The Vegas Golden Knights are building a team from scratch with the opportunity to select a goaltender that will define the identity and possibly the long-term future of the team. A goaltender can be the backbone of a team, thus showing the significance of their goalie selections in the 2017 Expansion Draft.
The Golden Knights can also look to free agency for goaltenders, exploring a number of unrestricted free agent (UFA) netminders available. If the Golden Knights believe there is a more desirable option in free agency, the goaltenders selected from the Expansion Draft can become trade options instead.
2017 Expansion Draft Requirements
For the 2017 Expansion Draft, the NHL requires that every team exposes, “One goaltender who is under contract in 2017-18 or will be a restricted free agent at the expiration of his current contract immediately prior to 2017-18. If the club elects to make a restricted free agent goaltender available in order to meet this requirement, that goaltender must have received his qualifying offer prior to the submission of the club’s protected list.”
Three of the Golden Knights’ Expansion Draft picks must be goaltenders. After fulfilling the minimum requirement for each position (fourteen forwards, nine defenseman, and three goaltenders), the Golden Knights will have an additional four picks that can be used to acquire a player of any position. The total cap hit value of all players selected in the Expansion Draft must equate to at least 60 percent of the salary cap ($43.8 million).
A number of active goaltenders are ineligible to be selected by the Golden Knights in the expansion draft, including those with no-movement clauses (NMC) in their contracts. The goaltenders protected from the expansion draft are Sergei Bobrovsky (CBJ), Corey Crawford (CHI), Cam Talbot (EDM), Pekka Rinne (NSH), Henrik Lundqvist (NYR), and Marc-Andre Fleury (PIT) – unless those players choose to waive their NMC.
There are a number of skilled goaltenders that will likely be exposed at the Expansion Draft for the Golden Knights to select from. It can be expected that starting goaltenders without NMCs, like Devan Dubnyk (MIN), Braden Holtby (WSH), John Gibson (ANA), and Martin Jones (SJS) will be protected by their teams. Other teams with goaltenders that are pending UFAs (that do not extend their contract prior to the draft) likely will protect their other goaltender that is still under contract, like the Tampa Bay Lightning with Andrei Vasilevskiy.
For the rest of the league, teams will have to seriously consider which goaltender to protect. Many teams have tandem goaltenders rather than an established starter. Others have backup goaltenders battling for the starting position that will force their teams into reconsidering who the protected goaltender should be.
Some teams simply have not indicated which of their goaltenders they wish to protect from the draft, like the Florida Panthers. The Panthers have to choose between protecting Roberto Luongo and James Reimer. Luongo is currently signed through 2021-22 with a cap hit of $4.53 million. Reimer, on the other hand, is signed for one year less than Luongo, with a cap hit of $3.4 million. The age difference between Luongo, 37, and Reimer, 28, is another factor for the Panthers to study when deciding which goaltender to protect. But for the time being, Luongo is the Panthers’ starting goaltender, so Reimer may be exposed for the Expansion Draft. If Reimer is exposed, he certainly should be considered by the Golden Knights.
James Reimer’s contract extends through the prime of his career at a low cap hit of $3.4 million. He is poised to take over the starting position once Luongo phases into the backup position in Florida – unless the Golden Knights see differently.
Originally the netminder for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Reimer’s success varied with much of the onus on him, regardless of the fact that the team in front of him was very unstable, struggling with possession, scoring chances, and PDO. Reimer did not have the confidence of then-Leafs coach Randy Carlyle either, losing many of his starts to backup Jonathan Bernier.
Reimer rebounded after Mike Babcock replaced Carlyle as Leafs head coach, earning back the starting position for the 2015-2016, until he was traded to San Jose at the last trade deadline. As the Sharks’ backup to Martin Jones, Reimer continued to excel. In the 2016 offseason, Reimer signed as a free agent with the Florida Panthers.
Through 25 games this season, Reimer’s record is 12-6-4, with a GAA of 2.41 and a save percentage of .920. As the season has progressed, Reimer’s play has improved and he’s become a reliable option in his expanded role as a backup.
Granted that Reimer is exposed—because the Panthers could in fact protect Reimer in the hopes that the Golden Knights would not want to absorb Luongo’s cap hit, who will be 38 years old by the time of the draft—he may prove to be the best starting goaltender from those available through the Expansion Draft after factoring his contract term, cap hit, and capabilities in net.
Though Reimer has struggled in the past as a starting goalie, it is difficult to judge him solely based on his performance with the Leafs because there were so many other factors that contributed to his play, and once the environment in Toronto changed, Reimer’s play progressed.
Colorado Avalanche starting goaltender Semyon Varlamov underwent season-ending hip surgery in late January. Since then, backup Calvin Pickard has been promoted to starter. Pickard has the rest of this season to prove to the Avalanche that he has potential as a starting goaltender, instead of Varlamov, whose career with the Avalanche has been impeded by injuries. If the Avalanche do not see a future with Pickard, he definitely could be an option for the Golden Knights.
