Over the last couple of seasons, the Boston Bruins have been blessed with excellent backup goaltending. Jaroslav Halak, who signed with the club ahead of last season, has played his role very well behind Tuukka Rask.
Halak’s .922 save percentage (SV%) last season was his best since the 2011-12 season. He did this with a good amount of work – his 50 games played ranked 32nd among NHL netminders, indicating that Halak was used as efficiently as any backup in the league.
This season, he was excellent as well, posting a .919 SV% and 2.39 goals-against average with three shutouts before the suspension of the season.
This offseason, that efficiency will likely come back to bite the Bruins. With how well he’s played and Boston’s other contract concerns, it’s unlikely that the club will be able to keep Halak around when he becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. The 34-year-old has earned another payday toward the back end of his career.
While the Bruins do have several young netminders who could compete for the role, they will likely sign a proven veteran to a short-term deal to bridge the backup gap for their prospects. Here’s a look at a few free-agents that general manager Don Sweeney and company could take a look at:
Thirty-five-year-old Elliott is not the goaltender that he once was. If you’re like me, the name Brian Elliott brings up memories of his time with the Blues, when he posted a .925 SV% and 2.01 goals-against average over five seasons. This included a stellar 2011-12 season (.940 SV%, 1.56 goals-against average, and nine shutouts in 38 games) backing up, none other than, Halak.
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At this point, Elliott should be a capable backup for the Bruins at a pretty cheap price tag. He registered a .899 SV% and 2.87 goals-against average with two shutouts in 31 games this season while carrying a $2 million cap hit.
His statistics have fallen off in the last few seasons, and he’s had injury troubles in the past, but that could bring his price tag down as well. Any backup on the back end of their career is a risk, and Elliott is no exception.
After a bit of an off-year with the San Jose Sharks last season, Aaron Dell upped his game as Martin Jones’ backup in 2019-20. It’s nothing to go crazy about – Dell has a .907 SV% and 3.01 goals-against average in 33 games this season – but it’s an improvement on the .886 goals-against average, and 3.17 save percentage he had in 2018-19.
Dell got off to a tough start this season, finishing October with a .891 SV% and 3.53 goals-against average. November was hardly better. But since former head coach Peter DeBoer was fired on Dec. 11, Dell has been better, posting a SV% above .900 each month. January was his best of the season when he posted a .925 save percentage and 2.38 goals-against average in eight games.
Soon to be 31 years old, Dell is younger than Elliot, and his $1.9 million price tag probably won’t look too different this time around, making him an option for the Bruins.
Like Elliot, Mike Smith is not the goalie he once was. He’s been a journeyman in his time in the NHL, spending most of his career as a backup except for a few seasons with the Arizona Coyotes. He’s played for five teams in his 14-year career, this season with the Edmonton Oilers on a one-year, $2 million deal.
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Smith’s performance this season was serviceable, appearing in 39 games with a .902 SV% and 2.95 goals-against average before the season was suspended. If you remember Smith’s time as a starter in Arizona, don’t be fooled. He’s not the same goalie he was in 2011-12 when he finished fourth in the Vezina race with a .930 SV% and 2.21 goals-against average in 67 starts.
However, at his age, Smith could be an affordable option for the Bruins if he decides not to hang up the pads.
As you’ve probably noticed, the backup goalie crop is largely a group of has-beens. Enter: Ryan Miller.
The former Buffalo Sabres’ Vezina Trophy-winner has spent the last three seasons with the Anaheim Ducks, where he’s been a decent backup. He’s registered a .916 SV% and 2.72 goals-against average in his time there, which is serviceable for a second-string goalie.
That being said, there’s cause for concern. Miller will turn 40 before next season, and his workload has been noticeably small. A sprained MCL forced him to miss a good chunk of time last season, limiting him to just 20 games.
This season, he played just 23 games. Meanwhile, his stats were the worst he’s had in Anaheim: a .907 SV% and 3.10 goals-against average. Not terrible stats for a backup, but given the smaller workload, it’s worth noting.
Miller signed a one-year, $1.125 million contract to remain in Southern California last offseason. He’d come even cheaper if he doesn’t retire before next season.
It would be a gamble to bet on Keith Kinkaid, but in a different sense than the others listed. He has seen time in the NHL and AHL this season, but at just 30 years old, he’s a relatively young option for the Bruins.
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There are obvious red flags. He appeared in just six NHL games with the Montreal Canadiens this season (one of which was against the Bruins), posting a .875 SV% and 4.24 goals-against average. Before last season, he ended a six-year stint with the New Jersey Devils organization with a .891 SV% and 3.36 goals-against average.
That being said, in six years with the Devils, he had a .906 SV% and 2.90 goals-against average. Plus, as a younger option, there’s a chance his decline in the last two seasons could be reversed. He’s finishing up a contract worth $1.75 million, but given his inability to stay in the NHL, he’ll receive a pay cut this offseason.
I wouldn’t expect Kinkaid to be Boston’s first option, but he could be a very cheap gamble if things get desperate.
The Best of the Bunch
Boston’s moves this offseason depend on a number of things: the play of the prospects currently in their system, the makeup of the schedule after the coronavirus pandemic, the amount of cap space they have, etc. That being said, it would take a miracle deal to keep Halak around, and I would expect the Bruins to sign someone at a similar or lower price given the cap crunch they’re facing.
To me, the best option the Bruins have among free agents is Dell. The Sharks netminder is trending upward after a shakier 2018-19 and has looked a lot better once the Sharks shook things up coaching wise. He’s a relatively young option, and his price tag should be below $2 million, opening up a little more cap space for the Bruins.
As far as free agents go, Dell looks like the one who will give you the best bang for your buck.