Jim Benning has a lot on his plate this off-season: determining the Canucks’ draft board, re-signing key restricted free agents, and deciding which unrestricted free agents to target to upgrade and support the Canucks’ lineup. One of the areas of the lineup that may need an upgrade, which would have been laughable just one year ago, is in net.
The prospect of acquiring a goaltender in free agency was raised during an interview with Benning on Sportsnet 590 and he didn’t shy away from the possibility. “We’re going to look at every avenue we have to make our team competitive,” he said, before giving Eddie Lack a vote of confidence. “For a first-year goalie last year, he had a good season, and we hope that he can take it to the next step this year.”
Hoping that Lack can be a reliable starter is not the same as believing he will be, so adding a veteran number one goaltender on a short-term contract to give Lack more time to develop as a backup is worth considering. That’s just one of three scenarios, however, that could see the Canucks adding a goaltender in free agency. They could also add a goaltender to platoon starts with Lack or upgrade their backup role currently occupied by Jacob Markstrom.
Let’s look at the players available in free agency that would fit these scenarios and whether its worth it for the Canucks.
VETERAN NUMBER ONE
Options: Ryan Miller, Jonas Hiller
Lack was superb as a backup for Roberto Luongo, but struggled down the stretch when asked to carry the starter’s load. If you are concerned that this is indicative of how he would perform as the go-to starter over a full season, then upgrading to an experienced number one goaltender makes sense.
There are basically just two options in free agency for this type of goaltender: Ryan Miller and Jonas Hiller, both of whom have proven themselves over multiple NHL seasons and in international tournaments.
I wouldn’t consider Martin Brodeur, who is too far past his prime and hasn’t even been an average goaltender over the past four seasons, let alone a legitimate number one. He would also potentially add unnecessary drama. I also would avoid Tim Thomas, both because of his history with the Canucks and because missing an entire season in 2011-12 seems to have had a detrimental effect on his play.
The biggest issue here is that going this route likely means spending a large chunk of the Canucks’ available cap space that might be better spent on a forward to upgrade the first or second line. After all, the main benefit to trading Roberto Luongo was losing his contract. Using that money to sign another goaltender seems to be a poor use of resources.
The other issue is that neither Miller nor Hiller are likely looking for a short-term deal. Both are likely aiming for a long-term contract to carry them through the end of their careers and there are enough teams looking for a solution in net — the Islanders, Flames, Jets, and, ironically enough, Sabres come to mind — that they’re likely to get what they want. Unless the Canucks want to commit significant cap dollars to a goaltender already past 30 and potentially on the decline, this option doesn’t make much sense.
Options: Devan Dubnyk, Evgeni Nabokov, Thomas Greiss, Alex Stalock
Perhaps you think that Lack is ready to be a starter, but not for 60+ games. In that case, you want to add someone more reliable than Jacob Markstrom or Joacim Eriksson to split starts with Lack.
There are many options, both veterans and younger players with potential, for this role. Nabokov is a risk after an off-year with the Islanders and because of his age at 38, but he’s still capable of starting 30-40 games. This would depend on his willingness to take a lower contract and move back to the west coast, however.
Greiss has significantly less experience, but has very good career numbers. He put up a .920 save percentage in 25 games for the Coyotes last season and has a career save percentage of .915. He would likely welcome a chance to start more games and shouldn’t be too expensive.
Stalock only has one season as a backup under his belt, but it was a good one, putting up a .932 save percentage in 24 games for the Sharks. He has very good AHL numbers and would give the Canucks a strong, young tandem in net. The Sharks may want to re-sign Stalock, however, with an eye towards him replacing Antti Niemi in two seasons.
Then there’s Dubnyk, who faced a lot of criticism in his time in Edmonton. It’s hard to judge a goaltender playing behind that defence, but I tend to think Dubnyk is underrated. He’s had more good seasons than bad ones and may be willing to accept a lesser contract for a chance to rejuvenate his career.
The benefit of this approach is being able to go with whoever’s playing best during any given stretch of games and improves the Canucks’ goaltending depth in case Lack isn’t able to be a number one goaltender in the future. The risk is having a goaltending controversy again after the Canucks’ just rid themselves of one. Still, two inexpensive goalies splitting starts is about as uncontroversial as a controversy gets.
Options: So many, you guys. So many.
Upgrading their backup seems to be the Canucks’ biggest need at the goaltender position. Markstrom’s superb AHL stats and international success have not translated to the NHL as of yet and Eriksson could probably use another season of starting in the AHL before he’s ready to make the jump to the big leagues. It’s certainly possible that Markstrom’s issues are correctable under the tutelage of Rollie Melanson, but it may not be worth risking.
Ideally, the Canucks would add an older veteran with a lot of experience, who could be relied upon to start more games if Lack struggles and provide mentorship for the young Swede otherwise. There are basically five goaltenders in free agency who fit the bill: Nikolai Khabibulin, Tomas Vokoun, Ilya Bryzgalov, Ray Emery, and Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
Khabibulin is 41 and missed almost all of last season with an injury. Vokoun missed the entire season after undergoing surgery for a blood clot in his pelvis. Giguere is retiring. That leaves Bryzgalov and Emery, who don’t exactly ooze the qualities you look for in a mentor.
So, that’s probably not going to work. The other option is a career backup who is likely to be more reliable than Markstrom or Eriksson. There are many backups available, including Al Montoya, Jason Labarbera, Joey MacDonald, and Curtis McElhinney.
One benefit to going with a career backup is that they’ll be cheap, potentially cheaper than Markstrom’s $1.2 million contract or Eriksson’s $925,000. That would give the Canucks a little more room under the cap to upgrade at forward. A career backup can also be easily sent down to the AHL if one of Markstrom or Eriksson impresses during training camp or with Utica, giving the Canucks some flexibility.
The biggest risk, however, is that Lack falters as a starter. Without a more proven goaltender behind him, the Canucks could be in trouble.
My personal preference would be to target Greiss or Stalock to split starts with Lack. If neither are available to the Canucks, adding someone like Montoya or Labarbera to battle for the backup role with Markstrom or Eriksson seems to be a smart choice.