Hello friends! As we’re all excruciatingly aware, James Reimer was just traded for a fairly paltry return. Just to recap: Reimer and Jeremy Morin were traded to San Jose for Alex Stalock, Ben Smith, and a conditional fourth-round pick in 2018, which will become a third if the Sharks make the finals this year. I decided to investigate the return on goalie rentals.
To qualify for my definition of a rental, the goalie must be traded during the season; must be an unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of the season in which he is traded; and must have played at least once that season for the NHL club that acquired him. This excludes trades like Anders Nilsson or Dustin Tokarski (they’re RFAs on expiry, and thus not as comparable to Reimer), Peter Budaj (who was an AHL goalie by the time he was traded in this sample) and Evgeni Nabokov (who was traded to San Jose as a goodwill gesture so he could retire with his old team.) I think getting rid of RFAs and the like is critical to the exercise: the temporary nature of a goalie rental is what drives value down. If you're angry (as BCapp understandably was) about Nilsson fetching nearly the same return Reimer did this year, it's because their contract statuses render them incomparable.
I used nhltradetracker.com to find trades, which is a bit of an awkward way to do it, and then used TSN and Sportsnet's trade trackers to double check. I decided to look at every significant goalie rental since the 2012 lockout; if I missed one you consider meaningful, please let me know in the comments.
The first, lengthy part of the post lays out a bit of info about each goalie rental trade. If you don’t want to walk through all the examples, meet me down towards the end of the piece and you’ll find my conclusions about the Reimer trade.
December 28th, 2015-Edmonton trades Ben Scrivens to Montreal for Zack Kassian
Why the Habs wanted a rental: Carey Price was injured, and the Habs wanted to shore up their goaltending pending his return. It didn't work.
The goalie: Our old boy Ben was having a rough go at the time he was dealt; he was given the starting job in Edmonton in 2014-15 and put up an abysmal .890 in 57 games. He hadn’t played in the NHL at all before being traded this season; he was putting up bad numbers for the AHL’s Bakersfield Condors (.893 in 10 GP.) Ben has a cap hit of $2.3M for this season, and is 29 years old.
The return: Zack Kassian had a role as a brawler who could also score a little, having put up 35 goals in 198 NHL games at the time of his trade. Kassian however, was injured in a car accident in October and enrolled in the NHL’s substance abuse program. Upon completing the program in mid-December the Canadiens waived him and then told him not to report to their AHL affiliate. Kassian was traded shortly thereafter, having yet to play a professional hockey game in 2015-16. Kassian has a cap hit of $1.75M this season and is RFA this summer.
Thoughts: Kassian is a decent fourth-line player, but the Habs seemed to want rid of him; the teams exchanged guys who couldn’t crack their NHL rosters. Meh.
March 2nd, 2015-Buffalo trades Michal Neuvirth to the New York Islanders for Chad Johnson and a 2016 3rd
Why the Isles wanted a rental: The Isles were gearing up for what they hoped would be a playoff run, but wanted some insurance in case Jaro Halak couldn’t get the job done.
The goalie: At the time of the deal, Neuvirth was performing admirably behind the Buffalo tirefire, putting up .918 in 27 games for Buffalo. Prior to that season, Neuvirth had been backing up Brayden Holtby in Washington and doing a decent job in light work; he had once been a decent starter in Washington, doing .914 in 48 games in 2010-11. Neuvirth had a cap hit of $2.5M and was 26 years old.
The return: Chad Johnson (also a goalie) was in the course of a rough season on Long Island, with .889; he’d done well in his first extended NHL work in 2013-14, backing up Rask in Boston with .925 in 27 GP. Johnson was signed for another season at a $1.3M cap hit. A third is, well, a third.
Thoughts: This looks very much like the Reimer trade, a team paying a mid-round pick to upgrade its backup goaltending for a playoff run. (It didn’t really work out for the Isles; Johnson has gone on to do well in Buffalo while Neuvirth played five lousy games in NYI and was limited to a twelve-minute relief appearance in the playoffs.)
February 11th, 2015-Buffalo trades Jhonas Enroth to Dallas for Anders Lindback and a 2016 conditional 3rd
Why the Stars wanted a rental: The Stars had a good team undermined by bad goaltending—Lehtonen was below-average and Lindback was ghastly.
The goalie: Jhonas Enroth had been a decent backup for Buffalo but was struggling as the starter in 2014-15, with .903 in 37 GP. He had a cap hit of $1.25M and was 26.
