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The Leafs' Goalie Strategy

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"Goaltending is 75% of your team. Unless you don't have it, then it's 100%."--Harry Neale

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Fanbase optimism about the Leafs’ forward group has just about tripled in the past year, and that’s despite trading elite scorer and Ulysses S. Grant lookalike Phil Kessel.  The early returns on William Nylander and Mitch Marner have been rapturous, we have a wealth of exciting second-tier prospects, our president is Internet-flirting with the second-best goal-scorer of the decade, and we’re primed to draft Auston Matthews.  This is without mentioning our shrewd extension of uber-underrated centre provocateur Nazem Kadri and the fact we still have a big, sexy thirty-goal winger for two years and few dollars.  As it says in the Bible, everything is coming up Milhouse.

Almost everyone agrees the Leafs could really use a stud defenceman, though Jake Gardiner continues to be a possession wizard.  Still, there’s reason to hope Morgan Rielly can reach another gear as he matures and gets away from Matt Hunwick, and we just signed impressive-looking CSKA defender Nikita Zaitsev.  Not bad!

So it's time to look at our goaltending.

I. What Do We Have?

II. Drafting Goalies

III. Free Agents From Elsewhere

IV. Free Agents From the NHL

V. Trading For NHL Goalies

VI. So What Do We Do?

I. What Do We Have?

This was a rough year for Jonathan Bernier, wasn’t it?

There was a period of about four months last season where Bernier completely fell apart.  His save percentage lingered well below .900.  He got on a tragicomic streak of letting in goals like this.  He was sent down to the Marlies for a conditioning stint.  Mean-spirited Internet bloggers continued to make jokes referencing his not-knowing who Nelson Mandela was.  And things were tough at home, too: Bernier did not bring home the pizza correctly.

All of this led to Bernier being surpassed by the beloved and believed-in James Reimer, who was coincidentally having the best half-season of his life.  Further, the Leafs were clearly keen to audition hot young thing Garret Sparks, who popped up when Reimer was injured.  A mere two years (!) removed from the trade that brought him to Toronto as the anointed starter, Bernier seemed to have sunk to being a third-string goalie on a last-place team.  Cue the sad violins.

After no one was watching, though, Bernier had a little resurgence.  He put up .920 or better in seven of his last eight games (all games he started and played fully, by the way), and the Leafs were averaging 33.25 shots against in that span.  His previously execrable save percentage rose to a still-bad-but-not-abysmal .908 by the end of the year, which given how the first part of his season went was close to miraculous.  You can credit this to the lack of pressure from playing for a team not expecting to win (except they weren’t really expected to win at any point this year) or to not having Reimer to compete with, if you like.  But he did get better.

Bernier will turn 28 on August 7th, and his career save percentage is .915 (which was exactly league average this season, though the league mark has risen slightly over the course of Bernier’s career.)  Given that he’s played over 200 NHL games, we should have a feel for what he is by now, and Bernier has usually been a slightly above-average NHL goalie.  His adjusted save percentage has bounced from a bit above to a little below his raw save percentage, to the point I don’t think there’s any reason to discount his ordinary numbers.  Bernier has occasionally struggled with lower-body injuries that are generally believed to be groin strains, though he’s handled a regular starter’s workload for most of his Leafs tenure.  You might attribute his struggles to groin strain, or you might look at the bizarrely bad goals he was letting in and argue it’s been a confidence issue.  Barring additional evidence that this is a serious problem, I’m not disproportionately worried about the groin thing.  Bernie’s signed for $4.15M, both cap and real, in 2016-17, and he’s set to go unrestricted the following summer.  We’ll come back to ol’ Bern.

Garret Sparks was pretty much the only Leafs goalie prospect worth getting excited about prior to this season.  From 2013 to 2015, he bounced between the ECHL and the AHL, and did very well in both leagues.  When Reimer went down with injury (and was subsequently traded), and with Bernier struggling, the door seemed wide-open for Sparks to make a big NHL debut.

It didn’t work out, unfortunately.  There’s no real way to be positive about Sparks’ NHL work this season.  Sixty-four goalies played fifteen games or more this year, and sixty-one of them had a save percentage of at least .901.  Sparks was #62, at .893.  He just wasn’t ready for prime time.  Given that he’s a month short of his twenty-third birthday, it’s entirely possible he has a lot more developing to do.  But it’s also entirely possible he’s never going to be a starting-calibre NHL goalie.

The Leafs’ goalie pool after Sparks has been marked as pretty poor.  In the pre- and mid-season prospect rankings, virtually everyone viewed the Leafs as totally lacking in goalie futures, and these were mostly written before Sparks, our consensus best prospect, had his rough year.  Here are HFTHW, and In Goal talking about goalie prospects.

After Sparks, the only Leafs goalie prospect people talked about before this March was Antoine Bibeau. He had a nice playoff in the Q, followed by run with the Marlies in 2014-15.  Then this year he was meh in the AHL.  That’s about it.  He’s 22 as well, so maybe he’ll blossom.  Or maybe not. Probably not.

Finally: as part of their quest to have as many 22-year-old goalie prospects as humanly possible, the Leafs signed Finnish-born American college goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo, who did well for the University of Minnesota-Duluth.  Could he be something?  MAYBE!  This In Goal Magazine article is keen on our picking him up.  I will have a bit more to say about Kasimir’s acquisition in part three.

The Leafs have one proven NHL goalie and a series of anything’s-possible young guys who might or might not turn into something.  They’re a ways from perfect in net, but it’s not the worst position to be in.

