With free agency looming just around the corner, Calgary Flames news will soon be rolling in again as the team begins to fill in the gaps in its roster in preparation for next season. One of the biggest items on GM Brad Treliving’s 2021 offseason to-do list will be finding a backup goalie.
Finding a backup goaltender isn’t as easy as it seems. Calgary is unlikely to part with assets to acquire one from another team, especially when free agency is a preferred route for many teams. This does however end up limiting the options. Beyond that, the team’s most pressing need is still on offense. There just isn’t the cap space to break the bank improving the forward group, attempting to replace the void of whoever is lost in the expansion draft, and getting a top-end backup.
There’s an added caveat with the team for at least the next couple of seasons—Darryl Sutter is unlikely to play the backup much anyway. In his previous stint in Calgary, he played Roman Turek 65 games in one season, and Miikka Kiprusoff 74. In LA, he followed the same script, leaning heavily on Jonathon Quick, playing him between 68 and 72 games in every season in which Quick did not face a serious injury, excluding the shortened 2012–13 season.
What this means for Calgary is that they would be wise to focus on inexpensive backup options. Aside from the fact that the more established options on the market are likely to be looking for bigger opportunity than playing behind Markstrom would allow, it also doesn’t make sense to allocate much more cap space to goaltending with Markstrom locked down long term.
With that in mind, I surveyed the field of available free agent goalies to put together a list of viable backup options for the Flames next season.
Best value goaltender signings
In the case of Louis Domingue, value essentially means cheap. Generally speaking, an internal re-signing is less expensive than an open market bid, and Domingue is no exception. After playing only one NHL game last year and three AHL games, Domingue is in not in a position to make a big ask for a contract extension. If the team is looking to be economical, Domingue may be brought back.
On the other hand, there is a reason he only played four games. His time in the AHL was underwhelming, and after the David Rittich trade, the team was desperate for a playoff spot and leaned heavily on starter Jacob Markstrom, not providing much opportunity for Domingue—or, maybe, the team just didn’t have faith in him.
His career .904 save percentage is nothing special, but he has shown in the past he can perform at a decent level for a backup. With Sutter’s tendency to play starters heavily, it might make sense to stick with the cheap in-house option, especially considering what he brings to the squad off the ice:
Talk about intangibles!
Laurent Brossoit would be a great fit for the Flames. Not likely to net a big payday after hanging out in Connor Hellebuyck‘s shadow the last several years, he is a career backup who is used to the smaller workload of goalies who play behind stars. Originally a Flames draft pick in 2011, he is now a 28-year-old veteran backup with 82 games under his belt. Ironically, he’s one of Calgary’s better goalie draft picks of the last decade.
Since establishing himself in the league, his results have been a little up and down. Using goals saved above expected, here’s a look at how he’s performed over the last 5 seasons. As GSAx is cumulative and he played a different number of games each season, I converted the raw GSAx from Evolving-Hockey into a rate-based stat, GSAx/60, to more accurately compare across differing workloads. The data is score-and-venue adjusted for all goaltenders.
For a breakdown of the GSAx stat I highly recommend this post by Bill Tran, in which he explains the stat and uses it to evaluate the best and worst goalies of the 2021 season.
As you can see, Brossoit has been very up and down in his career. But, the highs have been very high and aside from the 2017-18 season, his results have been passable at worst. Keep in mind, expected goals typically undersell actual goals, meaning the average GSAx is actually below zero.
That means over the last three seasons, he has posted average to well above-average results, and did so in 2016–17 as well. Coming off a one-year $1.5 million deal, he has likely earned a small raise, but the cost of signing him should be kept down by the flat cap.
Almost certainly the most expensive of the value options, Chris Driedger posted genuinely elite results last season. Whoever ends up signing him is likely to find they underpaid as the flat cap and his relative inexperience should keep the cost down.
In his brief NHL experience so far, he has impressed. This year, he played 23 of Florida’s 56 games, posting a score-and-venue adjusted .928 save percentage. The year prior, he posted a .936 save percentage in 12 games. Hitting his first year of unrestricted free agency, Driedger chose a great time to break out.
His advanced stats shine too—his GSAx/60 over those two season was an impressive 0.433, much higher than Brossoit’s -0.09 over the same span. Whatever team signs him is going to pay a premium for his talent, but the flat cap might benefit teams given how every team faces similar restrictions in cap space, making his next deal potentially more team-friendly than not.
The risk of signing a goalie with only 38 NHL games played over his entire career is high, but based on the results Driedger has posted so far, this is where the smart money would look if he can be convinced to sign as a backup after his exceptional season.
Most reliable goalies available
James Reimer, despite what you may hear from the hockey fans of southern Ontario, has had a solid NHL career. Now 33 years old and in the twilight of his career, Reimer has seen a steady decline in ice time over the last few seasons, dropping from 36 to 25 to 22 games played over the last few seasons.
Although 22 games in a 56 game season could be seen as an increase considering he actually started a higher percentage of his team’s games than the year before, that was in large part due to the long-term injury suffered by starter Petr Mrazek. It is unlikely Reimer expects to find work as a starter for his next contract.
Like Brossoit, Reimer’s performance has been a bit erratic over the last several years, but not to the same extent. His experience and relatively consistent career overall make him a safe bet to step in effectively when Markstrom needs a rest.
If the team prefers to add a veteran presence, Reimer would be the perfect choice.
Jonathan Bernier is a particularly interesting case. Once a highly regarded prospect and the partner to Reimer in Toronto, he too was cast aside by the team. Why fix your real problems when you can scapegoat the goalie, right?
Since leaving Toronto, he has started at least 35 games each season except the COVID-shortened 2021 year that just finished. Over that time he has played for Anaheim, Colorado, and Detroit. On one of history’s worst NHL teams in Detroit, he managed an above .900 save percentage each year, including an impressive .914 this season.
He also stopped 1.8 goals above expected this year and has been more consistent than he gets credit for over the last several years.
His results have been average or slightly above every year since he left Toronto. Now a free agent, he will be sought after, but due to his age and lack of team success, he shouldn’t be prohibitively expensive for the Flames.
In the case of another Markstrom injury, or a preventative switch to playing Markstrom less on Sutter’s part, Bernier is one of the most qualified goalies available to fill in.
Goalies to avoid
There are many other goalies hitting free agency, including a few the Flames would be wise to steer clear of. It probably goes without saying they should avoid Mike Smith, Brian Elliott, and the now 35-year-old Devan Dubnyk, but there are a few with less obvious red flags too.
Among them, unfortunately, is hometown goalie Aaron Dell. Last season, in seven games, he managed just an .860 save percentage. His career so far has been a tale of two goalies, one very solid and one terrible. Some seasons he’s above-average, and in the rest he is completely unreliable. The Flames can’t take a chance on that Jekyll and Hyde act, and should be careful to not get tempted by the possibility of a hometown discount.
Another to avoid is Carter Hutton. Unlike Dell, there really is no second goalie with Hutton, it’s all Hyde and no Jekyll. After a solid sophomore season, he posted three consecutive seasons with poor results. He may well find his form again, but the risk is too high to take a chance on.
Often an overlooked position, the backup goalie is an important part of a playoff team. Even if they don’t actually play in the playoffs, they are a part of what gets the team there. With the expectation of making the playoffs next season, the Flames need to make sure they make the right choice this offseason.
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