Pending unrestricted free agent goalie Anton Khudobin is going to get paid. The only questions are when exactly free agency will take place and whether or not it will actually be by his current team, the Dallas Stars, though.
Khudobin has established himself as one of the NHL’s best backups over his career. A relatively thin free-agent goaltending market, in which Robin Lehner is arguably the only legitimate starter, has pushed Khudobin’s name to the forefront.
So, even as a 34-year-old, Khudobin has a good shot at cashing in, which is saying a lot considering his $2.5 million salary as a mere No. 2. If Boston Bruins No. 2 goalie Jaroslav Halak, who’s one year older, can effectively earn $3.5 million, so too can Khudobin, assuming he wants to stay a backup.
In Khudobin’s mind, this may be his only opportunity to steal the spotlight as a No. 1. And the Stars already have Ben Bishop for three more seasons in that role. So, they may have to replace their No. 2, as great as Khudobin has been.
To be clear, Khudobin remains the best option for the Stars. He’s been with them for two seasons and hasn’t at all disappointed statistically. However, if he prices himself out of the Stars’ potentially tight budget due to cap constraints or simply wants to move on, so too will the Stars. Here are the best alternatives:
3. Jake Oettinger via Call-Up
Jake Oettinger is the Stars’ top goaltending prospect, having been selected in the first round (No. 26) at the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. However, he only has a single full season of American Hockey League action under his belt as a 21-year-old. While Oettinger arguably exceeded expectations, going 15-16-4 with a 2.57 goals-against average and .917 save percentage, it might pay to allow him to develop further.
Texas Stars teammate Landon Bow is another option for the Stars. Still, even though the 24-year-old Bow shot out of the starting gate this past season and actually has two appearances to Oettinger’s none in Dallas, his numbers dropped to sub-par levels overall. Bow, a pending restricted free agent, went 12-11-3 with a 3.31 GAA and .895 save percentage in the AHL.
There would be some cause for concern as Bow has yet to establish himself as a legitimately great goalie at that level. As a result, he may have a hard time consistently finding success in the NHL like Khudobin has. The same is admittedly true of Oettinger as well, especially if the Stars rush him, which is why he places only at No. 3.
2. Brian Elliott via Free Agency
If the Stars find themselves forced to go the free-agency route, Brian Elliott may be the best goalie available that suits their needs.
Other free-agent back-ups would be out there, including Louis Domingue and maybe the sentimental favorite, Mike Smith, who was drafted by the Stars in 2001 and spent several seasons in the organization before getting traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the infamous Brad Richards deal.
Nevertheless, Elliott better fits the profile of the goalie the Stars need. He’s three years younger than Smith, who’s 38, and has more of a track record than Domingue. Meanwhile, whereas fellow UFA goalie Cam Talbot may have dreams of re-becoming a No. 1, Elliott is firmly entrenched as a No. 2 at this stage of his career.
Elliott also has the projected price tag to match. He just earned $2 million with the Philadelphia Flyers, with whom he went 16-7-4 with a 2.87 GAA and .899 save percentage. The save percentage may leave something to be desired, but Smith’s was just .902 and Domingue’s was .882. In terms of UFA backups, Elliott may very well be the best of the bunch, excluding Khudobin, of course.
1. Alexandar Georgiev via Trade
The projected odd man out in the Big Apple in Alexandar Georgiev could be the right man for the job in Big D.
With the emergence of Igor Shesterkin and Henrik Lundqvist’s contract being what it is, the New York Rangers could presumably be looking to deal Georgiev, who went 17-14-2 with a 3.04 GAA and .910 save percentage this past season. Still just 24, he is 35-31-7 in his career with a 3.00 GAA and .913 save percentage. So, there is potential.
In fact, Georgiev has the talent to conceivably challenge Bishop down the stretch in the coming years and bridge the gap between him and Oettinger. Maybe of greater importance for right now, Georgiev as a pending RFA likely shouldn’t command close to the $2.5 million Khudobin had been making on a short-term, next deal.
It obviously remains to be seen what the Rangers could be looking for in exchange. A guy like Curtis McElhinney ($1.3 million) on the cap-strapped Tampa Bay Lightning could probably be available for less. Seeing as McElhinney only has a single season left on his deal, the Stars would just find themselves in this position again next season, trying to find someone reliable to back up the 33-year-old Bishop.
Keep in mind, Bishop has three years left on his deal, and quite possibly won’t stay elite for that long. In other words, the Stars don’t just need a backup, but a backup plan. Georgiev fits the bill.