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Backup goalie options for the Leafs in 2017-18

This has been a strange summer so far when it comes to the Leafs. One day we’ll hear the team is looking to make a huge move to push for contention in this upcoming two year window, the next we’re told they’re fine to stand pat and not get ahead of themselves. Both can obviously be true, as it’s good to be cautious in this process and allow the best situation to emerge, but in the meantime we’re left wondering what on earth Toronto could be up to.

One thing they’ll have to do is get a goalie to back up Freddie Andersen and perhaps take his workload down a notch next season.

Andersen showed himself to be a true starter in the first year of his contract, no question. But at 66 games-played, he was second only to Cam Talbot in terms of appearances in 2016-17, and you wonder how long he can keep going like that. This goes a step further when you think about the incredible pace the Leafs play at, trading off a lot of shots and attempts with opposing clubs.

When the Leafs claimed Curtis McElhinney off waivers, you really couldn’t have asked for more from him in his time in blue-and-white. He posted a 0.914-sv% (a touch above league average) in his 14 appearances with Toronto, and delivered some memorable moments along the way. Still, overall, McElhinney’s career body of work to date isn’t particularly strong, and he just recently turned 34-years-old. It’s likely the Leafs hit the free agent or trade market to secure a more reliable option, and that starts on July 1st if they choose to go the former route.

For the purpose of this list, I left out free agents that weren’t reasonable. For example, Ryan Miller and Steve Mason will likely seek starter’s jobs, Toronto obviously won’t bring back Jonathan Bernier or Jhonas Enroth, and so on. With that in mind, what else might be out there that makes sense?

Anders Nilsson

Nilsson is likely the best option on this list, but the Leafs might be scarred by the last time they brought in a free-agent goalie from the Sabres. Jhonas Enroth was pretty much a disaster in his time with Toronto last season, but having him aboard also shed some light on Babcock’s apparent disdain for tiny goaltenders. Now I feel like I can say with confidence the Leafs won’t ever bring in another goalie below 6’0 tall in the next six years.

Luckily, Nilsson is 6’6, and to this point has shown he can stop the puck. He’s only 27, so he has a lot in the tank, and if Toronto wants to get a guy in who can take maybe 25-30 games, Nilsson has done exactly that in each of the last two seasons, starting in 29 and 26 games respectively. In his stint with the Sabres this past year, he did particularly well considering the godawful group in front of him (Red indicates a higher-than-average rate of unblocked shots against (bad), blue being below-average (good)).

(Via Micah Blake McCurdy’s HockeyViz)

Here are Nilsson’s last three seasons at the highest pro levels:

Season Club Lg GP Sv%
 2014-2015 Ak Bars Kazan KHL 38 0.936
 2015-2016 Edmonton Oilers NHL 26 0.901
 2015-2016 St. Louis Blues NHL 3 0.909
 2016-2017 Buffalo Sabres NHL 26 0.923

Overall, those three seasons work out to 2435 saves on 2643 shots between the two leagues, and a 0.921-sv% for Nilsson. Oilers are going to Oiler, I suppose.

Expiring contract: 1 year, 1-million AAV

Potential price as UFA: 1-2 years, 1.5-1.8-million AAV

Keith Kinkaid

While a downgrade from Nilsson, Kinkaid is a reasonable free agent option for the Leafs. And I know this is a lazy narrative, but I’m going to go ahead and point out Lamoriello is familiar with this guy as a Devil.

Like Nilsson, Kinkaid is 27-years-old, so he is what he is. Over the last three seasons he’s been clipping along at 0.912-sv% in 68 starts at the NHL level; this past season the league average was 0.913.

He doesn’t have underlying numbers as strong as Nilsson’s, according to Ian Fleming’s S-A-V-E model – especially at the mid-to-high danger shot locations, which makes it doubtful he can bail you out against some of the stronger teams. But as a guy who can step in against the Wings on a Wednesday night back-to-back, he might make sense as a cheaper option.

Expiring contract: 2 years, 0.750-million AAV

Potential price as UFA: 1-2 years, 0.950-1.1-million AAV

Brian Elliott

Definitely the biggest name on this list, but after a rocky season in Calgary and an absolutely brutal ending with that first-round sweep to the Ducks, Elliott is a major question-mark. There had always been some doubts about Elliott during his time with the Blues over whether his numbers were a product of such a tight defensive system employed by Hitchcock. This past year didn’t do anything to put that to rest, and now he’s going to free agency as more of a backup option than a starter.

Elliott is coming off a relatively cheap contract, at 2.5-million AAV, but at 32-years-old and just putting in a below-average season (0.910-sv%), he won’t be building on that number. Matt Cane’s salary predictor model has Elliott bringing in 3.6-million AAV on a new deal, but it’s hard to see that happening. I’d think, at best, his cap hit stays flat. If it goes beyond that, he would be a long shot for the Leafs to take a gamble on, especially if they’re interested in a couple of the other names mentioned here.

Expiring contract: 3 years, 2.5-million AAV

Potential price as UFA: 1-2 years, 2.5-3.0-million AAV

Garret Sparks

Obviously Sparks isn’t a free agent, but an in-house promotion. At the end of the day, if the Leafs foresee trotting Andersen out there for another 60-70 starts again next season, Sparks might serve as the best case for his backup. There’s an angle here about him needing more reps at the AHL level since he’s struggled through injury the last couple seasons, but given his strong numbers at the minor level – albeit in a limited amount of games – and the fact he just turned 24-years-old, it might be a good idea to have him up practicing with the big club every day and getting into 20 games or so at the NHL level.

Sparks’ last real stint with the Leafs was the 17 games he played in 2015-16 when the team was descending like a missile for Auston Matthews, and it was more-or-less a disaster, with him posting an 0.893-sv% as the season winded down. It would be interesting to see what he could do now behind a team that isn’t actively tanking.

Expiring contract: 1 year, 550K AAV

Potential RFA deal: 1-2 years, 600-750K AAV

We don’t know how much of a splash the Leafs are going to make in free agency, but it’s safe to assume they’ll look into a few cheap options to fill this role. For my money, Nilsson appears to be the clear target if they bring someone new aboard.

  • Matmarwill

    It does sound like Nilson is the best option as insurance for freddie. Otherwise we have sparkie, or perhaps mcelhinney for another go, though neither seem capable for a long term injury replacement. Ottawa was very wise in acquiring condon, for a fifth rounder (?).

  • Stan Smith

    I think you are being a little harsh in calling Sparks tenure with the Leafs two seasons ago “more or less a disaster”. With the exception of the 2nd game, he played well for his first 9 games. Not counting that start where he gave up 6 goals, he only allowed 15 goals in the other 8 games that he played. He also suffered an injury that hurt his effectiveness to close out the season, and, as you did say, the Leafs were in full tank mode, by then. On the upside, as you mentioned, he has posted very good AHL numbers, but on the downside, he has had issues with injuries. I would like to see him given another shot at the NHL.