Plenty of goalies available this summer
Yes, this year's free-agent crop is lacking in overall depth. But if there's one position that bucks the trend, it's in goal, where there are a multitude of unrestricted free agents looking for jobs.
"It's the year of the goalie, it seems," netminder Marty Turco told ESPN.com on Wednesday.
As Turco looks at his options, he has competition. Depending on whether they re-sign between now and June 30, joining Turco in the free-agent waters July 1 could be Evgeni Nabokov, Martin Biron, Dan Ellis, Michael Leighton, Chris Mason, Jose Theodore, Antero Niittymaki, Vesa Toskala, Johan Hedberg, Patrick Lalime, Manny Legace, Wade Dubielewicz, Alex Auld, Steve Valiquette, Andrew Raycroft, Yann Danis and Curtis Sanford.
"There's some great guys in their prime that have played a long time; there's some guys that have shown more than just promise that can use a breath of fresh air, and some guys you can take a chance on and a risk and hope they pan out," Turco said. "It's a great list."
And that group doesn't even factor in what the Montreal Canadiens will do with Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price (both are restricted free agents, one of whom could possibly be traded), or whether the Boston Bruins will try to move Tim Thomas now that Tuukka Rask has established himself as the No. 1 man.
With all the goalies in play, the key is for them to find a chair when the music stops. You don't want to be left standing in August.
"It's a unique situation this year," Biron told ESPN.com on Wednesday.
Biron knows the drill. A year ago, he waited until July 22 to find an NHL home with the New York Islanders. It's a nerve-racking time when you miss the first and second wave of free agency as jobs and money become scarce around the league.
"You can take that experience from last year and use it to prepare yourself for this year," Biron said. "But the free-agent period isn't like it was when I started in this league. It's changed the last few years. There's a real crapshoot element to it. Teams are more patient. So are the players. It took me until July 22 last year, and it was a situation I never even thought of three weeks before that."
And that might be the intriguing play come the first week of July: Will these free-agent goalies hold out for more money or grab hold of the first secure job offered to them? With so many goalies available, teams might have the upper hand in terms of salary negotiation. That's fine with Ellis, who hopes to sell himself as a bargain so as to find a good fit.
"I'm hoping to find my niche where I'm a cheaper option than the $4 million and $5 million guys, maybe an option for a team that's feeling the cap crunch," said Ellis, who turns 30 on Saturday. "I'm not a huge money guy. I live in Omaha, Neb., in the summertime. My most important thing is to find a team who I can win with."
Ellis enjoyed his time with the Nashville Predators, but saw the writing on the wall when the team signed Pekka Rinne to an extension this season. So Ellis made it easy on Preds GM David Poile at the player exit meetings and told him he was ready to explore the market.
"I told him I really liked Nashville and it would have been nice to go back there," Ellis said. "But the way the opportunity is there now with Pekka all signed up, I'd like to try somewhere else and try to gain a No. 1 position or at least compete for a No. 1 job. So, basically, I told him I wouldn't be back."
He has glanced around the league. How can you not?
"You look into stuff and try to understand what's going on, but ultimately, it'll come down to which teams believe in you and believe you're a fit," Ellis said. "And you know, a lot can change at the draft. You have your teams in line that you think need goaltending, but then they make a trade. You really never know until July 1."
Nabokov and Turco are the two most established starting goalies on the market (that's if the San Jose Sharks don't retain Nabokov). But with Nabokov and Patrick Marleau eligible for unrestricted free agency and Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi needing raises, it's hard to believe San Jose will be able to keep Nabokov and Marleau.
Nabokov's status on the market will have a sizable impact on things. The only thing Turco knows for sure at this point is that he'll be playing elsewhere next season after spending his entire NHL career to date in Dallas.
"We found a buyer for our house [in Dallas] yesterday," he said Wednesday.
He also surprised his wife with a gift and celebration ahead of their 10-year wedding anniversary, which is later this summer.
"We got engaged the year we went to the Cup finals in '99," Turco said. "That's how much time we've spent here in Dallas. It's been special, but it's time to move on."
For the first time in his career, he'll be sitting near his phone on July 1.
"It's kind of unchartered territory for my family and I, but it's exciting," Turco said. "It's going to be an interesting process. I look forward to getting on a plane and meeting my new team."
If there's one team I think would be a great fit for Turco, it's the Philadelphia Flyers; but I'm not sure the team feels the same way. One has to presume Flyers GM Paul Holmgren is having second thoughts about Leighton after the journeyman goalie was pulled twice in the Cup finals. If the price is right, 34-year-old Turco would be a solid improvement, and he has the kind of unflappable personality needed in the goalie graveyard that is Philadelphia.
But again, it depends on money. Turco would have to come cheaper than the $5.4 million he earned this past season in Dallas; the Flyers don't have a lot of cap room, and Holmgren told ESPN.com during the Cup finals that he didn't believe in overspending in goal unless one had Martin Brodeur or Ryan Miller in net.
Biron, meanwhile, will be an interesting case after his one-year sojourn on Long Island. Where to next? If I'm the Buffalo Sabres (with Lalime as a free agent), I bring Biron back "home'" to back up Miller again and give the star Team USA goalie more rest in the regular season. Biron still spends his offseasons in Buffalo (he was there when we talked Wednesday). Or how about Montreal if the Habs move Price or Halak? Biron could be a veteran presence for either goalie, not to mention a hit with fans and media in his native province.
There are a lot of different scenarios, and Biron said he has tried not to think about all the possible teams in play because it would ruin his mood these days. He just has to let it all play out starting in July.
"You just never know what can happen," Biron said. "There's a lot of possibilities, but you never know how it plays out. Even at the draft next week, there might be some moves, more than likely, and who knows what that means."
Niittymaki is really under the radar in the group of UFA goalies. One highly respected hockey executive recently told ESPN.com that he believed the Finnish goalie was the best of the group available. You can't overlook that he put up 21 wins and a .909 save percentage on a struggling team such as the Tampa Bay Lightning last season.
"He had a good year last year," Niittymaki's agent, Larry Kelly, told ESPN.com. "He's alleviated all of the concerns related to the hip problems he had experienced, and he has clearly shown he can handle the load of being a No. 1 goaltender. He certainly enjoyed it in Tampa, so we'll see what happens."
The Bolts want to keep him, if possible.
"I'm interested, yes. Have had some discussion with his agent," new Lightning GM Steve Yzerman told ESPN.com via e-mail Wednesday.
Gut feeling: A deal will get done, and Niittymaki will stay put.
Mason is another goalie who could command some interest. He has shown himself to be a bona fide No. 1 goalie, both in Nashville and with the St. Louis Blues. St. Louis already has begun talks with his camp about re-signing him.
"We've had initial conversations, but there's nothing new to report," Blues GM Doug Armstrong told ESPN.com on Wednesday.
Tick, tock the musical goalie chairs are about to start.