After a season where the Toronto Maple Leafs finished dead last in the NHL, there is a sense of hope and optimism surrounding the team. Much of it has to do with having a new management group and a lot of young talent in the organization. There is also the 2016 NHL draft where the Leafs have the first overall pick and a staggering eleven other picks. Unfortunately that sense of optimism seems to disappear when it comes to discussing the Leafs goaltending situation.
Jonathan Bernier struggled all year in what has been his worst season in the NHL. He did manage to re-find his game after the trade deadline, but the damage had already been done. The Leafs also have Garret Sparks and Antoine Bibeau with the Toronto Marlies. Sparks had a great start with the Leafs, but had a poor finish to the season which showed his inexperience at the NHL level. Both Sparks and Bibeau need more time in the AHL before having a good chance at staying in the NHL. So what are the options with the Leafs goaltending? The short-term being through free agency and trades, while the Leafs only real long-term option is through the draft.
Free agency would be the easiest way to address the Leafs goaltending issue. The only problem is that there’s not a lot of good options for the Leafs unless they sign a goalie to a one year deal with a low-cost, which would make it easy to flip that goalie at the trade deadline.
Ironically, James Reimer is the best goaltending option of all the goalies heading to free agency. Reimer could easily transition back into the crease in Toronto, since he spent six seasons in net for the Leafs. This year with the Leafs he put up a 2.49 goals against average and a .918 save percentage in 32 games. Considering how badly the Leafs played in front of Reimer, it’s fair to say that he played really well. He also played 8 games with the Sharks and finished with a 1.62 goals against average and a .938 save percentage.
The only issue with Reimer is that he would likely want to be with the team long-term, which may or may not fit into management’s plan. But even a contract for two or three years would be beneficial for the Leafs by giving them solid goaltending until a better option comes along.
After James Reimer the goaltending options in free agency are not great to put it nicely. Goalies like Cam Ward and Karri Ramo would be a risk to sign because of how poorly they’ve played this past season, although it might be worth it if they sign cheap short deals. This would take the risk away for the Leafs and give them the option to trade them to a contending team at the trade deadline. The rest of the goalies would only fill the backup role and honestly the Leafs might as well just use Sparks as the backup at that point. It seems unlikely that the Leafs would sign any of these goalies unless it was a really good deal for the Leafs.
The Leafs could target teams that have, arguably, two starting goalies and they are unable to keep both. Reasons for that could be a lack of cap space or the risk of losing a goalie for nothing in the eventual expansion draft. Regardless, getting a goalie through a trade could cost the Leafs a lot more than they want to spend.
Everyone expects the Anaheim Ducks to trade Frederik Andersen this off-season. The Ducks don’t have a lot of cap room and they have a lot of players to re-sign, most important being Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm. Andersen is the most expendable player because of the size of contract he wants and because John Gibson has shown that he can be the Ducks’ starter next year. Andersen played 43 games for the Ducks this season and finished with a 2.30 goals against average and a .919 save percentage. It’s unclear what Anaheim would want in return for Andersen considering he is a restricted free agent and that he would be a starter on most teams. It may be difficult for the Leafs to acquire him considering they will be competing with a few other teams.
The Expansion Draft
It looks like there will be an expansion draft in the next few years with a possibility of it happening as soon as next year’s draft. With the expansion draft teams can protect either seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie or eight players and one goalie. The fact teams can only protect one goalie puts teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Pittsburgh Penguins in a tough position. Ben Bishop is the Lightning’s clear starter, but Andrei Vasilevskiy is being groomed to be the starter in a few years or even sooner. Tampa would obviously protect Vasilevskiy, which is helped by Bishop’s contract ending next season. Now they could let him walk for nothing or they could trade him earlier in the year and at least get something in return.
The same is the case for the Penguins with Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury. Murray has been steller in the playoffs for Pittsburgh and is making a strong push to be the team’s starter sooner than expected. The problem for Pittsburgh is that Fleury’s contract goes until the 2018-19 NHL season and he also has a no movement clause in his contract, which means they would be forced to protect Fleury and leave Murray unprotected. This forces the Penguins to trade Fleury in order to protect Murray. Fleury would be the best target through trades to help solve the Leafs goaltending issues, but the Leafs would need to offer up a lot to get Fleury though which could end up costing Toronto too much.
The 2016 NHL Draft
The last way to solve the Leafs goaltending issues is through the draft. This is the easiest method especially since the Leafs have twelve draft picks, which would let them take a chance on a few goalies. The only problem with drafting a goalie is that it will be a few years before we ever see them in the Leafs’ crease because of how long it takes goalies to develop to be able to play at the NHL level.
Carter Hart is one of the highest ranked goalies in this draft and for good reason. In 63 games with the Everett Silvertips Hart posted a 2.14 goals against average and a .918 save percentage. Most rankings have him projected in the early part of the second round of the draft, which means the Leafs could pick him up with their second round pick. Hart looks to be the best choice for the Leafs in terms of picking a goalie at the draft.
There is a lot of options for the Leafs goaltending heading into next season and beyond. Drafting a few goalies is a must at the 2016 NHL draft since the Leafs don’t have any promising goalie prospects, aside from recently signed Kasimir Kaskisuo. The Leafs will also need to address their goaltending in the short-term either by bringing back Reimer and keeping him until one of the Leafs drafted goalies is ready to take over the starting role, or by making the big trade for a goalie like Andersen or Fleury. The Leafs may even take the chance on Bernier and keep him until there is someone else to take the starting role.
Regardless of what the Leafs decide to focus on, when it comes to fixing the Leafs goaltending it’s either going to take time for the prospects to mature or it’s going to cost the Leafs a lot to trade for a starting goalie.
Toronto Maple Leafs contributor for The Hockey Writers.
I’ve been a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs since I was a kid and have always had an interest in writing. At The Hockey Writers, I get to enjoy both of my passions as well as writing about small convoluted details in player contracts and stats.