. These are players on cheap, short term deals with lots of potential that are currently stuck in a back-up role behind a more established player. To put it into perspective, the kind of goalie I am referring to is the exact kind of goalie that Antii Niemi was considered to be during the season that the Hawks won the cup. The following goalies are players who look to be available this summer via trade that could potentially be starters in a different NHL city where the crease is less crowded.
Anders Lindback, 6’6, 198lbs, Nashville Predators
Lindback is a goalie who has been involved in trade rumors ever since his first NHL appearance. Pekka Rinne and his 7 million dollar per season contract means he’s their guy for the foreseeable future. Lindback is a ridiculously lanky goalie with sound technique. He is also fairly athletic given his mighty stature. He is often compared to Rinne, but I find that personally to be a lazy comparison. They are similar players in that they are both very, very large and comprise most of the net. However, Rinne is a more natural athlete and much quicker, where as Lindback relies on playing angles and trying to look big in net. He looks to be starter quality; however, without a large sample size of play at the NHL or AHL levels, teams may look elsewhere to a player with a few more games under their belt. While his numbers have been pretty respectable in the 38 games he’s played in the past two seasons in the NHL, the Predators may look to hold onto the young Swede and play him some more this season in order to drive up his value. I still expect teams like the Winnipeg Jets or Edmonton Oilers to inquire about the former 7th round pick from 2008 at some point this summer.
Johnathan Bernier, 5’11, 186lbs, Los Angeles Kings
One of the more highly touted goalies to be drafted in recent years, Jonathan Bernier has developed steadily since being drafted in 2006. Bernier spent two full years in the AHL before being anointed the back-up to super-stud Johnathan Quick last season. Bernier might be one of the most naturally talented goalies in the league. He is the definition of a hybrid goalie, and is excellent when asked to make multiple saves in succession. While not the biggest goalie, he displays tremendous athleticism and is the kind of player that can steal games for his team on any given night. Being that he is a former 11th overall pick and that he has posted good numbers at both the AHL and NHL level, Bernier likely has the highest value of any other young goalies currently available via trade. He has yet to be establish himself as an NHL starter, but then again, he has yet to really be given the opportunity. With only a handful of games played in the past two seasons, your trading for potential when your trading for Bernier. Los Angeles by no means has to move Bernier, but he is arguably the teams biggest trade chip as the they approache free agency. Johnathan Quick has established himself as a top 5 goalie in the league, and is due for a monster contract after his performance through the regular season and Stanley Cup playoffs. Bernier believes he can start at the NHL level, and would like the opportunity either in LA or in another city in the near future. Rumors have had Bernier sent to the Tampa Bay Lighting, a team in desperate need of a solution in goal both short and long term.
Sergei Bobrovsky, 6’2, 190lbs, Philadelphia Flyers
The man they call “Bob” was a revelation in the city of brotherly love a year ago when he started 54 games and posted a .915 save percentage after coming over from the KHL. The undrafted, free agent signee was expected to be the starter for the Adirondack Phantoms last season before a back injury derailed Michael Leighton’s season. Bobrovsky ended up winning the season opener and inaugural game at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. He has been apart of the tandem in Philadelphia ever since. Bobrovksy might be the quickest and most athletic goalie of the bunch, and displays sound technique at the position. The book on Bobrovsky says to shoot high like most butterfly goalies. However, Bob sits much lower then most goalies, and is almost impossible to beat down low. He has displayed progression in his ability to defend the upper half of his net, and has an active glove. The youngster also has a tireless work ethic, and is determined to be a starter at the NHL level. While Bobrovsky struggled in his 2nd NHL season, he at points showed the same flashes of brilliance seen last season when he won 28 games. Starting goalie and fellow Russian Ilya Bryzgalov was signed to a monster contract last summer, and looks to have the reigns tied down for the time being. Bobrovsky replaced a struggling Bryzgalov on several occasions this season, and since he’ll still only be 24 when the season starts, the Flyers don’t necessarily have to move him. However, the Flyers could use Bobrovksy as a trade chip to improve other areas such as their blue-line. Should Bobrovsky become available, I expect both the Columbus Blue Jackets and Tampa Bay Lighting to be very interested.