The return: Lindback (also a goalie, and also on an expiring deal) was making $925K to play lousy backup goal for Dallas (.875 in 10 GP). He was coming off a couple of years playing lousy backup for Tampa, and his days as a highly touted Nashville goalie prospect were a distant memory. The 2016 third would have become a second if Jhonas Enroth had won four playoff games for the Stars in 2014-15, but he didn’t even play in one.
Thoughts: Another backup upgrade for a mid-round pick, though Enroth might have been able to steal the starting job if he’d played better (but he didn’t.)
January 14th, 2015-Arizona trades Devan Dubnyk to Minnesota for a 2015 3rd
Why the Wild wanted a rental: Minny was another playoff-calibre team undermined by bad goaltending, in this case from Darcy Kuemper (.905 in 31 GP) and the remains of Nik Backstrom (.887 in 19 GP.)
The goalie: Dubnyk suffered nobly for several seasons as the starter in Edmonton’s goalie graveyard before finally buckling under the strain and posting an unsightly .894 in 32 GP in 2013-14. After bouncing through a few teams, Dubnyk wound up in Arizona partway through 2014-15 and put up .916 in 19 GP to rehab himself into a decent rental candidate. He was making a mere $800K and was 28 years old.
The return: It is what it is.
Thoughts: This is probably one of the more memorable goalie rentals, since Dubnyk caught fire immediately after and started nearly every game down the stretch, and then signed an extension.
March 5th, 2014-Buffalo trades Jaroslav Halak and a 3rd to Washington for Michal Neuvirth and Rostislav Klesla
Why the Caps wanted a rental: Washington wanted some veteran insurance behind Braden Holtby for a playoff push. (Halak played well and split starts with Holtby down the stretch, but the Caps narrowly missed the playoffs.)
The goalie: Halak had actually just arrived in Buffalo a week earlier as part of the big Ryan Miller trade (see below.) He’d played very respectably in St. Louis (.917 in 40 GP) He had a cap hit of $3.75M and was 28. I suspect The Capitals also vividly remembered that Halak beat the best of the firewagon Caps teams in 2010.
The return: Neuvirth had another year on his deal and was a competent backup with starting experience. By this point, Rostislav Klesla was a fringe defender who never played in the NHL again.
Thoughts: Buffalo essentially paid a third for a year of Michal Neuvirth, who the following year was traded for a backup and another third. Time is a flat circle. The actual difference in playing quality between Halak and Neuvirth was probably negligible.
March 5th, 2014-Florida trades Tim Thomas to Dallas for Dan Ellis
Why the Stars wanted a rental: Dan Ellis is a lousy backup, Lehtonen is a little erratic, and the Stars figured there might be a little bit of Thomas magic left. (There was not.)
The goalie: Tim Thomas followed the bizarre progression of: best goalie in the world, good starter, crazy man on sabbatical living in a bunker, and finally mediocre starter for Florida (.909 in 40 GP.) He was at the end of his career at this point, making a little under $2M and shortly to turn 40.
The return: Again, Dan Ellis is not good at goaltending, but he had another year on his deal, so he conceivably had a little more value.
Thoughts: A has-been for a never was.
March 5th, 2014-Calgary trades Reto Berra to Colorado for a 2014 2nd
Why this isn’t actually a rental: Berra was acquired to replace soon-to-be-retiring J.S. Giguere as Semyon Varlamov’s backup for future years. Berra signed a three-year extension upon arriving in Colorado and only played two games the rest of 2013-14.
March 4th,2014-Edmonton trades Ilya Bryzgalov to Minnesota for a 2014 4th
Why the Wild wanted a rental: The Wild had a messy goalie situation with talented Josh Harding suffering MS symptoms, untested Darcy Kuemper, and oft-injured, oft-bad former starter Nik Backstrom hanging around. They turned to everyone’s favourite Cosmonaut.
The goalie: Y’all know Ilya. Dominant in Phoenix, overpaid in Philly, run out of town, and condemned to exile in Edmonton. He put up .908 in 20 GP with the Oilers before being dealt. He had a cap hit of $2M and was 33.
The return: James Reimer-quality. [Cries]
Thoughts: Trading for Ilya is always the right move.
February 28th, 2014-Buffalo trades Ryan Miller and Steve Ott for Jaroslav Halak, Chris Stewart, William Carrier, a 2015 1st, and a 2016 3rd
Why the Blues wanted a rental: Having a team that dominates the regular season and then goes nowhere in the playoffs starts to mess with your head after a while. The Blues had not one, but two above-average goalies this year—Jaro Halak (.917 in 40 GP) and Brian Elliott (.922 in 31 GP.) They did not trust them, and so they paid an exorbitant price for Ryan Miller and immensely overrated asshole forward Steve Ott (9G/11A/20P in 59 GP for Buffalo that year.) Incidentally, Steve Ott has produced 3G/14A/17P in the 122 games he has subsequently played for St. Louis.
