This is the third blog in a series that examines this summer’s UFA crop of goalies. Because there are so many fascinating free-agent tenders to look at, I’ve grouped several by some defining characteristic for each blog and then examined them in further detail.
For more context and to read the first entry in this series, click here.
Today, we look at three UFAs-to-be who spent the 2020-21 season with NHL cellar-dwellers. As a result, the trio may not have the dazzling numbers of some other members of the cohort, but each has at least some upside. So don’t be too alarmed if your team grabs one of these guys in the off-season, even if your initial reaction is unfavorable.
Jonathan Bernier – Detroit Red Wings
You may scoff, but Jonathan Bernier is a more interesting case than many give him credit for. Though his name still carries some stink from the much-maligned end to his tenure with Toronto, Bernier’s three-year stint with Detroit was quietly commendable.
His time in Toronto started auspiciously enough. The six-foot, 185-pound goalie arrived in Toronto as the apparent goalie of the future after being acquired from Los Angeles on June 23, 2013. Bernier, 24 at the time, was a hyped prospect but was stuck behind Jonathan Quick in L.A.
In his first two years in Blue and White, Bernier had a 47-47-14 record, with a .917 save percentage and 2.79 goals-against average in 113 contests as the 1A to James Reimer's 1B. Solid numbers behind porous Leafs teams.
But then 2015-16 happened. Because of the market it came in, the disastrous campaign still tinges his legacy to this day. Bernier faltered badly on an obviously-tanking Leafs team, even earning a ‘get right’ stint with the AHL Marlies in December of 2015. Bernier started just 36 NHL games – by far his fewest as a Leaf – and his penchant for allowing bad goals lost management's confidence.
The Leafs brought Frederik Andersen in that off-season and subsequently shipped Bernier to Anaheim. Bernier then spent one season as a backup in Anaheim and another as a backup in Colorado, playing well and even earning playoff starts in both years.
On July 1, 2018, Bernier signed a three-year, $9-million deal with Detroit. Back on a team in the doldrums, Bernier’s raw numbers regressed to well below league average. But taking a closer look, things aren’t so bad.
In the past two seasons, Bernier has a record of 24-33-4, with a .909 SP and 2.96 GAA in 70 games. In that same period, all other Detroit goalies combined have a 12-43-11 record, with a .891 SP and 3.47 GAA. That’s a 70-point pace for Detroit in Bernier’s decisions and a 43-point pace with anyone else in net.
The Laval, Que., native has also been positively shelled over those two seasons. Among the 48 goalies to play at least 42 games in that time, nobody faced a higher rate of high-danger shots. Bernier was also top-four in shots against, expected goals against and high-danger saves (all per-60, per naturalstattrick.com).
Bernier turns 33 before next season. He’s shown an ability to hold up well on some dreadful defensive teams. A fishbowl market like he had in Toronto may not be the best for him, but he could thrive as a veteran backup elsewhere. Though not ideal, he could be squeezed into starter’s duties in a pinch.
Linus Ullmark – Buffalo Sabres
The Buffalo Sabres haven’t had a whole lot break their way over the past decade-plus. The team hasn’t been to the playoffs since the 2010-11 season and hasn’t won a playoff series since 2006-07. They’ve drafted in the top 10 in each of the past eight years, sent Ryan O’Reilly out of town for practically nothing – only to have him win the Conn Smythe a year later – and seem to have alienated franchise player Jack Eichel.
So, Linus Ullmark’s emergence as a dependable NHL goalie has been a much-needed change of pace. The Sabres chose Ullmark in the sixth round of the 2012 draft from Modo in Sweden. He stayed overseas for the next three seasons. That included a sparkling 2013-14 campaign that saw him earn Honken Trophy honors as the SHL’s top goalie and lead the top Swedish league with a .931 SP in 35 games.
Upon his arrival in North America, the big Swede was immediately thrown into the fire, starting 20 games on a 2015-16 Buffalo team a year removed from their McDavid-tank attempt. At just 22, Ullmark responded well – to the tune of a .913 SP and 2.60 GAA – but was eventually sent to the AHL mid-season. He rejoined the Sabres for one start at the end of the year.
But over the subsequent two seasons, Ullmark saw just six more NHL games with the Sabres, instead spending most of his time with AHL Rochester. His 2016-17 was feeble on a bottom-dwelling Rochester team, but he took a giant bound forward in 2017-18, helping the Americans to the playoffs and finishing tied for sixth in the AHL in SP (.922).
That was all the seasoning Ullmark needed. He's spent the past three seasons with Buffalo, though injuries have limited him to just 91 games. He posted a 41-34-11 record, with a .911 SP and 2.85 GAA across the three seasons. The 2020-21 season – despite the rest franchise seemingly imploding around him – was the best, as Ullmark posted a career-best SP (.917) and a 2.63 GAA right in line with his 2015-16 high-water mark.
Ullmark enters free agency shortly before his 28th birthday, and with just 112 NHL starts on his resume. Buffalo may be wise to retain Ullmark’s services as a bridge to top-prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. His play is encouraging, especially given the context it came in this season, and, as a younger UFA, he could have new heights still to unlock. But injuries are a major concern – Ullmark missed 17 games in 2019-20 and a further 29 this season.
David Rittich – Toronto Maple Leafs
Put the pitchforks away, Leafs fans, David Rittich is included in this grouping for spending the balance of the season in Calgary.
The man they call ‘Big Save Dave’ just hasn’t been quite right since the infamous stick-flip incident with Leon Draisaitl.
In 58 starts between 2017-18 and 2018-19, Rittich was a dependable, if unspectacular, backup for the Flames. He was also trending in the right direction, taking a significant step forward in both workload and results in his second full season in Cowtown in '18-19.
And 2019-20 seemed to be following the same path, with Rittich commanding the starter’s role for the first time in his career, ahead of Cam Talbot. Up to and including the Flames’ 4-3 win over Edmonton on Jan. 29, 2020, Rittich had posted a 20-12-5 record, with a .913 SP and 2.77 GAA in 37 contests. That game finished with Rittich pokechecking Draisaitl to end the shootout, securing a Flames win. Rittich’s emphatic celebration drew the ire of his provincial rivals and elicited much media attention.
It may be a coincidence, but the decline in his play since then has been stark. He was shelled for six goals on 28 shots the next time out – in a fiery Battle of Alberta – and rocked a .885 SP in 11 games from then on. Talbot wrested control of the crease from Rittich and would eventually start each of Calgary’s 10 playoff games.
Rittich had a dreadful 2020-21 season, easily his worst in the NHL. Calgary fell apart at the seams, but Rittich’s workload was relatively average in terms of dangerous shot metrics, and he posted career-worsts in SP (.901) and goals-saved above expected (minus-0.193).
Reading too much into it? Well, sure. But the Czech goalie does seem to be in his own head now. He outwardly let his frustrations get to him, expressing anger at being pulled multiple times, including headbutting a door after a poor outing in Ottawa.
The 6-foot-3, 206-pound goalie will be 29 next season. If he can reclaim his pre-stick-flip form, he could be a bargain for his next team. But, at this point, relying on him for anything more than a secondary role would be unwise.