We're still six months away from next summer's free-agent frenzy and a lot can happen in half a year, but now's a good time to take an early look at the NHL goalie carousel and how things might unfold in the off-season.
Rather than speculate on potential new marriages for 2019-20, I've broken this down into two categories: (a) the teams that will be looking for starting goalies, or co-starters; and, (b) the goalies who are candidates for the first list.
Before we establish the list of teams who are likely to be looking for a new stopper next season, let's rule out the eight teams who are set in the crease with two guys under contract through 2019-20. They include: Arizona, Boston, Dallas, Florida, Nashville, New York Rangers, San Jose and Tampa Bay. I'm also eliminating 11 teams who have a big-ticket starter under contract and at most want or only have cap room for a low-budget backup for 15-25 games. They include: Anaheim, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Montreal, Ottawa, St. Louis, Toronto, Vegas, Washington and Winnipeg.
We're also going to rule out Buffalo and Vancouver because they're sure to stick with the guy they have signed, plus the RFA backup (or up-and-coming minor leaguer) who will be retained.
THE TEAMS: That leaves 10 teams looking to lock up a starter, or at least a bona fide 1B goalie capable of 30-plus games. They include:
Calgary Flames: David Rittich is playing very well this season, and the Flames are likely to move on from pending UFA Mike Smith, who has struggled and turns 37 in March. Calgary will be looking for at least a 1B, or perhaps a proven starter depending upon how Rittich finishes 2018-19.
Carolina Hurricanes: Scott Darling will be bought out or buried, Petr Mrazek is a UFA and Curtis McElhinney is a career backup. The Hurricanes will need a starter.
Colorado Avalanche: Philipp Grubauer hasn't been great, but he's just 27 and under contract for two more years at $3.33 million. The Avs can't afford to retain pending UFA Semyon Varlamov at north of $6 million so they'll be looking for a cheaper 1B.
Columbus Blue Jackets: With pending UFA Sergei Bobrovsky surely gone and backup Joonas Korpisalo more of a 1B guy at best for now, the Blue Jackets will be looking for a starter or a 1A.
Detroit Red Wings: Jimmy Howard is a pending UFA and will be 35. Jonathan Bernier is on the books at $3 million for a couple more years. So a mid-priced 1A is in order, perhaps Howard again.
Edmonton Oilers: Both Cam Talbot and Mikko Koskinen are pending UFAs and there's not enough cap room to keep both. The Oilers will probably retain one and seek a low-budget backup.
New Jersey Devils: Cory Schneider will be 33, but is broken down by injury. Even though he has three years remaining at $6 million, the Devils need to re-sign pending UFA Keith Kinkaid or find another proven starter.
New York Islanders: Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner have been good in a shared workload. Greiss has another year left at $3.33 million and will be 33. Lehner will be a 28-year-old UFA. Lehner will want a big raise or shop himself elsewhere to be more of a 1A or starter.
Philadelphia Flyers: They're sure to move on from pending UFAs Michal Neuvirth and Brian Elliott. But do the Flyers sign a proven starter for big bucks, or more of a mid-priced, mid-term 1A until Carter Hart is fully ready to take over?
Pittsburgh Penguins: Matt Murray was supposed to be the man for a decade-plus, but he's made of glass. A bounce-back is expected, so Penguins likely sign a 1B security stopper and pending UFA Casey DeSmith is probably the one.
THE GOALIES: This takes us to the second part of this primer, the goalies who will fill the starter or 1B openings. I'm listing them in predicted order of cap hit. The permutations where they land are almost endless, so have fun with the speculating.
Sergei Bobrovsky: He’s making $7.425 million this season and looking for $10 million-plus as he turns 31 in September, but will probably have to settle for a little less.
Semyon Varlamov: Another solid season and he’s in his prime at 31. He's sure to get a raise coming off a $5.9-million AAV.
Mikko Koskinen: He's also in his prime at 31 and his sole NHL season has backed up the accolades of his KHL years. He'll want big term and big cash because returning to Russia is an option.
Cam Talbot: He’ll be 32 and has shown he can go on extended runs. But which team commits decent term and a pay packet more than the $4.17 million he's getting this year?
Robin Lehner: Signed a one-year prove-it contract with the Isles to set himself up for 2019. A strong finish will boost his popularity and value.
Keith Kinkaid: Has improved every season to the point some teams see him as a 30-year-old Antti Raanta who can be a credible 50-plus game starter. Or is he another Darling?
Jimmy Howard: Still capable and not ancient at 35. Doubtful any team sees him as more than a 1B so he's probably in Ryan Miller territory of 30 or so quality starts.
Petr Mrazek: Turns 27 in February and still runs hot and cold. Would be a solid 1B and still has upside to realize a 1A label.
Brian Elliott: He's surely no more than a 30-game 1B for maybe $2 million. But there's still value in a stopper like that.
Casey DeSmith: He’s showing some game at 27 with pending UFA status. Does he sign a security contract with the Pens now or test the open market in July?
Mike Smith: The reflexes have slowed, but the competitiveness and leadership are still there. He also looks to be in Ryan Miller workload and contract territory, about $2 million a year.
Free-agent goalies destined for budget contracts and sub-25 game seasons: Cam Ward, Chad Johnson, Alex Stalock, Calvin Pickard, Anders Nilsson, Curtis McElhinney, Michal Neuvirth.