They say that wherever there’s smoke there’s fire. The Colorado Avalanche had better hope it doesn’t ring true in the wake of rumors general manager Joe Sakic is looking to upgrade his goaltending, with Philipp Grubauer hurt and backup Pavel Francouz set to now start.
Grubauer Now Hurt
Of course, the injuries, with Grubauer joining Mikko Rantanen, Nazem Kadri and Matt Calvert on the shelf, have come at a pretty bad time. The Avs are battling for position in the top three in the Western Conference. They’re one point out first place, behind the St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars in that regard, entering Thursday night action.
Obviously, Rantanen is the biggest name of the bunch, as he has 41 points in 42 games so far this season. However, as the Avs have proven in the past, they can keep winning without Rantanen. Just this season, Rantanen has missed 17 games, during which the Avs have gone a half-decent 9-7-1. It becomes a question of how the Avs can keep some semblance of momentum going with such a large group of key players, of which Grubauer is arguably the second-most-significant name, out of the lineup.
Francouz vs. Grubauer
The answer is hopefully Francouz, who’s been no slouch in his rookie season with an impressive 14-5-3 record, 2.44 goals-against average and .923 save percentage. He’s even been more effective than Grubauer, who’s 18-12-4, with a 2.63 GAA and .916 save percentage.
It’s true that Francouz’s NHL sample size is small, comprising just 26 games total this season and last. However, he didn’t just fall off the turnip truck as a 29-year-old. He’s been a professional for a decade, playing most notably in the Kontinental Hockey League. In that time, Francouz has proven he can shoulder a significant load, even as a starter.
In effect, with Francouz having played seasons of nearly 50 games before, there should be no question he can handle the increased workload. Nor should there be any doubts Francouz can handle NHL shooters. He’s been given ample opportunity to soil the bed and hasn’t yet. So, this isn’t a matter of a prospect being thrown to the wolves. It’s instead a case of asking a goalie to do the job he’s paid to do, without second-guessing why you signed him in the first place, especially when he’s given you no reason to doubt him up to now.
Price vs. Lundqvist
Sakic should in theory be able to handle it. This isn’t exactly his first rodeo, having transformed the Avalanche into bona-fide contenders. And, yet, wherever you turn, there are rumors the Avs are interested in enlisting the aid of New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist or Montreal Canadiens star Carey Price.
Neither scenario makes particular sense, with the latter being especially nightmarish. Lundqvist has obviously seen better days as he’s had a GAA above 3.00 in each of the last two seasons and is being outplayed by not one but two goalies in Alexandar Georgiev and Igor Shesterkin. However, at least Lundqvist is on his way out of the league at age 38.
Lunqvist may have another season on his deal with a cap hit of $8.5 million. That would at least be somewhat manageable (but still incredibly dumb to willingly take on, unless the Rangers would be keeping a massive chunk of salary on their books). Meanwhile, Price has still got seven seasons left after this one, with a hit of $10.5 million. He may “only” be 32 going on 33, but he’s long since peaked as the goalie who once upon a time captured both the Vezina and Hart Memorial trophies in the same season. In other words, this wouldn’t be another Patrick Roy trade for the Avalanche, far from it.
Sakic and His Cap Space Are Soon Parted
Ultimately, Price’s peak years as arguably the best goalie on the planet have been sandwiched in between lengthy stretches of inconsistency. With the 28th-ranked save percentage in the league, he’s no longer even elite. So, Sakic would be doing Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin a favor taking that deal, which includes a no-movement clause, off his hands.
In that sense, it likely wouldn’t cost the Avs much to acquire Price’s services (unless Bergevin really takes Sakic for a ride). That should be a major hypothetical red flag for Sakic in negotiations. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be about the picks or prospects the Avs would be giving up. It would be about the cap space Price would theoretically eat up. Yes, the Avalanche are in great condition cap-wise… but only for now.
Superstar Nathan MacKinnon may have three seasons left on his deal, but captain Gabriel Landeskog is due for a raise at the end of next season. In the more immediate future, the Avs have 10 players currently on the roster scheduled to hit free agency this summer, 11 if you count Hunter Miska who’s currently backing up Francouz, himself a pending unrestricted free agent come July 1.
Francouz is one of several who are due for a raise, so that cap space that’s the envy of every other team in the league? It can disappear pretty quickly, especially if Sakic isn’t as careful with it as he should be, because, let’s be honest, players like Francouz deserve a raise. He’s done everything that’s been asked of him. If you don’t trust him in the net now, you may as well trade him in any deal for another goalie, but that would be crazy, wouldn’t it, based on his stats this season?
It’s easy to see why Sakic may be tempted, though. The Avs are a contender today and he doesn’t want to let this opportunity to win a Stanley Cup slip by. So, the idea to seek out a big-name goalie slips into the collective consciousness, but here’s an actually rational thought: a goalie can only become a big name once you give them the chance.
Time to Ride Francouz
Francouz may have his critics who say he has a lot to prove before the Avs should feel confident riding him in Grubauer’s absence. However, and this is the real mind-blowing fact of the night, so too does Price. He has just as much to prove, namely how he hasn’t lost it… first of all. Furthermore, it’s not like he’s had much postseason success, with four series victories in his career. That’s it. At least Lundqvist has been to a Stanley Cup Final.
Don’t forget, until Grubauer notched his first series victory last spring, he hadn’t won one yet either. And the Avs were presumably comfortable going into the playoffs with him as a first-year starter.
In reality, Francouz has just as much of a chance to bring this team to the promised land as either Grubauer, Lundqvist or Price, arguably more of one because he has had the best season of the four. And, until Francouz sounds some kind of alarm other than how great he’s been in the supposedly limited action he’s seen, there’s no good reason for Sakic to look for goaltending help anywhere else but in front of him. Sometimes it’s about what you can see instead of what you have to go searching to find. Sometimes there is no fire to put out.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.