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Golden Knights’ goaltending selections leave questions about several intriguing netminders

The Golden Knights left some talent on the table between the pipes and that could make for a busy trade market when it comes to goaltenders. So, where could those netminders fit?

In the weeks leading up to the expansion draft, it seemed safe to believe that the Golden Knights would be bulking up in the crease with the considerably deep stable of talent that was set to be left exposed. It was a given that netminders Antti Raanta, Philipp Grubauer and Michal Neuvirth were going to be there for Vegas’ taking, and the release of the protection lists shockingly added Petr Mrazek to that group. Add Marc-Andre Fleury to the mix, the long-presumed starter for the Golden Knights, and the thought was Vegas would have a crease that included some of the goaltending market's top names when Wednesday’s expansion draft concluded.

Well, you know what they say about assumptions.

After Wednesday night, the Golden Knights have their goaltenders, and a handful of the masked men who were expected to crowd the crease remained put. Fleury, of course, is making his way to Vegas as the cornerstone and undisputed face of the franchise, but he'll be joined by Calvin Pickard, formerly of the Colorado Avalanche and Jean-Francois Berube, selected from the New York Islanders. Pickard finds himself en route to Sin City with a chance to be the future of the Golden Knights’ net, but Berube will likely top out as a second- or third-stringer. It's certainly not the trio most expected, but the three Vegas netminders answer one of the questions that lingered as the draft approached.

What needs answering now, though, is what happens with those potential starters and intriguing backups who didn’t get plucked away by the Golden Knights. There’s a long list of netminders who fit the bill, too.

Antti Raanta, New York Rangers

Arguably one of the most surprising omissions from the Golden Knights’ draft list was Raanta, who was passed over in favor of 25-year-old center Oscar Lindberg. That’s not a knock on Lindberg, who managed eight goals and 20 points for the Rangers, but given Raanta’s performance this past season and the value he brings, it seemed a no-brainer to select the Finnish goaltender. However, the Golden Knights’ decision to pass on Raanta opens up several other opportunities for the keeper and there will be interest. 

Over his past three seasons, during which he’s seen 69 games, Raanta, 28, has turned in a 34-18-5 record, .924 save percentage, 2.18 goals-against average and seven shutouts. His .922 SP and 2.26 GAA this past season were also the best numbers he’s posted in a season where he’s played at least 25 games. Raanta’s contract makes him all the more intriguing, too. He’s got one year remaining on his deal at $1 million. His value relative to his cap hit could make him costly to acquire, but it seems like a team in need of an improvement in goal with the option for a platoon — the Winnipeg Jets come to mind — would be a perfect fit for Raanta.

That said, nothing is forcing the Rangers to move on from the netminder. He proved his worth to the Blueshirts this past season at times when Henrik Lundqvist struggled. New York GM Jeff Gorton might be keen on keeping Raanta for that reason.

Philipp Grubauer, Washington Capitals

You can go ahead and lump Grubauer in with Raanta, as the two netminders have posted incredibly similar numbers over the course of their careers. In 66 games with the Capitals, Grubauer has a 28-21-8 record, .923 SP and 2.25 GAA with three shutouts, and after two years bouncing up and down between the minors, Grubauer became Braden Holtby’s full-time backup over the past two seasons. He’s been impressive when he’s had to step up, too.

Grubauer isn’t just similar to Raanta in numbers, however. Like Raanta, Grubauer is going to draw interest from teams looking to beef up their backup situation and potentially platoon the 25-year-old with another keeper. Again, Winnipeg seems like an obvious choice as the Jets desperately need to improve in goal and could pair Grubauer with Connor Hellebuyck to create some crease competition. But teams such as the Philadelphia Flyers, Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes could also be landing spots for Gruabuer. Each is devoid of a true starting netminder right now and could be looking to upgrade.

Just as was said about the Rangers, though, there’s nothing forcing the Capitals to move Grubauer along. He’s a restricted free agent who likely won’t garner a massive raise from the $750,000 cap hit he carried in 2016-17. Washington is tight against the cap and finding a capable backup might not get cheaper than retaining Grubauer’s services.

Petr Mrazek, Detroit Red Wings

Mrazek’s exclusion from Detroit’s protected list was one of the biggest surprises of Sunday’s official release. Some will contend that his terrible season in 2016-17 — and it was awful, to be sure — was more than enough reason to leave the promising netminder up for grabs, but doing so put Detroit at risk of losing the one goaltender who appeared to have the ability to be the future starter in the Red Wings’ crease. Just because he was spared in expansion, though, doesn’t mean he’s in Detroit for good.

From what has been reported, off-ice issues seem to have plagued Mrazek since the past off-season and those bled into the campaign. That has led to the Red Wings considering a move, a situation which was made all the more clear by Mrazek’s exposure in the draft. And if Detroit is going to move along the 25-year-old, he could have a few potential landing places.