The goalie: Ryan Miller (to that point, .923 in 40 GP for Buffalo). More importantly, Ryan Miller was considered the best goalie in the world for a while in 2010. He almost single-handedly won the United States a silver medal at the 2010 Olympics, and he performed well in Buffalo’s forays into the playoffs. I say these things because they clearly played an outsize role in the Blues’ decision to pay through the nose for a goalie who was at best a marginal upgrade over what they already had. This trade is what happens when you start believing "clutch" is a real thing. Anyway, Miller was 33 at the time and had a cap hit of $6.25M; it’s also worth noting that to judge by the media noise at the time, he was in much greater demand than anyone else on this list. One final point: unlike other goalie rentals, the Blues were dead certain they were acquiring their starting goaltender for the rest of the year, and they played him accordingly the rest of the way, even though his performance for them didn't especially merit it.
The return: This was a goddamn robbery. While it’s difficult to parse out how much of the return was also-a-rental-but-later-extended Steve Ott (who again, is garbage, but was weirdly overvalued by everyone in the NHL for a while), the Sabres did very well. They got Chris Stewart, who despite his failings is still an okay ninth-forward who scores a bit; Jaro Halak, who was a neat trade chip for them (see above); B-minus LW prospect William Carrier; and most of all, those lovely picks.
Thoughts: This trade is so lopsided that I really feel I need to emphasize the mental state the Blues were in when they made it. They had a good team that couldn’t seem to get over the hump in the playoffs, so they did something stupid. It all paid off, though, when Ryan Miller gave them .897 goaltending in their six-game loss to the Hawks in the first round. Paying for clutch is for suckers.
January 15th, 2014-Los Angeles trades Ben Scrivens to Edmonton for a 2014 3rd
Why the Oilers wanted a rental: They didn’t really; they wanted an audition, having dumped Dubnyk the same day they acquired Scrivens. Unlike every other team that rents a goalie, Edmonton knew they were nowhere close to the playoffs. Scrivens was perceived to be a goalie with starter potential stuck behind Quick and Jones in LA, and Edmonton was both near his hometown and a great opportunity to be a #1 goalie. I suspect the Oilers had at least some inkling he would be more than a rental; at any rate, he signed a two-year deal with them in March of 2014.
The goalie: It seems long ago now that we’re watching Scrivens bide his time on the Habs bench and wondering if he’ll be out of the league next year, but Scrivens was well-thought of at this point. He’d put up a solid .915 in 20 backing up Reimer in 2012-13 and then done .931 in 19 in Los Angeles in 2013-14. He was making $612K against the cap and was 27.
The return: A 3rd, a 3rd, my kingdom for a 3rd.
Thoughts: Poor Ben. He was actually good for a bit in Edmonton, too. Remember when he made 59 saves shutting out the Sharks? Happier days.
January 15th, 2014-Edmonton trades Devan Dubnyk to Nashville for Matt Hendricks
Why the Preds wanted a rental: This was the year Pekka Rinne was injured most of the season and the Preds had to run Carter Hutton and Marek Mazanec, neither of whom was very successful (.910 in 40 GP and .902 in 25 GP, respectively.) Even with that, I’m not sure they’d have made this deal if it didn’t help them get rid of Matt Hendricks, whom they had signed to a very stupid four-year contract the previous summer. Hendricks is a fifth-line left winger, and he had put up four points in 44 games up to the time of this trade. I’m sure Nashville was ecstatic to be getting out of what looked like $1.8M down the drain for another three seasons. Dubnyk’s value was at its lowest, so this was another garbage-for-garbage deal in the eyes of the teams involved, although with hindsight it looks like another Edmonton fuck-up.
The goalie: This was Dubnyk’s long, dark teatime of the soul, coming out of that .894 season in Edmonton. His value could not have been lower, and Nashville didn’t seem to feel otherwise; even in the Nashville goalie melting pot of this season, he only played two games for them. Dubnyk had a cap hit of $3.5M and was 27.
The return: Edmonton must have seen something they liked, but it sure as hell looks to me like Hendricks was a negative-value asset, and nothing he’s done since has changed my mind.
Thoughts: Lol oilers
So far as I can tell, nothing else that meets my criteria of a "rental" happened between the beginning of 2013 and Dubnyk-to-Nashville. There were other goalie trades, most memorably Ben Bishop to Tampa for Conacher and a 4th or Mason to Philly for Leighton and a 3rd, but both Bishop and Mason were RFAs on expiry. I do want to make note of the scarcity of goalie rentals: it suggests a general lack of demand.
