Of all the positions that people are interested in the Leafs improving, goaltending seems to be the highest priority of the bunch. After all, Jonathan Bernier is coming off of the worst season of his career, and while Garret Sparks had a highly memorable first game with the team, he wasn’t exactly an all-star as the year progressed. There’s isn’t a ton in the pipeline either, with Antoine Bibeau riding the AHL average all year, Kasimir Kaskisuo being a question mark, and the remainder of the prospect pool consisting of, well, nothing.
But speaking purely about next year, I don’t see any reason for the Leafs to sprint to get a goaltender.
The Expansion Bluff
The Expansion Draft is supposed to save goaltending in the NHL forever, or so they say. With Las Vegas reportedly about a year from pillaging the league’s leftovers, teams are in a panic to get assets for players that they are scared to lose.
In theory, this means that a few teams with great goaltending duos are at risk. Fleury and Murray, Vasilevskiy and Bishop, Howard and Mrazek, so on and so forth. Lots of teams have great pairs that could be broken up by a single pick.
Here’s the key thought, though: Each team will lose only one player, and the Vegas team is going to have to play around the Salary Cap. Roles come into play too; you’re not making a legitimate NHL starter with a solid paycheque sit in the press box. Assuming that 10-12 teams have two goalies they’d like to keep but can only protect one, we might be talking about 20-25% of them being at risk of losing their guy. Is that enough to start a reverse bidding war where a Frederik Andersen or even a Philipp Grubauer goes for peanuts? Probably not.
Not to mention, there’s a whole season before this draft. Competing teams likely see a year of the other half of their duo as more valuable than the asset they’ll get back for the. In most cases, it makes more sense for those teams to hold on to the player until the end of the end of their season and take a lesser value for them.
Surely, teams have this in mind. It would be a shock to see a goaltender desperately on the market in the next few months; teams that will shop their guys will be doing so expecting full value, which negates the whole idea of opportunity.
Another thing to consider in this situation is that, frankly, running with the present duo of Jonathan Bernier and Garret Sparks might not be the end of the world.
The Leafs were an awful team last year, but a lot of that had to do with some shocking percentages from players they expected to perform better. Bernier has always been a peaks-and-valleys goaltender, but always found a way to spend the bulk of his time in and around the league average, if not above it. That went away this season.
Now, why that happened is still up for debate. Did technique shifts mess with his game? Was he especially mentally fragile and quite simply lost his marbles? After years of playing in different forms of dump-and-chase with the Kings and Carlyle Leafs, was he simply not prepared for the shots he’d face in Mike Babcock’s system? It’s hard to say for sure, but from January on he was a 0.920 goaltender, which is where we generally saw him before the start of the year. It’s not unrealistic to think that Bernier could be a decent if unspectacular goaltender in the league next year, which is all the Leafs would need to get themselves going in the right direction.
The same goes for Garret Sparks. In his case, I wonder how much he was affected by injury. Sparks was a 0.938 in his first 11 games with the Marlies, and 0.921 in his first five games with the Leafs. He pulled his groin against the Sharks on December 17th, played through it, had an unspectacular game, and was gone for a month. His next tour of duty with the Marlies saw him struggle in the first few weeks but bounce back eventually, giving him an above average but below him 0.910.
The Leafs were gutted by the time Sparks came back up, and it’s possible that he reaggravated something in that time. In those 12 games, he was only above 0.900 four times, which many took as a potential death sentence to his long-term NHL hopes. He looked to regain form with the Marlies, but ultimately only played in six of their final 16 games (twice as relief), putting up a 0.928 in that time despite his last appearance coming at the halfway mark of a massive blowout.
There are no guarantees that either of these two will return to form, but no goaltender comes with a guarantee. In fact, that’s more the case than ever this year with new equipment rules coming in; what happens if the Leafs happen to get the one guy who really needed larger pants? Both of these players come at no asset cost to keep in between the pipes, and neither has performed as poorat any point in their pro career as their bad stretches of last season.
It’s not insane to think that 55 games of Bernier and 25 games of Sparks next year could produce a 0.915 save percentage. That’s not going to get you Jennings Trophies, but assuming shots against stay equal (with more talented forward core to maintain zone time, a more developed defence, and the second year under a new system, they probably go down), that’s still good enough to shave 30 goals against off the total. Nobody expects to sweep the playoffs next year, so that’s more than passable for now.
The photo for this article comes from WarGames, one of my all-time favourite movies. The underlying message that Joshua (the supercomputer that Matthew Broderick’s character almost accidentally convinces to start World War 3) teaches itself is that in war, the only winning move is not to play.
That doesn’t fully apply here, of course. If Matt Murray gets pumped for eight goals tomorrow, Fleury comes in to save the day in Game 7, and the Penguins panic and put the kid on the market at the draft; you swing for him. If the Red Wings decide they’d rather give Alexander Radulov his own island than give Petr Mrazek money, you tap them on the shoulder. If Frederik Andersen’s cost ends up being unreasonably small, then sure, you make the move.
Similarly, if there’s a quality goalie left on the UFA market for below value thanks to an overly patient market, you may as well find somebody to platoon with Bernier this year and give Sparks another year of development time. That doesn’t cost you an asset, after all.
But beyond that? Not playing isn’t a bad outcome. If there is an expansion panic, the clearance sale is going to come next spring, not this summer. Logic implies that Toronto’s goalies haven’t forgotten what a puck looks like and should be able to bounce back in some respect after a summer of regrouping.
Shoring up the pipeline would be nice, but as far as the NHL ice goes, there’s no need for the Leafs to go out there swinging the fences with obvious desperation.