Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: goalies are voodoo.
These days, very few goalies strike fear into shooters’ hearts on a consistent basis. Ultra-elite superstars like Andrei Vasilevskiy and Connor Hellebuyck are among those who do. But it’s more common to see some level of volatility among the league’s top netminders year-over-year. Marc-Andre Fleury took Vegas to the Stanley Cup final in its first year, lost the crease to Robin Lehner last season, and then took it back and may have won a Vezina in the process this year. In recent memory, rookies Jordan Binnington and Matt Murray (twice) have propelled their teams to Cups. And both subsequently floundered.
The crease guardian role is unquestionably hockey’s most capricious position. But that’s what makes this season’s UFA crop of goalies so interesting. Make the right call as a GM, and you could get yourself a temporary superstar. Make the wrong call, and you can saddle yourself with an albatross deal.
So, over the next week, I’ll break down the 2021 UFA goalie market, while grouping them by certain common characteristics. Today, we start with a triumvirate of stoppers who had fantastic 2020-21 seasons but have question marks about their play’s sustainability.
Philipp Grubauer – Colorado Avalanche
Question Mark(s): Full-time starter experience; difficulty of 2020-21 sample
Philipp Grubauer picked the perfect time to have a career year. The 29-year-old German tended twine for the powerhouse Avalanche, earning his maiden Vezina Trophy nomination in the process. Among qualified goalies (17 games or more), Grubauer finished second in wins (30) and goals-against average (1.95), and his .922 save percentage ranked eighth. Grubauer’s seven shutouts also tied him with Semyon Varlamov for the league lead.
Grubauer will now become a UFA for the first time in his nine-season NHL career. The Avs will certainly make a play to retain his services but will first have to allocate much of their $25.5 million in cap space toward extensions for captain Gabriel Landeskog and RFA Cale Makar. Would-be Avalanche backup Pavel Francouz missed all of 2020-21 with a lower-body injury and goalie-of-the-future Justus Annunen isn’t ready, which will increase pressure on GM Joe Sakic to keep Grubauer around.
Grubauer could be wise to return to Colorado on a short-term pact. Their stalwart defense keeps his crease clean and could give him a larger sample of starter-caliber play – 2020-21 was Grubauer’s first healthy season as a full-time starter – to cash in on in the future. But another goalie-needy team may be better positioned to offer Grubauer a lucrative medium- or long-term deal – especially if they’re dazzled by the Vezina nomination.
Should Grubauer depart, the Avs can rest assured knowing their 5-on-5 defense contributed substantially to Grubauer’s sparkling numbers. Among the 54 goalies to play at least 17 games in 2020-21, Grubauer had the lowest expected goals against per hour (tied with Jaroslav Halak) and faced the fourth-fewest high-danger shots/60.
Mike Smith – Edmonton Oilers
Question Mark(s): Age; consistency
What a difference a year made for veteran stopper Mike Smith. The Kingston, Ont., native had a tumultuous first foray with Edmonton in 2019-20 – to the tune of a .902 SP – despite periods of scorching play and a Battle of Alberta scrap with former Oiler Cam Talbot that would forever endear him to the Edmonton faithful. But when Smith was off, he was downright abysmal. That included a disastrous start in Game 1 in the play-in round against Chicago that saw Smith allow five goals on 23 shots in a losing effort.
Smith’s 2019-20 SP was in the bottom-third of his 15-season career and came in his age-37 season, making it slightly vexing when, on Oct. 10, 2020, Oilers GM Ken Holland re-signed him to a one-year deal worth up to $2 million.
But goalies. Are. Voodoo.
Smith missed the start of 2020-21 with injury, forcing Mikko Koskinen into every-night duty for Edmonton’s first 13 games. Koskinen struggled mightily and, when Smith came back, he immediately wrested the crease from his Finnish battery mate. Smith started 30 of the Oilers' final 43 regular-season games and shone behind a middling Oilers defense. He posted a .923 SP, the second-best in his career and the best single-season SP in Oilers history. Per moneypuck.com, Smith ranked second in goals-saved above expected per hour, ahead of superstar stoppers like Hellebuyck and Vasilevskiy.
