With the excitement of the NHL Draft fresh in many people’s minds, it’s time to turn the page and focus on July 1st, when a number of free agents will hit the open market. While the crop of players available may be thin in both top-end talent and depth, there are a number who could be game-changers for shrewd general managers.
At the goaltending position, there are at least two legitimate number one goaltenders with expiring contracts (though both have question marks), a few potential 1-b types that could do well in a platoon, some quality back-ups, and a number of netminders whose value dropped recently but may still have more to give at the NHL level. Here’s a look at the top 10 NHL UFA goaltenders available on July 1st.
Top 10 NHL UFA Goaltenders 2015
1) Antti Niemi
2014-15 Cap Hit: $3.8 million
Niemi has something no other player on this list has: He’s won a Stanley Cup as a starting goalie. While he wasn’t spectacular in 2010, he was solid enough to pick up the 16 wins needed for the Chicago Blackhawks to win their first of three Stanley Cup championships in the last six years. That immediately puts him at the top of this year’s UFA goalie crop.
However, since his incredible 2012-13 season in San Jose, which earned him a Vezina nomination, Niemi has seen his play slip, and the Sharks appear ready to head in a new direction. Any team that picks up Niemi will instantly be getting a starting goaltender that can play 60 games and give them competent netminding.
For some teams, that may be just enough to get them over the hump and into the playoffs, but is it worth the commitment, especially for a player on the wrong side of 30 who’s likely seen his best days?
2) Devan Dubnyk
2014-15 Cap Hit: $800,000
Before landing in Minnesota in January, many around the hockey world had written Dubnyk off. Considering the season from hell he had just gone through – which included being traded twice and an AHL demotion – it’s not hard to see why, but in retrospect this might not have been fair to Dubnyk. Yes, 2013-14 was a disaster, an avalanche of misfortune that began with a poor start behind a worst-in-the-West Edmonton Oilers and ended with 8 appearances with the Hamilton Bulldogs, the Montreal Canadiens AHL affiliate.
But all this masked what had been, to that point, a promising start to Dubnyk’s career. He has shown progression in both his save percentage and goals against average for four consecutive years on an Oilers squad that continued to languish in the basement despite his efforts. The potential was there, he just needed an opportunity to show it.
He got that opportunity when Arizona signed him as a free agent last summer, and he got his chance to show it after that trade to the Wild in January. From that point on, the former Kamloops Blazer was on fire, finishing second in the NHL (to Carey Price) in both goals against average and save percentage, with a sparkling win-loss record.
The question for potential suitors is whether Dubnyk can sustain that level of play or not. Indications at the moment are Minnesota and Dubnyk would like to keep their relationship going, though the Wild have some cap management to do before a deal can be signed (as Dubnyk’s demands are reported to be high). However, if they can’t come to an agreement in time, Dubnyk will hit the market, and there’s a fair chance another team could swoop in and snatch up the 2015 Vezina finalist.
3) Michal Neuvirth
2014-15 Cap Hit: $2.5 million
There was a time not too long ago where it looked like Neuvirth might be the heir to the crease in Washington, but the promise he showed in his rookie season (picking up 27 wins with a .914 SV%) quickly fell away, and he found himself traded to the Buffalo Sabres at the 2014 trade deadline.
Buffalo isn’t exactly the ideal landing spot for a goalie looking to turn his game around, but Neuvirth managed to buck the trend, improving his even-strength save percentage (.936) and actually stealing some games for the Sabres. In fact, he played so well (compared to the lackluster goaltending Buffalo was hoping to get for their tank job), that the Sabres shipped him out of town, and he finished the year with the New York Islanders, though he made little impact on Long Island.
At 27 years old, Neuvirth should be entering his prime as an NHL goaltender, but his uneven career so far may scare some teams off. Still, in all likelihood the Czech could play a solid 1-b role on a team with an established starter and he could also be had for relatively cheap. He might be one of the most intriguing names among goaltenders available in free agency this year.
4) Karri Ramo
Age: 28 (29 on July 1st)
2014-15 Cap Hit: $2.75 million
Ramo’s career thus far has been a series of ups and down. Drafted in the 6th round way back in 2004 by the Lightning, not much was expected of Ramo until he posted a stellar season in the SM-Liiga as a 19 year old. Unfortunately he fell back to earth after coming over to join Tampa Bay in 2006 (a .895 SV% and 3.35 GAA in 48 games over two seasons with the Bolts), and by 2009 he was back across the Atlantic, playing in the KHL.
During his time in Russia, Ramo would turn into an all-star, posting stellar numbers, and the Calgary Flames decided to take a flyer on him and traded for his rights (which belonged to Montreal at the time) in 2012 before signing him to a new contract in 2013.
The Finn was able to turn his game around in Calgary, posting a .911 SV% and a 2.63 GAA in 73 appearances with the Flames over the last two years. Though he seceded the starting role to Jonas Hiller this past season, he won it back in the playoffs, eventually appearing in seven post season contests and earning a 2-3 record with a 2.86 GAA.
While it appears Ramo will never be a starting goaltender at the NHL level, his performance on a less than stellar Flames team for the last two seasons has proven his ability to at least be a quality, NHL-caliber back-up, something that seemed a long shot after his first NHL stint. Like many of the goaltenders on this list, he could be had for cheap.
5) Jhonas Enroth
2014-15 Cap Hit: $1.25 million
After a long mentorship under perennial all-star and Vezina-winner Ryan Miller in Buffalo, a five season span that saw Enroth play just a small handful of games each year, the Swede was finally given a shot at being the main man in the crease after Miller signed as a free agent in Vancouver last summer.
