After a successful road trip that saw the New Jersey Devils secure six out of eight points in the standings, the team is squarely in the mix for a playoff spot, despite me writing last week that they didn’t look like a team that should be preparing to play past the first week of April.
John laid out the case against goaltending coach Dave Rogalski last week, and for good reason, but he summed it up best with his opening statement. Goaltending is one of the most, if not THE most glaring issue facing this team the rest of the way. And while the goaltending has been better of late, it’s still the most obvious area where this team can improve. Rogalski can only do so much as the coach, so its on the players to fix it. Akira Schmid has at least shown some promise with a .916 save percentage over his last half dozen outings, but Vitek Vanecek continues to be an adventure in net, to put it kindly.
The good news is that the Devils have at least some flexibility to go out and address that hole should the opportunity present itself. They might have some competition from perennial contenders such as Toronto, Edmonton, and Carolina, but only Carolina has more available cap space than the Devils of those teams at the moment. And this is before we consider the possibility of the Devils placing defenseman Dougie Hamilton on LTIR, as the $9M man is out indefinitely with a torn pectoral muscle. If the LTIR-stash option is on the table for Tom Fitzgerald, it should be considered as the Devils could address several positions with that money.
(How about that? Using LTIR as intended to replace a high-priced player on your roster with someone else. Novel concept that the Devils could surely take away from a previous Stanley Cup champion. But I digress....)
The sad part about all of this is that I really don’t think the Devils really need to ask all that much out of any goaltender they might inquire about. It’s not that they wouldn’t take an Ilya Sorokin if one fell into their laps, but they just need baseline competency in net.
The Devils have a very good offense. If we set the bar really low, to the point where we’re asking whoever is in net “Can you only allow two or three goals in any game and give us a chance to win?”, I don’t think that’s an unreasonable ask. What the Devils can’t have is more performances where the goaltender in net is giving up 4 or 5 and giving the team no chance to win.
There are some complicating factors though in the search for a goaltender from another market. For starters, the Western Conference is a bit of a hot mess right now, as Arizona and Nashville currently hold playoff spots. Those would be two of the teams I could potentially see as sellers in the goaltending market, and while I expect the Oilers to eventually surpass one of them, there remains the possibility that that never happens, they hold their spots, and as a result, aren’t sellers. There’s also been a handful of teams with goaltending situations as dreadful as ours (Minnesota) where I probably wouldn’t bother, although I will mention one Sharks goaltender who should be available (no, not that one). This list won’t be as fun or as comprehensive as the one I compiled over the summer when I asked if the Devils could still add a difference-making goaltender, but when you’re as desperate as the Devils might be come February, you work with what is available and what you can get.
Without further adieu, here’s a look at the potential goaltenders available, what their current situation looks like, and if they might make sense for the Devils in the short-term (and potentially long-term)
The “Guys Who Will Probably Be Available Regardless” Tier
Contract: $3.8M AAV through the 2023-24 season (UFA), 10-team no-trade list
Stats: .912 save%, 2.6 goals saved above expected
There might not be a better “Goaltending is random” candidate than the 12-year veteran Petr Mrazek. Once upon a time, he was viewed as the Red Wings goaltender of the future, but a couple below average seasons combined with Detroit’s downfall as a perennial playoff team led to him getting traded to the Flyers at the deadline in 2018. Since then, he rebounded nicely in Carolina, was a disaster in his one season in Toronto, and has spent the last two seasons as a salary cap dump on a rebuilding Chicago team.
An impending UFA on a team going nowhere this season, Chicago would probably be smart to sell high on Mrazek off of a solid season while they continue their rebuild. I don’t know if I’d be as high on Arvid Soderblom or Drew Commesso as their goaltender of the future as they might be, but it probably makes more sense for them to sign a veteran in the offseason to a team-friendly deal and give their kids a long look down the stretch rather than keep Mrazek, not sell high, and extend him to be the veteran mentor as Chicago continues their rebuild.
Jake Allen / Cayden Primeau
Contracts: Allen: $3.85M AAV through the 2024-25 season (UFA), 7-team no trade this season, 3-team no trade next season | Primeau: $890k through the 2024-25 season (RFA with arbitration rights)
Stats: Allen .898 save%, 0.4 goals saved above expected | Primeau .902 save%, 0.9 goals saved above expected
The Montreal Canadiens make this list due to them being one of a handful of teams carrying three goaltenders. Sam Montembeault has established himself as the starter and was recently rewarded with a three-year contract extension, so one can safely assume the Habs view him as part of their future as they continue to navigate the Atlantic Division post-Carey Price.