The thing is, though, that the Leafs timeline should be accelerating.  As several people have shown, a successful rebuild can go from the depths of the league to its pinnacle in three or four years; the Leafs look as if they’re about to have several talented young forwards on cheap contracts, and it would be very desirable for the Leafs to build around them when they’re at their cheapest.  If the Leafs do what several handsome and smart writers have suggested and sign Stamkos, their timeline should get faster still; Stamkos is in his prime now.  This is not to say they should panic and sign whatever goalie they can get their hands on; it’s to say that we may be leaving the zone where we shrug and say how decent goalies are a dime a dozen while secretly hoping we draft Henrik Lundqvist with a seventh.  We’re still a team thinking in the future.  But the future shouldn’t be a dreamy fog in the distance.  The future is soon.  Our strategy ought to recognize that.

II. Drafting Goalies

I would like to begin this section with some fun facts.

  • The three Vezina nominees this season were all drafted in the third or fourth round.  Two of the Hart nominees, by contrast, were drafted with first overall picks.
  • Of the goalies to play at least ten games in the NHL this season, more were undrafted (13) than drafted in the first (12), second (10), or third (11) rounds.  Among all skaters, more than twice as many were drafted in the first round (292) as undrafted (131.)
  • No goalie younger than twenty-one has played 20 games in a season since 2009.  This suggests that even when scouts accurately identify high-calibre goalie talent, they either can’t or won’t trust it even to play backup until several years after it’s drafted.

I don’t know if anyone has remarked on this before, but predicting the future performance of goalies at the time they are draft-eligible is difficult.  The disconnect between the value perceived during the scouting and drafting process and the value eventually provided seems to be akin to certain Haitian folk-religious practices.  There’s probably a better way to phrase that. I’ll work on it.

Goalies aren’t quite voodoo.  The group of goalies currently playing in the NHL who were drafted in the first round is very strong, headlined by Carey Price, Tuukka Rask, Cory Schneider, and the best goalie of his generation, Roberto Luongo.  (Look in your heart.  You know it’s true.)  But there’s an impressive amount of talent scattered throughout the later rounds (Reimer, Holtby, Lundqvist, and many others), or not drafted at all.  It is at least possible—just possible, with a lot of luck—to find starting-goalie deep in the draft.  How possible?  Well…

Between 1997 and 2010, 307 NHL goalies were drafted (Craig Anderson was drafted twice.)  64 of them went on to play 80 games in the NHL.  This is with no qualification as to whether they were actually good goalies—for example, that 64 includes Dan Ellis and Peter Budaj.  It’s just whether they made at least 80 appearances in their careers.

64/307 is slightly under 21%.  Most goalie draft picks, like most skater draft picks, do not work out.  This is one of those things everyone is broadly aware of, but it’s still worth emphasizing: drafting goalies is a hideous crapshoot.  Let’s look at the successes and see if we can take anything out of them.

If you’re wondering why I picked 1997 and 2010 as the beginning and end of our sample, those are the draft years for the oldest (Roberto Luongo) and the youngest (Petr Mrazek) active, drafted goalies to play 80 NHL games in their careers.  Going more recently than that is unfair to goalie picks who haven’t had enough time to hit the 80-game benchmark, although obviously some drafted in 2010 or earlier might still do it.  Still, I think this gives us a fair spread to work with.  I won’t post the enormous chart of all the goalies drafted 1997-2010; I’ll settle for the still-pretty-big chart of 80+ game goalies.  Both charts are courtesy of the always outstanding hockey-reference, with a little addition from hockeydb.

