Sick of hearing about Sergei Bobrovsky yet? Too bad, because he's about to become one of the best goalie signings of the NHL's salary-cap era.
Highly regarded starting goalies don't often show up on the unrestricted free-agent market, and Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy recipient, led the NHL with nine shutouts this past season and was instrumental in leading Columbus to a playoff spot on the second-last day of the regular season.
If you believe the speculation, there won't be much drama on July 1: Bobrovsky, and fellow Russian and Blue Jackets teammate Artemi Panarin, are expected to go to Florida, with Bobrovsky taking over the starting role from the recently retired Roberto Luongo. With Bobrovsky still in his prime at 30, the time is now for the Panthers to go all-in and get one of the NHL's top goaltenders over the past five years.
Of course, that's all just conjecture, but it would be a good fit. The Panthers have some solid players up front, but are desperately lacking a goaltender capable of taking them on a long playoff run. Bobrovsky may not have much playoff experience past the first round, but he has spent his career on mediocre teams. Panarin and Bobrovsky are exactly what the Panthers need to hit the next level and become true contenders, but they're not everything.
Bobrovsky is easily the best goalie available this summer. A deal in the $8-9-million range is to be expected as teams chase the Russian star. But the talent level drops off after that, with no other goaltender hitting the 50-game mark this season. It's still a good UFA class when it comes to No. 1B and backup goaltenders, which is almost as valuable as having a good starter. Here are some of the other top goalies to watch over the next few days:
Robin Lehner, 27 (2018-19: $1.5 million)
Lehner found a way to revive his career better than anyone else this past season: coming off of personal issues and some up-and-down seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, Lehner played his best hockey with the New York Islanders, winning the Jennings Trophy and Masterton Trophy in a campaign that saw him fall just short of the Vezina Trophy. But now, his next contract becomes complicated. He was one of the best goalies in the league in 2018-19 but his career body of work hasn't been the same caliber. It's understood that Lehner and the Islanders are not close on a new deal and he could seek $5-6 million on the open market.
Petr Mrazek, 27 (2018-19: $1.5 million)
Just like Lehner, Mrazek had a breakthrough season after signing an identical deal. Carolina rotated through three goalies early in the season before Mrazek took over and led the Hurricanes to a surprise playoff appearance and was solid in the playoffs before an injury in the second round. Mrazek is still young at 27 and is in his prime, so the Hurricanes should look to keep him for a few years. Mrazek is set for a nice payday, but he's not the only goaltender the Hurricanes need to worry about this summer...
Curtis McElhinney, 36 (2018-19: $850,000)
McElhinney's value as a backup goaltender is undisputed. He was important in Toronto during his stint there and kept the Hurricanes afloat after Mrazek's playoff injury. He's playing some of the best hockey of his career – in fact, he hit 20 wins for the first time in his career in just 33 games – and teams will be lining up for his services for $1 million this summer. Alex Nedeljkovic's top goaltender status in the AHL and the acquisition of Anton Forsberg from Chicago means that McElhinney isn't expected back in Raleigh.
Semyon Varlamov, 31 (2018-19: $5.9 million)
Colorado had one of the team's best campaigns in recent seasons, but Varlamov isn't the one to thank for it. Philipp Grubauer took over the starting role for good in mid-season and finished with a 20-19-9 record with a 2.87 GAA and .909. At 31, it's unlikely Varlamov is interested in taking a backup role and with Pavel Francouz expected to support Grubauer next year in Denver, Varlamov will have to find employment elsewhere, and definitely at a cheaper rate than his $5.9-million salary from this season. A new home could spark life into one of the best goalies from the early 2010s who is still young enough to back a team for at least another four to five years at $4 million per season.
Mike Smith, 37 (2018-19: $5.66 million)
Smith was inconsistent and often struggled during the regular season and was eventually outplayed by David Rittich for the starting job. Still, Smith will be one of the best backup options on the market this summer and could fill a 1A/1B role for a team looking for a netminder capable of 15-20 wins a year without an issue on a $1-2-million deal.
Keith Kinkaid, 29 (2018-19: $1.25 million)
Kinkaid is a very interesting option this summer. On one hand, he played well in New Jersey and was the team's starting goalie for a good portion of the season. But he was traded to Columbus at the trade deadline for a fifth-round pick to help give Mackenzie Blackwood the starting role, with Kinkaid not playing in a single game with the Blue Jackets. Kinkaid is not a long-term starting goalie in the NHL on a good team, but he's really good in spurts and you'd be confident in giving him 30-35 starts a year if needed, especially on a deal worth $1-1.5 million next season.
Cam Talbot, 31 (2018-19: $1.5 million)
Back in 2016-17, Talbot played in nearly every game for Edmonton en route to the team's first playoff berth in over a decade. Since then, however, it's been a total downward spiral for the goalie once viewed as one of the best backups in the league. A rough stint in Edmonton this year resulted in him getting sent to Philadelphia prior to the trade deadline, but he only played in four games and was left to watch rookie Carter Hart steal the show. Talbot still has value in the NHL and a one-year deal could be what's needed to spark his game again.
Cam Ward, 35 (2018-19: $3 million)
Ward's stats may not hold up, but he did exactly what he needed to do with the struggling Blackhawks: keep the team in contention and fill in when needed. Injuries to Corey Crawford made that possible, and with 16 wins on the year, Ward held up his end of the bargain. But as one of the oldest goalies available on the market this summer, Ward's options may be limited this summer. He won't sign a $3-million deal again but can be a solid option in relief appearances for a team needing backup stability.
Calvin Pickard, 27 (2018-19: $800,000)
Pickard's NHL career has been an interesting one. From landing Colorado's starting role after an injury to Varlamov in 2016-17 to being an AHL backup the next season, Pickard couldn't find his footing in Philadelphia or Arizona this year and is back on the market this summer. He had opportunities to prove himself again on two teams with injury problems and he simply fell flat. Pickard looks destined to end up back in the AHL but he's good enough to call up in injury situations.
Make sure to pick up The Hockey News' Free Agency issue, available here.
Want more in-depth features, analysis and an All-Access pass to the latest content? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine