At the risk of repeating myself, the Colorado Avalanche organization has a goaltending problem. The team ranks 26th in the NHL in save percentage (.894 SV%), and their major offseason addition in Darcy Kuemper has struggled to live up to expectations (.908 SV%). Although backup netminder Pavel Francouz recently returned from a long-term injury, he’s 31 years old and has only played 38 games since the start of the 2019-20 season. The eventual cap conundrum brought about by Nathan MacKinnon’s looming contract extension means that the Avalanche should aim to capture a Stanley Cup within the next two seasons, lest their roster is stripped off much-needed depth. With as much of an eye to the future as to the present, here are three trade targets for the Avalanche to consider in their quest for an elusive championship.
Linus Ullmark, Boston Bruins
In the aftermath of Tuukka Rask briefly stepping away from the Boston Bruins to recover from offseason surgery and contemplate his NHL future, the team signed 28-year-old Linus Ullmark from the Buffalo Sabres as insurance. Although they intended for the Swedish netminder to take over as the starter, he’s shared the net with the highly-regarded Jeremy Swayman, and he’s only made 15 appearances so far this season.
In 26 NHL games sandwiched between an impressive nine-game stint with the Bruins’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate (.933 save percentage), Swayman has posted a .928 SV%, with a .918 mark this season. He’s thrived in the Bruins’ goalie timeshare with Ullmark, saving the 13th highest rate of goals above expected per-60 minutes (GSAx/60) among goalies to have played at least 10 games this season. While still tied to his entry-level contract (ELC), the rookie netminder has provided immense value relative to his price point.
Swayman’s rapid development coupled with Rask’s imminent return means that there is suddenly a goaltending logjam in Boston. However, that doesn’t mean that Ullmark is suddenly a weak goaltender, as he’s been a dependable option since entering the league in 2015-16. His performance over the past three seasons is a better indicator of his current level, though, and it’s a convincing portfolio.
Among goalies with at least 1,000 minutes played since 2019-20, Ullmark ranks 18th in SV% (.916) and 15th in goals saved above average (GSAA) which calculates how many goals a goalie prevents compared to the league average. That he spent the majority of his career with the woeful Sabres is a testament to his ability, and he could thrive behind a team hell-bent on keeping the puck in its opponent’s defensive zone.
The uncertainty of Rask’s health and Swayman’s inexperience means trading Ullmark could leave the Bruins exposed in case of injury. However, they’ve struggled to match their recent regular-season performances and currently sit outside their familiar place within the Atlantic Division’s top three spots. As such, trading Ullmark could help them recoup the assets required to bolster their depth, seeing as Boston’s offseason acquisitions haven’t worked out as expected.
Ullmark is owed $5 million per season until the end of the 2024-25 season. His contract offers valuable cost certainty for what promises to be a difficult cap landscape to navigate once MacKinnon is eligible for an extension. The Avalanche could do a lot worse than committing to a goaltender still within their prime and boasting a history of solid results behind weak teams. Are the Bruins willing to give up on Ullmark less than a season into his tenure?
Anthony Stolarz, Anaheim Ducks
The Anaheim Ducks are one of the 2021-22 season’s biggest surprises, and a significant factor in their success has been the performance of backup goaltender Anthony Stolarz. The 27-year-old netminder is 6-3-1 in 11 appearances, and his .931 SV% is tied for third in the NHL (minimum 10 games played), only Jack Campbell and Igor Shesterkin (both with a .936 SV%) have been better. Over his short 45-game NHL career partly spent with the Philadelphia Flyers and Edmonton Oilers, Stolarz owns a .918 SV%, suggesting he could function as a dependable tandem option in the right situation.
His career arc resembles that of the Seattle Kraken’s Chris Driedger, who outperformed Sergei Bobrovsky in Florida despite being on a significantly cheaper contract, and was claimed by the Kraken in their expansion draft. Banking on a goalie’s results across a relatively minuscule sample of games is always a risk, but Stolarz carries little cap commitment ($950k this year and next), which balances out the scales in terms of risk versus reward. If nothing else, he could spell Kuemper in case of injury or poor performance.
