If Semyon Varlamov represents the gold standard for what a team might achieve with sparkling (even if unexpected) netminding, there are a handful of NHL teams that are salivating at the prospect of simply getting a decent start or two out of their starting netminders.
Not surprisingly, these teams are languishing in the early-season standings. That, combined with the increased competition for playoff spots given the NHL’s realignment, has amped up discussion about alternatives and, most specifically, how the dominoes might fall vis-à-vis a couple of high-profile netminders -- Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres and erstwhile free agent netminder Ilya Bryzgalov.
While there are other potential options, Brian Elliott is the odd man out in St. Louis with Jaroslav Halak playing well and Jake Allen waiting in the wings, and veteran Jose Theodore is still without a job. But both Miller and Bryzgalov represent the most interesting options for teams looking to shore up their goaltending with proven players, although both come with their own sets of pros and cons.
Bryzgalov, of course, was bought out of the remaining seven years of his nine-year, $51 million contract by the Philadelphia Flyers this offseason and did not find a new NHL home. Instead of returning to the Kontinental Hockey League as many believed he would, Bryzgalov is currently working out with the Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL and focusing on returning to the NHL. In theory, money shouldn’t be much of an issue for Bryzgalov, but opportunity and, as they say in the real estate business, location, location, location might dictate where he ends up.
Because Bryzgalov’s issues with the Flyers were as much about personality as anything, people forget that for long stretches of time Bryzgalov turned in quality starts for the Flyers. The problem was that these stretches were often bookended by bouts of uneven play and the notion that this poor play might have been prompted by the fact that he appeared at times to be whole big universe off his rocker.
Nonetheless, Bryzgalov is a former Vezina Trophy nominee, he costs nothing but money and term and only requires some NHL team to be able to persuade him to come to town.
Miller represents something entirely different in terms of a goaltending asset. First, as a former Vezina Trophy winner who's currently playing at a high level for one of the NHL’s worst teams, the Buffalo Sabres, Miller is arguably the more attractive asset in terms of pure goaltending. But, the veteran netminder and the MVP of the 2010 Olympic tournament in Vancouver also has a limited no-trade clause. And even though he is in the final year of his contract, he won’t come cheap in terms of the kinds of assets Buffalo GM Darcy Regier will require in return, assuming he can find a team that meets Miller’s requirements.
As we saw with the Roberto Luongo situation in Vancouver last season, just because a top-end netminder is available doesn’t necessarily mean a deal to move him can be consummated.
The good thing for suitors is the chances that Miller will want to re-up with the Sabres diminish with each loss the team collects. Therefore, Regier must move him before the March 5 trade deadline. Having watched the fiasco that was the Jarome Iginla trade situation a year ago, one would think Regier would have the smarts to want to make a preemptive move to try and maximize his return for Miller.
And given the goaltending issues confronting a number of teams, that time might be sooner than later.
We talked about the Oil last week in our Ramblings column, but the ongoing leakiness of alleged No. 1 goaltender Devan Dubnyk reinforces that the team’s goaltending situation is at a critical mass. We get that the Oilers are still an unformed entity, especially when it comes to team defense. But no amount of rationalizing can erase the fact that Dubnyk has been awful. Early on he told reporters that he was confident that he was going to turn things around and that he wasn’t going to allow five goals a game. He was right. On Saturday, he gave up six in an overtime loss to Toronto. His 5.43 goals-against average is 54th overall in the league, and he has an .829 save percentage to go with it. The Oilers have one win, and Jason LaBarbera earned it while still giving up four goals on 25 shots. On Monday night, LaBarbera got the start in place of Dubnyk but gave up four goals on 20 shots against the Capitals. With Calgary out of the blocks in terrific fashion, the Oilers are easily the worst team in the Pacific Division. Playoffs? Ha. Unless they can find a way to keep the puck out of their own goal on a regular basis, this season could be lost by the time daylight savings rolls around. This means Craig MacTavish, the man who promised bold action when he took over as GM last April, has got to do something. Nail Yakupov, the first overall pick in 2012, has been a healthy scratch early on. Surely he would be attractive to the goal-starved Sabres if Miller would accept a trade to Edmonton. Unless MacTavish wanted to hang onto his assets and turn to Bryzgalov, who might be a nice fit for an Oilers team whose 25 goals against is tied for most in the league.
