The San Jose Sharks announced an extension of their lease on the SAP Center Friday, May 8. The much bigger priority previously outlined in this column is finding a goalie for the 2015-16 NHL season.
Since it seems unlikely the position can be filled from within the system, the top priority this summer is signing one starting goalie that holds up better than Antti Niemi did in the 2014-15 NHL season. Then San Jose can then fill what will now be home (affectionately known as the Shark Tank from its time as the HP Pavilion) into the next decade with a team capable of returning to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
While general manager Doug Wilson has focused the Sharks on the future, signing a free agent will not stunt the development of players because none are being held back from playing to their potential because they are no ready for the spot themselves. In fact, signing any one of these players or having any number of other possibilities pan out would set the entire position throughout the system. How often a goalie bails out a young player should not stunt anyone’s learning curve as much as Stanley Cup playoff experience will help.
The top free agency choices are pictured in order by least to most realistic given the more-than-adequate cap space available. Trades may be a better route but are hard to project without knowing the future plans of other general managers around the league—things they do not tend to make public.
Most likely, San Jose’s goalie during the 2015-16 NHL season will be an unrestricted free agent (UFA). Teams can also retain almost any restricted free agent (RFA) that is worth keeping. One goalie a team may not value as high as the compensation that another team is willing to pay both in salary and draft pick(s) is Jonathan Bernier.
He is neither the likely choice nor the best one. The list of pending free agent goalies on Hockey Buzz has Bernier second in salary only to Niemi for the 2014-15 NHL season at $3.4 million. A salary in that range again would require compensation of a first- and third-round draft pick and it is questionable whether he is worth that kind of money, a pick almost certain to play for the Sharks and another with a good chance to.
If Bernier comes any cheaper, he could cost San Jose only one second-round pick and would be worth the money for at least three years. While he has not lived up to his hype with the Los Angeles Kings as their top pick (11th overall) in the 2006 NHL entry draft, but he was in a worse position in terms of defensive support than Niemi.
Bernier fits the bill for a “tomorrow team” looking to get younger, turning 27 before the 2015-16 NHL season. He was a tremendous backup goalie for net-minding rich Los Angeles before having a solid first season as a starter for the Toronto Maple Leafs: 2.68 goals-against average (GAA) but .923 save percentage (Sv%) while going 26-19-7 for a team that was out of the Stanley Cup playoff chase by March.
The only reason Bernier even might be on the market is that his value was dinged by a poor second 2014-15 NHL season as a starter: 21-28-7 with a 2.87 GAA and .912 Sv%. Also, Toronto’s upheaval from the entire team being bad for so long may play a role since new general managers like to bring in new coaches that might prefer new players.
The next least likely choice in net for the Sharks is Devan Dubnyk. The UFA is going to be in demand after leading the Minnesota Wild into the Stanley Cup playoffs when they had been in the cellar of the 2014-15 NHL season standings after the All-Star break.
True, some of that was a team getting key players back from injury. Still, Dubnyk posted an amazing 27-9-2 record playing 39 of Minnesota’s final 40 games while having a .936 Sv% and 1.78 GAA. It may win him the Vezina Trophy and supports the potential that got him drafted in the first half of the 2004 NHL entry draft.
Then again, Dubnyk has never looked that good in 192 previous game of his NHL career. He may not have been the chief reason but certainly contributed to winning fewer than 40 percent of his games: 70-82-24, .910 Sv%, 2.88 GAA.
That should give any general manager including Wilson pause. Perhaps that drives Dubnyk’s price down enough to make him worth taking a chance on. More than likely, the Wild opts to keep him and retain as much continuity as possible from an extremely successful run. That would be best for both parties, and chances are they will find a way to reach an agreement.
The Sharks will more likely have to choose between one of the other three. The worst choice among the three is bringing Niemi back.
Niemi may not have had enough defensive support, but he also was not very good last season. He was a Vezina Trophy finalist in the lockout-condensed 2013 season for playing in 43 of 48 games and finishing in the top three in wins, minutes and saves. Much like Dubnyk, he was also very good playing all but one game down the stretch of the 2010-11 NHL season as San Jose stormed back from 12th in the Western Conference to earn the second seed.
There is a big difference in what they bring to the table, however. Niemi is not only already popular in the dressing room, has won a Stanley Cup and could likely be retained for less and on a shorter contract than Dubnyk has demanded—perhaps even with a small hometown discount.
The reality is, Wilson may not have better options. It is reasonable to think that Niemi could play better than he did in the 2014-15 NHL season, and it will not take much more to get the Sharks back to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
If at all possible, he must sign one of the other two players likely to be available and have a reasonable expectation of improvement in perhaps the most disappointing position of the 2014-15 NHL season: Michal Neuvirth and Jake Allen offer San Jose potential upgrades at what may well be reasonable contracts, and both are more than four years younger than Niemi.
Allen is a restricted free agent but carries much of the stigma from another first-round Stanley Cup-playoff exit for the St. Louis Blues because he may have been their worst player in both. Allowing six goals on the last 32 shots he faced (.813 Sv%) before getting pulled in the elimination game coupled with a potential new coach might make them give up on the soon-to-be 25-year old.
If so, his limited body of work (58 career games) suggests Allen can be a starter: 31-11-4 is a fantastic record and St. Louis earned 48 points in his 33 games of record on the 2014-15 NHL season. His .913 save percentage is on the low side, but his 2.33 GAA average—where low is good—also was.
Allen was also great in the first four Stanley Cup-playoff games while accumulating a 2-2 record: .935 Sv% and just six goals allowed. That is why the Blues are unlikely to give up on him, but if they decide it is enough to get their original second-round pick they spent on him back and other teams do not value him much over $3 million so the Sharks can get him without giving up more than that, he is worth a look.
The goalie that seems most likely to be the best fit for a team looking to develop and unable to surrender more talent is Michal Neuvirth. The 27-year old UFA is the most likely player to be available July 1.
He is behind Jaroslav Halak if he remains with the New York Islanders and he should be a cost-effective option thanks to his 2014-15 NHL season struggles: 7-20-4 in 32 games with a 2.98 GAA but a .914 save percentage. He has been successful more often than not as a backup but only been a team’s primary starter four years ago with the Washington Capitals: 27-12-4 with a 2.45 GAA and .914 save percentage.
Those are not great numbers and will make him affordable, but also shows enough to think he has it in him with some decent numbers as a backup. If Wilson really is committed to the future, the safer short-term option Niemi will be passed over for the better potential of the younger Neuvirth.