Unfortunately, being the starter on a historically awful team with a porous defense that left him to fend for himself all too often had, unsurprisingly, a negative effect on Enroth’s raw numbers. In 37 appearances with the Sabres last year, Enroth allowed four or more goals an embarrassing 15 times, including one game allowing seven goals and three more allowing six.
Mercifully in February Enroth was shipped out to Dallas, where despite playing behind a better team, Enroth actually saw his even strength save percentage decrease (from .917 in Buffalo to .908 in Dallas).
While last season and his small stature may scare some teams off, there is still much potential in the 26-year-old to be a quality back-up at the NHL level, especially on a club that doesn’t hang him out to try on a nightly basis.
6) Viktor Fasth
2014-15 Cap Hit: $2.9 million
Similar to Neuvirth’s situation in Washington, Fasth appeared to have the inside track on the future of the Ducks crease as recently as the 2012-13 season, when he split duties with incumbent Hiller and actually boasted far superior numbers, including an 8-0-0 run to start his NHL career as a 30-year-old “rookie.”
However that all unraveled with an injury and the arrival of Frederick Andersen, who stole Fasth’s spot in the rotation, which lead to the latter being moved at the 2014 trade deadline to the Edmonton Oilers.
As is a common theme among many of the goalies available in free agency this year, Fasth didn’t exactly excel with a very poor team in front of him in Edmonton. While the Swede had a good run with the Oilers to close out 2013-14 (3-3-1, .914 SV%, 2.73 GAA), everything fell apart last season, as Edmonton finished dead last in goals against, and Fasth’s numbers suffered mightily as a result.
At 32 years old, Fasth still may have something to give in a backup role at the NHL level, though don’t expect a long line of suitors or an eye-popping contract.
7) Anders Lindback
2014-15 Cap Hit: $925,000
Lindback is a very intriguing player with outstanding size (6’6”), which makes modern goalie coaches drool. However, as with all tall goalies, it’s taken some time for Lindback to learn how to use his frame effectively. He mentored under one of the best tall goalies in the league in Pekka Rinne while a member of the Predators, where his early career success may have been more attributed to the quality defensive team in front of him.
After two underwhelming seasons in Tampa Bay (in which he posted a .897 SV% in 47 appearances), he signed with the Dallas Stars last summer, hoping to turn things around. This did not happen, as he regressed even further in Texas, which caught the eye of Sabres General Manager Tim Murray, who saw an opportunity to bring aboard a goaltender that would aid his aspirations to finish last in the NHL.
However, unlike other goalies on this list who suffered at the hands of the likes of the Oilers or Sabres, Lindback flourished in Buffalo. In 16 games (which, to be fair, is a small sample size), the lanky Swede posted very impressive numbers, driving Sabres fans up the wall in the process. The question now is: Has Lindback really turned things around?
It’s worth noting that Ben Bishop, one of the tallest goalies in the NHL, took a similar path to Lindback before breaking out in a big way on a new team in his age 27 season. Could Lindback follow suit? Whichever team signs Lindback has an opportunity to potentially pick up the best return on their investment this July 1st.
8) Thomas Greiss
2014-15 Cap Hit: $1 million
Greiss is yet another goalie on this list who has been a career back-up to this point in his career, yet has shown flashes of brilliance and the ability to potentially play a 1-b role.
After developing in the San Jose Sharks organization from 2007 to 2013 (and making just a small handful of NHL appearances each season), Greiss finally got an opportunity for some more ice time when he signed with the Coyotes in the summer of 2013. In 25 appearances he posted career-best numbers (10 wins, .920 SV%, 2.29 GAA) which he was able to parlay into another one-year contract last summer, with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
While his numbers regressed with the Pens, he played the back-up role behind starter Marc-Andre Fleury well, which should encourage some team to give the German a shot. Likely not to rise above the back-up role, he has the ability to provide a team with a competent secondary option in net.
9) Jonas Gustavsson
2014-15 Cap Hit: $1.85 million
Gustavsson has underwhelmed at the NHL level since being named the best player in Swedish hockey back in 2009, when he had the best save percentage (.932) and goals against average (1.96) in the Swedish Elite League.
The undrafted free agent signed a contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2009, hoping to steal the starting job from incumbent Vesa Toskala. Unfortunately he wasn’t able to put it all together in Toronto, largely due to potentially dangerous heart problems that plagued him early in his career.
He got a second chance in Detroit in 2012-13 when he was brought aboard to back-up Jimmy Howard. While injuries would again derail Gustavsson’s time in Detroit (he played only seven games in two of his three seasons with the Wings), he would see his numbers improve, as he set career bests in both save percentage and goals against average in consecutive seasons, albeit in very limited action. With Petr Mrazek coming of age, there is no longer room for Gustavsson in the Red Wings organization.
At this point, “The Monster” may be a secondary back-up option at best, and there is a possibility he may return to Sweden if NHL teams don’t come calling in July.
10) Richard Bachman
2014-15 Cap Hit: $615,000
Bachman is an undersized, and often unnoticed, goaltender who has quietly been making his way to the NHL for the past several seasons.
Last year, Bachman might have had the best season of his pro career. At the NHL level he only played in six games with Edmonton , though he did set a new career-best even strength save percentage (.938) on a porous Oilers squad. However, he was brilliant for the Oklahoma City Barons, posting a 2.38 GAA and a .911 SV% to earn a place in the 2015 AHL All-Star Game. In the post-season, Bachman turned it up a notch for OKC, stealing the starter’s job from Laurent Brossoit with a 1.55 GAA and a .953 SV% in nine games before losing a tight seven-game series to the Utica Comets.
At the age of 27 and searching for a new NHL deal, and with his brilliant play last season in the AHL, there’s a good chance a team will take a shot on him to provide some competition for the back-up job on their roster, a role that Bachman seems poised to finally assume.