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Photo Credit: © Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Jaroslav Halak deserves another chance as an NHL free agent

When the NHL’s free agency period opens today, several big-name goalies will enter the market looking for their next job. Jack Campbell, Darcy Kuemper and Ilya Samsonov highlight the class of netminders preparing to cash in.

One goalie returning to the free agent market is Jaroslav Halak, who might not be fielding the number of offers he’d like after a rough season in Vancouver. Halak’s 2021-22 campaign was marred by inconsistency, injuries, and constant pressure created by performance bonuses.

But if we look beyond the statline, Halak’s skill is still present and in the right situation, he could be a more than reliable piece for a new team.

When Halak joined the Canucks on a one-year deal last summer, Vancouver was looking for stability in the backup spot behind Thatcher Demko. Then-GM Jim Benning had been forced to pull the plug on the Braden Holtby experiment after a single year, and Halak was meant to be a bonafide 1B option after three successful years behind Tuukka Rask in Boston.

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But in a decision both Benning and Halak would likely come to regret, the 36-year-old’s contract was structured around performance bonuses; $1.25 million if Halak played in at least 10 games, plus an extra $250 thousand if he finished with a .905 save percentage. While the deal left Vancouver with extra salary cap wiggle room, it also came with the obvious caveat of a cap penalty in 2022-23 if Halak hit his targets.

In other words, the Canucks were incentivized to play Halak as little as possible. And it cost everybody dearly.

Today’s NHL is a landscape dominated by the goalie tandem, where two netminders are equally capable of leading a team to consistent winning. But with cap implications on the line, Vancouver chose to ride Demko for 65 games, leaving Halak with very few games to work with.

What made the Slovakian veteran so successful in previous stops like Boston, Long Island and St. Louis was the consistency of his starts, routinely playing 20+ games a season and often posting better numbers the more he played. His 17 games played as a Canuck was his smallest workload since playing 16 for the Blues in the lockout-shortened 2013 season.

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While a COVID outbreak in January certainly played a factor, Halak’s lack of regular minutes was also clearly influenced by the Canucks’ hope to avoid running into salary overages. It took until February 9th for Halak to make his tenth appearance of the year; once the threshold had been passed, Halak played seven more over two months.

The cap implications also made it difficult for Canucks fans to want him playing. Whenever Travis Green and later Bruce Boudreau tapped Halak on the shoulder, social media would light up with people counting down the number of games left before Vancouver got dinged with a $1.25 million penalty.

The lack of regular starts made it near impossible for Halak to adjust to playing behind his new team, and vice versa. What worked for a team with a budding star like Demko in goal didn’t always work with the veteran Halak starting, particularly when it came to run support.

Halak’s first two games ended in 2-1 losses and played out similarly. Halak allowed a pair of early goals as he shook out some rust, and his teammates would provide minimal offence despite two strong periods of play from their goalie after settling in. It would take seven games for Halak to record his first win, a 4-3 win in December against the Blue Jackets.

Halak’s eventual record of 4-7-2 was the result of long stretches between starts and ten games where the Canucks scored two goals or less in front of him. With no adjustment time, his Vancouver teammates played a much more hesitant game in front of him, leaving Halak less room for error than Demko. As he understandably struggled, his head coach would start him even less frequently, and the cycle continued.

Take away his three worst performances, which came during his only starts over 19 days in February, and Halak would’ve finished the year with a .928 save percentage. Only two goalies in the NHL with more than 10 games played finished above a .928: the Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin and the Islanders’ Ilya Sorokin.

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Lots of teams will be looking for a stable veteran to play a 1B role next year, and even at 37 years of age Halak can be that guy. While his time in Vancouver is all but finished, any number of teams should be looking in his direction as the UFA goalie market begins to solidify itself. If an inquiring team is willing to give Halak around 25-30 starts and can commit to providing him with better support, both offensively and defensively, they could end up signing one of the best bargain goalies in the league.

Give Jaroslav Halak a real chance — one he never got in Vancouver — and he’ll reward you.

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