For most of last summer and all of this hockey season, the market for NHL caliber goaltenders has been softer than listening to a Dan Fogelberg album with cotton balls in your ears while whacked out on Ambien. Thanks to that fact, any netminder who still required employment at the start of the 2009-10 began became a beggar who couldn’t be choosy.
Manny Fernandez compiled a 16-8-3 record for the Boston Bruins last season and shared the William Jennings Trophy for lowest goals-against average with Tim Thomas. He’s since been treated like an H1N1-virus-leaking social pariah with soaking-wet Sears catalogs for goalie pads. He still doesn’t have a job.
After the St. Louis Blues banished him to the American League for the latter half of last season, Manny Legace leapt at the chance to be continuously assaulted with a Matrix-like barrage of vulcanized rubber while representing the lowly Carolina Hurricanes through early April.
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Martin Biron signed with the New York Islanders for less than half of his original asking price knowing full well (a) the shadow of Rick DiPietro’s contract (and his presence as he rehabilitated a lingering injury) would hover over him all season; and (b) veteran backstopper Dwayne Roloson had signed with the Isles three weeks before him.
That said, the goalie market may soon be heating up, as a slew of injuries and between-the-pipes inconsistencies have more than one franchise beating the bushes for goaltending alternatives.
Examples of the needy aren’t in short supply.
Ray Emery was sidelined by an abdominal injury at the beginning of this month, so the Philadelphia Flyers currently are choosing to employ the well-traveled tandem of Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton in net. That is somewhat akin to purchasing a Bugatti Veyron and hiring Mr. Magoo to drive it for you.
Reigning Calder Trophy winner Steve Mason hasn’t played even passably for a Blue Jackets team that leaned on him mightily last season. His backup, Mathieu Garon, has been marginally better, but the margin hasn’t been close to enough to usurp the sophomore or pull Columbus into the upper regions of the Western Conference playoff picture.
Patrick Lalime has been his usual shaky self as Ryan Miller’s understudy in Buffalo, where the Sabres are again just one Miller injury away from potentially missing the playoffs for the third straight year.
On the other side of Lake Ontario, Toronto’s goaltending has frequently put the "hell" in helter-skelter. South of Buffalo, the New York Rangers’ backup goaltending has reeked of awfulness all season.
Scott Clemmensen hasn’t enjoyed nearly as much success this year in Florida — as evidenced by his .885 save percentage and 3.76 goals-against average — as he did in New Jersey last year. Josh Harding (3.45 GAA, .867 save percentage) has been abysmal as No. 2 to Niklas Backstrom in Minnesota. Mike Smith (5-8-5, .898 save percentage) has seriously struggled in Tampa Bay.
That makes eight teams, all with postseason aspirations, that have some degree of goaltending concerns. Now, not all of them will look externally for solutions, but as we get closer to the March 3 trade deadline, there is no doubt at least a few franchises will be hankering for changes to be made.
If his contract demands aren’t especially onerous (and at this stage of the year, he’d be certifiable if they were), Fernandez could be the best option out there. He wouldn’t cost any prospects, draft picks or roster players to acquire, which can’t be said for Biron, Roloson or most other candidates to be dealt.
(Note to Leafs fans: if you believe Vesa Toskala ought to be included in that group of "most other candidates," I kindly invite you to snap the hell out of whatever mental funk you’re in.)
But don’t kid yourself into thinking it will be a complete and total buyer’s market for goalies. After the Olympics — where another backstopper or two easily could get injured — some GM will be very tempted to pay a colleague’s asking price for netminding insurance.
Goaltender is the most important position in hockey, if not all of sports. For that reason alone, the market for those players who can excel at it can’t be counted on to stay dormant forever.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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