Earlier this afternoon, I wrote about Frederik Andersen’s workload over the past two seasons, and why it would be in the Leafs’ best interests to lessen it a bit. The reasoning and the target points? Well, you’ll have to read the article, but it largely comes down to him running out of gas down the stretch and targeting specific stretches that he struggles in with more games for whoever the backup is.
In an ideal world where playoff position isn’t causing people to sweat and the backup goaltender is capable, we’re talking about bringing Andersen to the starter’s league average of about 56 games and 3200 minutes, or shaving ten games off of him and getting the backup to play about 25.
With the Leafs holding the rights of four additional professional goaltenders, however, there’s the big question of who that backup goaltender should be. Here’s a (very early) look at each contender for the job, and where it makes most sense to place them
Before We Start
Since a lot of the conversation involving these netminders has involved talking about “selling __ high”, we need to stress one thing here: There is no such thing as selling a non-sure thing goaltender high in this game. Ironically, this might be something that teams learned from the Maple Leafs when they double whiffed on Andrew Raycroft and Vesa Toskala in the mid-2000s, but a look at the last few years shows very little of substance. Here’s a look at what goaltenders have gone for when used as the sole driver of their own value (aka, not in a package, and not in a ‘lets shake things up’ swap for another goaltender) since the pre-2015/16 offseason.
- First Round Pick or Higher: Frederik Andersen (1st+2nd), Martin Jones (1st+Sean Kuraly)
- Second Round Pick Or Higher: Cam Talbot (2nd+3rd), Brian Elliott (2nd+Conditional 3rd)
- Third Round Pick: Petr Mrazek (Conditional 3+4), Scott Darling
- Fourth Round Pick: Anders Nilsson, Al Montoya (Conditional), Ben Bishop (Rights)
- Fifth Round Pick or Below: Calvin Pickard (6th + Lindberg contract), Scott Wedgewood (5th), Dustin Tokarski (Future Considerations), Tom McCollum (Cond. 7th), Mike Condon (5th), Jonathan Bernier (Future Considerations), Antti Niemi (7th, Rights)
- Skater of Then-Value: Ben Scrivens (Zack Kassian), Antti Raanta (Ryan Haggerty), Niklas Backstrom (David Jones)
- Skater as Contract Swap: Jack Campbell, Reto Berra, Dustin Tokarski (again), Anders Nilsson (again), Anton Khudobin
The goaltender trade market is dead unless a team believes you to be a legitimate goaltender imediately, and you’ve got a track record to prove it. Otherwise, your value is typically a supplemental pick, even if you’re in “pretty good, has potential territory”.
So we’re not running under the assumption that the Leafs can trade a Garret Sparks in the same way they can trade a Connor Brown, a Curtis McElhinney in the same way they can trade a Ron Hainsey, or a Calvin Pickard in the same way they can trade a Connor Carrick. Pickard himself is a great example: Pickard is a young-ish option with NHL starter and backup experience and a great AHL track record, but it took waiver flexibility for Vegas to get a 6th round pick for him, and that’s even with them taking on a contract in return.
If “move on” is an option for those three, it would be shocking to see their value approach more than a mid-round draft pick, and it would be especially shocking if the difference in value between moving one or another is more than a mid-round or two. I don’t think it makes more sense to be more fussed about getting a 4th vs a 5th today than it does to worry about who stops pucks tomorrow or down the road, so we will not be considering short-term trade hauls in this equation.
The Case For: He’s a 24-year-old in the midst of one of the single best seasons in AHL history. There’s not really much other way to put it. The only goaltenders who have posted a higher single-season save percentage under a starter’s workload in league history are Matt Murray (became an NHL starter and Stanley Cup winner), Tim Thomas (became an NHL starter and Stanley Cup winner), Cam Ward (became an NHL starter and Stanley Cup winner), and Jason Labarbera (did not become those things, but was a very good backup and one wonders how he does in LA if he doesn’t get leapfrogged by Jonathans Quick and Bernier). Has matured physically and mentally since his last stint with the Leafs and appears to be, memes aside, in the best shape of his life. Led AHL starters in save percentage by 12 points (0.936 vs 0.924) this season, finishing 18 points ahead of his backup (Calvin Pickard, 0.918), and 31 ahead of league average (0.905).
The Case Against: The Leafs are in a win-now situation and likely don’t want to waste losses on acclimating a goaltender into the NHL. If they feel Sparks needs an adjustment curve, they may not feel like they have the time to get him there. While his last stint up top was blemished by a tank-worthy team and himself playing through injury, it was still a bit dreadful (6-9-1, 0.893, 3.02).
The Case For: Stick with what you know, right? McElhinney has, against everyone’s expectations, been a very solid backup for the Blue and White since being claimed off waivers (again with non-starting goaltenders and low value). Despite a career 0.904 save percentage going into 2016-17, McElhinney’s 17-12-1 record and 0.925 save percentage over the past two seasons with the Leafs have been more than welcome as a backup’s results, especially given the fact that he was significantly better this year than last. How do you say no to bringing that back?
The Case Against: Well, you consider doing so because you don’t know how much longer you’re going to have it. Firstly, you’re banking on the idea that the last 17% of his career is a better indication of what he is than the 83% prior to it, which is risky in its own regard. Perhaps it’s possible that he’s legitimately improved to become an elite backup goaltender, but with less than half a season’s worth of games as an available sample (and less than a third of a season’s worth of starts), it’s far from a guarantee. You’re also going up against the ageing curve: McElhinney turned 35 years old last week. Even if this is the real him, you’re looking at a one, maybe two-year solution as your backup, while all three of the other options can grow along Andersen’s contract and potentially even replace him as the starter afterwards if you think there is value to be had there.
