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THN.com Blog: NHL free agent goalies having tumultuous off-season

Marty Turco has 262 career wins and 40 career shutouts, but hasn't found an NHL employer yet. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

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Marty Turco has 262 career wins and 40 career shutouts, but hasn't found an NHL employer yet. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

The vocation of NHL goaltender has been thrown a wrench this off-season thanks to Stanley Cup winning goalie Antti Niemi and finalist Michael Leighton.

But that’s a good thing.

We just recently closed the book on our 12th annual Ultimate Fantasy Pool Guide. (It’s available on newsstands Aug. 7, two months before the start of the season.)

In it, we profile the 40 goaltenders who are expected to play the most this coming season. Yes, we know 60 stoppers start the season with NHL jobs and close to 90 goalies play in the league every season. But really, only about 40 goalies have any value to hockey pool participants. They’re the ones who start 25-plus games a season.

For 19 teams, it’s obvious who the starter is, regardless of what happens in camp. For nine teams, it’s either a shared crease or a battle looms between two stoppers. Those nine teams, by our speculation, will have a 70:30 or closer-to-even workload split. They include: Atlanta (Chris Mason and Ondrej Pavelec), Boston (Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas), Los Angeles (Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier), Islanders (Rick DiPietro and Dwayne Roloson), Ottawa (Brian Elliott and Pascal Leclaire), San Jose (Antero Niittymaki and Thomas Greiss), Tampa Bay (Dan Ellis and Mike Smith), Toronto (Jonas Gustavsson and J-S Giguere) and Washington (Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth).

For the remaining two teams – the Cup finalists no less – who knows what’s going to happen. Chicago’s Niemi is a restricted free agent on his way to arbitration. Philadelphia has Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher under contract, but you can’t help but have the feeling the Flyers would love an upgrade at some point.

By getting as far as they did in the playoffs with unheralded goaltenders, the Hawks and Flyers are making that a fashionable trend.

The Washington Capitals were happy that Jose Theodore’s $4.5 million deal expired so that either Varlamov or Neuvirth – at less than $2 million combined – can do a Niemi and run with the ball to a Cup title.

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It didn’t really surprise us much that when Evgeni Nabokov’s $5.4 million a season deal expired, the Sharks elected to use that money elsewhere. It did surprise us that they figured a combination of sometimes-hot Niittymaki and unproven Greiss could get the team over the hump at just more than $2.5 million combined.

So what happens next?

If Chicago isn’t happy with an arbitration ruling on Niemi – say in excess of $3.5 million – would the cap-crunched Hawks walk away and make a pitch to UFA Marty Turco for a couple mil and the opportunity to win a Stanley Cup at 35? Maybe Theodore? In the meantime, Corey Crawford gets 20-25 games as backup and, who knows, maybe he becomes the next Niemi.

Then where would Niemi play if the Hawks walk away from his one-year deal? Back in Europe?

Nabokov took himself off the market by signing in Russia for a reported $6 million. He didn’t have much of a choice. He wasn’t going to reduce his price tag. But how many teams could afford a goalie who has finished in top five voting for the Vezina each of the past three seasons?

Let’s not forget Tomas Vokoun – a UFA in 2011 – will be a market player at some point this season. If the goaltending experiments don’t work out in Philly or San Jose or Washington or anywhere else, Vokoun would be a great glove to have in the spring.

And it should be pointed out Vokoun’s $5.7 million cap hit is far beyond the budget of most contending teams now, but gets cheaper as the 2010-11 season starts to expire. By mid-February, Vokoun’s cap hit will be $1.5 million or so, making him a valuable commodity.

As for now, what other options do Turco and Theodore have for 2010-11? Europe or a cut-rate deal?

Next move is Chicago’s.

Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior special editions editor and a regular contributor to THN.com with his blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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