The Vancouver Canucks traded goaltender Cory Schneider to the New Jersey Devils at the NHL Draft on Sunday. This was a major move for the franchise, solving what had been a dynamic three-year dilemma between the pipes as Schneider battled with Roberto Luongo for the starting position.
With Schneider gone and Luongo hopefully on board with remaining with the team (not that he has many sane ways around it), the Canucks now face the much smaller issue of finding a back-up goaltender for Luongo.
What a Back-Up Needs to Do
From 2010-11 to 2012-13, Schneider appeared in 88 games for the Canucks, totalling 4,938 minutes played. He played very well in those minutes (that’s what caused the entire controversy to begin with), but the new back-up goaltender doesn’t need to be anywhere near as good as Schneider’s .927 career save percentage.
One reason is that the back-up will be expected to play much less than Schneider did. Luongo has shown an ability to handle an obscene workload in the past and, while he’s now 34 and not as young as in his Florida Panthers days, it seems reasonable to expect him to handle a full starter’s duties. After all, even as recently as 2009-10 he played in 68 games for 3,899 minutes.
In 2011-12 (the last full NHL season, since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season likely altered the starter-reserve goalie paradigm), the median starting goaltender played 3,400 minutes and starters (the top minute-getter on a team) ranged fromroughly 2,300 to 4,250. If the Canucks assume even a pessimistic 3,400 minutes for Luongo (he averaged 3,777 from 2001-02 to 2011-12), the Canucks’ back-up only needs to hold his own for 1,520 minutes.
It is probably more realistic to pencil Luongo in for a heavier workload, perhaps 3,750 minutes, given his contract, his previous workload and coach John Tortorella’s penchant for playing his top goalie big minutes (Henrik Lundqvist averaged 4,089 minutes per season from 2006-07 to 2011-12).
So the Canucks need a back-up capable of filling in for about 1,200 minutes.
What to Expect from a Back-Up
It’s going to be a bit of an adjustment for Canucks fans to have a back-up goalie who isn’t a starter-quality netminder like Schneider was (or as Luongo was, depending on how you want to frame it). While Luongo and Schneider are both very good, expecting the goaltending duo to be as strong next year would be unfair.
|2010-11 to 2012-13|
|*Weighted by time, not shots|
Thanks to Luongo’s strong performance, pairing him with an average back-up would still give the Canucks an above-average goaltending situation overall (I guess now is a good time to note that these are full save percentages, not even strength – a team’s penalty kill and variance can play a part in overall save percentage, but these numbers still give you an idea of what the Canucks are looking at.) But the expected .913 is still lower than the .925 the team put up the past three years and would make for a difference of roughly 29 goals for the season. That’s a significant margin for the team to make up on the offensive end or with stronger defensive play.
And this is also assuming the Canucks manage to find an average back-up, not just a replacement level fill-in who might be even worse.
How Much Can They Spend?
The Canucks are in a tight salary cap situation, one that makes a Keith Ballard buy-out almost a certainty, as Thomas Drance outlined on Monday. Vancouver has basically no cap space at present and may struggle to fill a 23-man roster without waiving Ballard. The situation is such that having a back-up goalie that makes anything more than the league minimum is a luxury that the team likely can’t afford.
Last year, the 31st highest paid goalie (theoretically the top back up, though this isn’t actually the case) made $1.7M, while the median back-up (45th highest paid) made $1.2M. 50 goalies made seven figures, so a minimum-salaried goalie is a rare thing, probably because it’s so risky and because goalies develop later, making it difficult to play them on an entry level deal.
The Canucks have a few in-house options to fill the position. The most likely scenario is that Eddie Lack and Joacim Eriksson battle in training camp for the role, as both could be pencilled in on the active roster at less than $1M.
Lack is a 6’ 5” 25-year old Swede who has been in the AHL for three years now. He posted strong save percentages in 2010-11 and 2011-12 (.926 and .925, respectively) but struggled over 13 games last year (.899). There’s hope that his 2010-12 AHL numbers suggest a capable NHL back-up, and the Canucks gave him an odd two-year deal last season that made this year’s portion a one-way contract at $850,000. That’s certainly a vote of confidence, or was at the time.
Eriksson, meanwhile, was just signed out of Sweden in June and was touted as the best European goalie available. At age 23, he posted a .932 save percentage in 30 SEL games, following up a .932 season. Those numbers speak to his obvious potential. But he’s on a two-way contract, which puts him at a slight disadvantage – it would save the team money to have him in the AHL and his NHL salary is higher than Lack’s at $925,000. If that difference seems small, it is in real dollars, but it’s potentially roster-altering given how close Vancouver is expected to be to the cap. The Canucks may also want him to work in the confines of the AHL for a season to get acclimated.
Who’s On the Market?
Signing a free agent goaltender is almost definitely not going to happen. The Canucks have far more pressing needs and little discretionary money to throw around. Luongo can handle a full work load and they have a pair of exciting goaltending prospects who, between the two of them, could be able to fill the back-up role.
With that said, here are the available names, via CapGeek. I’m not sure you could ever get me to agree, but if you can make a case for spending $1M and change on one of these names instead of giving one of the younger kids a shot, go ahead in the comments.
What’s the Call?
As was mentioned, Lack has a one-way contract this year at a slightly smaller cap hit than Eriksson. This likely gives him the inside track on the back-up position. With Luongo’s ability to handle a large workload in the past, the team may feel comfortable assuming he’ll still be able to do so at age 34. Mike Gillis may choose to be risk-averse and find a veteran back-up in the event Luongo wears down, but spending money there takes money away from another position. It also would have made sense for the Canucks to ask for Johan Hedberg back in the Schneider trade if they wanted a reasonably priced veteran back-up.
Lack’s AHL numbers are very close to those of Ben Scrivens in 2010-11 and 2011-12, and Scrivens emerged as a capable back-up for the Leafs last year (.915 in 20 games, .902 in 12 games in 2011-12), enough so that the Kings are comfortable with him backing up Jonathan Quick. If Lack could provide that same .910-range in his 20 or so games, the Canucks would tap-dance. Ben Bishop is another goalie who had similar, albeit marginally better, AHL numbers in 2011-12 and 2012-13 and performed capably as a back-up at times. Braden Holtby is another comparable based on AHL save percentage.
That’s not to say Lack can be any of those guys. He struggled last year and lost almost a full season of development time due to injury. But the Canucks don’t need another Cory Schneider, they just need a cheap and semi-reliable back-up. Lack could be that at an affordable price, making him the early favourite for the role.