Allen is the grizzled, more expensive veteran while Primeau is a former top prospect who still has theoretical upside, so I would think the Habs would try to move Allen first if they wind up trading a goaltender, but they also gave Allen a contract extension before last season and his $3.85M AAV through next season makes him a tougher fit. Frankly, I find Montreal’s continued decision to carry three goaltenders on the NHL roster confusing to the point where I wonder if they’re overvaluing all of their guys and hesitant to risk losing one on waivers. I’m also not sure that I’d want either Habs goaltender, but I think I’d prefer taking a chance on Primeau being “this year’s Adin Hill” than bet on Allen who has been in decline for several seasons now. It should be mentioned that there is a connection with Allen, as Martin Brodeur and goaltender coach Dave Rogalski overlapped with him in St. Louis. Whether that level of familiarity leads to the Devils kicking the can on Allen remains to be seen.
Contract: $6.4M AAV through the 2026-27 season (UFA)
Stats: .906 save%, 3.7 goals saved above expected
Likely the most controversial name on this list due to the length of his contract, Gibson has enjoyed a bounce back season for the Ducks. Anaheim isn’t really in cap trouble despite Gibson’s deal, but with as many contending teams looking as weak in net as they are, it would be understandable if the Ducks wanted to do due diligence and try to sell high on Gibson while he’s playing well. Current backup Lukas Dostal is the future in net for the Ducks and they have some other prospects such as Calle Clang, who they got in the Rickard Rakell trade with Pittsburgh.
The likely hangup for me, you, and 31 other NHL GMs though is the big cap hit and remaining term on Gibson’s deal. The Devils might be able to fit Gibson in for this season with some creativity...one way would be the Ducks taking Vanecek back as part of the deal or perhaps even placing Dougie Hamilton on LTIR and using that money. The problem is that that would be a tough number to fit in for future seasons even with the cap increasing. Perhaps that would be more palatable if the Ducks retained a portion of Gibson’s salary, but there is a cost associated with getting Anaheim to agree to that that and they might not be so inclined to tie up a salary retention slot for so long when they have several big money veterans with contracts expiring in the next year or two.
Contract: $2.75M AAV through the end of this season (UFA)
Stats: .894 save%, 2.2 goals saved above expected
Kahkonen arrived in San Jose at the trade deadline two seasons ago from the Wild, where he was fine posting a .907 over 54 career appearances in Minnesota. He hasn’t been able to find that same level of success post-trade though, as he struggled mightily last season on a dreadful Sharks team. He’s been a bit better this season and has probably been the best goaltender on the Sharks this season, although that’s not a particularly high bar to clear.
The Sharks have a long way to go in their rebuild, so they may choose to move on from the pending UFA rather than sign him to a multi-year deal. Who knows if a change of scenery would be the spark he needs for a career resurgence, but hey, it worked before with Adin Hill!
The “Guys Who May or May Not Become Available” Tier
Juuse Saros & Kevin Lankinen
Contract: Saros: $5M AAV through the 2024-25 season (UFA) | Lankinen $2M AAV through the 2023-23 season (UFA)
Stats: Saros: .908 save%, -2.6 goals saved above expected | Lankinen: .903 save%, 0.4 goals saved above expected
Nashville is a strange team.
First-year GM Barry Trotz inherited a fringe playoff team if everything goes right. The Preds overhauled the roster shipping Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen out of town and signing former Blues captain Ryan O’Reilly. Yet, through 28 games or so, Nashville is right where they typically are in the standings occupying one of the wild card spots in a Western Conference that doesn’t look very deep.
Even with former top draft pick Yaroslav Askarov waiting in the wings in AHL Milwaukee, there’s no pressing need for the Predators to deal Saros with a year and a half remaining on his deal. I’m sure Tom Fitzgerald has been trying to figure out a way to pry Saros away from the Predators for some time now considering the history the Devils and Predators have with each other when it comes to making trades. I also don’t doubt that if the Preds shopped Saros, every team that didn’t have a great goaltending situation would be forming a line to try to acquire his services, and that’s with him having a down year by his standards.