Year Round Overall Team Player Nat. Pos Age To Amateur Team GP G A PTS +/- PIM GP W L T/O SV% GAA First Sig Yr.
1997 7 175 New York Rangers Johan Holmqvist SE G 19 2008 Brynas Gavle (Sweden) 99 0 4 4 0 6 99 48 34 9 0.89 2.99 D+10
1997 1 4 New York Islanders Roberto Luongo CA G 18 2016 Val d'Or (QMJHL) 926 0 19 19 0 42 926 436 350 111 0.919 2.49 D+3
1997 6 161 Colorado Avalanche David Aebischer CH G 19 2008 Fribourg 214 0 5 5 0 30 214 106 74 17 0.912 2.52 D+4
1997 8 215 New Jersey Devils Scott Clemmensen US G 20 2015 Des Moines (USHL) 191 0 3 3 0 4 191 73 59 24 0.905 2.79 D+9
1998 5 135 Boston Bruins Andrew Raycroft CA G 18 2012 Sudbury (OHL) 280 0 3 3 0 14 280 113 114 27 0.9 2.89 D+3
1998 3 66 New York Rangers Jason LaBarbera CA G 18 2015 Portland (WHL) 187 0 2 2 0 10 187 62 73 20 0.907 2.85 D+8
1998 6 168 Philadelphia Flyers Antero Niittymaki FI G 18 2011 TPS Turku Jr. 234 0 3 3 0 6 234 95 86 31 0.902 2.95 D+8
1999 3 86 Pittsburgh Penguins Sebastien Caron CA G 19 2012 Rimouski (QMJHL) 95 0 1 1 0 12 95 26 48 12 0.892 3.44 D+4
1999 5 138 Buffalo Sabres Ryan Miller US G 19 2016 Soo Indians 655 0 10 10 0 26 655 340 233 68 0.915 2.6 D+4
1999 3 77 Calgary Flames Craig Anderson US G 18 2016 Guelph (OHL) 466 0 14 14 0 52 466 213 171 53 0.915 2.73 D+5
1999 6 165 Chicago Blackhawks Michael Leighton CA G 18 2016 Windsor (OHL) 106 0 3 3 0 6 106 35 41 14 0.901 2.96 D+5
1999 2 40 Florida Panthers Alex Auld CA G 18 2012 North Bay (OHL) 237 0 7 7 0 12 237 91 88 32 0.904 2.8 D+7
2000 1 1 New York Islanders Rick DiPietro US G 18 2013 Boston University (H-East) 318 0 19 19 0 129 318 130 136 36 0.902 2.87 D+1
2000 6 171 Philadelphia Flyers Roman Cechmanek CS G 29 2004 Vsetin 212 0 1 1 0 24 212 110 64 28 0.919 2.08 D+1
2000 3 70 Toronto Maple Leafs Mikael Tellqvist SE G 20 2009 Djurgarden 113 0 2 2 0 2 113 45 41 10 0.898 3.01 D+4
2000 2 44 Anaheim Ducks Ilya Bryzgalov SU G 20 2015 Lada Togliatti 465 0 12 12 0 20 465 221 162 54 0.912 2.58 D+6
2000 7 205 New York Rangers Henrik Lundqvist SE G 18 2016 Vastra Frolunda (Sweden) 685 0 21 21 0 16 685 374 229 72 0.921 2.28 D+6
2000 2 60 Dallas Stars Dan Ellis CA G 20 2015 Omaha (USHL) 212 0 6 6 0 6 212 87 79 18 0.906 2.79 D+8
2001 5 133 Edmonton Oilers Jussi Markkanen FI G 26 2007 Tappara Tampere 128 0 2 2 0 4 128 43 47 15 0.901 2.7 D+1
2001 6 189 Atlanta Thrashers Pasi Nurminen FI G 25 2004 Jokerit Helsinki 125 0 5 5 0 39 125 48 54 12 0.904 2.87 D+2
2001 7 214 Los Angeles Kings Cristobal Huet FR G 26 2010 Lugano 272 0 3 3 0 10 272 129 90 32 0.913 2.46 D+2
2001 8 232 Anaheim Ducks Martin Gerber CH G 27 2011 Langnau 229 0 7 7 0 30 229 113 78 21 0.911 2.63 D+2
2001 1 8 Columbus Blue Jackets Pascal Leclaire CA G 18 2011 Halifax (QMJHL) 173 0 4 4 0 8 173 61 76 15 0.904 2.89 D+5
2001 2 63 Colorado Avalanche Peter Budaj CS G 18 2016 St. Michael's 297 0 10 10 0 20 297 125 107 36 0.903 2.76 D+5
2001 4 99 Ottawa Senators Ray Emery CA G 18 2015 Sault Ste. Marie (OHL) 287 0 4 4 0 79 287 145 86 28 0.906 2.7 D+5
2001 5 161 Dallas Stars Mike Smith CA G 19 2016 Sudbury (OHL) 419 1 10 11 0 95 419 176 172 51 0.912 2.67 D+6
2002 1 25 Carolina Hurricanes Cam Ward CA G 18 2016 Red Deer (WHL) 564 1 10 11 0 24 564 269 208 68 0.91 2.7 D+4
2002 1 2 Atlanta Thrashers Kari Lehtonen FI G 18 2016 Jokerit Helsinki 553 0 27 27 0 34 553 273 194 57 0.913 2.7 D+4
2002 6 176 Calgary Flames Curtis McElhinney CA G 19 2016 Colorado College (WCHA) 147 0 3 3 0 2 147 43 58 10 0.904 2.99 D+5
2002 7 213 Tampa Bay Lightning Fredrik Norrena FI G 28 2009 TPS Turku 100 0 1 1 0 6 100 35 45 11 0.899 2.79 D+5
2002 2 38 Minnesota Wild Josh Harding CA G 18 2014 Regina (WHL) 151 0 2 2 0 6 151 60 59 11 0.918 2.45 D+6
2003 1 1 Pittsburgh Penguins Marc-Andre Fleury CA G 18 2016 Cape Breton 653 0 14 14 0 50 653 357 206 61 0.912 2.56 D+1