The Case For: Pickard is your middle ground between Sparks and McElhinney. He’s got the relative youth of the former (a year and change older at 26), with the NHL experience of the latter (87 GP since 2014). His numbers as Sparks’ 1B with the Marlies this year were still among the best in the league (21-9-1, 0.918, 2.31). Has been very good as an NHL backup (13-13-4, 0.927, 2.46, 66% quality starts in 36 GP / 26 starts), and has withstood a year’s worth of starting minutes on a putrid Avalanche team (15-32-2, 0.904 SV%, 44% quality starts). Well-liked by teammates and coaches, and has an oft-spoken about personality that has helped him through the ups and downs of his pro career. Sparks in particular credits Pickard for helping him embrace the grind with a more positive tone, while also helping him improve his game.
The Case Against: While his AHL numbers were excellent this year, they’re still a far reach from Sparks’. While his NHL backup numbers in 14/15 and 15/16 were great, they’re about the same as what you already have in McElhinney. Pickard doesn’t really have a performance-driven silver bullet to get him up the chart – he is the safe play that would also throw everyone off as a rarely spoken of option. He’d also be the most expensive of the bunch: Sparks & Kaskisuo come in at $675,000 next year, McElhinney comes in at $850,000, while Pickard requires a qualifying offer of $1 million to retain his rights, which is both the highest of the pack and also comes with a cap penalty if he does end up getting sent back to the AHL eventually.
The Case For: To be honest, there’s not a serious case to be made for Kasimir Kaskisuo to be the Toronto Maple Leafs’ backup goaltender this year. I’m mostly including him for posterity purposes and because he signed a two-year extension earlier in the week. That isn’t a knock on him, it’s just the depth-driven reality of him being #4 in a philosophical debate between Options 1A, 1B, and 1C.
Let’s say some nice things about him, though: He’s definitely going to be back with the Marlies this year. Kaskisuo was originally supposed to be Sparks’ backup this season, earning the second look through getting tossed into the fire during the 2016/17 Calder Cup Playoffs, but the acquisition of Pickard made him an odd man out. With the Orlando Solar Bears already having a few good goaltenders and the organization wanting Kaskisuo to face some higher quality pucks, the Leafs loaned him to the Chicago Wolves: the exact team that Pickard would’ve headed to if no team acquired him.
Among under-25 goaltenders who played at least 25 games this year, Kaskisuo finished tenth in save percentage, trailing Sparks, Jordan Binnington, Thatcher Demko, Ville Husso, Linus Ullmark, Antoine Bibeau, Eric Comrie, Jon Gillies, and Adin Hill with a 0.914. While not a world-beating result, it’s still a very respectable one, and a marked improvement from the 0.899 he put up with the Solar Bears in 2016/17. Having him back in Blue and White seems to be a preferable outcome, even if it’s not that blue and white.
The Case Against: He has less NHL experience than all three of the other goaltenders (none), has less AHL experience than the other three goaltenders, and less impressive numbers than the other three goaltenders. He is the youngest, but not by a considerable margin (only three months younger than Sparks). Again, he’s not an option, but I felt like it was worth highlighting him.
The Calls I’d Make
With all of the above in mind, what’s the call? Let’s take this one netminder at a time:
- Sparks: He’s your backup next year. The ability to stop pucks has been there for longer than most have given credit for (in 2015/16, he was hovering at around a 0.915 clip before injuring his groin, an ailment he didn’t fully recover from that year), but is now being screamed from the heavens. More importantly, he seems to be more mentally prepared for NHL minutes than he’s ever been; his attitude towards the game is refreshed and there haven’t been any micro-dramas for the team to tackle this year. His conditioning seems to be up to the point where I’d trust him with a 20-30 game workload in the NHL next year and go from there.
- McElhinney: While McElhinney’s age works against him in terms of value, it’s not a big swing and it does help with giving the team some flexibility. Unlike Sparks, who would 100% get claimed on waivers if sent down (making his decision a play or trade), McElhinney has a shot at squeaking through in October, so long as there aren’t a bevy of teams still needing patchwork backups due to injury or lack of progress from their prospects. You could move McElhinney now if a team really, really loves him, but I’d also feel comfortable with him splitting time down at Ricoh next year.
- Pickard: You hate to lose a guy like Pickard, but I can’t see a scenario where he sticks around. He’s too much of an in-between compared to Sparks and McElhinney and that qualifying offer is pretty rich for what you’d want him to deliver. I think the best option here is to do everything you can help Pickard find the best opportunity for him – ideally, find a team that wants him an NHLer, that he’d like to go to, and move his rights to them on the very cheap so he can get his QO as a short-term payday, instead of having to take a $700-800,000 prove-it-or-lose-it, two-way deal. If for whatever reason he’s without a contract in the fall and you’ve already moved McElhinney somewhere, he’d be an awesome person to still have with the Marlies, but he deserves more than that. (August Unlock update: Pickard signed a 1-year extension with the Leafs in June for less than his qualifying offer. I’d imagine they’ll place him on waivers in September/early October and see what happens. If they lose him, they’ve got fall backs, if they keep him, they have one of the best AHL tandem goalies around, on and off the ice)
- Kaskisuo: The easiest one. He’ll be a Marlie. He’ll likely battle with one of the above three for the 1A spot and might have to settle for the 1B. It’ll be interesting to see what this staff can do with him now that they’ll finally have a full year to help him work on his game.
- August Update: The Leafs recieved Eamon McAdam in a trade with the New York Islanders. I do not expect him to compete for an NHL or AHL spot, and he will likely either be loaned or play with the Newfoundland Growlers in 2018/19.
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