It’s hard to know with any certainty where he could end up, but doesn’t Mrazek seem a perfect fit for Philadelphia? He’s a young, high-potential netminder and the Flyers are in need of a starting goaltender. Pair Mrazek with Anthony Stolarz and Philadelphia has a young tandem that can push each other in the crease. Plus, being castoff by Detroit could light a fire under Mrazek. The Red Wings netminder could also be a fit in Arizona, where the Coyotes are looking to add a goaltender after moving along Mike Smith. Mrazek would certainly fit the bill as an up-and-comer for one of the league’s youngest teams.

Michal Neuvirth, Philadelphia Flyers

This may fly in the face of what was written above about the Flyers needing someone to man the crease this season, but it’s hard to fathom Neuvirth taking on full-time starting duties. The 29-year-old has had some impressive seasons, including his 18-win, .924 SP campaign in 2015-16 with the Flyers, but he was abysmal in 2016-17. No goaltender who played at least 20 games had a SP worse than Neuvirth’s .891 mark, and at 5-on-5, Neuvirth ranked 52nd of 53 goaltenders with 20 games played with a .902 SP. That’s not great.

That said, Neuvirth brings experience and some stability to the crease, and a team looking to land a netminder at a cut rate is going to be interested in the Flyers keeper. He signed a two-year, $5-million deal in March, and that’s not a massive cap hit for a starting goaltender. A team with cap space or budgetary concerns might be interested, and Neuvirth teaming with Louis Domingue in Arizona seems like it could be a fit.

Jaroslav Halak, New York Islanders

Halak wasn’t considered by many to be a top contender to be scooped up by the Golden Knights, but after Vegas passed on him, there still has to be some consideration given to where he ends up. What Halak has that few others up for grabs can bring is experience as a starting netminder and lots of it. He’s played nearly 400 games in the NHL and the 32-year-old isn’t into hanging-them-up territory yet. The big issue, however, is his contract.

Whoever brings Halak aboard is going to need to make way for his $4.5-million contract, unless the Islanders retain some salary in a trade. That’s absolutely possible given Halak has one year left on his deal, too. Wherever Halak goes, it’s likely as a split-timer or 1B in a two-goaltender scenario. If Winnipeg wants to pony up the money, Halak might make sense, but he’d also be a fit in Philadelphia, Arizona, Vancouver or Buffalo.

Michael Hutchinson, Winnipeg Jets

There’s no question the Jets want to improve their goaltending. It’s a must and has to be front and center on GM Kevin Cheveldayoff’s off-season to-do list. Winnipeg had one of the most exciting offenses in the league this past season, but any excitement that was brought by the attack was often deflated by their inability to keep pucks out of the net. Hellebuyck, who was protected, isn’t going anywhere. Hutchinson might be trade fodder, however, for a team looking for a backup.

The Flames, Blackhawks, Avalanche, Kings and Devils are all teams who could be in need of some relief help this coming campaign. If the Jets were against trading Hutchinson within the division, that nixes deals with Chicago and Colorado, but it’s not too tough to picture Hutchinson in Calgary next season.

Keith Kinkaid, New Jersey Devils

Kinkaid, 27, can do as he pleases as he gets set to hit the open market for the first time in his career. He’ll have options, too, after he put up decent numbers on a struggling Devils’ squad. In fact, that he put up better numbers than Cory Schneider in the New Jersey crease — a .916 SP and 2.64 GAA to Schneider’s .908 SP and 2.82 GAA — might make him that much more enticing to teams looking for capable backup help. 

Again, Calgary, Chicago, Colorado and Los Angeles are among the teams who could be in the market for a second-string netminder. You might be able to add Toronto to that list, too, as Curtis McElhinney’s deal is up and Kinkaid could be a cheap but capable No. 2 behind Frederik Andersen.

Linus Ullmark, Buffalo Sabres

Ullmark was left exposed by the Sabres heading into Wednesday’s draft, but don’t take that to mean the 23-year-old is going anywhere. During the draft broadcast, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported that the pick that was sent from Buffalo to Vegas was one that helped shift the Golden Knights’ selection from Ullmark to William Carrier. So, if the Sabres were willing to pay a price to protect Ullmark, they’re certainly not going to be sending him elsewhere. Safe bet says he’s in Buffalo next season as the backup. Whether that’s to Robin Lehner or otherwise is to be seen.

Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen, Dallas Stars

At least one of the two seems bound for a buyout, and all signs point to it being Niemi who’s shown the door in Dallas. The experiment with both goaltenders hasn’t panned out for the Stars and the trade for and subsequent signing of Ben Bishop ensures that Niemi and Lehtonen are out of the shared starting gig. But don’t put it past Stars GM Jim Nill to try to move on from both goaltenders, if at all possible. As for where either netminder lands, don’t expect much more than backup duty for either.

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