Free-agent-to-be Marty Turco recently told ESPN's Pierre Lebrun that this was the "year of the goalie" when it came to free agency. Turco was referring to the high number of free agent goalies, but when you looked at the list, the talent wasn't all that impressive. However, free agency is still a high-stakes gamble for Turco, Evgeni Nabokov, and the other "name" goalies as there really aren't too many true starting jobs available. It's a buyer's market for goalies, and you've got about 15 guys applying for jobs when only a handful really need goaltending.
For teams like the Philadelphia Flyers and San Jose Sharks, that's good news. Despite both teams being in a bit of a cap crunch, they can try and be a little tougher in negotiations because there are a number of options out there. On the other hand, goalies can quickly go down the league's list and point to the teams that might need help. The bad news for them, though, is that a lot of teams have their cap space already tied up in goaltending (whether that goaltending is good or bad is another question).
Let's take a look at who's currently slotted to start for each team. A single asterisk indicates a clear opening for a starting role. A double asterisk indicates that the team might be willing to invest in a free agent, then let the best goalie take the job. I've also put RFAs like Carey Price and Antti Niemi as the assumed starter for their respective teams.
Anaheim Ducks: Jonas Hiller
Dallas Stars: Kari Lehtonen
Los Angeles Kings: Jonathan Quick/Jonathan Bernier
Phoenix Coyotes: Ilya Bryzgalov
*San Jose Sharks: Thomas Greiss
Chicago Blackhawks: Antti Niemi
Columbus Blue Jackets: Steve Mason
Detroit Red Wings: Jimmy Howard / Chris Osgood
Nashville Predators: Pekke Rinne
St. Louis Blues: Jaroslav Halak
Calgary Flames: Miikka Kiprusoff
Colorado Avalanche: Craig Anderson
Edmonton Oilers: Nikolai Khabibulin
Minnesota Wild: Niklas Backstrom
Vancouver Canucks: Roberto Luongo
New York Rangers: Henrik Lundqvist
New York Islanders: Dwayne Roloson / Rick Dipietro
New Jersey Devils: Martin Brodeur
*Philadelphia Flyers: Brian Boucher
Pittsburgh Penguins: Marc-Andre Fleury
Boston Bruins: Tukka Rask / Tim Thomas
Buffalo Sabres: Ryan Miller
Montreal Canadiens: Carey Price
**Ottawa Senators: Brian Elliott
Toronto Maple Leafs: Jean-Sebastian Giguere
**Atlanta Thrashers: Ondrej Pavelec
Carolina Hurricanes: Cam Ward
Florida Panthers: Tomas Vokoun
**Tampa Bay Lightning: Mike Smith
**Washington Capitals: Semyon Varlamov
Now, when we step back and look at this list as a whole, the two big openings for starters are in San Jose and Philadelphia. San Jose's not going to go into battle with just Thomas Greiss; similarly, Philadelphia needs much more than just Brian Boucher. That's two slots for definitive #1 starting jobs. In San Jose's case, the goal might be to platoon with Greiss, the German national team goalie, but Greiss hardly got any play behind Evgeni Nabokov, and it would make more sense to start balancing the load in his direction rather than throwing him to the wolves. In Philadelphia's case, Boucher's tried to be a starter before but his inconsistency has created too many headaches for that many games. In short, Boucher is the perfect backup.
The second-tier of goaltending needs come from teams that may have an option but it's not ideal. These include Ottawa, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, and Washington. Each of these teams might start the season with the players listed above as their starter. In a case like this, the teams might opt for a seasoned veteran as a backup that can be relied upon in case things go wrong. That opens up four budget-friendly slots.
Between the guarantee starting jobs and the second-tier jobs, that's only really six goaltending openings.
Keep in mind that a team like Dallas, which has committed big numbers to Kari Lehtonon, still needs a back-up goalie. It's just that their starting situation has been clearly defined, and the back-up role could be filled from either within or through free agency. There are a number of teams like this and it's no guarantee for a job for a free agent goalie.
So let's return to that free agent goalie list. You've got Evgeni Nabokov as the big fish, the still-got-it number one goalie with fairly limited options. You've got Marty Turco, who's trying to reclaim his role and reputation at age 35. You've got Jose Theodore, who had a pretty good bounce-back year but saw limited playoff action. You've also got Dan Ellis and Chris Mason, players that are in that gray area of whether or not they can consistently provide elite goaltending. Ray Emery should be included in this mix, but his injury history puts him as a question mark.
Not counting Emery, that's already five guys that could possibly command anywhere from $2 million to $5 million. In addition, there's a plethora of "maybe" goaltending: Vesa Toskala, Martin Biron, Antero Niittymaki, Alex Auld, Andrew Raycroft, and so on. And we're not even counting guys who might be traded, like Tim Thomas.
If you put this all together, you can quickly see that it's really a buyer's market. Yesterday, I speculated that the San Jose Sharks were probably negotiating with Nabokov at a low-ball hometown discount, and when you look at the openings and the job applicants, why not? The Sharks have plenty to offer in terms of talent, market, and organization, and in the meantime, Nabokov's choices are really limited. For goaltenders that want to play on a winner, the target is San Jose, Philadelphia, and Washington, as Ottawa, Atlanta, and Tampa Bay are all in different stages of transition.
Hockey columnists have used the term "musical chairs" when looking at this year's free agent goalie crop, and a closer look shows that this is an apt description. If I'm a goalie, I'm telling my agent to just eat the lower bids and get something lined up. Making $3 million instead of $4 million isn't that bad of a gig when you consider the alternatives: KHL and other European leagues or working out on your own while hoping for someone to get a season-ending injury.