So Who's in Net? The Isles' Goalie Dilemma

3.22…three point two two.

If you follow the team, you probably have a good idea what the figure represents. For the rest of you, we’ll eliminate the guess work. It is the Islanders’ goals against average (“GAA”) this season and would be the organization’s worst mark since the 2008/09 season when the “rebuild” began and would be the fifth time in six seasons the Islanders have finished among the bottom five league-wide in GAA.

Why you ask? Joey MacDonald, Yann Danis, Peter Mannino, Nathan Lawson, Al Montoya, Dwayne Roloson, Marty Biron, Mikko Koskinen, Kevin Poulin, Anders Nilsson, Evgeni Nabakov, and of course, Rick DiPietro. The dozen has provided the Islanders with arguably the worst goaltending in the NHL the last six years, an outright travesty considering the amount of draft picks the team has accumulated and how far under the cap they have sat the entire time.

So while the team has a litany of issues that need to be fixed going forward—coach, secondary scoring, dependable defensemen—the team has no shot of going anywhere in the future if that 3.22 number isn’t chopped down by at least half a goal per game and it all starts in net.

Last summer when it was clear that an upgrade was necessary to take this team to the next level, general manager Garth Snow sat on the sidelines as potential upgrades went flying off the board…Cory Schneider to New Jersey…Jonathan Bernier to Toronto…Anton Khudobin to Carolina. Never known as a big-time playoff performer, Nabakov sported a .842 save % and 4.44 GAA in the Islanders’ opening round playoff loss to Pittsburgh. This performance was apparently strong enough to convince Islander management that Nabakov was the answer for this year in net as he was quickly resigned once the free agency period started.

Fortunately for the Islanders and Garth Snow, this summer presents another opportunity to rectify the situation and finally give some stability to the most important position on the team. Hopefully the team learned its lesson from last year and actively seeks to upgrade between the pipes.

Below is a collection of names that will either be free agents or that could be in play via the trade market. One item to note is that with many of these names, there is a reason why they are available. That is not to say they are bad or wouldn’t represent an upgrade over the current three-headed monster the Islanders have used this year (for a laugh, check out the league’s goalie leaders and scroll to the bottom of the list). But with most goaltenders not named “Lundvist”, “Rask”, or “Quick”, the majority of the names on the list below have questions.

So without further ado, please introduce yourself to the newest Islander goalie:

1) Ryan Miller (2013/14 stats: 25-25-4, 2.54 GAA, .923 save %): the “surest” thing on this list. The longtime Buffalo Sabre and current St. Louis Blue is in the last year of a deal that pays him $6,250,000. Despite getting quality goaltending from a couple of other guys on this list below early in the season, St. Louis paid a steep price to acquire Miller before the trade deadline and has the Blues in a heated battle for the Presidents’ Trophy. He’ll be the #1 goalie on the market this summer and will surely get plenty of offers for his services. No doubt the Blues would love to retain him and offer him the big contract he’ll desire. His biggest negative is his age as he’ll be 34 by the time next season starts and there could be questions about how he’ll hold up over the life of a new contract. Regardless, if the Islanders were to sign him he’d immediately be the best goalie the team’s had since the Cup years with Billy Smith. There were also rumors that Miller had a no-trade clause and wouldn’t waive it to come to the Islanders earlier in the season. That could still be an issue, but plunk down a contract of 7 years, $56million in front of his face and he may be telling all of us how he couldn’t wait to be an Islander and it fulfills a lifelong dream.  (Photo credit: mikelynaugh/flickr).

2) Brian Elliott (2013/14 stats: 17-5-2, 1.97 GAA, .921 save %): Miller’s backup in St. Louis has given the Blues quality netminding every time he takes the ice. He was inconsistent early in his career with Ottawa but has really found a home for himself in St. Louis. Elliott probably feels as though he’s earned a shot to be a number 1 somewhere in the league and the Islanders could offer him an opportunity to be a “1A” type starter. His best season came in 2011/12 where he posted a save percentage of .940 and GAA of 1.56 (1.56!) to go along with 9 shutouts. He’s earned a hefty raise from his current $1,900,000 salary and wouldn’t be shocked if the Islanders were the team to give him the money he’s seeking. He’ll only be 29 when the season starts in October, so this could be a great opportunity to lock in a goalie at a reasonable contract through his prime. An annual salary of $3,500,000-$4,000,000 should be enough to acquire Elliott’s services.