Jonas Enroth, 5’10, 174lbs, Buffalo Sabres
It’s not often you see a goalie that’s 5’10 in the NHL anymore. It’s also very unusual to see a goalie of similar stature as an NHL starter. Jonas Enroth, a former 2nd round pick, has progressed nicely since being drafted in 2006. The Sabres always knew they had a player in Enroth, but most were unsure whether or not he could realistically start at the NHL level. In the past two seasons, Enroth has given the Sabres plenty to think about. The under-sized Swede play’s a unique style. Enroth displays an unusual yet sound technique in the crease, and has an excellent glove. He does a good job of making himself look as big as possible in net, which combined with his quick feet and solid athletic ability causes frustration amongst even the most talented of scorers. Enroth is the most seasoned of the bunch, with a season of pro hockey in Europe and three years of solid play at the AHL level in addition to a season as Ryan Millers back-up. Miller struggled early this year, and Enroth played exceptional when called upon. However, Ryan Miller is one of the best on the planet, and likely isn’t going anywhere. Much like how Philadelphia doesn’t have to trade Bobrovsky, the Sabres don’t have to trade Enroth. Remember, these are solid young goalies on cheap deals that are more then capable of filling a back-up role. However, Enroth is a huge trade chip for a team that could use changes throughout their line-up. There have been rumors that have connected Enroth to several NHL teams in the past calendar year. This summer, I fully expect team’s like the Blue Jackets and Lighting to inquire. However, a dark-horse team that seem almost to perfect a fit for Enroth is the Blackhawks.
Michal Neuvirth, 6’1, 209lbs, Washington Capitals
Much like fellow 2006 2nd round pick Jonas Enroth, Neuvirth thus far has established quite the resume. While Enroth has the most experience in terms of games played professionally, Neuvirth has the most NHL experience of any of the goalies in this piece. The Czech native is your standard butterfly goalie. He plays the butterfly picture perfect, and leaves very little room for shooters to take advtange. He is the type of goalie that makes playing the position look very, very easy. Neuvirth is another young, athletic kid who is insanely flexible and can be counted on to make desperation saves in key moments during games. He has already seen starting time in Washington, having played 48 games last year. The crease in Washington was crowded this year, as Neuvirth split time with fellow youngster Braden Holtby and Tomas Vokoun. With Vokoun now in Pittsburgh, the starting job in Washington is up for grabs between. As of right now, the job looks to be Holtby’s to lose after a tremendous end to the regular season and even better playoff performance. Neuvirth is still a young player, and at this point in his career is at least a serviceable backup or “1b starter”. He regressed a bit statistically this season compared to last, however, he has proven that he is capable of playing at this level. It is unknown whether the Capitals have enough faith in a Holtby/Neuvirth tandem to carry the team through next season. While the idea isn’t really farfetched, my guess is the Capitals move Neuvirth to improve the team’s depth throughout the line-up. I expect several team’s to be interested in Neuvirth, including the Blackhawks, Oilers, and the Devils.
Goaltending is arguably one of the most important positions in sports. In the world of hockey, teams like the Blackhawks and Lighting this year specifically became all to familiar with this concept. While you don’t necessarily need a top 5 goalie to make a run for a Stanley Cup, you do need a solid tandem if you want to compete. With the UFA crop this summer near baron in terms of quality net-minders, I fully expect a few NHL teams to aggressively pursue the goalies I have listed. These are players who have proven that they can perform at the NHL level, and will at least be back-ups next season. What makes them so valuable to their current organizations is their age, contract size, and potential. A team looking for a little more then just a veteran backup will likely inquire about the following players or similar players in the coming months. While it is not guaranteed any of these players are moved this summer, I would be incredibly surprised if at least 2, if not 3 of these goalies are donning different NHL sweaters come the fall.
Or should I say December? Or should I say next, next fall? That’s a different topic for a different day.
Until next time.