In-season extensions in the NHL are not all that common. In-season extensions of pedestrian back-up goalies are even more rare. So the recent re-signings of Al Montoya by the Montreal Canadiens and Dustin Tokarski by the Anaheim Ducks likely stuck out to many as being strange, especially when they occurred within days of each other. While the Habs may talk about their desire for a “quality backup” to Carey Price and the Ducks say they need depth in net behind John Gibson with Jonathan Bernier headed to free agency, the teams and players know what the reality of these extensions are and fans should too. Montoya and Tokarski earned extensions not because of their play, but simply because of their mere existence as goalies on their respective teams. They won’t be the last either, as the impending NHL Expansion Draft will force a few other teams to make a move in net before it’s too late.
When the NHL laid out rules for this June’s Expansion Draft, they required that each team leave at least one eligible goalie exposed. For the majority of teams, this wasn’t a difficult criteria to meet. They could protect their starter as long as they had any other goalie with two years of pro experience and term on their contract. For a select few though, it remained a problem that needed to be solved in-season. Montreal and Anaheim were two such teams. Heading into 2016-17, the Candiens has a goalie stable of Price, Montoya, who they signed to a one-year deal this summer, and impending unrestricted free agent Mike Condon. Without any extension or acquisition, Montreal would have been forced to expose the best goalie in the world as their other two keepers held no further term on their contracts. After Condon failed to clear waivers earlier this season, it left the Habs with just two options: extend the veteran Montoya or trade for a third goaltender with term. Since many other teams are depending on their under-contract backups for expansion protection, it was a much easier task to extend Montoya, and given his early-season success, it became an even more obvious decision. While the journeyman goalie is happy to have a “permanent” home into his mid-30’s and the best deal of his career, the true intention of the Canadiens is to offer him up to the Vegas Golden Knights instead of their MVP, Price. Meanwhile in Anaheim, the league’s deepest goalie group also would not be able to protect their starter. The Ducks have five good-to-decent goalies signed, but the best of the bunch, Gibson, was the only one signed beyond 2017. The 23-year-old is coming off the best season of his young career and looking good again in 2016-17. There was no way that they could leave him exposed, but NHL backup Bernier was headed to unrestricted free agency, as were AHLers Tokarski and Matt Hackett and former college standout Kevin Boyle was ineligible for selection. With trading for yet another goalie not much of an option, Anaheim was left with three choices for extension. Bernier would be the most expensive to re-sign, and has also had a disappointing season, so it came down to a choice between San Diego Gulls’ keepers. Neither has impressed this season, but the Ducks chose to keep the more seasoned Tokarski around as depth. Tokarski stands almost no chance of being selected by Las Vegas, but will serve to protect Gibson and will stay employed in pro hockey a while longer.
Two more teams have similar decisions to make in 2017. As soon as the Expansion Draft rules came down, the Philadelphia Flyers knew that they were in somewhat of a pickle. Both Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth were impending free agents and only the then-unproven Anthony Stolarz was an eligible goalie to be exposed. The Flyers’ situation has become only more difficult as both Mason and Neuvirth have struggled this season, while Stolarz made his NHL debut and looked good in a short stint as Mason’s backup. A young, promising goalie would almost surely be picked up by the Knights, so Stolarz now needs to be protected. However, are Mason or Neuvirth worthy of an extension? Maybe not, but the Flyers may look to simply use one or the other to bridge the gap to their talented goalie prospects. Mason may even be good enough that he is looked at by Las Vegas, but only time will tell. Expect the Flyers to extend Mason, or possibly Neuvirth, or else make a trade prior to the NHL Trade Deadline. The Minnesota Wild are also in this predicament, but their situation seems more cut-and-dry. Devan Dubnyk is the only goaltender on the roster who is eligible for exposure, but he has been a revelations since arriving in Minnesota, transforming into one of the best goalies in the NHL. The Wild won’t leave him exposed, but have the option of simply handing out an affordable extension to backup Darcy Kuemper or AHL starter Alex Stalock. Kuemper has seen a bit of a drop-off in 2016-17, but has been solid during his career in Minnesota. It seems likely that the Wild reward him with an extension, even if it carries a risk of him being selected in the Expansion Draft.
Should either team instead opt to make a trade, either just for the purposes of expansion or for added depth in the postseason, there are a few teams who could be sellers. The Columbus Blue Jackets could look to move one of their talented young goalies rather than risk losing them for nothing in the draft, and could afford to do so with all three of Joonas Korpisalo, Anton Forsberg, and Oscar Dansk being eligible for selection. The New York Islanders have moved on from Jaroslav Halak and could move him without repercussions. Similar acquisitions on the more expensive side could be Dallas’ Antti Niemi or Kari Lehtonen. The St. Louis Blues may be looking to add another high-end goalie to share the net with Jake Allen, in which case Carter Hutton could also become available. However, trading will be more difficult and more expensive for Philadelphia and Minnesota, especially if they end up competing with each other or with teams in need of a goalie for non-expansion reasons. The simple solution to the problems posed by the upcoming NHL Expansion Draft are more easily solved by extension, as Montreal and Anaheim have shown, so expect to hear about Mason, Kuemper, Neuvirth, or Stalock in the not too distant future.