Looking at veteran backup goalie options for 2018-19
The Pittsburgh Penguins already have 17 players under contract for next season and almost all their significant free agents are restricted and expected to be back. If there’s any drama or fun for this off-season, we know it’s likely to be involving a trade and not free agency.
However, one place that it makes sense and there will be cheap, potentially important players available in free agency is on the goalie market.
Post-Marc-Andre, the Pens are in the same situation now as they were 12 months ago upon losing the franchise’s most accomplished goalie to the expansion draft. Matt Murray is entrenched as the starter. Behind him, not much to be encouraged about.
The team probably would like 23-year old Tristan Jarry to step up and claim an NHL job but he hasn’t actually performed all that well as a pro. The Pens sent him down to the AHL for a stretch run there, and he went 0-3 with a .894 save% in the playoffs. Probably not all his fault, but then again his .901 save% in the AHL regular season isn’t exactly inspiring either. Jarry is a RFA but has no arbitration rights and will be a simple signing for Pittsburgh this summer.
Then there’s the little engine who could in Casey DeSmith. DeSmith has generally out-performed Jarry (though by a modest amount) at every level. DeSmith though is undrafted and generously listed as 6’0 in a world now where almost every goalie who breaks in is 6’3+ and covering more net.
The Jarry/DeSmith combo proved it could be serviceable when Murray was injured, but again, it’s not exactly a team strength to lean on. If you know anything about general manager Jim Rutherford, you know he likes his cookies warm and his goalie depth plentiful. The Pens will probably explore adding another netminder, if not outright sign one early this July.
Of course, Pittsburgh tried that last season with Antti Niemi and the results were spectacularly poor. In hindsight though, Niemi got tossed to the sharks playing 3 times on the second half of back-to-backs and in front of a totally disinterested Pens team. He was so bad it’s hard not to be displeased he was unceremoniously dumped by Pittsburgh but that Niemi went on to put up a .929 save % in 19 games with Montreal last season suggests some evidence his poor play in Pittsburgh was more bad luck/situations and team play than his actual talent level.
Here are the options on the open market this time around, from the always invaluable Capfriendly:
Not exactly a grouping of All-Stars, but then again almost every team out there already has a dedicated #1 goalie and not too many teams are turning to the FA scrap heap to find their go-to goalie.
By looking at a measure of Goals Saves Above Average in the last 5 years, two names stand out positively:
Since 2013-14 5v5 GSAA via Corsica:
So Halak and then Lehtonen.
— Stephen Burtch (@SteveBurtch) June 13, 2018
Jaroslav Halak is a man that needs no introduction to Pens fans. Halak’s heroics in 2010 were the major reason Pittsburgh was eliminated from the playoffs by Montreal. Somehow Halak is only 33 years old, it seems like he has been around forever. He’s spent the last four seasons in the quagmire known as the Islanders organization and has a carer .916 save % in 449 NHL games. Salary may be an issue, coming off a $4.5 million contract and clearly being the prize of this weak free agent class, any team that needs a 1A type goalie with some cap room could easily toss an offer of a couple million bucks and that’s probably too much for the Pens to prioritize given their salary structure.
Lehtonen is an interesting option here too. The immediate reaction among fans may be sour since he wasn’t very good for a few seasons and had a massively bloated contract at one point. But that reputation aside, Lehtonen provided a pretty solid .912 save% in 37 games last year for a Dallas team that wasn’t exactly stout. A worry here might be age, Lehonen turns 35 in November and is only a few months younger than fellow former-Stars goalie Antti Niemi.
Cam Ward reportedly wants to return to the only NHL home he has known in Carolina, but they need upgrades in net and it remains to be seen if they will want him back. Either way, the Rutherford connection looms large but guessing the Pens GM knows Ward’s best days are well behind him at this point.
Jonathan Bernier would be an interesting name since he has been a starter in the past. Also a fairly competent group of backups in Anton Khudobin and Carter Hutton will be out there for a cheap deal and provide anywhere from .900 to .920% performances. It’s tough to guess the volatility of a backup goalie from year-to-year.
This is certainly an area to keep an eye on. Do the Pens trust their Jarry+DeSmith combo? Or will they look to add a guy like Khudobin/Hutton/Bernier as an insurance policy for another potential injury-filled season for Murray? Halak seems like he should be out of the Pens league for salary demands, but he’s clearly the best of the bunch. If the Pens are feeling very bold perhaps they trade a forward or try to shed Matt Hunwick and re-allocate that cap space to a sturdy backup.
There are plenty of options and only two and a half more weeks before the market opens and the frenzy begins.
What should the Pens do in net next year?
Give Jarry first crack
Whoever is better in camp: DeSmith/Jarry
Try to sign Halak even if it means a trade of someone else
Bargain bin vet backup (Lehtonen, Khudobin, Hutton, etc)
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