Goal Tending Crisis: A look at goalie struggles amongst playoff teams ahead of the trade deadline

Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

The Florida Panthers started the year red hot. Despite having no history of franchise success and a first-round exit last year, the Panthers became many people’s pick to make it out of the East and win the cup. They were my pick to meet Colorado in the Stanley cup finals. The Panthers had only one question mark on their roster, which was in net. Sergei Bobrovsky is the definition of a hot-cold goalie, and Spencer Knight is just out of college and untested at the NHL level. Bobrovsky also makes 10 million dollars against the cap. Bobrovsky was back on his A-game to start the season but has started to cool down. Knight’s save percentage this season has been subpar at .898% over only 18 games played. In the same division, The Toronto Maple Leafs have consistently been a great regular season team, and they had a red hot November and early December. However, the Leafs now have a similar problem. They let Fredrick Andersen walk in the offseason after Jack Campbell proved himself a starter and then signed Petr Mrazek to help Campbell with the workload. Campbell has lost his way lately, and Mrazek has not been an adequate peak Campbell replacement. Both teams that were playing incredibly are dealing with a slump all to do with the sudden failure of their goaltending. 

Goaltending on paper seems like the easiest position to fix; you just add a new goalie. But it isn’t always that simple; good goalies are coveted by their teams and usually make about 5 million against the cap, which is a significant cap hit. There is also minimal availability of viable starters. In fact, there is probably only one starter available at the deadline, which is Marc Andre Fleury. One starter is available for the myriad of teams who need a goaltender. Beyond the recent additions of Florida and Toronto to the “goalie-wanted” list, the Edmonton Oilers, the Washington Capitals, and Las Vegas Golden Knights also need reassurance in a net. Only a few playoff teams are 100% solid in net; those are the Avalanche, Rangers, Lightning, and Predators. Edmonton needs consistently high-quality goaltending to cover up their failing defense. The Capitals have hit a tremendous slump and seem to have little faith in their starter. The Golden Knight’s starting goaltender, Robin Lehner, is injured and there are questions surrounding the severity of those injuries ahead of the playoffs. Many teams are looking for goalies and the market is pretty barren as it stands now.

While a talented goalie, Fleury might not be the best fit for most teams as he has a limited-move clause in his contract, and he is a costly player. In the case of the Knights, there is bad blood because they traded Fleury away this off-season without informing him ahead of time. Fleury would find out about the trade via Twitter. The Capitals have also inquired multiple times about Fleury but he has refused the trade every time. Many are speculating those rejections are a result of Fleury’s long tenure on Capitals rival, The Pittsburgh Penguins. So besides Fleury, there are a couple of other goalies up for grabs. Braden Holtby of the Dallas Stars and Semyon Varlamov of the New York Islanders are also predicted to be up at the trade deadline. However, The Dallas Stars remain in and out of a wild card space and may choose to hold on to Holtby as a viable backup for young goalie Jake Oettinger. The New York Islander’s playoff hopes look dashed but with Washington starting to slide, they also might be convinced to hold onto Varlamov, mainly because their lousy luck this year seems more like a fluke and less like an indication of disaster. So technically, there are three viable goalies, but only one is on a team that is actually a seller at the deadline. 

The Panthers have a lot of trouble in net because of the size of Bobrovsky’s contract. You cannot have a backup making 10 million. It also means that his contract would be difficult to move. While Florida should be in on all of those goalies, it seems unlikely that they will be able to make it work with how much money they have tied up in their current starter. Knight recently posted a shutout in the AHL, so maybe he will be ready to play at the NHL level should Bobrovsky’s cold streak continue. 

The Leafs should also be in on all the goaltending options and potentially move Mrazek to obtain those assets. Their only issue is cap space, but Jake Muzzin, who makes about 6 million, was placed on LTIR. Although Leafs GM Kyle Dubas says that they will not hold Muzzin back if he is ready to return before playoffs, it would behoove the Leafs to allow Muzzin to get rested ahead of the playoffs and to use his cap hit to acquire a few new pieces. If they do this, they have the cap space to pursue Fleury if the Blackhawks retain salary and another D-man and forward. However, insiders have suggested that the Leafs will not be targeting a new goaltender at the deadline. GM Dubas has also dispelled notions that the team will look at goaltending. 

There is an internal solution if they don’t decide to go after Fleury, Holtby, or Varlamov. They could call up Joseph Woll, who in his few NHL starts had a save percentage of .911. He is on an entry-level contract (ELC) so his cap hit is also manageable. Could the answer be within the organization but beyond Campbell and Mrazek? Maybe. However, goaltending, in general, is a finicky business. Mrazek, the Leafs second goalie, is another hot-cold goalie, and if he gets hot at the right time, all this worrying could be for not. Campbell isn’t a hot-cold goalie, but he is going through his first test as a starter and, thus, his first big slump as a starter. Hopefully, he will bounce back in time for the first round, so the other contingency plans don’t have to be utilized at all. 

Goaltending is one of the most challenging positions to predict and the hardest to play. However, its importance can not be understated as a team can be saved or destroyed by the person in net. Many playoff teams are seeking insurance in net ahead of the deadline, but with limited options and probably high prices, it seems somewhat unlikely that we will see any big goaltending moves. Two of the top teams in the league have struggled with their goaltending. Despite their high rankings and ability to win, the lack of faith in the team goaltending will lead to doubts ahead of the trade deadline. 

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