One of the comments that struck a chord for me in GM Scott Howson's trade deadline press conference was that he'd worked to get Michael Chaput from the Philidelphia Flyers because he wanted to help build depth at center for the organization - something that has been severely lacking in the franchise's history.
It's the same pattern Howson used to restock the blue line prospects, and I believe that this coming summer, his next priority must be to address the goaltending pipeline, both to add additional prospect depth and to reinforce at the pro levels.
While Steve Mason is signed through 2014, the remaining goaltenders in the system, with one exception, are either unrestricted free agents or players who unlikely to start their pro careers next season.
Here's a look at the current stable, and some ideas about what Howson might do...
For my purposes, a "Pro" is a goaltender eligible to play in NHL or AHL level hockey. That means they must have at least an entry level or two way contract from the Jackets, and must be over the age of 20 if they've played in Canadian Juniors.
Here are the players currently under contract, all of whom are UFAs at the end of the season:
Mathieu Garon - A veteran with 10 years of NHL experience, Garon has played in Montreal, LA, Edmonton, and Pittsburgh before settling in Columbus for the past two seasons. Asked to provide a steady hand, at times he's been exceptional in net for the Jackets, but in 64 games played during that time, he's only provided 21 wins. (21-19-10, 5 shutouts, .905 SV%, 2.68 GAA) Some of the blame can certainly be played on the team in front of him, particularly last season, but his inconsistencies are a big reason why he's spent most of his career as a backup and not a full time starter. His return is currently an open question.
David LeNeveu - A former NCAA star, LeNeveau was signed by Scott Howson this summer to help provide goaltending depth in Springfield, and took over the starting job there after Gustaf Wesslau suffered a knee injury prior to the start of the season. In 35 games with the Falcons this season, he's posted a 16-15-2 record, with a .898 save percentage and 2.89 GAA. Though he did see some action in the pre-season with the Jackets, and seemed to handle it well, he hasn't seen "real" NHL time since 2007.
Gustaf Wesslau - An all star goalie with Djurgardens IF of the Swedish Elite Leauge, Wesslau was signed from Europe and had been expected to take the starter's role in Springfield, and perhaps even get a chance to see some NHL action depending on how he performed in training camp. A pre-season knee injury changed those plans, and Wesslau finally made it to Springfield in early November, where he has started 26 games and recorded 12 wins, 13 losses, and one shootout loss. His stats are similar to LeNeveau (3.07 GAA, .902 Save %), but he's had a fairly solid season for his first experience with North American style hockey.
Players who have yet to start their pro career and would need signed to entry level deals.
Allen York - A junior with the RPI Engineers, York was a 6th round pick of the Jackets who has held the starting job at RPI since his midway through his Freshman year, and shown improvement each season. So far this season he has started all of RPI's games and delivered a an outstanding performance, with 18 wins, 8 losses, and 3 ties in 32 games, a .926 save percentage, and a 2.09 GAA.
The big wildcard with York is if he wants to return to RPI for his senior season or not. The Engineers have been middling in the ECAC, but York's peformance has been excellent - I wouldn't be shocked if Scott Howson encouraged him to start his pro career, but the appeal of finishing a degree and enjoying one more year in the NCAA can be strong for many players.
Martin Ouellette - A 7th round pick in last year's draft, Ouellette has started 9 games at the University of Maine this season, posting 3 wins, 3 losses, and two ties. With a 3.18 GAA and .862 save percentage, it's fair to say that he needs more time to develop, and it would be unlikely for him to leave Maine before the 2012-2013 season at this point.
Mathieu Corbeil-Theriault - Columbus' 4th round pick last year, Corbeil started the year with the Halifax Mooseheads, where he was hampered by a poor team in front of him, collecting only 7 wins in 25 starts. Since being traded to the Saint John Sea Dogs, he's posted 9 wins in 11 games, and his stats jumped to a 2.33 GAA and .898 save percentage - a solid improvement from the 3.83 GAA and .883 SV he posted in his first full season as a starter in the Q.
Corbeil shows a lot of promise, and the Sea Dogs have a good shot at playing in the Memorial Cup this summer, but he won't be eligible for the AHL for another year (he's a late September birthday), so next year it's most likely that he'll return to Juniors unless he has an exceptional training camp.
The cupboard isn't exactly bare, but it clearly needs filled. I would be very surprised if both LeNeveau and Wesslau are both re-signed, particularly if York is ready to start his pro career, but that still leaves the question of a backup at the NHL level, and the team needs to look at providing a few more prospects in goal if they want to keep a good pipeline of talent flowing.
The ideal backup goaltender would be someone with pro experience and playoff games under his belt, would have the skill and talent to keep pushing Steve Mason, and be able to come in and give solid performances when needed.
While the free agent market for starting goaltenders is likely to be slim (Nabokov, Roloson, Vokoun, and perhaps Marty Turco), there are a number of players I would consider reasonable targets for a backup role who will be unrestricted this summer.
- Johan Hedberg - Though he's one of the older UFA goaltenders to come on the market, Hedberg seems to have found the fountain of youth in New Jersey, where he took over for the injured Marty Brodeur and has posted a 2.34 GAA and .913 SV. He may be leaning towards staying in Jersey (or even retirement), but if he hits the market he's at least worth kicking the tires on.
- Alex Auld - Though he's had an inconsistent pro career, Auld seems to have finally found his stride playing behind Carey Price in Montreal, where he has a 2.61 GAA and .915 SV%.
- Brian Boucher - A (brief) former Jacket, Boucher was a big reason Philly made it to the Stanley Cup Finals last year, and could be an option if the Flyers decide to stick with Sergei Bobrovsky.
- Ray Emery - Though he's had his problems in the past, Emery seems to have conquered both his personal demons and his medical issues, coming back from major surgery and playing for the Syracuse Crunch. Even in his "Bad" years, Emery has shown impressive skill at the NHL level, and if he's willing to accept the backup role, I think it's likely that he could push Steve Mason to excel.
- Ty Conklin - Conks has struggled this year in St. Louis, but if that's an exception rather than a rule, he's a goaltender with plenty of playoff experience who has proven he can step in and fill the starting void at times of need, and brings a great deal of experience with the Central Division.
As to the future, picking goalie prospects is a difficult business at best, but here are some names to keep in mind:
- John Gibson - Currently playing for the US National Development Team Program, he's the top ranked North American goaltender.
- Chistopher Gibson - The top Canadian goalie on the list, he's playing for Chicoutimi of the QMJHL.
- Samu Perhonen - The top European goalie, Perhonen is a Finnish player with the JYP Junior club team.
- Stefan Steen - A Swedish prospect, he plays with Skelleftea in the Swedish Junior League.
- Matej Machovsky - Czech by birth, he's currently playing for the Brampton Battalion of the OHL.
It's entirely possible that Howson will render all of this moot, or surprise us with a totally out of left field move, or simply make the decision to sign his UFAs and take his chances, but the potential for serious change is there, and I think we're likely to see a restocking of the pipeline at the very least.