Evgeni Nabokov had a 44-16-10 record for San Jose this past season. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
There are 44 NHL (or NHLish) goaltenders set to enter some sort of free agency come July 1. Not all are very good; many of the restricted variety will simply sign with their current squads and some lesser lights will fade away to European or minor pro leagues.
But there are a number of intriguing names and possibilities out there. And there is a Presidents’ Trophy winner and conference and Stanley Cup finalists out there without a legitimate No. 1 goalie on the books. The Canadiens got things going with their – inexplicable to many – trade of restricted free agent Jaroslav Halak to St. Louis. And Boston’s Tim Thomas – not a free agent – is rumored to be available for the low, low price of “take his cap hit off our hands.” If Thomas moves, it will further squeeze the netminders on the open market.
But who are those guys; the 27 unrestricted free agent goalies? Who are the best of the bunch? And why? We’re here to tell you. This is THN.com’s Top 10 unrestricted free agent goaltenders.
10. Ray Emery
The ‘Combustible One’ would be higher on this list if his health wasn’t in question. He missed 45 games this season with abdominal and groin injuries, then had hip surgery that has left some questioning if he’ll ever be able to play again. But, at 27, he’s the youngest player on our list, will come cheap and has proven that if his head is in it, he can take a team deep into the playoffs.
9. Martin Biron
Lost in the wilderness that is the New York Islanders, Biron did not have a good season, posting a 3.27 goals-against average and an .896 save percentage. The 32-year-old is no longer the starter he was when he won 30 of 62 games with Philly in 2007-08, recording five shutouts and a .918 SP along the way. But he’d be a better-than-average backup if he just had an average team in front of him.
8. Jose Theodore
Theodore had an up-and-down campaign this year, winning the No. 1 job in Washington after losing it to Semyon Varlamov during the 2009 playoffs. The 33-year-old then won the starter’s job back again after losing it for a time mid-season (he lost one decision in regulation after Dec. 28) and then lost it again during the 2010 post-season. He won’t get anywhere near the $4.5 million he was paid this year, but could be a capable backup.
7. Johan Hedberg
Hedberg is 37, which makes him the oldest on our list, but he had the second-highest SP of anyone listed (.915) and the third-best GAA (2.62) while playing for the lowly Atlanta Thrashers this season. His performance was enough to supplant Ondrej Pavelec by December after the youngster was anointed No. 1 early in the season. Despite his age, Hedberg can obviously still play enough to push for minutes.
6. Michael Leighton
The 29-year-old’s regular season was brutal while playing sparingly with Carolina, but got better with Philadelphia before he injured his ankle in mid-March. But when Brian Boucher went down, Leighton’s post-season was, generally, outstanding; he led the league in GAA and shutouts and was second in SP en route to coming within two wins of the Cup. Is Leighton a bona fide No. 1? Probably not. But he’s proven he can carry the load when called upon.
5. Dan Ellis
Ellis is 30, so he’s not old; he was recently supplanted by a youngster, so he is hungry; and, he had the best save percentage in the league two seasons ago when he supplanted Chris Mason in Nashville, so he can play. But he won’t command much (there’s a bet between two THNers on what he’ll sign for, the over-under is $2.5 million after he played for $2 million this season), which will make Ellis intriguing for capped-out teams such as Philadelphia and Washington.
4. Chris Mason
Mason had better numbers than Ellis on a worse team, so he gets the nod over his former teammate despite being four years older. His career numbers are excellent – 2.54 GAA, .914 SP, more wins than losses of any kind and 20 shutouts. Mason earned $3 million this season and should command about the same on a short-term deal.
3. Antero Niittymaki
This guy could be the steal of the UFA goalie market. He played for $600,000 this season and stole the No. 1 job in Tampa away from Mike Smith, whom the Lightning basically traded Brad Richards for. He was the Calder Cup MVP in 2005 and named the goalie of the tournament at the 2006 Olympics, but has never had the chance to start the season as a No. 1 or really been given any leeway for error. He’ll get a raise this summer, but like others here, won’t command anything too prohibitive.
2. Marty Turco
Turco, 34, bounced back this season after a horrendous 2008-09 campaign. But Dallas cut bait with him when the Stars traded for oft-injured Kari Lehtonen and handed the Finn the starter’s job as soon as he was able to play. That means Turco is truly on the open market. Don’t be surprised to see him take his stickhandling, veteran presence and pedigree to a contender for whatever it can afford to pay him. Turco will be out to prove a point.
1. Evgeni Nabokov
Nabokov, too, has something to prove. The 34-year-old is one of the Sharks – and Russians – whose play is most often raised when talk of disappointing results is on people’s lips. But he was fifth in games played this season (71), 10th in GAA (2.43), sixth in SP (.922) and only Colorado’s Craig Anderson faced more total shots. So Nabokov’s a workhorse. But he’ll want pretty big bucks, so it’s a bit of a buyer-beware scenario, if you believe Nabokov really was one of the big problems in San Jose.
The THN.com Top 10 appears Wednesdays only on TheHockeyNews.com.
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