More than three weeks into free agency, there are still several big names available on the market. Among PHR’s Top 50 Free Agents, you can still find Thomas Vanek (#8), Jaromir Jagr (#13), Andrei Markov (#14), Drew Stafford (#21), Cody Franson (#22), and many more without NHL homes. What you can’t find is a single goalie on that list left unsigned. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a single free agent goaltender that the casual hockey fan would recognize.
The following is list of available keepers who were on NHL contracts in 2016-17: Daniel Altshuller, Mantas Armalis, Sam Brittain, Mac Carruth, Ryan Faragher, Michael Garteig, Jonas Gunnarsson, Matt Hackett, Jake Paterson, Mackenzie Skapski, Colin Stevens, and Stephon Williams. Are none of those names standing out? They shouldn’t. Not one of those 13 players made a single NHL appearance last season and only Altshuller, Brittain, and Garteig even sat on an NHL bench. Of the group, only Hackett and Skapski have ever played in the NHL and neither one has suited up since 2014-15. The group leaves little to be desired.
This could explain why many other teams have decided to reach overseas for goalie depth this off-season, with the Nashville Predators bringing back Anders Lindback, the Minnesota Wild signing Niklas Svedberg, the Vegas Golden Knights signing Oscar Dansk, the Florida Panthers signing Harri Sateri and, most recently, the New York Rangers bringing in young Alexander Georgiev. Yet, even the foreign market is drying up. The top leagues in Sweden and Switzerland have nothing to offer net-needy NHL team, while the best remaining free agent goalies in the KHL and Finnish Liiga are 37-year-old Alexander Yeryomenko and 34-year-old Pekka Tuokkola respectively. Other KHL free agents like Riku Helenius, Drew MacIntyre, Justin Pogge, and Kevin Poulin are all former NHL wash-outs themselves who have done little to improve their stock overseas and don’t present much of an upgrade over many of the North American options.
So which keepers are the best of this rag-tag bunch? The short answer is that none are ready to make NHL starts any time soon. Every NHL free agent either spent time in the ECHL in 2016-17 or should have because of unsightly AHL numbers, whereas none of the KHL free agents were particularly impressive this past season either.
Poulin is the most likely of any to earn an NHL contract for next season, as he has more NHL experience than everyone else on this list put together – with just 50 appearances. The 27-year-old went back and forth between the New York Islanders, who drafted him in 2008, and their AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, from 2010 to 2015. In that time, Poulin had an 18-25-3 record with an .899 save percentage and 3.07 GAA. While it isn’t the best NHL stat line, it isn’t the worst either. Outside of the NHL, Poulin has always posted a save percentage of .909 or better, including a .909 exact and 2.66 GAA with Barys Astana of the KHL last year. For a team in need of a goalie, even just for AHL depth, Poulin isn’t a terrible option.
Hackett would be next on the list and also has the second-most NHL games played. Once considered the “goalie of the future” for the Minnesota Wild after a spectacular rookie season in 2011-12, the now 27-year-old’s career has gone in the opposite direction. Pedestrian play in the AHL and inconsistency in his NHL efforts took Hackett out of the running as an NHL starter, but he’s still been able to find work as a third-string backup after Minnesota with the Buffalo Sabres and Anaheim Ducks. Even after an AHL season where he was passed up on the depth chart, saw only seven games of action, and posted poor numbers, Hackett still seems like a safe bet to find a new deal somewhere.
Beyond Poulin and Hackett, a contract for any of the other free agent goalies would come as a surprise. At 23 years old, Paterson is the youngest of the free agents and has put up strong numbers in each of his first two pro seasons. However, those numbers have come in the ECHL rather than the AHL. Paterson’s junior numbers in the OHL aren’t spectacular, so the competition level of the ECHL may simply be where he’s best suited. Nevertheless, he has the most room to grow of anyone available. On the flip side, the 37-year-old Russian keeper Yeryomenko is by far the most talented goalie available statistically. The KHL veteran was arguably the best goalie in the league last year, posting a .950 save percentage and 1.29 GAA in 37 starts. There is no reason to think that Yeryomenko is eyeing a move overseas at this point in his career nor that he could adjust to the NHL’s pace of play at his age, but if he is open to it, he could be a low-risk gamble as a stop-gap veteran backup in the AHL for some team.
Luckily, most NHL teams are not in dire straits in net that they should have to be taking a long look at the current free agent market. Nearly every viable name has already been scooped up and few teams have a pressing need. However, it never hurts to have several fallback options in net, and even teams with three or four solid players can end up scooping up that one extra keeper as the off-season goes on.
The one team that really must make a move is the Columbus Blue Jackets. Yes, they have the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, Sergei Bobrovsky, and promising young backup Joonas Korpisalo, but after trading Anton Forsberg away this summer, the Blue Jackets are lacking in depth. The only other goalie under contract is Matiss Kivlenieks, who is entering his first pro season out of the USHL. Kivlenieks is probably not suited to even start at the AHL level yet, nevertheless be the next man up for Columbus. The Blue Jackets could stand to add two goalie even, though their need is great enough that they could be scouring the trade market instead for their third-stringer.
Even after replacing Ryan Miller with Anders Nilsson in free agency, the Vancouver Canucks could still use another goalie. Thatcher Demko is a stud prospect and ready to carry the bulk of AHL starts, and Richard Bachman is a good veteran AHL option capable of making an NHL spot start too. However, should Jacob Markstrom or Nilsson, both injury-prone and relatively new to their 2017-18 roles, struggle or be sidelined, Demko or possibly Bachman will be ready to go, but without much reliable backup depth in Utica. Vancouver could simply re-sign Garteig, who was in the system last year, but may want to go with a superior talent given the unproven nature of their top three goalies at the NHL level.
It might be a stretch to assume that any of the goalies remaining on the free agent market, NHL or international, will sign an NHL deal this summer. If they do, it will surely be a one-year, two-way deal worth the minimum $650K or simply a minor league AHL deal. There’s not much left to offer on the market, but with some holes still in need of filling across the league, understanding the strengths and many, many weaknesses of the goalie market could help to make sense of any upcoming deals.