Is the price of a back-up goalie going up?
This morning, the Montreal Canadiens acquired Jake Allen from the St. Louis Blues for a swap of future seventh-round draft picks and a 2020 third-round pick.
Essentially, the Canadiens traded a third-round pick for Allen and his 2020-21 $4.35 million cap hit.
At first blush, this seems like a lot to give up for Allen, who lost his starting job to Jordan Binnington last year, but rebounded with a strong 2019-20, albeit in mostly a back-up role. In fact, considering that Montreal cleared significant cap space for St. Louis to re-sign impending UFA Alex Pietrangelo, you can say that the Canadiens did the Blues a big favor.
So how did St. Louis come out with a third-round pick?
“Who knows what next season looks like because of COVID?” Pierre LeBrun told TSN this morning. “But I have to assume, if there’s a season, that it’s going to be a pretty compressed schedule.”
Essentially, LeBrun is suggesting that a team will be facing more back-to-back games on their schedule. Thus, back-up goaltenders will probably be asked to start more games so starters can avoid these back-to-backs. Therefore, you’ll probably want a more established back-up, capable of larger workloads.
So a netminder like Allen, who’s closer to a 1B than a true back-up — he’s just 30, been a starter before, and has even enjoyed playoff success — is probably more valuable now than he would be in a normal off-season.
What Does This Mean for the San Jose Sharks?
Let’s start at the top and assume that Martin Jones is returning as the team’s No. 1.
While like Allen, Jones is 30 and a proven starter — and Jones has enjoyed far greater post-season success — Allen has a $4.35 million cap hit for one more season, while Jones has a $5.75 million cap hit for four more years. In short, you’re still not foisting Jones off on anybody and getting something back.
At back-up, impending UFA Aaron Dell has performed ably over the years on the balance, but he’s never been a starter. He doesn’t look like a 1B.
Besides the threat of a compressed schedule, Jones’s struggles over the last two seasons seem to make it an imperative that San Jose adds at least a 1B goaltender to their mix.
I say 1B because the Sharks, due to a flat cap and their many long-term contract commitments, will be hard-pressed to pursue an expensive, true No. 1 goaltending upgrade like impending UFA Braden Holtby or trade candidate Marc-Andre Fleury.
Basically, San Jose is looking for a goalie like Allen. But the price for such a netminder might be higher this off-season.
The Price of a 1B
The days of the workhorse starting goaltender aren’t over, but it’s getting there.
For example, this year, just 14 of 31 teams featured a No. 1 goalie who started 60 percent or more of their games — 60 percent, over an 82-game season, is 49 starts. A decade ago, in 2009-10, 18 of 30 teams trotted out a true-blue No. 1 who started 60 percent or more of their games.
Another way to look at it: Just one netminder, Carey Price, started over 80 percent of his team’s games in 2019-20. Allen, of course, is expected to alleviate some of Price’s workload. In 2009-10, 10 goalies (Martin Brodeur, Miikka Kiprusoff, Jonathan Quick, Henrik Lundqvist, Craig Anderson, Evgeni Nabokov, Ilya Bryzgalov, Ryan Miller, Roberto Luongo, Fleury) started over 80 percent of his team’s games.
So this already-present trend, coupled with a compressed schedule, might make, let’s call them the middle class of goalies, more valuable than ever.
By my rough count, there are 41 proven 1B or better goaltenders in the league right now — by my definition, any netminder who’s started 40 or more games in a season. I’m discounting Miller and Brian Elliott, ex-starters who have segued into pure back-up roles: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Anton Khudobin, Antti Raanta, Ben Bishop, Holtby, Cam Talbot, Carey Price, Carter Hart, Carter Hutton, Connor Hellebuyck, Corey Crawford, Anderson, Darcy Kuemper, David Rittich, Devan Dubnyk, Frederik Andersen, Lundqvist, Jacob Markstrom, Allen, James Reimer, Jaroslav Halak, Jimmy Howard, John Gibson, Jonathan Bernier, Quick, Binnington, Juuse Saros, Keith Kinkaid, Mackenzie Blackwood, Fleury, Jones, Matt Murray, Mike Smith, Mikko Koskinen, Pekka Rinne, Petr Mrazek, Robin Lehner, Semyon Varlamov, Sergei Bobrovsky, Thomas Greiss, and Tuukka Rask.
There are 31 teams. You can do the math — there might not be enough proven starters around next year, in a year where every team might be wise to have at least two.
Obviously, this list doesn’t encompass goaltenders who are likely to surpass the 40+ starts mark next season — one of the Columbus duo of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins, and highly-touted prospects like Igor Shesterkin and Ilya Samsonov come to mind. Philipp Grubauer was on his way this year. Also, teams like St. Louis, who appear to be promoting not-as-highly-touted Ville Husso behind Binnington, look to be prioritizing other positions on their roster. So I’m not saying there’s only 41 good goaltenders for 62 spots.
But next year, especially, it makes sense for more teams to look at 1A-1B netminding combos — and I don’t think there are enough No. 1’s around.
Consider also the previous cost of a 1B goalie during the off-season — I’m not counting in-season trades, because there’s a different urgency around goaltending at that time, in part because of injuries. Here were a couple relevant trades for an established 1B netminder with a similar cap hit and term to Allen: In July 2016, Toronto traded Jonathan Bernier ($4.15 million for one more year) to Anaheim for future considerations that amounted to nothing because of how high the bars for those considerations were. Last summer, Florida traded James Reimer ($3.4 million per for two more years) to Carolina for Scott Darling ($4.15 million per for two more years) and a 2020 sixth-round pick.
In that light, St. Louis made out like bandits, getting a third for Allen.
How Will This Affect San Jose Sharks Next Year?
The off-season is young, so we’ll see.
But the Sharks, who appear to be good fits for impending UFA 1B netminders like Khudobin or Greiss, might find more competition for their services than in a normal off-season.
Meanwhile, a Bernier, with just one more year at a $3 million dollar cap hit, might be a more intriguing trade candidate than usual.
All this means less cap space or more assets given up, which the San Jose Sharks can scarcely afford in their quest to return to relevance.
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