Hope of solving the Blue Jackets' goaltending issues in free agency took a potentially fatal blow when goaltender Josh Harding, perhaps the best potential UFA, signed a new three year deal today.
The contract is expected to carry him into the starting position once current Wild netminder Niklas Backstrom's deal expires next season, and sets up a strong competition in training camp for the job this season.
Which is great if you're a Wild fan, but not so good if you're a club that's looking for a new #1 goaltender.
Lori Schmidt pointed out TSN's sortable free agent tracker, which shows available names like Dan Ellis, Andrew Raycroft, and Alex Auld as some of the "best" remaining UFAs - not exactly a recipe for confidence.
It seems more and more likely that if the Jackets are going to fix the problems in net, it's going to have to come via trade. Roberto Luongo has already been discussed, and there's been a lot of talk about Sergei Bobrovsky possibly being available in Philadelphia.
I reached out to Justin Goldman, the mind behind must-follow twitter account / goaltending resource website "The Goalie Guild" about "Bob", and his answers make me think that he may not be the best soluition, either:
Bobrovsky is a good young talent, but he's not the answer for the Blue Jackets. I am worried that he may have been rushed by the Flyers. He came straight over from playing in Russia and never got a lick of development time in the AHL. He certainly earned his spot on the Flyers in camp, and they had reason to give him an NHL sweater, but pushing him straight into the NHL is a hefty risk.
Despite the successful rookie season he had, once they signed Bryzgalov, they hindered their prior engagement to fully developing Bobrovsky. They signed him to a pretty expensive three-year entry-level contract, but obviously the Bryzgalov factor really changes things. This season was very tough for Bobrovsky because as he hardly played, and despite some good games halfway through the season, he never got into much of a rhythm, especially after the Winter Classic.
In my opinion, Bobrovsky needs a really heavy workload in the AHL next season. He's not ready to take on the role of a full-blown NHL starter, especially on a team like Columbus that really needs steady and experienced goaltending. It's a really tough transition from Russia to NHL, especially when the goalie is smaller, and not given ample time to play and get comfortable on the smaller ice surface. Bob thrives because of his excellent footwork, but that doesn't mean he's ready for a bigger role.
Perhaps Howson can get creative and look at someone like Anton Khudobin or try to make a move on Jhonas Enroth, but I think it's fair to say that most fans (to say nothing of the team) would feel more comfortable with a player who brings proven starting experience.
The more the market shrinks, the greater chances become of being "stuck" with Steve Mason. While the young goaltender did improve with a stronger defense and Todd Richards getting the most out of his roster, that seems like a result that Blue Jackets fans would be livid over, and one that might be the nail in Scott Howson's coffin.