2003 9 271 Montreal Canadiens Jaroslav Halak CS G 18 2016 Bratislava Jr. (Slovak-Jr.) 367 0 5 5 0 10 367 200 115 37 0.917 2.38 D+4
2003 9 291 Ottawa Senators Brian Elliott CA G 18 2016 Ajax (OPJHL) 323 0 6 6 0 2 322 165 99 32 0.914 2.4 D+6
2003 2 64 Detroit Red Wings Jimmy Howard US G 19 2016 U. of Maine (H-East) 375 0 7 7 0 22 375 189 113 53 0.915 2.45 D+7
2003 2 52 Chicago Blackhawks Corey Crawford CA G 18 2016 Moncton 326 0 4 4 0 16 326 182 97 39 0.918 2.34 D+8
2004 6 191 Tampa Bay Lightning Karri Ramo FI G 18 2016 Pelicans Jr. 159 0 4 4 0 16 158 60 63 18 0.906 2.85 D+5
2004 8 258 Nashville Predators Pekka Rinne FI G 21 2016 Karpat Oulu 447 0 10 10 0 42 447 238 136 53 0.917 2.37 D+5
2004 1 14 Edmonton Oilers Devan Dubnyk CA G 18 2016 Kamloops (WHL) 298 0 3 3 0 18 298 129 117 32 0.915 2.61 D+6
2004 3 94 San Jose Sharks Thomas Greiss DE G 18 2016 Koln Jr. 130 0 1 1 0 6 130 59 41 15 0.917 2.44 D+6
2004 1 26 Vancouver Canucks Cory Schneider US G 18 2016 Andover (High-MA) 270 0 8 8 0 4 270 124 97 35 0.925 2.16 D+7
2004 1 6 New York Rangers Al Montoya US G 19 2016 Michigan (CCHA) 137 0 1 1 0 10 136 55 40 18 0.909 2.59 D+7
2004 2 38 Carolina Hurricanes Justin Peters CA G 18 2015 St. Michael's 80 0 2 2 0 8 80 25 37 9 0.901 3.08 D+7
2004 7 206 Minnesota Wild Anton Khudobin SU G 18 2016 Magnitogorsk 2 100 0 0 0 0 4 100 44 39 8 0.918 2.42 D+9
2005 1 5 Montreal Canadiens Carey Price CA G 18 2016 Tri-City (WHL) 447 0 11 11 0 39 447 233 155 50 0.92 2.43 D+3
2005 2 41 Atlanta Thrashers Ondrej Pavelec CS G 18 2016 Poldi Kladno Jr. 371 0 6 6 0 10 371 148 154 47 0.907 2.85 D+4
2005 3 72 Los Angeles Kings Jonathan Quick US G 19 2016 Avon Old Farms (High-CT) 475 0 12 12 0 40 475 252 162 51 0.916 2.27 D+4
2005 1 21 Toronto Maple Leafs Tuukka Rask FI G 18 2016 Ilves Tampere Jr. 330 0 7 7 0 16 330 167 103 43 0.924 2.24 D+5
2005 3 85 St. Louis Blues Ben Bishop US G 18 2016 Texas 231 0 7 7 0 16 231 130 65 20 0.92 2.29 D+7
2006 3 69 Columbus Blue Jackets Steve Mason CA G 18 2016 London (OHL) 405 0 10 10 0 22 405 174 156 55 0.911 2.69 D+3
2006 1 23 Washington Capitals Semyon Varlamov SU G 18 2016 Lokomotiv Yaroslavl 2 324 0 6 6 0 18 324 163 117 35 0.917 2.59 D+4
2006 2 34 Washington Capitals Michal Neuvirth CS G 18 2016 Sparta Praha Jr. ( ) 200 0 3 3 0 4 200 84 71 21 0.914 2.66 D+4
2006 1 11 Los Angeles Kings Jonathan Bernier CA G 18 2016 Lewiston (QMJHL) 213 0 4 4 0 6 213 88 88 23 0.915 2.67 D+5
2006 2 46 Buffalo Sabres Jhonas Enroth SE G 18 2016 Sodertalje (Sweden) 147 0 0 0 0 2 147 50 66 15 0.911 2.8 D+5
2006 4 99 Toronto Maple Leafs James Reimer CA G 18 2016 Red Deer (WHL) 215 0 2 2 0 6 215 91 78 23 0.914 2.78 D+5
2006 5 125 Pittsburgh Penguins Chad Johnson CA G 20 2016 Alaska-Fairbanks ( ) 101 0 3 3 0 0 101 50 30 11 0.917 2.39 D+6
2008 4 93 Washington Capitals Braden Holtby CA G 18 2016 Saskatoon (WHL) 244 0 8 8 0 17 244 149 60 25 0.921 2.37 D+3
2008 7 207 Nashville Predators Anders Lindback SE G 20 2016 Almtuna (Sweden) 130 0 4 4 0 6 130 45 58 8 0.904 2.87 D+3
2008 2 34 St. Louis Blues Jake Allen CA G 18 2016 St. John's (QMJHL) 99 0 2 2 0 2 99 57 26 7 0.915 2.34 D+5
2008 2 31 Florida Panthers Jacob Markstrom SE G 18 2016 Brynas Gavle (Sweden) 83 0 2 2 0 4 83 26 42 9 0.904 2.99 D+5
2009 2 46 Ottawa Senators Robin Lehner SE G 18 2016 Vastra Frolunda Jr. ( ) 107 0 2 2 0 14 107 35 45 18 0.916 2.8 D+4
2009 6 161 Minnesota Wild Darcy Kuemper CA G 19 2016 Red Deer (WHL) 84 0 0 0 0 2 84 33 29 11 0.912 2.47 D+5
2010 7 187 Carolina Hurricanes Frederik Andersen DK G 20 2016 Frederikshavn (Denmark) 125 0 5 5 0 6 125 77 26 12 0.918 2.33 D+4
2010 5 141 Detroit Red Wings Petr Mrazek CS G 18 2016 Ottawa (OHL) 94 0 2 2 0 2 94 46 30 8 0.92 2.29 D+5

