Now that the NHL Draft Lottery is behind us and the league is looking forward to resuming play for not only this season but also moving into next. As such, it’s time we evaluate the Detroit Red Wings‘ goaltending situation. The Wings were, without a doubt, the worst team in the league this past season. Any chance of improving their fortune will require them to make significant changes in the net. As we know, goaltending is the backbone of any successful team. Before we look at what the future may hold, we will look at who manned the crease this season.
Jonathan Bernier was without a doubt the team’s rock in the net this year. In his second year of a three-year contract, Bernier took the starting job away from Jimmy Howard and ran with it. Considering the overall struggles of the team, we won’t get too hung up on his numbers. That said, he had a .907 save percentage in 46 games this year, and in 41 of those, he was the starter. He did manage 15 wins and one shutout this season.
With one more year on his contract, we can expect to see Bernier between the pipe plenty next season. Hopefully, the team in front of him will be able to help with better play and defensive structure. That would enable him to earn a few more wins in these hard-fought games where he has stood on his head.
Howard has been a lifer wearing the Winged Wheel, but that time appears to have come to an end. After finishing a six-year contract, Howard was extended for just one more season this past summer. It comes as no surprise given his age, declining performance, and injury history.
This season was the worst of Howard’s career. Finishing with a .882 save percentage and just two wins, it is one he will want to forget ever happened. It has been years as well since Howard had been reliable to make it through a season without missing significant time. It seems like clockwork between Christmas and mid-January, Howard would miss considerable time with a groin or knee injury. These injuries would derail good performances for the netminder, but he could never regain his form to finish the season as strong as he started.
Now at age 36, it is time for both Detroit and Howard to part ways. Howard undoubtedly will still look to play and perhaps chase a cup as a back-up. Meanwhile, Detroit should be looking to the future to solidify their goaltending as they look to rebuild back into a contender over the next few seasons.
The Future in Goal
The Red Wings have a few different options that they will be able to explore when it comes to their goaltending situation. With only Bernier signed to an NHL contract, some moves certainly will be made. The few prospects in the Detroit system are still some time away from making the jump to being full-time NHLers.
With that in mind, the most probable route for management to take is exploring free agency or trades. There are two big-name goalies out there who could potentially hit the free-agent market. And when looking at the trade market, we look to the Big Apple. Both the Islanders and Rangers have an extra goaltender that Detroit could target.
Looking at the free-agent route first, the biggest name is Braden Holtby. It seems that Holtby may be hitting the free-agent market not because Washington does not want him still, but because they may not be able to afford him. At 30 years old and coming off a five-year deal, he made an AAV of $6.1 million. Over those years, he won one Vezina Trophy and the 2018 Stanley Cup.
Holtby would be more than a suitable starter for the next five years in Detroit and would bring legitimacy back to the team. But not only that, he would be a trusted safety net for the players in front of him. The big questions come in the form of a salary. Holtby is undoubtedly going to be receiving a raise no matter where he ends up. Detroit will have plenty of cap space this summer to play with, which will work to their advantage as they try to lure a few free agents. But for Holtby, do not expect to see him in a Winged Wheel for anything less than eight million per season.
The second free agent option is Robin Lehner of the Golden Knights. This year, he was acquired from Chicago at the trade deadline as an insurance policy for a playoff run. Lehner has been a clear number one goalie in the league since his days in Buffalo but burst on to the scene in the 2018-2019 season with the Islanders. Finally, playing on what was considered a good team, Lehner shined. In 46 games and 43 starts, he won 25 games, had a .930 save percentage along with six shutouts.
Unfortunately for Lehner, a contract dispute led to his departure from Long Island and saw him sign with the Blackhawks. He signed a one-year deal with Chicago with an AAV of five million dollars. At 28 years old, Lehner will finally be looking to cash in on a long-term contract. He will likely sign somewhere in the five-to-six-million-dollar range, making him a cheaper, yet equally effective goaltender than Holtby.
Exploring the Trade Front
Looking back East to New York, there is a trio of goaltenders that General Manager Steve Yzerman could target. The Rangers have Alexandar Georgiev and Igor Shesterkin, while still having Henrik Lundqvist under contract. The Islanders, on the other hand, have Ilya Sorokin on his way while having a starting-calibre goaltender already under contract for the next few years.
Two Goalies on Broadway
Alexandar Georgiev vs. Igor Shesterkin, that is the decision when it comes to the Rangers prospects. Both goaltenders project to long term starters in the league, but they both come with their pros and cons, mainly their experience. Both goaltenders are 24 years old and roughly the same size, with Shesterkin having a slightly bigger frame. Looking at Shesterkin, he only has 12 games of NHL experience, but he has played in the KHL as a starter since 2016-17. In those three seasons, 75 total games, he has an average save percentage of .941, while in his 12 NHL starts have seen a comparable .932.
During most of that time frame, his counterpart Georgiev had been beginning to see pucks come his way in both the NHL and AHL. In 2017-18, he played in North America, where he spent most of his time in Hartford of the AHL. He did manage to play ten games in the NHL, going 4-4-1 with a .918 save percentage. The last two seasons would see Georgiev start 30 and 32 games, respectively, with a .914 save percentage in 2018-19 and a .910 in the most recent 2019-20 campaign.
While Georgiev has been a bit more average in his production, it is essential to keep in mind how bad the Rangers had been the past few seasons. They have finished 7th in their division in the last two seasons and 8th in 2017-18, Georgiev’s rookie year. There is also a quality and style difference between the NHL and the KHL. While Shesterkin has been off to a great start in New York, his overall performance still may drop down and look slightly more pedestrian over time.
One last point with the Rangers is the Lundqvist equation. There is a lot of speculation surrounding him currently, and what he, or the team for that matter, decides to do moving forward could directly impact the Ranger’s willingness to part with one of these two prospects.
Looking at Long Island
Ilya Sorokin of the New York Islanders is in a remarkably similar situation to that of Shesterkin. He has been a starter in the KHL for years now and is finally planning to make his way to North America. At just 24 years old, Sorokin has been playing starter minutes since 2013-14 and has only gotten better over the years. Playing with CSKA Moscow since 2014-15, he has only had one season with a save percentage under .930, which was in 2016-17, where he had a .929 save percentage.
The biggest question will be how he performs under the spotlight in North America, especially in New York. He has yet to play a single game at the NHL level. It also seems he wants to be a starter as well, but with the Islanders committed to Semyon Varlamov for three more seasons, it may cause locker room issues. However, Lou Lamoriello seems confident that Sorokin will be with the Islanders next season.
While Detroit has quite a few different goaltenders in their system, it is highly unlikely that any could handle a starting role in the immediate future. However, there will be quite the battle taking place in Grand Rapids. The most promising prospect currently under contract is Filip Larsson. He’s only 21 and most recently played in the ECHL and AHL in 2019-20.
With extraordinarily little to look forward to, it seems that the Red Wings will be best suited to explore the trade market or free agency. There are plenty of other goaltenders available as well. However, none will bring the potential impact as the players we have mentioned here. But only time will tell how this all plays out in the end. Unfortunately, we likely won’t know until mid-October when the NHL is hoping to begin with a traditional yet shortened off-season.
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