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Bishop’s the top UFA goaltender, but keep an eye on these five masked men

Ben Bishop is set to be the most sought after free agent goaltender, but he’s not the only masked man hitting the open market. Here are five other netminders who could be difference-making signings in the off-season.

By the time the 2017-18 campaign begins, Ben Bishop is going to have a new home. It could be in Las Vegas, he could be headed to Dallas, there’s always the chance Calgary loops back around and tries to find another deal with the behemoth netminder or maybe a darkhorse candidate swoops in and delivers Bishop an offer he can’t refuse. We’re looking at you, Carolina.

That questions are already arising about Bishop’s whereabouts next season speaks volumes about how valued he’ll be on the free agent goalie market. This season has seen his numbers take a dip, no doubt, but teams want a goaltender of his size and talent, and the fact he’s proven he can carry a club in the post-season is reason enough for him to draw serious interest. No matter where he lands, Bishop is going to be the most sought after option in goal.

After Bishop, all eyes turn to Marc-Andre Fleury and what is, realistically, the more interesting of the two big-name goaltending scenarios. Fleury, unlike Bishop, won’t be available on the open market. Rather, if he’s going anywhere, it’ll be via trade. Fleury’s time is up in the Pittsburgh crease a lot sooner than most would have expected when he inked his four-year, $23-million extension in March 2014. Reason being is that no one, not even the most optimistic of Penguins fans, would have seen Matt Murray’s progression from AHL rookie to NHL stud coming.

As is the case with Bishop, Fleury has had a down season and it’s worth questioning just how good he’s going to be away from Pittsburgh. It’s not as if that’s going to scare many of his suitors off, though. If he’s an improvement, even minor, over some current goaltending situations, he’s still an improvement. If that’s worth two, three or four points in the too-close-for-comfort standings come next season, it could be the difference between a shot at post-season glory and an early summer. Plus, Fleury has great playoff experience and a pair of Stanley Cups to his name. Teams value that.

Things will get interesting once Bishop and Fleury come off the list of potential targets, though. They’re the two big fish in an admittedly small goaltending pond in the off-season, which is going to leave at least a couple of teams scrambling to find answers to their goaltending situation. 

The aforementioned Hurricanes need a netminder, as we said around these parts earlier this week, and the Stars are almost certainly going to have to make a move in goal after seasons of discussion about it. Likewise, the Flames are going to be searching for a goaltender if they don’t lock up one or both of their current netminders, both of the Flyers’ netminders are set to become unrestricted free agents, while the Bruins, Canucks, Ducks and Blackhawks could be searching for experienced backup help. So, who’s going to be available to help?

Steve Mason — 2016-17 Cap Hit: $4.1 million

It happens every year. There’s a forward a season from free agency and all of a sudden everything seems to click. He’s scoring at a rate like never before, piling up points left and right and by the time July 1 hits, he’s got himself a sizeable raise on a deal no one would have expected one year earlier. Now take that scenario and apply it to a goaltender. Then completely flip it.

Mason has stood on his head over the past two seasons in the Flyers’ goal and he’s been one of the best 5-on-5 netminders in the league. How good? Carey Price-level good. That’s no joke, either. Of the 42 goaltenders to play at least 2,500 minutes at 5-on-5 from the start of 2014-15 to the end of 2015-16, Mason’s .940 SP ranks a close second to Price’s .942 mark. And Mason played 1,000 extra minutes.

His fall has been precipitous, however. Mason is nearly the worst 5-on-5 starting goaltender this season, and after it appeared he was headed to cash in as a free agent, it looks more like he’s going to be given a show-me deal somewhere to prove he can reach the level of the past two seasons. If he can, though, whoever signs Mason might end up looking like a genius.

Brian Elliott — 2016-17 Cap Hit: $2.5 million

Elliott is experiencing a similar stumble as Mason, but the overall look at Elliott has arguably been worse. In 2015-16, Elliott backstopped the Blues to the Western Conference final, pieced together one of the best statistical seasons of his career and finished ninth in Vezina Trophy voting. Suffice to say, Elliott was coming off of an outstanding season in St. Louis when he was brought into Calgary after the Flames had second thoughts about the cost of trading and signing Bishop.