Smith performed well in the playoffs, but Edmonton was ousted by Hellebuyck’s otherworldly first-round effort.
He becomes a 39-year-old UFA this summer and could be a decent stopgap for a team in search of a 1B, though it’d be unwise to expect him to replicate his 2020-21 heroics. Oilers bench boss Dave Tippett has coached Smith in 10 of Smith’s 15 seasons and for three separate franchises. The greybeard may be most comfortable returning to the City of Champions.
Chris Driedger – Florida Panthers
Question Mark(s): NHL experience; minor-league consistency; difficulty of 2020-21 sample
Chris Driedger will be the biggest wildcard among the free-agent goalies in the 2021 cohort. Driedger, who hails from Winnipeg, Man., turned 27 on May 18 and has commanded the crease in just 38 career NHL contests, 23 of which came this season.
Before 2019-20, the sum of Driedger’s NHL experience was three relief appearances spaced across three seasons (one in each) with the Ottawa Senators, in which he played just under 95 total minutes.
Ottawa selected Driedger 76th overall in the 2012 draft and opted against re-signing him following a difficult 2017-18 season, the bulk of which he spent with ECHL Brampton. Before that, in 92 games across five seasons with Ottawa’s AHL affiliate, Driedger had a .905 SP and a 3.08 GA. The Baby Sens teams on which he played were poor, but his shoddy play allowed Filip Gustavsson and Marcus Hogberg to pass him in the pecking order, and the Senators had just selected Kevin Mandolese in the 2018 draft, so Driedger was on the outs.
Driedger played much of 2018-19 on a minor-league pact with the Springfield Thunderbirds, Florida’s AHL affiliate. He acquitted himself well in his time there – leading the AHL in SP – and eventually earned an NHL contract with the Panthers, which he signed on Feb. 24, 2019. Driedger wouldn’t get any NHL time in 2018-19 despite the mid-season signing but re-upped for two more years with the Cats in April 2019.
He split 2019-20 between the AHL and NHL, performing well at both levels, but it wasn’t until this season Driedger would become one of the league’s breakout stars.
With incumbent starter Sergei Bobrovsky sputtering in the early stages of 2020-21, the Panthers turned to Driedger to provide stability at the last line of defense. In 23 games, Driedger posted a .927 SP – tied with Juuse Saros for fourth among qualified goalies – and a 2.07 GAA (fifth). Not bad for a guy making $850,000 per season, to Bobrovsky’s $10 million.
Bobrovsky got the nod for Game 1 of the playoffs against Tampa Bay but performed poorly in a losing effort and ceded the net to Driedger, who started Games 2 and 3. Unfortunately for the upstart South Florida netminder, the playoffs didn’t go quite so swimmingly, and he would ultimately get pulled in Game 3. The two goalies again traded the net in Game 4 – this time Bobrovsky started but yielded to Driedger mid-game – before rookie Spencer Knight would step in for Games 5 and 6.
It was a disappointing end to the season for all involved, but it hardly undid Driedger’s splendid season. If anything will give teams pause about Driedger’s year, it’s that Florida did an incredible job at facilitating his crease duties. Driedger ranked 10th in lowest xGA/60 among the 54 goalies to play at least 17 games and faced the fewest high-danger shots per hour of any of those netminders.
That’s not to say the above undoes his work either, however. Driedger’s goals-saved above expected/60 of 0.132 was identical to Grubauer’s, tying the pair for 11th among qualified goalies. But a more porous defense could see Driedger's numbers regress behind it.
Driedger is coming off a contract that paid him just $1.7 million in two seasons. He’s due a raise, but the question is how substantial it will be. And who'll be paying. Florida is unlikely to have room unless they unload Bobrovsky's albatross deal, and have Knight waiting in the wings anyway. Driedger has a minuscule NHL sample but has consistently posted good numbers in the AHL and NHL the past three seasons. He could provide a team with a 1B goalie at a reasonable ticket on a short- to medium-term deal.