In 32 appearances this season, Pickard is 10-18-2, with a GAA of 2.91 and a save percentage of .908. Although Pickard’s numbers so far this season are less than impressive, it is important to keep in mind that Pickard is playing behind the worst team in the league. Pickard’s statistics this season are a reflection of the poor defense in front of him.
The Colorado Graphalanches.
This is very, very bad. The GF% is nowhere to be found. pic.twitter.com/BTVKs67Xdq
— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) January 22, 2017
Pickard is only 24 years old and has yet to hit his prime, so he could become a part of the long-term plans of the Golden Knights if drafted. After this season, Pickard only has one year left on his contract, with a cap hit of $1 million before becoming a restricted free agent (RFA)—making him a very low-risk goalie option for the Golden Knights.
The New York Rangers will expose Antti Raanta at the Expansion Draft. Starting goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is protected by his NMC and the Rangers can only protect one goaltender. The Rangers could offer to trade a prospect or draft pick to the Golden Knights to ensure they do not select Raanta in the Expansion Draft, but that is highly unlikely with goaltenders like Mackenzie Skapski, Magnus Hellberg, and Brandon Halverson in the system.
Raanta has appeared in 20 games this season, with an 11-5-0 record, 2.32 GAA, and .920 save percentage. The Golden Knights could consider the 27-year-old netminder as a starter or backup. With a cap hit of $1 million and one year left on his contract (before becoming an RFA), he would financially fit as a backup goaltender. Although Raanta has not had the opportunity to be a starter yet, he has been dependable when needed throughout his career thus far.
If the Golden Knights are concerned about Raanta’s lack of experience as a starter, management could look to draft Raanta as a back up for their inaugural season behind a veteran goaltender like Antti Niemi, who may also be exposed at the draft (and will be a UFA after this season), before transitioning Raanta to the starting position the following season.
Marc-Andre Fleury has been relegated to backup duties since rookie Matt Murray took over the number one spot in Pittsburgh. If the Pittsburgh Penguins retained Fleury until the Expansion Draft, Fleury could be asked to waive his NMC so Murray could instead be protected, making Fleury an option for the Golden Knights.
Fleury is signed through 2018-19 with a cap hit of $5.75 million. The 32-year-old’s record from this season through 30 appearances is 15-7-6, with a GAA of 3.16 and save percentage of .906. His record this season is not as indicative as prior seasons because of his diminished role.
It seems unlikely that the Penguins will wait for the Expansion Draft to lose the two-time Stanley Cup-winning goaltender. Instead, the Penguins will likely find a trade partner to ensure a return on Fleury. The Penguins may choose to keep Fleury as their backup for the remainder of the season to have a capable option in case Murray is injured or does not play up to expectations. On the other hand, the Penguins could trade Fleury prior to the deadline. If Fleury is traded, the return will likely be high as it would be trading for a capable starting goaltender. If that happens, it can be assumed that his new team would protect him for the Expansion Draft as well.
Nonetheless, if made available at the Expansion Draft, Fleury could fulfill the starting position for the Golden Knights. Not only is he a proven starter with Stanley Cup experience, but his cap hit is significant enough to contribute to the Golden Knights reaching the required cap floor.
Golden Knights’ Goaltending Options
The Vegas Golden Knights have a number of options when selecting a starting goaltender. James Reimer, Calvin Pickard, Antti Raanta, and Marc-Andre Fleury—assuming they are exposed at the Expansion Draft—may be the most sensible goaltending draft options for the Golden Knights. Reimer has proven himself as a starting goaltender and has shown the ability to persevere through challenges. Additionally, Reimer’s age and contract are both favorable.
Pickard and Raanta, although not proven starters yet, are both low-risk options. Both Pickard and Raanta will only have a year left on their contracts, with matching $1 million cap hits. Since there is still uncertainty on whether Pickard or Raanta are ready to be starting goaltenders, their low cap hits do give the Golden Knights the flexibility to acquire a higher-paid veteran (such as Varlamov if Pickard is protected, Ward, or Niemi) with few years left on their contract to play in tandem with either Pickard or Raanta, to ease them into the starting position.
Fleury is the most experienced and proven goaltender of these candidates. However, he is the least likely to be available to the Golden Knights at the Expansion Draft because the Penguins will likely look for a trade partner to ensure they receive a return on Fleury.
Reimer, Pickard, and Raanta could have a long-term future with the Golden Knights if selected. If the Golden Knights were able to draft Fleury, he would provide for the immediate future while working to develop other prospects.
#TSNHockey Poll: Can the Montreal Canadiens keep winning the way they have this season without Carey Price?
— TSN Hockey (@TSNHockey) November 1, 2015
A goaltender can be the game’s great equalizer. Teams like the Montreal Canadiens have exemplified just how important a goaltender is and how far that single player can take a team. As such, goaltenders acquired by the Golden Knights will have a significant influence on the identity of the team, so there have to be many considerations when choosing–including the defense assembled to ensure their goaltending pick can flourish in the environment the Golden Knights create. Goaltenders are a team’s last line of defense, so the Golden Knights’ goaltending Expansion Draft picks may be the most essential offseason decision.
Graduated NYU in 2016 with a Masters in Sports Business. Covering the Vegas Golden Knights from New York.