Goalie Musical Chairs, Vol. 2

News and rumors continue to pour in regarding starting goaltenders, who are proving to be the hottest commodity on the free agent and trade markets. Corey Crawford, Darcy Kuemper, and Robin Lehner are the latest names to hit the wire. With the first buyout window officially underway and Lord Stanley’s Cup now basking in sunny Florida after Tampa’s victory, we can expect things to ramp up significantly in the coming days.

Sweet Home Chicago

Two-time Stanley Cup winning goaltender Corey Crawford is at the end of his 6-year, $6 million AAV contract, and Chicago finds itself bumping its head against the flat cap for next season — with several free agents still needing to be re-signed. This presents a conundrum for the Blackhawks, and also for Crawford.

From the Blackhawks perspective, they need a #1 goaltender at a lower-than-market price. They don’t have the cap space to compete against other teams for the services of coveted and dependable ‘keepers such as Robin Lehner, and they would prefer to avoid giving up assets in trade to acquire a new #1. So Chicago needs to get creative. The most ideal option is to keep Corey Crawford in a ‘Hawks uniform, with a new contract that reduces his cap hit.

From Crawford’s perspective, he has stated publicly that his top priority is playing time. He doesn’t want to keep playing if all he’s doing is backing up some wunderkind, or serving as the “veteran presence” in a team’s goaltending tandem. He wants a #1 designation, and given his previous salary and his health history, that’s a problem.

Crawford has missed nearly a full season over the past 3 years due to both orthopedic injuries and concussions. The second of those is the main problem, as Crawford seems to be susceptible to concussions at a lower threshold due to his prior concussion history. This presents a risk to any potential suitors, as they will be reluctant to pay starting goaltender money to somebody who may miss 60 games due to a fluke ricochet off the forehead in practice.

The good news is, the pickles in which the Blackhawks and Crawford find themselves are complimentary, and they can help each other out. The bad news is, the 1-year, $3.5 million contract offer the Blackhawks reportedly tendered earlier this month was not received well. Crawford’s camp realized that he should expect a pay cut from the $6 million he earned last season; just not that big of a cut.

Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman is a take-it-or-leave-it negotiator; he tends to respond to counter-offers by either trading the player or replacing him with a free agent. So while some are suggesting that a $4 million compromise might be in the works, I have a feeling that Crawford may be looking elsewhere in the league to secure a #1 spot with a better salary. The fact that there has been no reported progress in these negotiations beyond the initial offer suggests this may be the case.

Desert Storm

For all the cap trouble the Blackhawks are in, the Winnipeg Phoenix Arizona Coyotes are in it much deeper. With only 17 players currently signed for the upcoming season, the Coyotes have a mere $1.1 million in cap space left to fill out the roster. Even just moving up youngsters on league-minimum contracts won’t allow them to put a full 20-man roster on the ice. Something has to give.

One of the most prominent names in trade talks coming out of the desert is goaltender Darcy Kuemper, who has 2 years left on his deal with a cap hit of $4.5 million AAV. He only had 29 starts in the shortened 2019-20 season, but his 2.22 GAA and .928 save percentage should be enough to attract some interest.

Reportedly Edmonton has already reached out, having heard the asking price for Pittsburgh netminder Matt Murray and bowing out of the running for his services. It is also rumored that Chicago has inquired about Kuemper, but this is likely just a press leak to bolster Bowman’s bargaining position with Corey Crawford.

Kuemper’s best year was in 2018-19, when he maintained a 2.33 GAA over 55 starts, holding down a .925 SVG. The rest of his career has been consistent, if uninspiring. His role with most assignments prior to landing in Arizona was as a backup. But he does represent an upgrade over many teams’ current #1, and his value will likely be determined largely by the haul that the Penguins are able to reap for Murray.

Sooner Or Lehner

In the midst of (not Las) Vegas’ playoff run, some pundit-wannabe was wallpapering social media with the assertion that the Golden Knights had agreed to a 5-year, $5 million AAV contract with pending unrestricted free agent netminder Robin Lehner. Done deal, handshake agreement, it will be announced when the team gets home from the bubble.

That silence you’re hearing right now is the vast abyss of nothingness on this topic since (not Las) Vegas returned from Edmonton. Not a peep on this from either camp. Gee… color me shocked.

