Earlier this week, we looked at teams in the Eastern Conference who could make significant changes at goaltender this off-season. Now it’s time to examine the Western Conference. I estimate as many as five teams in the West could have new starters for 2020-21. The Pacific Division’s Canadian teams in particular have potential for major upheavals.
CALGARY FLAMES: Re-sign Talbot or chase a big-ticket starting goalie?
The sum of David Rittich’s and Cam Talbot’s efforts in 2019-20 amounted to…adequate? Rittich’s inconsistency eventually opened the door for Talbot to take over as the starter. He was outstanding this season and carried that work into play-in round, outduelling the probable Vezina Trophy winner, Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck. Talbot is a UFA, and it appeared he was playing his way into a longer look as a starter next season, but things ended on a horrible note. He allowed four goals on 15 shots in Calgary’s season-ending loss to the Dallas Stars in Game 6, which included him getting pulled for the second period and returning for the third.
So does that finish leave a bad aftertaste for Flames GM Brad Treliving? Will the Flames still consider bringing Talbot back, or will they pursue a starter with a stronger long-term track record? Fellow UFA Braden Holtby, who hails from Lloydminster, Sask., comes to mind immediately, and he’s not the only top-end starter potentially available. It’s still possible, albeit not too likely, that Jacob Markstrom and Robin Lehner hit the open market, while the likes of Frederik Andersen and Matt Murray could be available via trade. Heck, if Corey Crawford decides he doesn’t want to take a discount in Chicago, there’s another intriguing name in the mix. Speaking of which…
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: Will Crawford take a discount?
Crawford, 35, is a UFA. Staying healthy was a significant concern in recent seasons as he dealt with scary concussion issues, but 2019-20 marked a resurgence for him. He didn’t get enough credit for just how good he was. On the worst defensive team in the NHL – one of the worst defensive teams of the decade, actually – he faced the fourth most shots per 60 and the most high-danger shots per 60 and had the second-highest expected goals against per 60 among 54 NHL goalies who played 1,000 or more minutes at 5-on-5. Amazingly, he managed the 12th-best save percentage, fifth-best high-danger SP and 12th-best goals saved above average per 60. Performing that well with a workload as difficult as any goalie’s, Crawford was one of the best in the game this season.
So the Hawks are justified in wanting him back. The problem is, because of their salary-cap constraints, they can only retain him if he’s willing to take a discount. According to The Athletic’s Scott Powers, they’ve offered a one-year, $3.5-million contract, which is quite a step down from his freshly completed six-year pact which carried a $6-million AAV. If he decides to choose financial opportunity over comfort and stability, Chicago will have to find a cheap veteran. A crease tandem of Malcolm Subban and Collin Delia arguably would be the league’s weakest.
EDMONTON OILERS: Time for a major upgrade in net
Even more so than the Flames, the Oilers are desperate for improved goaltending. It was the reason they flopped against the Chicago Blackhawks during the play-ins. Edmonton held the edge in shot attempts, shots on goal, scoring chances and high-danger chances at 5-on-5, but Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen couldn’t stop the puck, logging an .855 SP at 5-on-5 in the series.
Smith, 38, is a UFA. Yes, he’s a superb puckhandler whose passion is infectious, but it would be a dead-end move to re-sign him after the post-season showed he doesn’t have much left in the tank. Koskinen, 32, was above average as Edmonton’s starter during the regular season but hasn’t shown he’s a dependable workhorse in high-stakes games yet. Edmonton needs to start making deeper playoff runs during Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl’s peak years. The Oilers can’t be sweating every time the other team has the puck.
They need a proven starter, even if that means GM Ken Holland makes an aggressive play. Between Holtby, Lehner, Markstrom, Andersen and Murray or even an upside project like Alexandar Georgiev – one of them needs to be an Oiler next season. Holland has to go for it. As of today, The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reported the Oilers have kicked the tires on Murray already – but also that they haven’t ruled out bringing back Smith. If the latter happens, the fan base would have every right to revolt and treat it as an outright failure. Only two goalies in the NHL (min. 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5) graded out with a worse GSAA/60 than Smith this season: Martin Jones and Jimmy Howard.
VANCOUVER CANUCKS: Keep Markstrom or roll with Demko as the No. 1?
Even two or three weeks ago, it didn’t feel like there was even a question that the Canucks would do whatever it takes to re-sign starter and 2020 All-Star Game invitee Markstrom. But Demko’s superhuman performance against the Vegas Golden Knights in the playoffs had to raise some eyebrows. Remember, it’s not like Demko came out of nowhere. He was drafted with high expectations, projected as a future star, and appeared for years on our lists of the top goaltending prospects in the game. Demko was always supposed to become a success. If he’s ready to be a No. 1, would it make sense to let another team buy high on Markstrom? He was tremendous this year in his age-30 season, and he, too, arrived in the NHL with elite prospect pedigree, but Markstrom’s breakout came in his 10th year in the league. He was more of a dependable 1B type before that.
Canucks GM Benning made it clear this week he wants Markstrom back and likes a strong tandem given the team’s difficult travel schedule. The platoon model is more common and important than ever around the league, so Vancouver could succeed with Markstrom playing 50 games and Demko 30 or so. But Markstrom has played his way into starter’s money and a longish-term commitment. If you bring him back, you’d be giving him both of those, which would essentially block Demko from getting his long-term look at the starter.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS: The Lehner/Fleury decision
At this point, it doesn’t matter how many courtesy starts Marc-Andre Fleury receives during Vegas’ playoff run. The sword-through-the-back tweet from agent Allan Walsh spoke volumes. Fleury’s time as Vegas’ starter appears done, assuming the Golden Knights can strike up a long-term deal with Robin Lehner.
Lehner, 29, has earned a commitment of a significant dollar value. He’s been a top-five goalie in the league the past two seasons. The Athletic’s Jesse Granger indicated this week that talks have already begun. There’s mutual interest in a long-term partnership, clearly. If we estimate a commitment of, say, five years and $30 million, that would mean spending $13 million on goaltending since Fleury has two years left at a $7-million AAV. So Fleury would have to go.
But it shouldn’t be a difficult contract to move, especially if Vegas retains some salary in a trade. Fleury, 35, is still a capable NHL starter, and acquiring him with just two seasons left on his deal isn’t a burdensome proposition. There would surely be interest league-wide, and his no-trade clause isn’t overly prohibitive. It includes a list of 10 teams to which he won’t accept a deal, leaving 20 possible landing spots.
Advanced stats courtesy of naturalstattrick.com