Red Wings Throw Hat Into Goaltender Sweepstakes

Joey MacDonald (Icon SMI)

“It wouldn’t be so bad to try and upgrade in goal behind Jimmy Howard if we can.”

Those were Detroit Red Wings senior vice president Jim Devellano’s words during an interview with WDFN radio hack Ron Cameron on Sunday, and they came as a bit of a surprise to many (including Kukla’s Korner’s George Malik and MLive’s Brendan Savage).

With the Wings expected to part ways with Ty Conklin after a season of abysmal performances, it was assumed his 2011-12 replacement, Joey MacDonald, would retain his role for the upcoming year. However, Devellano expects MacDonald to be playing in the AHL, and in an interview with Fox Sports Detroit’s Art Regner, coach Mike Babcock suggested it would be a battle at the very least:

“He’s going to come to camp like anyone else and battle for a job, and ideally we’ll have another guy come to camp and battle for a job, and we’ll work it out.”

It appears the goalie many have lauded as a Red Wings “season savoir” has a good chance of finding himself back in the AHL, and that’s where he belongs.

I’ve made it well-known that I don’t think Joey MacDonald is capable even as a backup. He’s overaggressive without the athleticism to back it up, has trouble hanging onto what should be easily grasped shots, is seemingly incapable of controlling his rebounds, and is one of the worst puck-trackers I’ve ever seen. His briefly impressive numbers during his stint of regular play, while Howard was injured and Conklin was sucking, were the product of a desperate team that was forced to bail him out at every turn. They were an anomaly in overwhelmingly mediocre career. He’s an AHL caliber goaltender at best, and the Red Wings have known it for some time.

That is in fact why Conklin was signed last offseason. The Wings brass weren’t confident in MacDonald’s capabilities as a backup, and they have no reason to be now. His final 4 efforts of the season saw him post a 3.28 GAA and a .857 Sv%, not exactly confidence inducing numbers, whether he was completely at fault or not.  Yet I don’t believe his performance is the driving force behind the notion that Detroit must add someone else.

The biggest concern would appear to be MacDonald’s chronic back troubles. While he expects to be fully recovered from the bulging disc that kept him out of the lineup for the end of the season and playoffs, it’s a recurring problem spot for a now 32 year-old netminder. If the team were to put its faith in him as a backup, and the injury resurfaced, they’d be left in the lurch. Behind him on the depth chart are 4 young goaltenders with a combined 15 minutes of NHL experience, none of which have even begun to prove themselves as capable at such a level.

So whether it was to fill MacDonald’s old role, or his new one as backup, you had to believe the Wings were going to add someone. A proven veteran backup who can provide solid starts and valuable experience is a necessity, not a want. Luckily for the Red Wings there is something of a goaltending exodus set to take place this summer.

Taking a look at the soon-to-be free agent netminders, it’s easy to quickly rule out several names. Tomas Vokoun turned down Detroit for Washington last season because he didn’t want to be a backup, it’s unlikely that he’ll feel differently now. Martin Brodeur will either retire or stay put in New Jersey. Jonas Gustavsson and Josh Harding lack experience, and will likely be in high demand (especially the latter). Dwayne Roloson and Marty Turco are the equivalents of Ty Conklin, old and experienced but incapable of being reliable.

There are, however, 5 or 6 goaltenders that fit the bill for Detroit perfectly.

Johan Hedberg (Andy Martin Jr)

Johan Hedberg

That’s right, both of New Jersey’s goaltenders are unrestricted free agents this summer, and the one they call “Moose” is the one Detroit will have its eye on. Hedberg played in roughly 30 games in each of his 2 seasons with the Devils, managing a .915 Sv% and a 2.31 GAA. 2011-12 was the best season of his career, and the 2 prior featured career bests as well. At 38 he’s certainly getting up there, but who’s to say he doesn’t have a couple more stellar seasons to give?

Martin Biron

The availability of the 34 year-old New York Rangers’ backup likely depends heavily on his team’s playoff success. Were he to hit the open market and choose to move on, he’s easily the best option in my mind. While hidden behind the extraordinary play of Vezina candidate Henrik Lundqvist, Biron has been an important part of the Ranger’s success in the last 2 seasons. Playing in approximately 20 games in each campaign, he’s been a reliable fall back when King Henrik has needed a rest.

Scott Clemmensen

If Biron isn’t on the move, Clemmensen almost certainly is. The veteran backup managed to play in 30 games this season, posting a .913 Sv% and 2.57 GAA, and his numbers were even better in 3 first round playoff games. Yet the Panthers appear ready to move on. With Jose Theodore signed on for another season and prospect Jacob Markstrom clearly ready for the NHL, Clemmensen is the odd man out.

Brent Johnson

After a career best 2010-11 season, the 35 year-old Penguin struggled during his latest campaign, but starter Marc-Andre Fleury’s numbers dipped as well (though not as significantly). After the Penguins’ 2012 playoff performance, one has to wonder if those declines are in large part due to their defense. Johnson has been a fairly consistent throughout his career, and there’s no reason to believe he isn’t capable of bouncing back from his disappointing 2011-12 effort.

Curtis Sanford Blue Jackets
Curtis Sanford (Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

Curtis Sanford

In 2011-12 Sanford saw NHL action for the first time in 2 seasons. He played in 36 games for the Columbus Blue Jackets, and posted the 2nd best save percentage of his career (.911, respectable for playing on the worst team in the league). With the Jackets franchise in turmoil, and the search for a new starting goaltender in full swing, it’s likely that Sanford moves on while Columbus turns to Steve Mason or Allen York for the backup duties heading into 2012-13.

Dan Ellis

Ellis played in just 10 games during 2011-12 (starting in only 5 of those), while the Ducks threw themselves upon the shoulders of Jonas Hiller for 73 outings. His numbers stayed consistent with the season before, and while he’s never quite regained the form of his 2007-08 Predator’s campaign, he’s still been reliable for a .908 Sv% throughout his career. He’s not the best option, but at 31 years-old he could have several years left in him, and several years to improve his game just the same.

Add to that list acceptable consolation prizes in Chris Mason and Andrew Raycroft, and you’ve got sizable pool of apples to bob in. With so much veteran goaltending talent available, there’s no excuse for the Wings to enter next season without an addition. There may be more pressing needs at other positions, but the inexpensive addition of an experienced netminder that can play behind Howard, or in Grand Rapids, is an important and necessary one. If the Wings walk into 2012-13 without adding a goalie of some stature they’ll have set themselves up for major trouble down the road, but if Devellano and Babcock’s statements are an accurate thermometer for the talks behind the scenes, that scenario should never come to fruition.