That brings us to Lankinen, who held his own when he played regularly for a bad Blackhawks team from 2020-22 and has been Saros’s understudy the last two seasons. I don’t necessarily think Lankinen is anything special, but when we’re asking if he can clear a very low bar of “Can you just give us a chance to win?”, I think someone like Lankinen could fit the bill. So if Nashville decides Askarov is ready mid-season and they move Lankinen to make room, could he become available? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
Karel Vejmelka & Connor Ingram
Contract: Vejmelka $2.725M AAV through 2024-25 (UFA) | Ingram $1.95M AAV through 2025-26 (UFA)
Stats: Vejmelka .892 save%, -6.0 goals saved above expected | Ingram .920 save%, 9.4 goals saved above expected
Arizona is another strange team in that they currently hold a playoff spot, but their grip on said spot is likely tenuous at best with Minnesota and Edmonton not too far behind them and closing in fast. But credit due where credit is due as Arizona has played their way into this position.
The Coyotes are going to have some decisions to make as they have several notable pending UFA (not counting the 2015 All-Star team they have stashed on IR). They have taken the slow burn approach with how they’ve built this roster and while they’re peaking earlier than expected, they could very easily shift to seller mode come February. If they do, there would likely be interest in their goaltenders.
I don’t know how interested I would be if I were the Devils though. I think Vejmelka is solid but his numbers this year haven’t been great. I don’t know if its just the randomness of the position or if he is nursing something, but Ingram has drawn more and more starts with how well he has played. Ingram is on a team-friendly deal, but I don’t know that I’d trust that he’s put it all together either. Maybe it doesn’t matter, since I’m just trying to clear the low bar of “Be Better than 2023-24 Vitek Vanecek”, so I’m not sure any option should be outright dismissed, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that.
The “Lets Get Weird and Think Outside the Box” Tier
Charlie Lindgren & Darcy Kuemper
Contract: Lindgren $1.1M AAV through 2024-25 (UFA) | Kuemper $5.25M through 2026-27 (UFA), can block trades to 15 teams until 5/31/24, can block trades to 10 teams from 6/1/24 through end of contract
Stats: Lindgren .931 save %, 11.1 goals saved above expected | Kuemper .887 save %, -1.6 goals saved above expected
The biggest reason, and perhaps the only reason, why the Capitals hold a playoff spot at the moment is because of the play of journeyman backup Charlie Lindgren, who has played his way into a near 50-50 split with veteran Darcy Kuemper. Meanwhile, Kuemper has had a down year in the second season of a five-year deal, with his numbers well below his career mark of .915 save %. He does turn 34 this May, so its possible this could be the beginning of the end in terms of Kuemper’s effectiveness as an NHL netminder. It’s also possible it’s just a blip and not a trend.
The question with Washington will be whether or not they’re close enough to a playoff spot closer to the deadline where they feel they need to go for it. Washington has an aging core. Alex Ovechkin is 38, TJ Oshie is 26, Evgeni Kuznetsov is 31, and John Carlson is 33. All of these guys are having arguably career-worst seasons. Trading Lindgren, who has been their team MVP to this point, would be akin to a death sentence as far as 2023-24 is concerned. Given their investments to the roster at this point, GM Brian MacLellan might feel obligated to add reinforcements after missing the playoffs last season. There’s also the idea they’d have to sell their fanbase on helping a division rival address their biggest need, which shouldn’t be a big deal, but Washington and New Jersey are competing for the same spot.
Still, there is a recent history of Tom Fitzgerald and MacLellan connecting on trades, with the Jonas Siegenthaler and Vitek Vanecek deals being two examples. Some GMs have their go-to guys that they’re comfortable working with on trades. I wouldn’t expect the Devils and Capitals to be partners here, but crazier things have happened.
To be clear, I’m not super interested in the Kuemper contract for a lot of the same reasons why I haven’t been interested in the Gibson contract. But it does go noted that Kuemper’s deal is a little cheaper and there’s more of a track record of recent quality play than there has been with Gibson over the last half-decade or so. I doubt Washington would be all that interested in Vanecek from a “been there, done that” perspective, and I don’t think they’re interested in punting on future seasons this early, so I doubt Kuemper is moved.
Contract: $3.5M AAV through the 2023-24 season (UFA), can block trades to 10 teams
Stats: .916 save% for AHL Coachella Valley
If you forgot about Chris Driedger, that is understandable.
Driedger was once viewed as a potential franchise goaltender after posting a .938 and .927 in limited time for the Panthers over two seasons. Seattle took him in their expansion draft, but he wasn’t their starting goaltender for long as they signed Phillip Grubauer to a six-year deal in free agency prior to their inaugural season. Driedger struggled in his first season in Seattle, tore his ACL while playing for Canada at the 2022 Worlds, and hasn’t been seen or heard from since as far as being an NHL netminder is concerned until he was recalled this past weekend with Grubauer going on IR.
