Antti Niemi. (Photo by Rocky Widner/Getty Images)
The goalie market is flooded with all sorts of capable options, which has killed the trade market at the position. It's becoming harder to justify spending a lot on the position, unless you have one of the top four or five in the game. These five starters could lose their jobs with their current teams this season.
You've got to be some kind of crazy to be a goalie. Not only do you have to regularly deal with frozen chunks of rubber flying towards you at rifling speeds, but you're also the last line of defense and, therefore, the first one to blame when things go wrong.
The landscape has been changing at the position, too. In the Dead Puck Era, you needed a proven high-end goalie to compete and spending a lot of money on the position seemed a smart thing to do. But in the cap era, priorities have changed. The game is faster and becoming more based on possession, so you need to spend money on those types of players to keep up.
Paying big money to one goalie today is a dangerous game to play. You can count on one hand the number of consistently excellent goalies in the NHL who are worth large, long-term investments. The market is flooded with all sorts of good, cheaper options to fill the position, which has made the goalie trade market by far the weakest of any position. If you're not afraid of the unknown, it may be a smarter move to let a goalie walk if he asks for too much money or term, in favor of a younger goalie in the system, or a cheaper one available via free agency or trade. Aside from the top four or five goalies in the NHL, you're better off spending less money and term on the position.
Which brings us to this list of goalies who may lose their starting jobs this season. Some are up for contract renewal, while others have a cheaper player behind them waiting to break in. There are some Stanley Cup winners here, but unfortunately for them, goaltender is the most "what have you done for me lately" position. They may not be worth the pay day anymore.
Here are five goalies who could lose their No. 1 jobs this season.
1. Cam Ward
Ward actually did lose the starting job to Anton Khudobin last season, but the team still believes in his ability as a No. 1.
“We still believe he can be an elite goalie in this league,” Canes GM Ron Francis said to the Raleigh News and Observer. “By the same token, Cam understands what he needs to do to get back to that level. He could have done one of two things in the off-season – either sit back and relax, or work twice as hard toward having a better year. From what I have heard, he chose to work hard.”
Ward has struggled with all sorts of injuries in recent years and saw his save percentage sink to .898 while his GAA rose to 3.06 last year. Those were his worst totals since 2006-07. Meanwhile Khudobin, who came over from Boston, posted .926 and 2.30 totals in six more appearances.
Both goalies are signed for two more years: Ward at $6.3 million, Khudobin at $2.25 million. Khudobin is also two years younger and will likely never cost as much as Ward does right now. So, being a budget team, the Hurricanes would probably prefer Khudobin keep up his play and take the job from Ward.
If Ward is relegated to the backup position, there's no easy way out for Carolina. His trade value is already low and if he doesn't recover, he'll have no trade value at all. And it's not ideal to have a $6 million-plus player collecting his pay from the bench.
2. Marc Andre Fleury
It's a big year for Fleury. GM Jim Rutherford has said the Penguins goalie will start the season without a contract extension, forcing him to earn a new deal and a spot as Pittsburgh's No. 1 goalie. And this is after Fleury posted one of his better seasons from start to finish. Fleury's regular season totals (.915 SP, 2.37 GAA) were very similar to what he did in the playoffs (.915 SP, 2.40 GAA). But because he struggled in a few playoffs before that, there's serious worry about his consistency - the most important trait for a goalie to have.
Investing an extension in Fleury would be a big deal. Right now he makes $5 million and as a pending UFA, will seek a raise on his next contract. The Penguins need to figure out this season if he's worth such a heavy investment - considering the amount of cash they have sunk into other parts of the lineup. On the open market, Fleury will still get paid big.
Pushing Fleury will be Thomas Greiss, a 28-year-old who has surprisingly good numbers in the NHL. Last season with Arizona, Greiss stepped in for an injured Mike Smith and posted a .920 SP and 2.29 GAA in 25 games. The German is currently making $1 million and is also a pending UFA.