3) Jonas Hiller (2013/14 stats: 29-11-7, 2.41 GAA, .913 save %): the current Anaheim Duck is slated to be a free agent this summer and is currently earning $4,500,000. He’s helped the Ducks to the top of the Pacific Division although there has been some question about whether he’s more of a beneficiary of a loaded Ducks’ squad than some of his other counterparts on this list. His save percentage puts him 25th in the league for qualified goalies. He’ll likely command a salary in excess of $5,000,000 annually over a 5 year deal. Would he be the answer behind an inexperienced defense like the Islanders? It’s tough to say at this point. There is also the real possibility that a deep playoff run by the Ducks would sway them to do whatever it can to retain Hiller, which leads us to…(Photo Credit: llodogoalies/flickr).

4) Frederick Anderson (2013/14 stats: 19-5-0, 2.27 GAA, .925 save %): the talented Anaheim rookie has fared well his first season in the NHL. He signed a two-year extension earlier this season which pays him $1,150,000 a year through the 2015/16 season. The Islander may have the draft picks or prospects to entice Anaheim to part ways with Anderson. Normally a team wouldn’t be in a rush to move a young goalie like Anderson, but Anaheim pops out goalies like Pitbull does radio hits, and have uber-prospect John Gibson waiting down below for his shot with the big club. If the Ducks aren’t comfortable turning the goalie reigns over to a young tandem like Anderson and Gibson and prefer to have a veteran like Hiller back in the fold, the Islanders, trying to build a young core, are a logical suitor for Anderson. It also doesn’t hurt that Snow and Ducks general manager Bob Murray have dealt with each other in the past.

5) James Reimer (2013/14 stats: 11-13-1, 3.39 GAA, .908 save %): Reimer has recently become the apple in many Islander fans’ eyes as comments from his agent and coach Randy Carlyle have led many to speculate that Reimer is all but a goner come the summer. Reimer will be a restricted free agent this summer after making $1,800,000 with Toronto this year. Based on how the season has gone, the asking price for his services should not be much more than a mid-round draft pick. Reimer started the season hot but has struggled mightily recently in a difficult situation. Reimer could just need a fresh start and as a 26-year old, should continue to improve his game. He has never started more than 35 games in a season so any acquisition of Reimer would almost assuredly be with the idea of using a “1A/1B” goalie tandem.

6) Jaroslav Halak (2013/14 stats: 28-12-7, 2.30 GAA, .918 save %): the former Canadien, Blue, Sabre for a minute, and current Capitals goalie this season will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. He’s currently making $3,750,000 in salary, so expect him to command north of $4,500,000 this summer. Halak has been injury prone throughout his career, never appearing in more than 57 games in a season. However, he has had playoff success and, albeit in a small sample size, has a better save percentage as a Capital than he did with the defense-first Blues. He would make one-half of a solid tandem but it’d be unwise to think he’ll give you 60+ games a year throughout the duration of a long-term contract. (Photo credit: bridgetds/flickr). 

7) Cam Ward (2013/14 stats: 9-11-6, 3.11 GAA, .896 save %): want to rile up an Islander fan? Tell them you’d like to see the team acquire Ward this summer. Assuming they don’t blow a gasket first, they actually have some good points…he’s been injury prone these last two seasons (only started 42 games)…his numbers have been awful this season…makes a ton of money. All valid points and tough to dispute. But, after signing Anton Khudobin to an extension earlier this year, rumors are that Carolina will shop Ward this summer. He has a cap hit of $6,300,000 through the 2015/16 season (and he’ll pull in a combined $13,500,000 over this period). If the Islanders think that all he needs is a change of scenery and a little bit of health luck, he could make some sense. It may require Carolina to retain a portion of his salary, or, better yet, for Carolina to take on Josh Bailey’s contract in return (the difference in actual dollars remaining on the contracts is negligible). It’d be a risky proposition for the Islanders to trade for him, but it they think he can be saved, it may be worth a shot.