One thing standing in the way of a trade is the Ducks’ early success this season, with the California-based franchise sitting in second place in the Pacific Division at midseason. Still, they’ve cooled off since their torrid start (only four wins in their last 10 games) and own slim leads over the San Jose Sharks and Edmonton Oilers with more games played. It’s not inconceivable that Anaheim falls out of the race entirely, meaning several players could hit the trade block unexpectedly.
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Now, Stolarz’s contract carries one more year at under $1 million, meaning that the Ducks are unlikely to want to part with such a cost-effective option. Yet, Anaheim has budding goaltending prospect, Lukas Dostal, marinating in the minors, and he could step up to act as John Gibson’s backup in Stolarz’s stead.
Braden Holtby, Dallas Stars
Braden Holtby appeared on my Avalanche trade targets list earlier this season, and his play in the Dallas Stars‘ net since then has done little to discredit his inclusion in that initial article. At the time, Ben Bishop’s future was still in limbo, and Anton Khudobin combined with Holtby and rookie Jake Oettinger to form a dizzying goaltending carousel in the Dallas crease. Since then, Bishop has effectively retired from the NHL, and Khudobin is buried in the AHL, leaving the latter two netminders as the last men standing.
In 17 appearances this season, Holtby owns a record of 6-8-1, obscuring his otherwise stellar .920 SV% (13th among goalies with 10 games played), a far cry from the two consecutive seasons of sub-.900 SV% he posted before this one. He also grades out as just about even in terms of GSAx and isn’t costing the Stars any points in the standings. He could be a welcome calming presence for an Avalanche club used to turbulence in their goaltending plans. He is relatively cheap ($2 million) and is a free agent after this season, meaning he could be a useful short-term option the Avalanche could easily cut ties with if things go south.
I also noted that Dallas’ playoff position figured heavily into Holtby’s availability, which remains the case. The Stars sit three points adrift of the second wild card spot in the Western Conference, with three other teams occupying the space between them and the playoffs. Their postseason hopes aren’t completely extinguished, but the end of the season can come rather quickly. If Dallas finds itself on the outside looking in, the team could look to turn the reigns over to the promising Oettinger. The young netminder has accrued the 16th-most GSAx despite only playing in 11 games this season, and his per-60 rate ranks ninth ahead of established veterans such as Connor Hellebuyck and Jacob Markstrom.
Holtby has done well to reinvent himself after a failed stint in Vancouver, and he could provide a steady veteran presence tinged with a Stanley Cup aura that could guide the Avalanche’s young stars in their journey. If nothing else, he allows the team to avoid calling on prospect Justus Annunen in case either Kuemper or Francouz get injured, which, considering their history, is a reasonable bet to make. So, is the 2021-22 version of Holtby a mirage, or does the veteran netminder have some magic left flowing through his majestic locks?
Will Goaltending Continue to Be Colorado’s Achilles’ Heel?
Colorado’s three successive second-round playoff exits weigh heavily on the team’s psyche, and inadequate goaltending has been a key factor in the past two series losses. The Avalanche clearly possesses the talent to go far (first in points percentage since 2019-20), but they need to find the final piece of the puzzle to deliver on their tremendous potential. General manager Joe Sakic has pulled the trigger on several moves involving goaltenders to try and solve this underlying issue in recent seasons; how many bullets does he have left in the chamber?
Marko is an aspiring sportswriter with a passion for crafting stories while using a combination of the eye-test and (shudder) analytics, which is complemented by an academic background in criminology and political science.
When not covering the Colorado Avalanche and Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers, he can also be found pouring countless hours into various sports video games franchises, indulging in science fiction novels, and taking long runs around his neighbourhood.