Goalie Merry-Go-Round

Over the course of the next two weeks, the balance of power in the NHL will unquestionably shift. Tonight, the NHL will begin its annual Entry Draft in Columbus, and as is typical at this time of the year, trade rumors are running rampant. An incredibly difficult exercise, the draft forces NHL general managers to project the potential of 17- and 18-year old players who in all likelihood won’t suit up for their first NHL game for at least 2-3 years.

Part of what makes the task so difficult is that with the exception of one two-week tournament—the World Junior Championships—the competition these prospects face is spread across the globe. Needless to say, comparing a player in the Swedish Elite League (competing against seasoned professionals) with one in the Western Hockey League (competing against other youngsters) is a nearly impossible task.

But the challenge of the draft is part of what makes it so very important. Just as the free agent market played a critical role in the Ducks’ Cup win, so too did the draft. Not only did they select two-thirds of their dangerous second line (Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry) in the 2003 Entry Draft, but two other draft picks (Joffrey Lupul and Ladislav Smid) were the centerpiece of the trade that brought Norris Trophy finalist Chris Pronger to Anaheim last summer.

Much is made of the importance of the draft in constructing a winner in today’s NHL, and with good reason. The salary cap severely limits each team’s ability to plug holes in the depth chart via free agency, and it’s mission critical for Cup contenders that a number of critical roles are filled by talented youngsters on entry-level contracts.

But goaltenders in particular take a considerable amount of time to develop, and so draft picks (and prospects) are often used as collateral when teams need an upgrade between the pipes. And this is especially true this year, likely to be the first since 1992 in which the first round passes without a single goaltender selected. With that in mind, trades and free agency are the only short-term opportunities for improvement.

With the Ducks’ re-signing of Jean-Sebastien Giguere to a four-year, $24 million contract, the market for free agent goaltenders has been severely weakened, and so the trade route is likely the only way to go. Last spring, the Maple Leafs acquired former Calder Trophy winner Andrew Raycroft from the Bruins, surrendering heralded Finnish goaltending prospect Tuukka Rask in the deal. Raycroft’s first season with the Leafs was plagued by inconsistency, though he did finish with a team-record 37 wins, and if Rask emerges as an All-Star in Boston, GM John Ferguson will likely be pilloried for that trade.

Perhaps in an attempt to stem the rising tide against him, Ferguson pulled off another big trade for a goaltender today, sending three draft picks to the San Jose Sharks in exchange for Vesa Toskala and winger Mark Bell. The Sharks get a first round pick in 2007, but if they player they want isn’t available, they have the option to move the pick to 2008 (unless it turns out to be a top 10 pick, in which case it will be moved to 2009). San Jose also received a second-round pick in 2007 and a 2009 fourth-round pick.

Without question, the Leafs’ goaltending will be better with Toskala than without him. But in one fell swoop, Ferguson made it clear that he lacks confidence in Raycroft and put a serious roadblock in the path of heralded prospect Justin Pogge. Clearly, the critical concern for the Leafs is to reach the postseason in 2007-08, and in Ferguson’s view, it would seem that a hard-fought battle for the starting goaltender’s job can only help his struggling team’s cause.

In another trade Nashville GM David Poile continued his team’s salary purge, sending starting netminder Tomas Vokoun to the Florida Panthers in exchange for a 2008 first round pick, a 2007 second round pick, and a conditional second round pick (either 2007 or 2008). As a result of the deal, Chris Mason now takes over as the starter in Nashville.

By landing Vokoun, the Panthers have upgraded dramatically, giving them the bona fide #1 starter they’ve lacked since Roberto Luongo was dealt to the Vancouver Canucks last summer. But Vokoun’s recent injury history–a key reason why the Preds dealt him–should also be of considerable concern to the Panthers.

“We saw Chris Mason emerge as a No. 1 goaltender in 2006-07 and with full confidence in Chris and Pekka Rinne, we felt as if we could make this move,” said Predators general manager David Poile. “Mason won 24 games for us this past season, starting 21 in a row at one point, and finished with the second-highest save percentage in the NHL. In addition, this trade will help restock our organizational assets and affords our team more payroll flexibility. We now have two first-round picks in 2008, which is projected to be a strong entry draft.”

In evaluating these deals, it is also worth noting that precious few NHL teams have a goaltender they can count upon to start 65-70 games and deliver top-notch performances on a consistent basis. In the Western Conference, that list is essentially limited to the Ducks (with Giguere), the Flames (Miikka Kiprusoff), the Canucks (Roberto Luongo), and the Stars (Marty Turco). The Wild (Manny Fernandez and Niklas Backstrom), the Sharks (Evgeni Nabokov and Toskala), and the Predators (Vokoun and Mason) all utilized fairly successful goaltending tandems, but injuries and inconsistency meant that none of them had a bona fide top-tier #1 to depend upon.