8) Ray Emery (2013/14 stats: 8-10-2, 2.81 GAA, .906 save %): let’s just save some time here—if Ray Emery plays a prominent role in the Islanders goaltending plans next season, start planning the draft party now.

9) Craig Anderson/Robin Lehner (2013/14 stats: 23-15-8, 3.02 GAA, .910 save % / 9-15-6, 3.22 GAA, .909 save %): both Ottawa goalies are here because after the Senators’ disappointing season, it wouldn’t be a shock to see them move one of them. The team had high hopes for this season but could never seem to get on a roll and need a miracle to reach the postseason. Anderson has one year left on his contract which pays him $3,187,500 and would presumably be more obtainable via trade if Ottawa were to go in a different direction. Lehner was seen as the future of the franchise in net and it’s tough to imagine the Senators giving up on him so soon. But, it’s worth the time to pick up the phone and ask.

10) Thomas Greiss (2013/14 stats: 9-7-0, 2.31 GAA, .923 save %): the 28-year old has held his own since Mike Smith went down and has kept Phoenix in the playoff hunt.  He is an unrestricted free agent this summer and has proved a capable backup in limited playing time.  He may be this year’s “Khudobin”—a backup who excels in a more expanded role but still not enough to comfortably go into the season as a bona fide number 1.  He is making only $750,000 this season so he may be the value signing the Islanders have looked to sign in recent years.

11) Marc-Andre Fleury (2013/14 stats: 36-18-4, 2.36 GAA, .916 save %): umm, what? Admittedly, this one is purely hypothetical. But let’s examine. He has one year left on his contract which he’ll make $5,750,000 ($5,000,000 cap hit). It’s no secret that Fleury has been a train wreck the past few playoff seasons. Since he won the Cup in 2008/09, Fleury hasn’t posted a save percentage above .900 in the playoffs. The last 2 postseasons have been especially brutal, leading to him being pulled in favor of Tomas Vokoun against the Islanders and never being able to regain his number 1 status. If Fleury spectacularly bombs again in the playoffs this year, would Pittsburgh look to move him or buy out the last year of his deal and try to bring in another option in net? It’s a difficult question with lots of “ifs” but if he’s on the market, Snow should look to see what it would take to bring him in here. He very well just may need to get out of Pittsburgh to clear his head and moving to a younger team with less expectations just may be the thing that helps him regain his previous form.

(Note that all stats are through 4/2/14 games and all cap figures are from capgeek.com)

Of course the list above fails to mention the current crop of Islander goalies as options. It would come as no surprise if Nabakov is back with the team next year in some capacity. While he has played better lately, it’s difficult to rely on him for a long stretch if the number 1 goes down. For that reason the team would be better off to move on from him after the season. Great guy. Makes a great duo with Stan Fischler. Did an admirable job in net with a young team. But the team needs to take the next step and can’t with Nabakov between the pipes.

As for Kevin Poulin or Anders Nilsson? Not a chance if the goal next season is to win games…

What is my preference? I’d like to see a tandem of Elliott and Anderson or Halak and Anderson in net. It gives the Islanders the steadying presence of a solid veteran coupled with a promising young goalie. It may require parting with a young asset or two, but if a guy like Anderson can stabilize the net for the next 7-10 years, then the price would be well worth it. To be honest, just about any name on that list above would represent an upgrade and would finally bring peace of mind to the most important position on the ice.  The team has not been able to develop a goalie through drafting and has only been able to sign goalies at the end of their careers.  It’s time for a change.

So Islander fans: how about you? Who would you like to see between the pipes for them next season?

Follow me on Twitter @mikepac23 and be sure to follow @TCLIsles on Twitter for Islander news and notes.