With Sergei Bobrovsky up for the Vezina trophy and firmly entrenched as the Jackets' number one goaltender, the last thing you'd expect General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen to do is chase a goalie in free agency.
This is different, though. Antti Raanta just completed a phenomenal Finnish Elite League season, and word is he may be looking for a shot across the pond here in North America.
With Steve Mason off to Philadelphia, there is an opening in the Columbus organization between the pipes, as it seems like a forgone conclusion that Michael Leighton won't be re-upping with the Jackets. Curtis McElhinney is currently leading the Springfield Falcons into the second round of the AHL playoffs, but is an unrestricted free agent at season's end. The Jackets would be wise to bring AHL All-Star McElhinney back into the fold, and put him head-to-head with a free agent signing in training camp. One guy would get the backup job behind Bob, the other guy would be the starter in Springfield.
This is where Raanta comes in.
For the fans of NHL clubs that don't make the NHL playoffs, the World Hockey Championship is a decent consolation prize. It's a very good tournament, one that the European nations consider to be the pinnacle of the hockey season. This year's tournament is being co-hosted by Finland and Sweden, and Raanta is looking to lead the Finns to home-ice gold. He's started two of Finland's four games so far in the preliminary round, sporting a 1-1 record. The Finns had a tough outing yesterday against the Americans, losing 4-1 thanks to a Craig Smith hat trick. Raanta was in net for three goals, but his previous start was a shutout against Slovakia, where he stopped all 36 shots fired his way. It will be interested to track Raanta's progress as the tournament continues.
The Worlds are great and all, but it's not why I'm here to make my pitch to bring him to Columbus. His recently-completed FEL season was simply put, fantastic. The 23-year old led Assat to a league championship, after putting up ridiculous numbers in the regular season, and even more mind-boggling stats in the playoffs. For his efforts, he was awarded the Lasse Oksanen Trophy as the FEL's best regular season player, and followed that up with the Jari Kurri Trophy, given to the league's top playoff performer. Just check out these numbers:
|REGULAR SEASON||45 GP||21-10-11 RECORD||1.85 GAA||.943 SV%||5 SO|
|PLAYOFFS||16 GP||12-0-4 RECORD||1.33 GAA||.955 SV%||4 SO|
He led the league in goals-against average and save percentage, posted a combined 9 shutouts, and is representing his country at a major international tournament. Not a bad year's worth of work.
You can see in this article (Finnish, translated) that he's looking at making a move overseas. The article also mentions that there are multiple NHL teams interested in signing him, and he will evaluate his options after the Worlds have completed.
You have to think the Jackets are in on him. Kekalainen would have intimate knowledge of Raanta from his pre-Columbus duties as GM of Jokerit in the FEL. There is a wrinkle, however- Raanta has recently signed with HIFK for next season, but like all FEL contracts, there is an NHL out-clause built in to his deal.
Signing a European goaltender with no North American experience can be boom or bust. Look at two notable undrafted Finnish goaltender signings- Jussi Rynnas with Toronto and Antti Niemi with the Blackhawks. Rynnas has been pretty good since signing with Toronto in 2010, but has spent a vast majority of his time in the AHL with the Marlies, stuck behind Ben Scrivens until this year, when he split time with Drew MacIntyre. Niemi has had far more success. After spending his first North American season in the AHL, he made the big club the following year, eventually becoming the first Finnish goaltender to win the Stanley Cup. He eventually priced himself out of Chicago, where the Sharks swooped in and signed him to a one-year deal, and then a four-year extension a season later. This season Niemi is a Vezina Trophy finalist.
Rynnas' first deal with Toronto was a 2-year entry-level deal, at 900K per season. Niemi's first NHL contract was a one-year deal valued at 875K. If the Jackets are able to land Raanta, I would expect a similar deal. Perhaps one year at 925-950K, or slightly less with bonuses.
The goaltending is in good hands with Bob driving the bus, and with Oscar Dansk, Anton Forsberg and Joonas Korpisalo in the system. Adding Raanta to the mix either as Bob's backup, or as part of the tandem in Springfield would be a solid, low-risk move for the Jackets.
If the Jackets are successful in signing Raanta, here's hoping that he becomes the next Niemi, rather than the alternative.