Most of this should be pretty obvious, but I ought to explain the final column on the righthand side—First Significant Year.  This is the first year the player appeared in ten or more NHL games in the regular season, measured in years from their draft year.  A goalie whose first significant year was D+1 played ten or more games the year immediately subsequent to the summer they were drafted.  For example, a goalie drafted in June 2016 who went on to play ten games in 2016-17 would have "D+1" in this column.

Some thoughts:

  • Maybe the biggest takeaway: the only goalies to play significantly in the NHL either the year they were drafted or the year after were either a) first overall picks who ended up struggling quite badly as rookies or b) drafted in their mid-to-late-20s.  A goalie who plays significantly in his D+3 year is a prodigy, and it’s typical for 80-game goalies—who are, again, the success group!—to be three, four or more years our from their draft before they get more than a cup of coffee in the NHL.
  • With that out of the way: look at all those bad goalies!  We’ve already pared a huge portion of the drafted-goalies-list, and a third of the goalies we have left have a worse save percentage than Ondrej Pavelec.
  • On the other hand, Bernier looks mighty fine if you sort by save percentage. In raw, unadjusted save percentage, there have been 20 goalies better than him drafted in our sample, out of 307.  And five of them (like Bernier) were drafted in the first round, where the Leafs seem highly unlikely to draft a goalie.  A back-of-the envelope calculation would suggest the chances of drafting a goalie who might eventually put up a better career save percentage than Bernier with a second or later pick are about 4.9%.  Yikes.
  • Before we get carried away with any specific numbers: you can add the already-mentioned caveat that league save percentages have risen over the timeline of our sample, meaning goalies with more recent careers can have higher raw numbers without being similarly above-average in their era.  I am not arguing Bernier is in the 95th percentile of all goalies drafted since 1997.  He probably isn’t.  What I am saying is that any way you slice it, drafting someone better than him is a long shot.
  • Save percentage is also tricky to compare across teams, which adds more confusion to our goalie comparisons.  For example, this article suggests the Boston Bruins inflate their goalies’ save percentages considerably, and it’s popular wisdom that every goalie puts up better numbers when they play behind the L.A. Kings.  But save percentage is the easiest way to make direct comparisons across different teams, eras, and leagues, so with caveats, I’m still going to use it.
  • Goalie progression does not end on draft day, obviously, and whether a pick is good or bad in hindsight is partially determined by how his team developed him subsequently.  This adds another layer of fog to our look at goalie drafting, one that’s hard to account for other than to note who worked out and who didn’t.

Okay, so drafting goalies is hardd thouhg, and even when it goes well it takes a long time.  Can we find anything to guide us in using our bevy of picks this draft?

Here’s a basic look at what percentage of goalies drafted in the first seven rounds panned out by reaching our 80-game group.

Round 1: 13 of 31 (41.9%)

Round 2: 14 of 37 (37.8%)

Round 3: 8 of 40 (20.0%)

Round 4: 3 of 33 (9.1%)

Round 5: 6 of 54 (11.1%)

Round 6: 8 of 48 (16.7%)

Round 7: 7 of 40 (17.5%)

Obviously, these percentages are a ways from gospel; there isn’t anything mystically bad about the fourth round (also, two of the three goalies drafted there are Brayden Holtby and James Reimer, who are pretty neat dudes.)  Teams, recognizing that goalies are hard to predict, are reluctant to use first-round picks on them; it’s a little interesting that NHL teams actually seem to have a bit more success when they get bolder in rounds 5-7.  After the third round, everything is a lottery ticket anyway, which actually isn’t that different from drafting skaters.  I’ll be stunned if the Leafs don’t use a late pick on a goaltender; depending on how their scouts report, they might even consider using one of their seconds.  I will defer to the goalie experts on who might be available at what pick; I’m only looking at general strategy.

On that note: I’ll spare you most of the other slicing and dicing of the data, because the truth is, not much comes out of it.  Probably the biggest thing I found was not that surprising: Canadians are drafted out of proportion to how many of them wind up being successful.  They make up 50.2% of all goalies drafted from 1997-2010, but only 40.6% of the 80-game club.  There are still a bunch of them in any group, because it turns out lots of Canadians play hockey, but it suggests (logically enough) that Canada is better-scouted, so more goalies of any value wind up being drafted.  On the other hand, the best undrafted goalie in the NHL this year, Martin Jones, is Canadian, so…¯\_()_/¯

Beyond that?  Look at these, and at this year’s crop of NHL goalies, and tell me if you get a drafting strategy beyond "draft big."  (Only one starting NHL goalie in the NHL this year was shorter than six feet tall--Jaroslav Halak, 5’11". Eight starters were 6’4" or taller.)  Effective scouting of European leagues might pay additional dividends based on Canadian overrepresentation, though I suspect NHL GMs are wiser than they used to be about looking for Finnish goalies.  So, yeah, it might be good to have good scouting.  I am Fulemin.  I provide insight.

Let’s dwell on the scouting note for a second.  No NHL organization is just looking at save percentage and the location of its draft picks and then making its selections on an actuarial basis.  A good scout would, hopefully, be able to distinguish between flaws that can be fixed and ones that are more likely to hold a goalie back.  Goaltending is a mix of reflexes, natural athleticism, and positional training; a decent look at a prospect would hopefully be able to put things like puck tracking and rebound control in a wonderful analytic cocktail.  I don’t claim to be able to do that, and I don’t deny the value in scouts who can achieve even some of it.

But whatever NHL scouts are doing, they have had much more difficulty finding value in goal than among skaters.  Take a look at these two Hockey’s Future prospect breakdowns for goalies drafted in 2008, then look at the section under talent.  Try to adjust for hindsight bias, imagine that these breakdowns have landed on your desk, and think which goalie you’d draft.

Chet Pickard (brother of the more impressive-looking Calvin) was the first goalie drafted in 2008, being picked 18th overall by the Nashville Predators (who had well-regarded goalie coach Mitch Korn in their organization at the time.)  Now he plays in Germany.  Brayden Holtby went 75 picks later.  Now he’s got a Vezina nomination.  Hockey is full of these stories.  Goaltending just has a hell of a lot more of them.