Driedger is healthy now and was playing well for Seattle’s AHL affiliate, but it does raise the question why he hasn’t gotten a shot with the Kraken until now. The aforementioned Grubauer has struggled ever since he got to the Pacific Northwest, and backup netminder Joey Daccord hasn’t been a whole lot better. One would think that a team that has struggled as much in net as they have would have turned to Driedger, who is being well compensated in the minor leagues, before now. But they haven’t.
Perhaps Seattle sees something with their internal evaluations that suggest Driedger is basically fool’s gold when it comes to his production in the minors. Perhaps they’re playing the long-game when it comes to working a player back from a torn ACL, as Driedger is closing in on 30 AHL games since returning. Perhaps it is cap related. Perhaps this entire discussion is now moot with Driedger back in the NHL. I don’t know what the answer is. But if Driedger isn’t really in Seattle’s plans outside of an emergency, I don’t see why he wouldn’t potentially be available via trade. And I would believe Driedger would jump at the opportunity for a more direct path to NHL playing time. He might not be the answer, but if you’re trying to find lightning in a bottle from an unexpected source, he’s as solid a pick as anyone.
The “Maybe the Best Trade is the One You Don’t Make” Tier
Contract: $850,833 on the final year of his ELC, RFA after the season
Stats: .969 save% in one (1) game for AHL Utica
To paraphrase Taylor Swift, maybe what we’re looking for has been here the whole time.
Nico Daws is in his third pro season in the Devils organization. Due to the disaster that was the 2021-22 New Jersey Devils campaign, he was thrust into the fire way too early in his career, but he did show flashes of brilliance for a team that was desperate for consistent quality starts from anyone in net.
Daws more than held his own, posting a .916 over his first dozen NHL appearances for a team that finished with 63 points. The then 20-year old had his struggles as well and ultimately finished the season in AHL Utica where he belonged after the team brought in Jon Gillies and Andrew Hammond to get the Devils through that season. Daws played solidly last season as well as he continued his development, but ultimately needed hip labrum surgery. Fortunately for the Devils, he is now recovered and has made his season debut for Utica, stopping 31-of-32 shots against Bridgeport.
I would caution against putting all of your eggs in the “Nico Daws is the Devils savior” basket. Daws is coming off of a major offseason injury and is just now starting to work his way back into form. He needs reps just to get used to playing hockey again before we can have the conversation of whether or not he’s a viable option for the NHL roster.
That said, I wouldn’t dismiss Daws playing his way into the equation. He was drafted and developed by this regime. He has NHL experience. He’s the most likely option between Erik Kallgren and Keith Kinkaid to even be in the organization next season. Daws might not be NHL-ready right now, but maybe the Devils feel differently ten weeks from now after he has gotten back into a rhythm, he’s playing well, and promoting Daws is a more attractive option than any of the players I’ve mentioned in this article. Never mind the fact it costs nothing to trade for Daws and he costs almost nothing against the salary cap, freeing up that money to be used elsewhere.
One year ago, an unheralded rookie goaltender emerged as the best option on the Devils roster. Who’s to say the same thing can’t happen again?
I believe that assuming the Devils remain in the race, adding another NHL-caliber goaltender will be their top priority going into the trade deadline. And while the list of names I came up with isn’t going to exactly wow the biggest cynics and critics of this team, I do think there are players who could potentially help the cause.
Assuming the Predators don’t make Saros available (he’d easily be my #1 choice if they did), Mrazek makes a ton of sense for the Devils as a short-term option. He’s playing well at the moment, he brings plenty of playoff experience to the table from his previous stops in Detroit and Carolina, and there’s no long-term commitment attached. Kahkonen is an interesting change of scenery candidate, and I’ve been a fan of Vejmelka for awhile now, so I’d be interested there as well assuming he’s healthy. Lastly, while nobody is talking about Chris Driedger (and it might be that way for a reason), it wasn’t too long ago where he was viewed as a potential franchise netminder. I’d at least be curious to see how he looks in Seattle if he gets an opportunity there.
Ultimately though, the Devils simply need a guy who isn’t going to meltdown and self-destruct the second he gives up a goal. I think the Devils have one of those guys in Schmid, but they really could use a viable alternative to Vanecek the rest of the way.
Your guess as to who that guy might be is as good as mine though.
(all goaltender stats referenced are through Sunday, December 10th, 2023 unless otherwise noted and courtesy of Moneypuck)