The Carolina Hurricanes haven’t been to the playoffs since 2009 and, in spite of assurances that veteran starter Cam Ward was fully recovered from the March 2 knee injury that sidelined him for the balance of last season, Ward has struggled through the early going this season. The team’s only two victories have come courtesy of offseason acquisition Anton Khudobin, who was injured in Sunday’s loss to Phoenix. Ward came on in relief and promptly gave up three goals on 12 shots to take the loss. If Khudobin is out for any length of time, GM Jim Rutherford will be looking to fill the backup spot behind Ward with someone who can shoulder more than just one start every couple of weeks. If not, the Canes risk falling out of sight in a season that is critical for them to bounce back after such a long playoff absence. One would imagine Bryzgalov would be the most attractive option since the Canes wouldn’t have to give up young assets.
The Stars have a new GM in Jim Nill, a new head coach in Lindy Ruff and early on look to be the same old up-and-down Stars team that has missed the playoffs five straight years. Worse, starting netminder Kari Lehtonen is once again dealing with a lower body injury that saw him moved to the injured reserve list on Monday. Backup Dan Ellis simply doesn’t provide the kind of insurance to weather a long absence by Lehtonen. And even if Lehtonen isn’t out long term, this time there is little to instill confidence that the netminder can stay healthy long enough to coax the Stars into the postseason. The Central Division is wide open after Chicago and St. Louis, but with Colorado off to its scorching start, it behooves the other playoff-hopeful squads -- Dallas, Nashville, Minnesota and Winnipeg -- to stay close, and staying close means getting goaltending. Would the Stars be interested in Miller, who can become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season? Hard to imagine with Lehtonen inked through 2017-18 and a no-trade clause through the end of next season. But it’s also hard to imagine the Stars staying in the hunt if their current goaltending situation remains status quo.
Speaking of questions of durability, the Minnesota Wild lost starter Niklas Backstrom to a knee injury in the third game of the season. While his absence doesn’t appear to be a long-term thing -– he’s been practicing with the team for a few days now -- Backstrom appears to be an injury waiting to happen at this stage of his career. He came up lame minutes before the start of the Wild’s first-round playoff series against Chicago last spring and didn’t play in their five-game series loss. The Wild explored acquiring former Los Angeles backup Jonathan Bernier before he was dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs, where he's been terrific. Josh Harding has proven capable of providing quality, consistent starts as Backstrom’s backup, but he, too, has had a myriad of injuries and is battling multiple sclerosis. There are lots of reasons to like the Wild as a playoff team this season, but right now goaltending depth isn’t one of them. Would GM Chuck Fletcher, who signed Backstrom to a three-year, $10.25 million deal in the offseason, make a bold move to acquire Miller with an eye toward making him the starter of the future? Fletcher has worked diligently to collect top-end assets since taking over the Wild, but this is a team that needs to be a playoff team after qualifying for the postseason dance just once in the past five seasons.
Not sure either Miller or Bryzgalov is a fit for the struggling Rangers, but this is a team that allowed 25 goals through its first five games, tied for the most with Edmonton in the NHL. At some point you expect Henrik Lundqvist (1-3, .887 save percentage, 4.21 GAA) to come around. But what if it takes a month? Lundqvist is in the final year of his contract, and whether that is a factor in his uneven play or not is unknown. But it’s clear the Rangers don’t have a viable Plan B with Martin Biron put on waivers Monday after allowing nine goals on 39 shots in two games. Given the belief that Lundqvist will at some point sign an extension with the Rangers, it would seem Bryzgalov represents a more likely option in terms of upgrading the team’s goaltending depth, and the idea of Bryzgalov on Broadway would make for some interesting times.