Greiss probably won't become the next No. 1 goalie of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but if he posts strong numbers and Fleury falters, he could wiggle himself into a tandem job in 2015-16. At the very least, he gives the Penguins a cheap safety net if Fleury falls apart in the playoffs again. Unlike Carolina, Pittsburgh doesn't have a realistic No. 1 replacement ready to step in, but they have to take their time with Fleury this season and honestly ask: is he worth a significant investment, or is there better value elsewhere?
3. Antti Niemi
There was nothing terribly wrong with Niemi's regular season in 2013-14. He had a 2.39 GAA and .913 SP, which are fairly average totals for an NHL starter and his 39 wins were tied for second in the league. But the playoffs were a different story. The Sharks, of course, won the first three games against the Kings, but in Games 4 and 5 Niemi was pulled and Alex Stalock started Game 6. In the end, Niemi's playoff stats were awful: 3.74 GAA, .884 SP.
Niemi will probably be the starter out of the gate for the Sharks, but don't be surprised if Stalock supplants him along the way. Sharks GM Doug Wilson talked about making the team younger and handing the roster off to a new generation of leaders, but while major change didn't happen this off-season the team likely won't continue on with the status quo. Joe Thornton is no longer captain, Patrick Marleau is no longer an assistant and both players may see minor decreases in ice time. The goalie situation is also fluid.
Stalock is a 27-year-old with limited NHL experience. But he did get into 24 games last season - a career high - and posted a .932 save percentage and 1.87 GAA. Amidst the playoff collapse, Stalock posted 2.05 and .929 numbers against the Kings. He's also under contract for two more years at a $1.6 million cap hit, whereas Niemi is a pending UFA making $3.8 million. The Sharks will want to see what they have in Stalock so they can judge whether or not they need to invest in Niemi for stability. Because of this, Niemi is at risk of losing his job as a No. 1 and either slipping into a tandem or backup position this season.
4. Craig Anderson
When Robin Lehner signed a three-year extension with the Senators at a $2.25 million cap hit (excellent value), the initial reaction was that he'd soon take the No. 1 job from Anderson. Not so fast. Shortly after that, Anderson signed a three-year extension himself, that runs through the 2017-18 season with a $4.2 million cap hit.
The problem with Anderson is his inconsistency. His save percentages the past three seasons in Ottawa have been .911, .941 and .913. In Colorado, he went .917, then .897. Not since his days with the Florida Panthers has Anderson played at a consistently high level - and at 33, it's going to get harder for him to do so.
Last year, Anderson played 53 games and if his up-and-down stat pattern continues, this should be a good year for him. But again, he's going to be 33 years old.
The Senators would like Lehner, 23, to be their goalie of the future, but in signing Anderson, they don't seem convinced Lehner's capable of it yet and wanted some security. Lehner posted a .913 save percentage in 36 games last season and will probably see at least that much time this season so he doesn't rot on the bench. Anderson goes into the year as the No. 1, but odds are this becomes a 1a, 1b tandem situation. However, if Anderson falters and doesn't have the bounce back year this time, Lehner could take a majority of the starts.
5. Brian Elliott
Last season, the Blues paid way too much for Ryan Miller in a trade because they didn't believe Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott would take them to the Cup. Of course, they didn't win the Cup anyway and enter this season with Elliott as the No. 1 goalie.
"This is Brian Elliott's job. He's earned it," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said to NHL.com this summer. "When we traded for Ryan Miller we were obligated to give Ryan every opportunity, but nobody lost sight of how good Brian Elliott was the whole year."
Elliott is capable of having fine numbers. Last year he had a very nice .922 save percentage. But he has struggled with consistency too. In 2012-13, his SP was down at .907. The Blues can't afford to get tripped up by their goaltending, so if Elliott slips again, they'll look at other options.
And topping that list of options is Jake Allen, who led the American League with a 2.03 GAA and .928 SP last season. The 24-year-old is the prized goalie of the future who could soon become the goalie of the present.
The Blues' Stanley Cup window is clearly open and they'll do whatever they think gives them the best chance to win. If it becomes obvious that Allen gives them a better shot than Elliott, the roles in the crease will change.