But things went south in a hurry for Elliott. He allowed four or more goals in his first three starts in Calgary and his SP was an ugly .885 by the end of November. Overall, his numbers still haven’t recovered, and Bishop is currently sporting a 2.79 GAA and .898 SP. This is about as good as his numbers have been all campaign, too. The promising thing, though, is that Elliott is starting to right the ship. Over the past month, Elliott has a .911 SP and 2.62 GAA. Since the start of February, he’s at .925 and 2.31.

Elliott had his chance to prove he’s a bonafide No. 1, and he’d even likely admit he’s struggled to do so, but he’s getting back to showing he can be a legitimate starter. Maybe he’s best in a platoon, and a team looking to run with a two-goalie system could benefit from picking up Elliott.

Ryan Miller — 2016-17 Cap Hit: $6 million

Let’s start with the free agent-to-be who’s currently carrying the biggest cap hit. Miller’s getting up there in age — he’s 36 — and his game hasn’t reached Vezina levels since, well, he won the thing in 2009-10. That season he turned in a .929 save percentage and 2.22 goals-against average to go along with a 41-18-8 record. That was the first time Miller posted a SP above .920, and it also happened to be the last.

The smart money would be on Miller landing another gig, be it with the Canucks or otherwise, but chances are he’s not going to be given the starting reins wherever he goes. Already that’s the case in Vancouver, where the prevailing thought is that even if he comes back, Miller and Jacob Markstrom are set to split duty even more than they already are.

The rumors of Miller ending up in southern California have persisted for years, and if he’s willing to take a pretty sizeable pay cut on his $6 million salary, he might be able to make that happen come next season. Not with the Kings, of course, because they’re far too close to the salary cap, but maybe there’s a fit with the Ducks with Jonathan Bernier’s $4.15-million cap hit set to come off the books.

Scott Darling — 2016-17 Cap Hit: $587,500

It was a long road to the NHL, but now that Darling has made it, it’s unlikely he’s not going to find another opportunity next season. His next chance could very well be a starting gig, too. There are, of course, questions about how Darling would fare outside of Chicago in a situation where he’s relied upon to play a more evenly split schedule, but the 28-year-old is doing his best to make a case for a heavier workload come next season. 

In 23 games with the Blackhawks, Darling has turned in a 13-5-2 record, 2.24 GAA and .927 SP. There are 12 goaltenders who’ve seen at least 12 games this season set to become free agents, and Darling’s SP is the best among all of them.

There’s also the matter of playoff performances, and Darling has had some doozies. His calm and collected nature saved the Blackhawks on their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup, and a team looking for a netminder with some playoff experience might not look much further 

The best thing for Darling would probably be a 1A-1B scenario where he’s the second half of the starting crew. That’s not quite how things work in Chicago, but somewhere like Vancouver, Calgary or Vegas could very well be a fit. Of course, there’s always the chance he stays with the Blackhawks.

Chad Johnson — 2016-17 Cap Hit: $1.7 million

Johnson’s primary role throughout his career has been backup netminder. However, for a stretch this season, like seasons in the past, Johnson took the starting reins and ran with it. From Nov. 30 to Dec. 10, Johnson commandeered the crease in Calgary and piled up six-straight victories, over which time he posted an excellent .951 SP and 1.48 GAA. He had a shutout in there, too, as a way to kick off his run.

At the height of his run, Johnson was boasting a .932 SP and 1.32 GAA on the season, but since then, Johnson has been back to his old gig, starting for the Flame when Elliott isn’t. His numbers have taken a dive, too. He’s now sitting at a .912 SP with a 2.55 GAA. Regardless, he’s still been the more solid of the two goaltenders in Calgary’s crease overall, and he could be the perfect target for backup help if the Flames let him walk. He’s proven he can get the job done prior to this season, too.

Since becoming a full-time second-stringer in 2013-14 with the Bruins, Johnson has turned in a .914 SP and 2.46 GAA in 112 starts. His 64-41-9 record is better than you’ll get out of most relief goaltenders. Maybe he doesn’t come cheap, but he’s effective. A team with money to spend to bulk up in goal should scoop him up if Calgary doesn’t get a deal done first.

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