MLHS Deadline Preview: Four Options in Goal

MLHS Deadline Preview: Four Options in Goal

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The tie's coming undone.

This is part one of a preview series on potential trade deadline targets for the Leafs. Important to keep in mind is the framework in which I’m analyzing these trade options in this series: Brian Burke will be weighing the future against the present. Burke’s only going to be dealing for immediate help if it equally benefits the team long term. There will be no selling out for this season; as much as Burke is feeling the pressure to make the playoffs in his fourth season as Leafs czar, more patience is needed as his team simply isn’t at that stage of the competition yet.

Evgeni Nabokov:

The attraction to the 37-year-old pending UFA is one, how well he’s fared in front of a porous Islanders defense since his return to the NHL, and two, his history of success under head coach Ron Wilson in San Jose.

The Islanders have struggled to find consistent reliability in net as much as the Leafs have in recent seasons, so dealing Nabokov as opposed to signing him seems unlikely at this point barring an inability to come to terms in contract negotiations.

From Dominik at Light House Hockey:

“Garth Snow has publicly stated Nabokov is not for sale — and the way the Islanders goaltending has been without Nabokov, you almost understand that stance. But with reports of contract negotiations going on right now, you’d think he’d become available if they can’t come to an agreement.

Nabokov has been their best goalie this year and, in keeping with his career norm, has not been spectacular but has been good enough and steady enough to be the difference in several Islanders victories.

Typically Snow wants a decent draft pick for his rentals and sticks to his price or else declines to make a deal. If he can’t get at least a 2nd-round pick or equivalent prospect, he my prefer to keep Nabokov and give his young team a goalie they clearly trust for the final 20 post-deadline games.”

Even if available, a move for Nabokov doesn’t seem to fit the Burke blueprint. It’s possible the Leafs bring in Nabokov, it works out, and they choose to give him another year on his contract, but with that far from a sure bet, it’s unlikely Burke could justify spending a second round pick on what could be less than 20 games of the 37-year-old Nabokov.

Verdict: No go. He doesn’t appear to be available as of this moment, and with long term interests in mind it’s more likely the Leafs see if Reimer or Gustavsson can get their seasons back on track down the stretch anyways.

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Jonathan Bernier:

Conversely, 23-year-old Jonathan Bernier could be a goalie of the future. 26-year-old Jonathan Quick’s emergence this season as a premiere goaltender capable of posting elite numbers under a heavy workload greatly limits Bernier’s room for professional advancement in Los Angeles. Quick is above the .930 mark after 52 games played this season; highly impressive stuff.

Bernier, a former 11th overall pick in 2006, has put up far less spectacular numbers in his eleven appearances this season, posting merely a .900 save percentage, good enough for only 63rd of the 80 goalies to have played a game this season. His career save percentage at the NHL level is .908.

This is a goaltender that could probably be had relatively inexpensively, but the concern is – is another inexperienced question mark in net, though with seemingly lots of potential (he had excellent numbers in the AHL), what the Leafs really need? Bernier hasn’t shown well behind strong team defense in Los Angeles this season, so it’s hard to imagine plopping him between the pipes under the Toronto spotlight, behind an inexperienced group playing the system the Leafs do, and having it end well.

Verdict: The Leafs are not short on goalie depth for the future; what they need is a little more proven ability and NHL experience at the position. Bernier doesn’t quite offer enough to bank on in that department.

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Josh Harding:

Is this the middle ground solution between a Nabokov and a Bernier? Maybe. Harding is going on 28 years of age (turns 28 in June) and has been a back up behind Niklas Backstrom in Minnesota for the last four seasons, and parts of two seasons before that – this following two winning AHL seasons in which he posted impressive numbers.

A second round pick of the Wild back in 2002, Harding has posted a career .916 SV% and a 2.64 GAA, along with five shutouts, in 107 NHL appearances. Not a ton of NHL experience there, but he has been around for a number of seasons while operating in Backstrom’s shadow, and does have more games to his name than either Reimer or Gustavsson.

Harding’s availability likely depends on how the Wild organization feels about the future of Matt Hackett. Hackett has featured in three games this season, posting a 2-1 record and a .977 save percentage. He’s been playing a half-load for the Houston Aeros in his two AHL seasons since graduating from junior in 2010, and led the Aeros to the brink of an AHL championships last season (they eventually fell to Binghamton in the Calder Cup final).

Harding will likely see himself post a career high in NHL starts this season as the Wild lean more on their backup and provide the aging Backstrom with a little more rest. But Hackett appears to be the great white hope for the future in the Wild net, and soon enough they’ll want him backing up Backstrom full time, grooming him as the successor to the 34-year-old Finn’s throne. That leaves Harding as the odd man out.

From Bryan Reynolds at Hockey Wilderness:

Harding is as available as an ugly kid on prom night. The Wild would love to offload Harding for something of value, since it is highly unlikely he returns next season. With some promising prospects coming up through the system, and a stud already in place in Niklas Backstrom, the Wild would be more than happy to give Harding a new home.

What would Chuck  Fletcher be looking for in return?
This is where it gets tricky. If it’s me, I take a third round pick for him and call it a win. Draft picks lead to players, and if you can get a pick in exchange for a guy that isn’t needed and won’t be back, that’s what you do. Now, if I am pretending to be Chuck Fletcher, I am guessing he is asking a second round pick or B level prospect in exchange. It might be too much, and it might make it so Harding is still around on Tuesday. Which, unless the Wild make a strong push for the playoffs, would be unfortunate.

