Eastern Conference Goalie Carousel: Who Stays? Who Goes?

A turbulent off-season looms for most NHL creases. Which teams in the East might have new starting netminders for 2020-21?
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We've experienced a post-season loaded with storylines: underdogs making surprise runs, athletes taking political stands, life in the bubble. But one narrative has popped up again and again during the tournament, arguably even more than it does during a traditional playoff year: wobbly, inconsistent goaltending. Even if we exclude the play-in round: since the 16-team bracket began, a total of 30 goalies have seen game action. In the entire 2019 playoffs, 22 goalies did.

Partially because of the condensed schedule, partially because of injuries and partially because the position is the most physically demanding it’s ever been, we’ve seen an unprecedented number of netminders compete, highlighting how important yet unreliable the position is. And it just so happens numerous teams across the league have unsettled creases for 2020-21 – so many that I can’t cover them all in one story.

We’ll start with the Eastern Conference Goalie Carousel. I count as many as seven teams that could have a new starting stopper when the puck drops to start next season. Who stays and who goes?

(Note the absence of the Boston Bruins here. I believe GM Don Sweeney’s claim that Tuukka Rask will return. He left the bubble for a family emergency. He didn’t quit on the team.)

CAROLINA HURRICANES: Can you win a Stanley Cup with a Mrazek/Reimer tandem?

The Hurricanes reached the Eastern Conference final last season. They looked really special during the play-ins before bowing out quickly in the Round of 16 after star left winger Andrei Svechnikov’s injury. This team has elite defense, a promising core of young forwards and genuine Stanley Cup aspirations as early as next season. But is a championship dream realistic with a goaltending battery of Petr Mrazek and James Reimer?

Both were generally quite good in the post-season, combining for a .931 save percentage, but there were still implosions in crucial moments, such as when Reimer surrendered four goals in the third period of Game 4, which the Hurricanes led 2-0 after 40 minutes and lost 4-3. The Canes could use an icy-nerved bellcow starter, but (a) they have less than $10 million in cap space, (b) they still have Reimer and Mrazek signed another season each for $6.53 million combined, and (c) three of their defensemen are UFAs, so GM Don Waddell will have to replace some depth. That means Carolina probably has to trade one of Reimer or Mrazek if it wants to make room for a new starter.

DETROIT RED WINGS: More tanking, or a push for a real No. 1 goalie?

A tandem of veterans Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Bernier has, ahem, been just right for what the Wings have wanted to do. Per naturalstattrick.com, this past season, among 54 goalies who played at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5, Bernier ranked 27th in goals saved above average per 60, while Howard graded out dead last. Howard departs as a UFA and could probably use a fresh start after being shelled on the worst NHL team of the past two decades, so GM Steve Yzerman needs to bring in a partner for Bernier, especially since the Wings have no top-tier netminding prospect who is knocking on the door of NHL duty. Filip Larsson spent most of this past season in the ECHL, while Keith Petruzzelli hasn’t turned pro yet.

Would the Wings take a run at a higher-end UFA like Braden Holtby? I strongly doubt it. This team is still in scorched-earth rebuild mode and is better off adding a wily vet who can split time with Bernier on a short-term pact. That could mean signing a stopgap like Cam Talbot. It could also mean acquiring a starter on an expiring deal – such as Frederik Andersen, who could be a flippable piece at next season’s trade deadline should he have a rebound season.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS: The Ilya Sorokin era begins

Isles fans, if you love Thomas Greiss, soak in the last looks at him during these playoffs. He’s a UFA, and he’s gone. The Isles’ extension for top prospect Ilya Sorokin includes a $2-million cap hit. He will form next year’s tandem with veteran Semyon Varlamov. It’s only a matter of time before Sorokin takes over as an all-star-caliber No. 1, like what we saw with Igor Shesterkin in Manhattan this season.

OTTAWA SENATORS: Farewell, Craig Anderson?

Anderson, 39 and a UFA, hasn’t decided on retirement yet. Even if he returns, it may not be with the Sens, who are still far away from playoff contention. Ottawa could roll with Anders Nilsson and Marcus Hogberg as its tandem next season if it doesn’t want to spend money on a veteran. But that would just mean kicking the can down the road for a problem GM Pierre Dorion will have to address at some point. Ottawa doesn’t have a truly elite goaltending prospect on the way. Mads Sogaard could develop into that, but he’s still years out from being an NHLer.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS. Murray or Jarry? Murray or Jarry!? MURRAY OR JARRY??!

One has to go. Both are RFAs, and the Penguins have $8.02 million in cap space, likely not wanting to commit all of it to their goalies when RFAs such as Jared McCann and Dominik Simon also need new pacts. General manager Jim Rutherford admitted to The Athletic’s Josh Yohe in August that "We know that there’s a very, very good chance that we’re going to have to move one of them.”

But which one? Murray struggled badly this season. He has the more established track record as a two-time Cup champ, but that also gives him higher trade value, so he’s the more likely name to move. If the Penguins roll with Jarry next season, they’ll do so with someone who was as good as any goalie in the league in the first half of 2019-20 but struggled in the second half. They’ll need a safety net for him in the form of an experienced backup. If Vegas re-signs Robin Lehner, would it be willing to eat 50 percent of Marc-Andre Fleury’s salary and trade him back to Pittsburgh? Just a thought.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: Moving on from Frederik Andersen?

Andersen has been a passable and often above-average starter across the past four seasons, during which he leads the NHL in starts, ranks third in wins and owns a solid .917 save percentage. But the path to those numbers has been winding and rocky, punctuated by hot streaks mixed with horrific slumps and crises of confidence.

Last week, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported that, while the Leafs weren’t actively shopping Andersen, they’d told Andersen they were receiving calls on him. He has one year left at a $5-million AAV. Are the Leafs ready to move on? They’ve already been linked to Murray in trade rumors. 

WASHINGTON CAPITALS: Ilya Samsonov takes the torch

Holtby will forever reign as Washington’s first and only Cup-winning No. 1 goaltender. He belongs with Olaf Kolzig in the all-time elite tier of Capitals stoppers. But Ilya Samsonov is ready for NHL stardom after a promising rookie campaign and carries an entry-level AAV of $925,000. It’s his time.

Holtby would have to take a gargantuan discount to stay in D.C., and that would be bad business for him. He’s still just 30. His play has slipped in recent seasons, but he’s young enough to turn things around. In goalie years, 30 is more like 25. He thus still has an opportunity to make good money on a medium-term pact or sign a one-year "prove it" deal with a contender at a higher AAV. Either way, he’s a virtual lock to go to market. The Capitals, trying to avoid their downward trajectory, need to spend their leftover cap space to shore up other positions. 

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