Is there a veteran NHL free agent the Oilers should pursue in net?

Aside from Devan Dubnyk, there is a lot of uncertainty at the goaltending position in Edmonton. With the number two and three slots in the organization both currently held by unrestricted free agents who aren’t expected to return, it’s no surprise general manager Craig MacTavish is saying things like “It’s an area of poor depth for our organization” and “We have to shore up our goaltending for sure.”

Is there a veteran NHL free agent who might fit the bill?

The Options

The chart above shows a selection of possibilities, as well as Devan Dubnyk and Nikolai Khabibulin for the sake of reference. The numbers here are each player’s even-strength save percentage over the last three seasons – the black line showing both the highest and lowest numbers over a full season, and the triangle indicating the average save percentage (the triangle doesn’t fall in the exact middle because in some seasons the goaltender faced more shots than others).

League-average even-strength save percentage over the last few years has been between 0.920 and 0.921, though with better goalies playing more games the median goaltender is going to be somewhere under the 0.920 mark.

Two players have posted better numbers than Devan Dubnyk: Mike Smith of Phoenix and Niklas Backstrom of Minnesota. Interestingly, both goaltenders have also had a worse season than Dubnyk, a player that has been remarkably consistent year over year (on this chart, only Evgeni Nabokov, who spent one of these seasons playing in Europe, has a tighter range of performance).

Mike Smith, suggested by some here as a significant upgrade over Dubnyk, likely would be better but is also going to cost more (if he even becomes available). It isn’t like he’s a perfect fit, either – his disastrous 2010-11 season seems to have been wiped from memory but it’s worth keeping in mind. So too is the fact that his even-strength save percentage this year was virtually identical to Dubnyk’s – the difference between them was the equivalent to Mike Smith making exactly one fewer save all season. I’m not a big believer in huge gaps in defensive strength from team to team but I have no trouble believing that the one-goal difference could have been a result of a tighter defensive system in Phoenix. Add in the fact that Smith is a better puckhandler as a pro and his age (four years older than Dubnyk) and concussion history as cons and I’m not convinced it’s worth the money to make the upgrade.

Niklas Backstrom is 35 and coming off a (by his standards) poor season. Again, given the dollar difference a signing probably doesn’t make sense.

Of the backup possibilities, Jose Theodore and Evgeni Nabokov are both plausible, but both are also in the tail ends of their respective careers (Theodore is 36, Nabokov 37). Ray Emery is a strong possibility who could challenge Dubnyk for the starting role if things broke right; the trouble is that he’s been plagued by ups and downs and has a lot of recent injury history. Dan Ellis seems likely to re-sign in Carolina and isn’t an ideal backup anyway.

Jason Labarbera is a player that probably doesn’t get the consideration he deserves because he’s been typecast as a backup goaltender; he is almost certainly a career 1B/2 type goaltender but he’s also been a solid NHL’er for years. If the team is looking for somebody reliable to play number two minutes and fill-in for injury, Labarbera is a good candidate; if they’re looking for a challenger for Dubnyk he’s probably the wrong guy to sign.

The trouble is, there isn’t really a player on this list that is the “right” guy to sign, which may mean going with somebody unproven.

Recently around the Nation Network

The Oilers were rumoured to have at least some interest in former Vancouver Canucks associate coach Rick Bowness, but if they did the opportunity has passed. From Rick Bowness to Join Lightning Staff as Associate Coach

Vancouver’s blueline was criticized for weak defensive coverage this past season, and were deployed in an eyebrow raising way in the postseason. But to Bowness’ credit, his blue-line personnel were always very good at involving themselves offensively during his time in Vancouver. With the likes of Carle, Hedman, Sustr and Salo to work with in Tampa, we can expect Bowness’ blue-liners to be very productive next season.

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  • Old Retired Guy (A.K.A. Die-Nasty)

    If we’re going short term until we round out defensively, and we want someone short term to push Dubby……..what about Mika Kipprusoft? the guy stoned us enough times……