It’s been better than a week now since free agency opened, and some things have become readily apparent. Among them: there were more goalies on the market than there were spots for goalies.
Jim Matheson’s article in the Journal today does a nice job looking at the few high-end players left on the free agent, and he gets a few nice quotes in on the predicament facing the man pictured above. First, Matheson’s take on the situation:
Goalies are under the biggest gun. There are only 30 NHL starters. Biron is faced with that sobering reality of doors slamming on him the longer he goes without a new deal. He may have to sign a greatly reduced contract off last year’s $3.5 million, and he might only get work as a backup.
Matheson also talked to player agent Steve Bartlett, who had this to say about the goaltending market:
“Biron’s a good goalie. I’m surprised he’s still there … but obviously there is a limit to the number of jobs for goalies. There’s six or seven goalies still looking for work (Manny Fernandez, Martin Gerber, Kevin Weekes, Brent Johnson, Marc Denis, Joey McDonald). Thank God I don’t have any goalies, and I can sleep well at night.”
The implications of the above paragraphs to the Oilers are obvious. There was mixed reaction when the Oilers signed 36-year old Nikolai Khabibulin to a four year contract for 3.75 MM per season – money that will remain marked against the Oilers’ salary cap for the next four years, even if Khabibulin were to retire next season. On the one hand, Khabibulin has won a Stanley Cup as a starter and is certainly a top-15 NHL goaltender when he’s on his game. On the other hand, his performance has been erratic since the NHL lockout – even prompting the Chicago Blackhawks to go out and sign Cristobal Huet last season.
Khabibulin isn’t clearly ahead of the 31-year old Biron either, even at this point. He’s posted a .909 SV% and .919 SV% over the past two seasons, while Biron has put up .918 SV% and .915 SV% in Philadelphia. In two, three, or four years, the picture is likely to be even muddier.
None of this is to say that Khabibulin won’t be a quality starter with the Oilers; he had a good season last year, and I’d guess he delivers decent goaltending for at least the first half of his contract. Compared to other goaltenders in his peer group, the dollar figure on Khabibulin’s contract isn’t even all that bad.
But given the market this summer, it would have been nice to see the Oilers try a little harder for a bargain, or at the very least not commit themselves to Khabibulin for so long a term – because if Khabibulin’s play drops off, the Oilers are going to be over a barrel. The Oilers certainly failed to take advantage of a (relatively rare) strong bargaining position – a position which has been evident for at least a month.