So, there was a method to Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman's madness after all.
On July 1, Bowman made a big splash by signing reigning Vezina Trophy finalist Robin Lehner to a one-year, $5-million deal. Given Corey Crawford's health concerns, Lehner was an obvious upgrade after the disaster that was the Blackhawks backup duo of Collin Delia and Cam Ward last season. But going out and grabbing the best available goalie on the market? Did Bowman know something the rest of us didn't? Was Crawford's time up as an NHLer?
Turns out not so. Crawford has been steady in his 11 appearances this season, turning in a .914 save percentage, .935 SP at 5-on-5 and a solid 5.52 goals-saved above average at five-a-side. But that hasn't negated the value of bringing Lehner aboard. Add in his outstanding performance thus far – he boasts .934 SP at all strengths and .940 SP and 7.47 GSAA at 5-on-5 – and suddenly the Blackhawks have one of, if not the best, goaltending duos in the league right now.
The duo does present one problem, however: both goaltenders are set to become UFAs at season's end. That Lehner isn't locked into a long-term deal is particularly concerning, too, given he's now in the second of what have been back-to-back standout seasons. If the Blackhawks retain the 28-year-old keeper, though, what does it mean for the 34-year-old Crawford? It's unlikely he'll find himself commanding anywhere near the $6 million cap hit he carries on his current deal, but would he take enough of a pay cut to be able to remain in the Windy City? Or, with his playing time halved due to Lehner's presence, will Crawford look elsewhere for opportunities?
Regardless of whether one or both stay in Chicago, as it stands, there are two of the top pending UFA goaltenders, sitting atop a group that has a couple big names. At the quarter-season mark, let's look at five others who could make a splash by landing in a new crease when July 1 rolls around:
Braden Holtby, 30 (Washington – $5 million AAV)
If you look at his season record – 11-2-3 in 17 games heading into the weekend – Holtby's having a Vezina Trophy-caliber season. But when you dig a little deeper, his stats say the complete opposite. Holtby's .913 SP at 5-on-5 was 26th among goalies with at least 10 starts and his minus-1.48 GSAA ranked 27th. Holtby's no stranger to weak stretches, but one would expect better numbers. Still, he's arguably going to be the top goaltender on the market heading into the summer, and with Ilya Samsonov itching for opportunity, Holtby's next contract could take him elsewhere.
Jakob Markstrom, 30 (Vancouver – $4 million AAV)
The Canucks sit third in the Pacific Division, but that has been in spite of Markstrom's recent play. Before recording a victory against Nashville Thursday, Markstrom was on a personal six-game slide following a four-win run in early October. Entering the weekend, his .915 SP at 5-on-5 was good for 22nd, but he was a top 10 goalie before things began going south. His understudy, rookie Thatcher Demko, has a .924 SP at five-a-side with a 5-2-1 record. Despite his recent struggles, Markstrom was one of Vancouver's most valuable players last season and showed he can handle a full-season load. Demko should be Vancouver's starter next season, so Markstrom might be a valuable option for teams looking for a veteran netminder who can handle in the range of 50 starts.
Thomas Greiss, 34 (NY Islanders – $3.75 million AAV)
Greiss made his career as a reliable backup goaltender, but his 9-1-0 record heading into the weekend is among the league leaders. In addition, Greiss' .945 SP at 5-on-5 entering the weekend ranked first among netminders with at least 10 starts and his 7.67 GSAA sat second behind the Winnipeg Jets' Connor Hellebuyck. Greiss has allowed just 15 goals at full strength, and with an eight-game win streak, he's been instrumental to the Islanders' success. In fact, he has outplayed Semyon Varlamov despite entering the season as the projected backup. Greiss is unlikely to secure a starting role elsewhere due to his age, but he'll be among the most sought after options if the Islanders don't – or can't – keep him around.
Brian Elliott, 35 (Philadelphia – $2 million AAV)
When Carter Hart started the season on the wrong side of league average, Elliott took over, and he hasn't disappointed. He's 5-2-0 while filling in for his creasemate and has kept the Flyers in the hunt in the Eastern Conference even if his stats aren't beautiful. Entering the weekend, his .914 SP at 5-on-5 was 25th among goaltenders with 10 starts and his minus-0.82 GSAA saw him in 24th spot. He's doing what he needs to do as a backup, though: win. As an older goalie with a lengthy injury history, Elliott isn't going to earn much on his next contract. You have to think the Flyers will want to keep him around for another year to help mentor Hart.
Anton Khudobin, 34 (Dallas – $2.5 million AAV)
Speaking of reliable backup goaltenders, Khudobin knows a thing or two about keeping his team in games. Khudobin's 5-3-1 record entering the weekend may seem average, but he has won five of his past six starts and the lone loss came in overtime. He also allowed only a single goal against in four of those victories. Entering action Saturday, Khudobin sat third with a .943 SP at 5-on-5 and his GSSAA of 4.56 is second among goaltenders with fewer than 10 games played. Like the other backup options, Khudobin likely won't get a sizeable raise. That might make it likely that he stays in Texas as the Stars attempt to chase a Stanley Cup.
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