Goaltending a Big Focus of NHL GMs to Open Free Agency

NHL GMs made a statement Wednesday: arguably the most vital position a team can have, is now being broken down into smaller components, and help in coping with their goalie workload is being prioritized by numerous franchises.
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Petr Mrazek

Over the years, NHL fans have seen most teams fairly reticent to give their team an extreme makeover. 

General Managers almost always have been extremely conservative in blowing up their roster – but on the first day of unrestricted free agency this year, the pressure of genuinely contending for a Stanley Cup has led to a different result. No, there aren’t a boatload of clubs changing their lineup from top to bottom, but there has definitely been a trend, and that trend involves a goaltender carousel that has put a different look on more than a dozen franchises.

Maybe GMs are reacting to the way the 2021 post-season played out, with the two best goalies in the game, Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy and Montreal’s Carey Price, leading their teams to the Cup Final, and/or maybe the trend has to do with the number of above-average netminders being available on the open market. But regardless of the triggers, there is no doubt GMs have decided to spend money, and quickly, on goalies before other teams made a similar move.

Whew, right? But wait, there’s more: without a starter after Grubauer left for Seattle, the Avalanche went out and landed Darcy Kuemper from the Coyotes. The Vegas Golden Knights, fresh off trading Vezina Trophy winner Marc-Andre Fleury, signed former Winnipeg Jet Laurent Brossoit. The Boston Bruins, who suddenly were without an NHL-calibre goalie with the departure of Halak and the uncertain future of UFA Tuukka Rask, signed former Buffalo starter Linus Ullmark. The Sabres signed former Senators' mainstay Craig Anderson. 

The Dallas Stars, unsure of the status of long-term injured starter Ben Bishop, dipped into the veteran goalie market by signing ex-Capital-and-Canuck Braden Holtby to work alongside Anton Khudobin. Former Sharks starter Martin Jones, bought out by San Jose earlier this month, joined the Philadelphia Flyers to back up youngster Carter Hart. The Nashville Predators signed former Flame and Leaf David Rittich, and Calgary traded with the Bruins to bring in goalie David Vladar to back up Jacob Markstrom. And in another deal prior to the UFA period opening up, the Detroit Red Wings acquired up-and-coming Alex Nedeljkovic from Carolina.

Whew, right? But wait, there’s more: without a starter after Grubauer left for Seattle, the Avalanche went out and landed Darcy Kuemper from the Coyotes. The Vegas Golden Knights, fresh off trading Vezina Trophy winner Marc-Andre Fleury, signed former Winnipeg Jet Laurent Brossoit. The Boston Bruins, who suddenly were without an NHL-calibre goalie with the departure of Halak and the uncertain future of UFA Tuukka Rask, signed former Buffalo starter Linus Ullmark. 

The Dallas Stars, unsure of the status of long-term injured starter Ben Bishop, dipped into the veteran goalie market by signing ex-Capital-and-Canuck Braden Holtby to work alongside Anton Khudobin. Former Sharks starter Martin Jones, bought out by San Jose earlier this month, joined the Philadelphia Flyers to back up youngster Carter Hart. The Nashville Predators signed former Flame and Leaf David Rittich, and Calgary traded with the Bruins to bring in goalie David Vladar to back up Jacob Markstrom. And in another deal prior to the UFA period opening up, the Detroit Red Wings acquired up-and-coming Alex Nedeljkovic from Carolina.

Double-whew, right? I mean, that’s 16 teams that altered their goaltending tandems. That means half the league’s franchises wanted a different look in net, or at least, help for their current starter by reducing their workload and turning to the practice of two goalies splitting the load of 82 regular-season games.

In one way, it feels as if goalies are now being made to follow Major League Baseball’s trend of keeping their starting pitchers limited to five-to-seven innings, and dispensing with the likelihood of pitchers throwing complete games, all in the name of keeping their throwing arms healthy. Meanwhile, with condensed schedules, and the increased wear-and-tear goalies seem to be going through, the addition of insurance, in the form of a capable, experienced netminder, appears to now be a common goal of NHL GMs. This, in spite of the fact all Cup champions in recent memory depended on one goalie to carry them through the playoffs.

But never forget, the NHL can be a copycat league, and perhaps the success of the Golden Knights last year – with Fleury and fellow elite goalie Robin Lehner splitting time – has caused GMs to recognize the value of quality depth in net. Or perhaps they were simply dissatisfied with the performance of the goalie(s) they had between the pipes last year, and are gambling that their new acquisitions will help power them through the post-season, and that intra-team competition for the starter’s job will only make them better.

In any case, it is an astonishing number of alterations to teams’ key defender position, and obviously, not all of them will pan out. Splitting the duties of the No. 1 slot with a new addition may seem like a great idea at the moment, but there’s a reason teams wanted to move on from the goalies that were available. Some teams were forced to change because of the flat salary cap, but by and large, many of the aforementioned teams had every opportunity to re-sign their goalies from this past season, and they chose a different route.

In some ways, this development is exciting, and on a marketing front, is excellent for selling a new face or two to a fan base craving success. It will be fascinating to see which goalies thrive in their new homes, and which ones falter under the pressure. But there’s no question this experiment is going to be worth watching, across the league, on a nightly basis. If a goalie goes through a tough stretch, in many cases, there will be a clear option for NHL coaches to turn to. And if both of a team’s goalies consistently perform to or above expectations, it’ll be an embarrassment of riches – and maybe one that allows GMs to trade one of the two in order to address their roster’s deficiencies.

So there you have it – NHL GMs made a statement yesterday, and that statement is unmistakeable: arguably the most vital position a team can have, is now being broken down into smaller components, and adding new help in coping with their goalie workload is being prioritized by numerous franchises. 

Will it work? The answer will come when the playoffs roll around, and coaches push all their chips behind one of their two goaltenders, hoping they can match or outplay the likes of a Price or Vasilevskiy. Only then will we see whether this ride on the goalie carousel was worth it.

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