Goalies simply take longer to develop.  It’s a very rare goalie who’s far along enough in his development at 18 that elite status is clear, and even some of those who look that way probably aren’t great risks—of the eight goalies drafted in the top ten from 1997-2010, I would argue only two of them justified their draft spot (Roberto Luongo and Carey Price), which is the same number as were never-was busts (Brian Finley, 6OA in 1999, and Brent Krahn, 9OA in 2000.)  And as I mentioned above, it’s very rare for a drafted goalie to play significantly in the NHL for a couple years after he’s drafted.

After our whole survey of scouting, we wind up where we started.  A big-picture look at team strategy can only come to one conclusion about goalie drafting: it’s flukey and it’s slow.  I could default to the prior cliché of "goalies are voodoo"; what they really are is an educated guess for the distant future.

There’s still obvious value in drafting a goalie who would be very good in four or six years, and this is not to say we shouldn’t try to do it.  But from where we stand now, drafting goalies is buying a lottery ticket when the draw is in the next decade.

III. Free Agents From Outside The NHL

So, what next?  The obvious thing to try is to look at available goalies who are somewhat more mature and who may have been overlooked.

This is exactly what they did with Kasimir Kaskisuo.

Kaskisuo might be taken as an archetype of the non-NHL FAs the Leafs should be looking at.  He was passed over in the draft—the linked article suggests due to being stuck as a backup on the Jokerit U-20 squad—and then performed well in college.  He might be something, or he might be nothing, but there’s a chance he could be good very soon.  As noted, plenty of excellent goalies currently starting in the NHL were undrafted, including Martin Jones, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Semyon Varlamov.

Additionally, if the Leafs have improved their scouting of the KHL and Europe as much as we hope, they may be better positioned to find value other teams have missed.  This is true at the draft level, too, but given the later development of most goalies, the talent should hopefully be easier to scout—you’re looking at players in their early twenties as opposed to teenagers.  (By easier, I mean ‘once you get over the Atlantic Ocean.’)

Mind you, there’s still the fact that even a successful goalie in another league may not translate.  We all remember Jonas Gustavsson, who came to the Leafs after putting up .932 in 42 GP for the Swedish Elite League’s Farjestad.  This success, to put it gently, did not translate; the greatest success in Gus’ NHL career has been that it is still inexplicably ongoing.  The unpredictability of goalies is somewhat mitigated when you get to pick them at 21 or 22, but it’s still a long way from certain.  Further, if you’re trawling through the undrafted pile, you’re still dealing with a talent pool from which a lot of the good stuff has been extracted.

And then, well, there’s the fact you just can’t really know, sometimes.  To take an example from the KHL, the two best recent goalies signed out of the league—Bobrovsky and Varamov—put up .932 and .946 their last time in the KHL, during the 2012 lockout.  The following year, fringe NHL goalie Michael Leighton managed .933.  (KHL save percentages tend to reach somewhat higher than NHL ones do.)  It’s just bloody hard to project across leagues, and you’re often forced to fall back on the eye test, insofar as you have firsthand scouting.  To quote our own Katya Knappe, on projecting goalies from other leagues to the NHL:  "Sample size is the issue here.  Imagine how few goalies, even over years, come out of each source league.  You just can’t compute anything from that."  There is no goalie NHLe stat.  Once again, it’s educated guessing.  It’s just potentially more educated than the draft.

So: like everything else, you need to be lucky.  Still, I suspect if the Leafs do manage to get a top-ten goalie for the rebuild, a non-NHL FA is the way we’ll get it.  It suits our timing and it gives us a good chance to exploit our resources.  Goalie acquisition is so unpredictable that it makes the most sense to go for a shotgun spray-and-pray strategy—make multiple small investments and hope one booms.  In this, Kasimir is a good sign.

IV. NHL Free Agents

Let’s look at all the UFA goalies this summer.

Here.

Count the guys who are NHL starting-calibre.  It’s James Reimer and then sort of Karri Ramo, and that’s it.  Slim pickings indeed.

This isn’t to say there’s never any value—for example, last year, Antti Niemi and Michal Neuvirth hit free agency—but it’s rare for an above-average starting goalie to hit the market, and much of the talent that exists is a mix of bad and old.  And assuming you do find a UFA goalie you really like, you have to pay market rates for him; if he’s good, there might well be at least some competition for his services that’ll drive up the price.  I am very curious to see what James Reimer signs for this offseason, but I strongly suspect—much as I love him—it will be more and/or longer than I’d want the Leafs to pay.

The ideal UFA signing would be an NHL starting goalie who had a proven track record of success, but who for some reason was at low value.  It would be even better if we had some kind of one-year negotiating window where no other team could approach him.  Just thinking out loud on the Internet, y’know.

If you’re signing a goalie you expect to be your starter as a UFA, it is likely because you have a good team that is weak in net and you need help the following season, to the point you’re okay with probably overpaying for it.  This is what Dallas attempted to do in signing Niemi last year.  The Leafs are still a way from this point, though if none of their goalie work pans out they could end up there some time around 2019.  Beyond ponying up for a starter, you can take a chance on a backup fallen on hard times, but that brings you back to the same old issue in building your goaltending: you have to get lucky on someone other teams have passed over.

The UFA market for goalies should be labelled "break glass in case of emergency."  We aren’t in one now, so I won’t dwell on this method too much beyond acknowledging that it’s there.  But the fact Bernier would look like the best deal available to a shrewd GM ought to tell us something about what we have.