What’s his performance been like this season?
As has been the case most of his career, Harding has had an up and down year. The lack of playing time seems to take him off his game. At one point, he looked like he was ready to steal the number one job away from Backstrom, but then relinquished it. If there is one thing that has been his downfall this season, it is getting right to that point and then not being able to take the next step.

Do you think he has the goods to handle an increased load in a pressure cooker like Toronto?
After the Wild blew a 4-1 lead against Nashville, and lost 5-4 in the last seven minutes of the game, reports from the locker room were that Harding was near tears. He took the blame on himself, and much of it was his fault. However, to know that he was near tears is a little scary if he were to head into Toronto. Not that he is an emotional basket case, but if a tough loss like that brings him down, I can’t imagine what would happen with a horde of media around him.

One side note here – Harding is a great guy, and I am a big fan of his work for his entire career. This has been a tough year for him. He lost his friends in Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and Pavol Demitra, as well losing his grand mother in the off season. He has long been a guy who I think would be a great choice for a team looking to take a gamble on a new number one goalie. How he has gone this far without that chance is beyond me. Injuries have held him back a bit, but all hockey players have injuries. I think Harding is a good gamble to take, even with the issues that may surround him.

On Matt Hackett… the kid is the next starter for the Wild. He came up earlier in the season and played absolutely lights out hockey. If memory serves correctly, he game up one goal in three games before being sent being sent back to Houston. He is doing well for the Aeros, performed well enough to lead the Aeros to the Calder Cup finals last season, and is the future of goaltending for the Minnesota Wild. The Wild would be more than comfortable with him in a backup role for the rest of this season and into next.

Verdict: Firstly, Gustavsson could always teach Harding about downplaying blame rather than looking inward for answers and, you know, being accountable. In all seriousness, this fit depends on how the pro scouting staff likes Harding and what Chuck has told father Cliff about his abilities. If he can be had for a third, it’s something to think about. If Chuck Fletcher wants a second for a pending UFA goalie with no experience as a starter as of yet, that’s not something Burke can justify and he’ll stick with what he’s got until the summer.

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Cory Schneider:

25-year-old Cory Schneider is the first name that pops in many a head whenever the goalie discussion arises. For years he’s been a staple of the rumour mill in Vancouver as the league’s best “number one backup” goalie. Harrison Mooney of Pass it to Bulis described his play this season like so: “Roberto Luongo at his best — Schneider nearly matches that with every start.”

The reason Gillis is now actually forced to move Schneider after years of rumours to that effect is due to his RFA status at season’s end. With Roberto Luongo in year two of his 12-year contract, Gillis can’t justify giving out a starter’s payday to his backup. The consensus in Vancouver is that Gillis will move Schneider to the highest bidder at the draft.

Here’s your best shot at your number one goalie now and  for the future, but the price is steep accordingly. As far as this deadline is concerned, Gillis will hold onto Schneider in case he needs him in the playoffs unless a trade offer comes along offering heaven and Earth – i.e., a move that fills a very specific need headed into the playoffs. According to Mooney, that’s a right handed defenceman to play alongside Alexander Edler in the Canucks’ top four, and even that’s not enough.

Said Mooney: “Burke could offer Luke Schenn straight up and Gillis would say no. Here’s the thing: Schneider would be great to have going into the playoffs, and I’m sure the Canucks and Gillis would prefer it. But he’s still going to be spending most of his time on the bench, and if someone offers the moon, they’ll make the deal. And the moon begins with a top-four d-man or a gritty top-9 winger.”

Verdict: Burke will give Reimer the chance to turn it around down the stretch before he’ll consider moving Schenn and a first – and that’s likely what it would take – to bring Schneider to Toronto. If the Leafs miss the playoffs and goaltending is still a major issue in April, this is an option I’d expect Burke to aggressively pursue at the draft. The price will be steep then, too, but Burke needs a long term solution in goal before his team is going anywhere. Burke said himself he builds from the net out, and if Reimer (or Gustavsson) don’t improve their play down the stretch, Burke will find himself in a position where he has break the bank and forfeit significant assets to bring in a number one goalie.

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Conclusions:

My guess is that Burke will wait and see how Reimer and Gustavsson (Reimer in particular) serve the Leafs in increasingly important games down the stretch before going hard after a number one goaltender in the summer if he has to. There doesn’t appear to be a viable option, at a price Burke’s willing to pay, that provides a sure upgrade on the Leafs’ current goaltending tandem, certainly not one that can come together in the next three days. Many have criticized Burke’s decision to place the Leafs’ playoff hopes in inexperienced hands, but we have to remember this latest 1-6-1 slump directly proceeded a 5-0-1 surge in which everything seemed just peachy; this team and its goalies are probably not as bad as they’ve looked the last seven games, the poor play has simply come at an inconvenient time as the deadline approaches and Leafs fans are left second guessing what we have and where we stand. That said, if the goaltending situation doesn’t turn itself around down the stretch, Burke will be facing the cold reality of having to sacrifice significant assets to secure stability in goal going forward.

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