So let’s get down to brass tacks.
So What About Reimer?
The going rate for a goalie rental appears to be a 3rd-round pick. There is one spectacular exception—the Miller trade. I’ve already touched on my thinking as to what was going on in St. Louis when that trade was made; Buffalo did an excellent job taking advantage of a team that was desperate.
Could we have taken similar advantage? I don’t think so. Let’s look at Reimer.
Reimer has had six NHL seasons, in each of which he’s played between 32 and 37 games. By save percentage, three of these were very good (.921 in 2010-11, .924 in 2013-14, .918 in 2015-16), two were bad (.900 2011-12, .907 2014-15) and one was mediocre (.911 in 2013-14); his career number is .914. As we know, Reimer struggled with injuries, especially concussions, in his bad years and has not been totally healthy this year. I think a fair assessment would be that Reimer is a potentially above-average starting goalie with worrisome durability issues.
What kinds of teams rent a goalie? As the sample shows, it’s generally teams that anticipate a playoff run. Teams in that position usually have an established starter; what they’re buying is a backup upgrade or an injury replacement. In short, they want insurance. The Miller trade was an extreme version of the same impulse: the Blues believed (wrongly) they were buying guaranteed elite playoff goaltending from an extremely well-established starter. Most teams are buying only a small improvement, and what they’re trying to buy is certainty.
Keeping this motive in mind, let’s look at our potential market. At the time of writing (late Saturday night, because I’m an insomniac and I don’t party anymore), four teams in a playoff spot lack a starting goalie who has provided at least .918 goaltending and has played more than 32 games. See below:
Florida: Luongo, .924 in 47 GP
Tampa Bay: Bishop, .924 in 46 GP
Boston: Rask, .918 in 47 GP
Washington: Holtby, .924 in 50 GP
NYR: Lundqvist, .924 in 52 GP
NYI: Halak, .918 in 33 GP
Detroit: Mrazek, .927 in 43 GP
Pittsburgh: Fleury, .920 in 45 GP
Dallas: Niemi, .904 in 40 GP
Chicago: Crawford, .928 in 51 GP
St. Louis: Allen, .921 in 36 GP/Elliott, .929 in 34 GP
Los Angeles: Quick, .922 in 49 GP
Anaheim: Andersen, .920 in 34 GP
San Jose: Jones, .916 in 51 GP
Nashville: Rinne, .910 in 51 GP
Colorado: Varlamov, .914 in 43 GP
The four teams in question are Nashville, Dallas, Colorado and San Jose. Varlamov and Jones are both within .004 of Reimer this season, which means they're as good as Reimer's career save percentage or better this year. This leaves Nashville and Dallas as the teams who might realistically be looking at a starting goalie upgrade.
The only two teams who look like Reimer would be a clear starting upgrade for them both have long-term financial commitments to their goalies. Dallas is paying $5.9M a year to Lehtonen and $4.5M a year to Niemi through summer 2018. Nashville is committed to paying Pekka Rinne $7M annually until July 2019. All three goalies have played more than 60 games multiple times and have career save percentages comparable or superior to Reimer’s .914: Lehtonen’s is .913, Niemi’s is .915, and Rinne’s is .918. In other words, there’s reason to believe these goalies could be better than they’ve been this year, and the contracts they’re signed to incline their teams to wait for that event. You might argue Lehtonen and Rinne’s recent injury history gives reason to suspect their best days are behind them—but then, if the idea is to get healthier in net, Reimer isn’t an obvious acquisition.
I think it’s fair to conclude that there is no playoff team that would have significant interest in pursuing Reimer as its starting goaltender for this season. There's no Miller situation to be had, and if there were, Reimer doesn't have the career pedigree to take full advantage of it. So, as expected, Reimer would be acquired to provide backup goaltending and injury insurance. Given Reimer’s own injury history and somewhat uneven career, it makes sense that a market that prizes certainty will value him somewhat less than his current save percentage suggests it should.
To sum up: the goalie rental market rarely produces returns greater than a third-round pick. It is also a market that values the weakest area of Reimer’s résumé. Damien Cox said Saturday night the Sharks were the only team seriously in on Reimer, which both gives more evidence of the weak market and means there was no bidding war that we might have used to our advantage. Given everything Reimer has done for this team, and the potential impact he could have as a starting goalie, it’s hard to believe that a fourth-rounder is close to touching his value. But in the circumstances, I think it’s a decent return.