V. Trading for an NHL Goalie

I hate trade speculation for named players on the other end.  It’s whistling Dixie unless we have a convincing reason to believe the player is available and knowledge of his price.  Speculation along the lines of "maybe we’ll get Pickard for Leipsic and a third!" is predicting the result of a negotiation that, if it winds up happening at all, will be taking place behind a curtain.  I’d rather not try for clairvoyance.

But there clearly is value to be had in goalie trades.  Several of the best active goalies in the league have been acquired in trades after they reached the NHL—Ben Bishop, Cory Schneider, and Martin Jones.  All of the above were also at least 24 by the time they were traded, helping mitigate the uncertainty issue that comes with young goalies.  Roberto Luongo has been traded three times, at ages 21, 27 and 34, though the first time was because New York Islanders GM Mike Milbury (lol) had drafted Rick DiPietro (lol) first overall (lmao), so he thought Luongo had been passed on the depth chart (roflcopter.)  The point is, the trade market is definitely there.

Once a goalie reaches the NHL and shows quality in it, there’s usually one reason he gets traded: he’s stuck behind an established starter (and possibly valued lower by the organization than a second goalie.)  This is what happened with Bishop (behind Andersen and Lehner in Ottawa), Schneider (behind Luongo in Vancouver), and Jones (behind Quick in Los Angeles).  It’s also the reason Bernier was available in 2013 (he too was blocked by Quick in Los Angeles).  The backup goalie maneuver has become fairly accepted thinking in the NHL and among fans, which is why when we do that speculation I hated on two paragraphs up, we name guys like Calvin Pickard (stuck behind Varlamov in Colorado.)  For the sake of laying out some options, here are a few candidates:

  • Andrei Vasilevskiy, age 21, Tampa Bay Lightning; .910 in 24 GP this season
  • Joonas Korpisalo, age 22, Columbus Blue Jackets; .920 in 31 GP this season
  • Philipp Grubauer, age 24, Washington Capitals; .918 in 22 GP this season
  • Calvin Pickard, age 24, Colorado Avalanche; .922 in 20 GP this season
  • Darcy Kuemper, age 26, Minnesota Wild; .915 in 21 GP this season

This isn’t to say these goalies will necessarily be available—I bet Tampa is in no hurry to deal Vasilevskiy anytime soon, for example—but they’re younger than Bernier, they had decent years, and their teams have major commitments to starting goalies.  (For reference, Bernier in 2013 would have slotted into a list like this as "age 24, Los Angeles Kings; .922 in 14 GP.")

So how does it work?  Actually, the team that has most assiduously experimented with trading for impressive-looking backup goalies is the team we least want to imitate in general: the Edmonton Oilers.  After they gave up on Devan Dubnyk, the Oilers cycled through a number of backup acquisitions—Ben Scrivens (yet another goalie who had been stuck behind Jonathan Quick), Viktor Fasth (came from Anaheim, where Frederik Andersen pasthed him by), and most recently Cam Talbot (Lundqvist’s most recent backup).  The first two were catastrophes; Talbot has looked good thus far, though this year’s Oilers have also been a marginally better defensive team this season after being horribad for a long time.  This Chris Boyle article linked in Part II suggests that Ben Scrivens was actually about an average goalie in Toronto, in LA, and in Edmonton, except the team context varied immensely and made him look good or terrible.  Still, with appropriate grains of salt, I think the Oilers’ experiment is the best case study in trying to build goaltending this way, though there’s also the Sabres’ acquisition of Robin Lehner and whatever the hell has happened to Eddie Lack in Carolina.

Goalies in these circumstances tend to have short—or at least, small-sample—NHL résumés, which is what you’d expect from backups.  This is still better than goalies acquired through other methods—goalies in their first draft obviously have no NHL track record, as do non-NHL free agents, and UFA goalies tend to have one that’s flawed—but it’s not usually enough to provide certainty.  Sometimes you get Ben Bishop, and sometimes you get Ben Scrivens.

The Leafs should absolutely be shaking the leaves on different NHL goalies who might be stuck as second-string.  Hearteningly, our GM pulled off one of the best two goalie trades in the past five years, bringing Schneider to New Jersey.  But Schneider had an unusually strong NHL track record, and was stuck behind a goalie thought to be untradeable; plus Lou was negotiating with the Canucks, which is sort of like the Godfather making a deal with Ralph Wiggum.  The more common reality is just basic trade economics: the more certain the value, the more you have to pay for it.  And getting certain starter value is still rare.

VI. So What Do We Do?

The Leafs goalie strategy this summer ought to have two prongs.  One of them is pretty much universally agreed on amongst Leafs fans, and one isn’t.

  1. Acquire multiple cheap goalie prospects through the draft, trades, and FA signings, hopefully exploiting an edge in scouting and (for free agents) a level of institutional appeal.  This is the agreed-on one.
  2. Start looking to extend Jonathan Bernier.

Let’s slow down.  I’m not saying we should sign Bernier for some ungodly term or dollars, as if he’s our Henrik Lundqvist.  I’m saying that there is a great deal of evidence he is a decent NHL starting goalie who may well be at an unusually low price.  Bernier may (if he’s on board with the logic in this article, should) choose to bet on himself and not sign for a discount before the season, and the normal flow of negotiations is not to get them done a year early unless the player involved is a superstar.  There may not be a deal to be had there; but the Leafs should at the very least be looking closely at whether there is.

This case is partly based on what Bernier is, and partly based on all the accumulated evidence of this article: trying to acquire a starting goalie better than Bernier has shown himself to be is a difficult thing.  Yes, we’d all like to mimic the Bishop-for-Conacher trade, or draft Ryan Miller in Round Five.  Let’s try to do those things!  But there is a tiny chance of those things happening within three seasons to the point where Bernier would become our second-best goalie.  Within three seasons, the Leafs should be a competitive team.  The most likely way to ensure that team has a good goalie is to extend the one we already have.

