As you’ve likely heard, the Toronto Maple Leafs signed 22-year old netminder Kasimir Kaskisuo to a two-year entry-level contract yesterday. The 6’3 Finnish backstopper recently wrapped up his NCAA career with the University of Minnesota Duluth and will join the Toronto Marlies on an amateur tryout contract before his actual contract kicks in at the beginning of next season.
While Kaskisuo’s numbers aren’t earth shattering, while he went undrafted four years ago and while he isn’t even considered the top free agent goaltending prospect coming out of the college hockey ranks this year, it’s still a good addition for a Leafs organization that is greatly lacking in goaltending depth. That said, there’s still a lot of work to be done.
Let’s take a moment and take stock of the goaltenders in the system that are actually Leafs property (because I don’t really or truly care about which minor-leaguers are signed to AHL deals with the Marlies). First, there’s Jonathan Bernier, who might be an average NHL starter but certainly hasn’t played like one this year. Then there’s Garret Sparks, who I happen to like quite a bit, but carries a sub-.900 save percentage through the first 13 games of his career. Next, we have Antoine Bibeau, who has shown some flashes at the AHL level, but has proven to be largely inconsistent so far in his young career. Finally, you have Kaskisuo, who has been a Leaf for exactly one day.
Listen, there isn’t much there. You can shout from the mountaintops that goaltenders develop slowly and hit their peak much later in their careers, but if all of your hopes are pinned on Sparks (22), Bibeau (21) and Kaskisuo (22), that’s awfully dangerous. It’s not about pedigree or draft position or anything like that; it’s just that each of these players are borderline NHL prospects. With no true number one ahead of them, and no youngsters behind them, it’s thin pickings.
I’ve beaten this drum for years now at TLN, harping on the Leafs to build a proper goaltending pipeline; a collection of netminders spread out across leagues, continents and, most importantly, age brackets. Toronto doesn’t even have a goaltender of the present, let alone a goaltender of the future.
A great example of such a pipeline is found in the Washington Capitals organization. It starts with Braden Holtby at the top, a fourth-round pick back in 2008 that developed into one of the top players at his position. Backing Holtby up is Philipp Grubauer, also a fourth round pick, but drafted two years later in 2010. At the AHL level, it’s a bit of a different story; veteran backstoppers Dan Ellis and Justin Peters compete for starts there, and while you’d rather have younger goaltenders developing their game at that level, it’s not so bad considering Holtby’s and Grubauer’s relative youth. Deeper down the pipeline, though, you find much more impressive talent. Vitek Vanecek, 20, is a 2014 second-round pick that is currently progressing nicely with ECHL South Carolina, and Ilya Samsanov, 19, a 2015 first-rounder, was one of the KHL’s top young goaltenders this year in Magnitogorsk.
That’s pretty ideal depth right there. Ignore for a moment that Holtby is lights out good, and consider that Washington has solid goaltending prospects that range nicely in age and aren’t packed onto one minor league team and eating into eachothers’ workloads. If Holtby falters or runs into injury problems or maybe just decides to retire at 28 and spend the rest of his life quilting, there’s a succession of goaltenders at different stages in their career, able to move up one-by-one and support the netminder at the top of the chain.
This brings us back to the Leafs, who did well in adding additional depth at the position in Kaskisuo, but hold the rights to exactly zero junior-aged goalers and who have every one of their goaltending prospects situated in the city of Toronto, beating eachother up for AHL starts or splitting time in the NHL. I’m not saying that none of Sparks or Bibeau or Kaskisuo will succeed in become regular NHL goaltenders, but there is literally nothing behind them. There’s no fallback.
Toronto needs more goalies. Most glaringly, they need an actual #1 in time for next season, but they need many more beyond that to fill in the rest of the pipeline. They’d be wise to use at least one of their many draft picks this season on a netminder, preferably without straying too far from the ‘BPA’ drafting philosophy. Drafting another goaltender next season could help as well. If they come up through different junior or college or European leagues, all the better. Toronto should also continue to work the free agent market for depth as well, but you’ll never find 18 or 19-year old goaltenders there, so it’s important to try and leverage the draft to some degree in that regard.
The Leafs have done an incredible job at building a talented prospect pool over the past several years, but while it’s definitely a forward-heavy group, even Toronto’s young blueline depth isn’t quite as shallow as it appeared to be just a few months ago. Goaltending though it the obvious weak spot at this point in the rebuild, and while they made one good move in the right direction yesterday evening, the Leafs will have every opportunity to really establish that goaltending pipeline this coming offseason with one or two savvy draft selections, signings or trades.