From San Jose’s perspective, the Toskala trade allows them to further improve their lineup depth, with Nabokov emerging as their starter during the 2006-07 stretch run and playoffs. But if he flounders in the starting role, GM Doug Wilson will likely come to regret giving up Toskala… unless he acquires another netminder via trade (the Bruins’ Tim Thomas or Hannu Toivonen?) or free agency (perhaps Curtis Joseph?) to provide a crucial safety net.

For the Predators, who are expected to take a huge step backwards following the departures of captain Kimmo Timonen, forward Scott Hartnell, and Vokoun–to say nothing of the expected exits by Peter Forsberg and Paul Kariya–giving the job to Mason makes good sense financially. Expect the Predators to ice a team at or near the team payroll minimum, in what looks like it will be their final season in Nashville.

In the East, things are only slightly more stable. Only four teams–the Devils (Martin Brodeur), the Rangers (Henrik Lundqvist), the Sabres (Ryan Miller), and the Islanders (Rick DiPietro)–have netminders who delivered strong performances between the pipes in both 2005-06 and 2006-07.

Cam Ward, the 2006 Conn Smythe Trophy winner, struggled mightily this season playing behind a porous Hurricanes team. And Ray Emery, whose stellar netminding was a key reason why the Senators reached the Cup Finals, underwent wrist surgery on Thursday, putting his availability for the start of 2007-08 in some doubt.

The rest of the East’s netminders are–like out West–a combination of unproven (Marc-Andre Fleury, Kari Lehtonen), inconsistent (Raycroft, Tim Thomas), and old (Ed Belfour, Olaf Kolzig). And so the acquisitions of Vokoun and Toskala make perfect sense for the Panthers and Leafs, respectively.

It’s also quite likely that the dealing isn’t done, for a number of high-quality netminders are still rumored to be available. And making things particularly interesting, a number of the teams boasting “money in the bank” starting netminders also have top-tier goaltending prospects waiting in the wings. In Anaheim, Ilya Bryzgalov has proven himself capable of starting at the NHL level, and it’s quite probable that he will be dealt at some point in the next month. With Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne both contemplating retirement, the Ducks might find themselves with two huge holes to fill.

In Vancouver, Calgary, and New York, three of hockey’s top goaltending prospects are unlikely to find work with the organizations that currently hold their rights. Cory Schneider has backstopped Boston College to the Frozen Four Final the last two years, but with Luongo tending the pipes for the Canucks, his path to the NHL is blocked. The same also holds true for Leland Irving (Flames) and Alvaro Montoya (Rangers), and there’s good reason to speculate as to whether those three teams would be willing to part with these top prospects in order to move up in tonight’s draft (or to import some high-end talent that can make a more immediate impact).

Tonight, the Blackhawks are expected to select Patrick Kane (London Knights, OHL) first overall, and the Canucks are reportedly attempting to deal for the Flyers’ second overall pick, with which they would select British Columbia native Kyle Turris (such a deal would likely involve the Canucks sending Schneider to Philadelphia). If things do in fact go down that way, Middletown, NJ native James Van Riemsdyk will still be available to the Phoenix Coyotes at number three. The ‘Yotes are incredibly thin in goal, and new GM Don Maloney (formerly Sather’s assistant) thinks very highly of Montoya.

A lifelong Rangers fan, Van Riemsdyk has committed to play for the University of New Hampshire this coming fall. A power forward with excellent finishing skills, he projects to develop into a top-line NHLer. And if the Blueshirts don’t intend to commit at least 15-20 starts to Montoya in 2007-08, dealing the highly touted netminder to Phoenix in exchange for Van Riemsdyk would appear to be a trade that would help both clubs immensely.

Critics might point to the ill-fated selection of Hugh Jessiman (also a Rangers fan) back in 2003, but to do so would be to sell Van Riemsdyk short; he’s no Jessiman. As things stand today, Alex Bourret (acquired from the Atlanta Thrashers in exchange for Pascal Dupuis at the trade deadline) is the Blueshirts’ finest forward prospect. But while Bourret has the potential to develop into a solid second-liner, Van Riemsdyk is on a different level entirely. Put simply, he would immediately become the finest forward prospect in the Rangers’ system.

As far as veteran goaltenders on the move, the Wild are reportedly shopping Fernandez, with the Bruins considered a very likely suitor. Thomas has done a capable job as the team’s starter, but it’s fair to say that the Bruins will need better goaltending than Thomas can provide if they’re to compete for a playoff spot in 2007-08. Young Hannu Toivonen has shown flashes of brilliance, but injuries and inconsistent play have dogged him in Boston, and the Bruins might be interested in swapping the talented Finn for a more proven starter in Fernandez. This move would fill another need as well, giving Rask at least one full season in Providence where he’d be able to acclimate to the North American game without facing enormous pressure to perform for the parent club.

The old adage “defense wins championships” still holds true, even in the post-lockout NHL, and each team’s last line of defense is their goaltender. It’s no coincidence that the teams reaching the second round of the postseason all received excellent goaltending in 2006-07 (particularly during the playoffs), and it’s quite fair to say that no position is more impactful where team success is concerned.


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