To lay it out in full: the argument for wanting to wrap up Bernier now is based on several factors, none of which is that I think he’s a Vezina candidate.

  1. Bernier has a more than 200-game track record of being an NHL starter, including two seasons where he has played at least 55 games, and the Leafs can now foresee a point in their development where it having a goalie with a good track record is increasingly valuable--because the time spent auditioning new goalies is time wasted of ELC contracts, or of the prime of certain Greek-Canadian scoring forwards.
  2. The Leafs goalie prospect pool, by all accounts, is extremely thin, and the timeline on which you draft for goalies is long—to the point that it’s very unlikely any goalie we draft will mature before our contention window should be opening.
  3. Bernier is coming off the worst year of his career and should be unusually cheap, and that there may be a fit where we give him a little (a little) more term in exchange for reduced dollars.

Or to finally quit with the foreplay: if the Leafs can sign Jonathan Bernier this August for an early extension of two or three years and less than $4M per, they should do it.  Berns would be signing proceeding through his age-29, age-30, and possibly age-31 seasons (his age-28 one is the one that starts in October.)  Bernier would be taking a slight pay cut from his current $4.15M salary; this summer will likely be the best chance to get him to do it.

How does that salary compare to other starting goalies?  Here are the 28 non-Leaf teams who have a starter under contract (Calgary is the odd team out), and what those starters’ cap hits are from this summer onward.

Anaheim: John Gibson-$2.3M per 3y

Boston: Tuukka Rask-$7.0M for 5y

Buffalo: Robin Lehner-$2.25M for 2y

Carolina: Eddie Lack-$2.275M for 2Y

Chicago: Corey Crawford:-$6.0M for 4y

Colorado: Semyon Varlamov-$5.9M for 3y

Columbus: Sergei Bobrovsky-$7.45M for 3y

Dallas: Kari Lehtonen-$5.9M for 2y/Antti Niemi-$4.5M for 2y

Detroit: Jimmy Howard-$5.29M for 3y

Edmonton: Cam Talbot-$4.17M for 3y

Florida: Roberto Luongo-$5.33M for 6y

Los Angeles: Jonathan Quick-$5.8M for 7y

Minnesota: Devan Dubnyk-$4.3M for 5y

Montreal: Carey Price-$6.5M for 2y

Nashville: Pekka Rinne-$7.0M for 3y

New Jersey: Cory Schneider-$6.0M for 6y

New York Islanders: Jaroslav Halak-$4.5M for 2y

New York Rangers: Henrik Lunqvist-$8.5M for 5y

Ottawa: Craig Anderson-$4.2M for 2y

Philadelphia: Steven Mason-$4.1M for 1y

Pittsburgh: Marc-Andre Fleury-$5.75M for 3y

San Jose: Martin Jones-$3.0M for 2y

St. Louis: Brian Elliott-$2.5M for 1y/Jake Allen-$2.35M for 1y

Tampa Bay: Ben Bishop-$5.95M for 1y

Vancouver: Ryan Miller-$6.0M for 1y

Washington: Brayden Holtby-$6.1M for 4y

Winnipeg: Ondrej Pavelec-$3.9M for 1y

If the Leafs managed to get Bernier down to, say, $3.8M for 3y—which I don’t think is at all out of the question—that would be less than 23 of these 28 teams are paying for their starters this season (Bernier would be starting his extension in 2017-18, but this is for comparison’s sake.)  Of those five remaining teams, two traded first-round picks for their star young goalies (Buffalo and San Jose), two had spectacular second-round draft hits (Anaheim and St. Louis), and one is a shambles in net (Carolina.)  In other words, we have an opening to secure a starting goalie at below-market cost while we try to pursue a swing-for-the-fences strategy of acquiring goalies through drafts and signings.  If Bernier gets surpassed, the worst-case scenario would be that we’re paying probably $2M extra for our backup goalie in 2019-20.  If Bernier turns unexpectedly bad and doesn’t get surpassed, then we’re screwed that season anyway.

What if we don’t, and we trade Bernier at the deadline this year for a third-round pick?  Well, maybe Sparks or Kaskisuo has charged into the starting role and it’s all good.  Or maybe they don’t, and we have another fun experiment in what happens when good teams have bad goaltending.  Remember that? Wasn’t that fun?

To go back to the example we want to avoid: the Oilers traded Devan Dubnyk in January 2014, after he had a miserable half-season.  They then spent a year and a half cycling through goalies as they looked for someone to replace him.  Dubnyk, predictably, rebounded and went on to sign a very long deal with Minnesota.  While I think it would have made sense to be more patient with Dubnyk, I don’t think that the Oilers strategy of experimenting with backup trades was a bad one.  It was a reasonable enough way to go looking for a starter.  But it was slow.  Everyone got a year older and the Oilers were terrible again.  They may not regret how terrible they were, after the draft pick they got out of it, but their experience is cautionary for a team not wanting to suck as much as the Oilers did.  If the Leafs are a last-place team in 2018-19, something has gone terribly wrong.  If we turn out to be good, we may be very happy to have Jonathan Bernier in net.

The Leafs have excellent opportunities to find the goalie of the future.  But they shouldn’t neglect that they have a pretty decent goalie of the present.  The Leafs’ goalie strategy needs to recognize both.