Lehner had responded the day after the initial report basically saying there was no such agreement, and further that his camp had not even been in touch with Golden Knights management concerning contract talks. So there really isn’t much news on this front; Lehner’s status has not changed as of this writing, and the Interwebs was once again sent into a pointless kerfuffle by the frantic sharing of unsubstantiated rumors disguising themselves as facts.

Pro tip: there are about a dozen sources online who are 100% reliable on the topics of trades, contracts, and free agents. Most of them work for TSN and SportsNet, and a little experience in this area will allow you to familiarize yourself with who’s really worth listening to and who’s full of crap. Knowing the difference reduces your chances of falling prey to wild online speculation.

Capital Markets

With just days to go before the start of free agency, it appears that one big name will be headed to market. Talks between the Washington Capitals and starting netminder Braden Holtby never got beyond the are-we-in-the-same-ballpark phase, and Capitals GM Brian MacLellan has stated that we can expect to see Holtby test the waters in October. Heir apparent to the starting goaltender throne in Washington is Ilya Samsonov, who you can expect to get a juicy contract extension in the upcoming year, and who will be protected by the Caps in the upcoming 2021 NHL Expansion Draft.

Holtby’s exit wasn’t unexpected, but it confirms that the shuffling of netminders in the off-season is going to be nearly unparalleled in the salary cap era. I can think of a half-dozen teams with the need (but not necessarily the cap room) to come a-courtin’ to Holtby’s agent in the coming weeks. Whoever signs Holtby will likely be locking him down for more than just next season, and will undoubtedly protect him in the expansion draft; so you can cross him off your list for potential Seattle Kraken starting netminders.

Quick Takes

A couple of other tidbits relevant to the overall goaltender discussion have hit the news in the last few days. First, the Detroit Red Wings are on the record as saying that their 2003 2nd round pick Jimmy Howard’s days in the winged wheel jersey are over, confirming that the aging goaltender is headed to free agency for the first time ever after 543 NHL games in the Motor City.

Speaking of Detroit, if Jacob Markstrom and the Vancouver Canucks can’t come to an agreement on a new contract for the pending free agent, expect Detroit GM Steve Yzerman to be first on Mr. Markstrom’s doorstep with flowers and candy.

And late-breaking is word is that the New York Rangers have bought out the final year of 38-year-old, lifetime Ranger, His Majesty, King Henrik Lundqvist’s contract — which suggests the trade market for his services is zero. No telling who might bite on Lundqvist’s hook for a reasonably-priced one-year deal to mentor their goaltending youngster. 887 games worth of experience ought to count for something.

Toil And Trouble

One footnote to the goings-on concerning goaltenders for the upcoming season. Think waaaaayyyyy long back, years and years ago, when a handsome young kid named Ryan Miller manned the pipes in Buffalo. Remember him? Did you know he’s still playing? Nope, that’s not a joke, he has been in Anaheim backing up John Gibson for the past 3 seasons.

Miller just turned 40, and is now taking a look at his options for next year. He’s an unrestricted free agent as of this moment, but he is taking a look at what the new NHL reality is for next season, and it’s giving him pause.

With the second wave of COVID-19 underway in Europe and due to spread to North America within days, the NHL is considering its options for the upcoming season. The bubble experiments in Toronto and Edmonton went extremely well, with no positive coronavirus tests reported among players inside either bubble. That was essentially a proof of concept that illustrated how an NHL season could play out next year.

There is nothing formal in place yet, but the league is considering options that include a one-bubble-per-division option: 8 teams sequestered for the duration of the season and playoffs in a host city, likely all in Canada. There is also the potential for inter-bubble travel within each conference, though the league would have to work out how that would manifest itself while minimizing outside exposure. Miller, with a wife and kids at home and the rest of his life ahead of him, is thinking that’s not to his liking.

So it may turn out that this is the end of the road for Miller, with 18 seasons of NHL hockey in his rear-view mirror. I expect his final decision won’t be made until the league finalizes plans for how the 2020-21 season will unfold. But should the 9-month bubble turn out to be the way of the future for the NHL in the wake of COVID-19, we may well see the end of a long and storied career — one that includes an Olympic silver medal, but regrettably, no Stanley Cup.

Author: Tim Currell

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