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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

The Three Tiers of Free Agent Goaltenders

The @Edmonton Oilers need to find a way to upgrade their goaltending this offseason. If finding a better puck stopper isn’t first on Ken Hollands to-do list, then it better be second. Yes, the duo of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen was good for them during the regular season, but it became clear during the playoffs that those two were not good enough.

Yes, this is another article about goalies.

Getting Mike Smith as a one-season stop-gap was risky, but it ended up working out for the most part. But now, he’s a year older and we all know that father time is undefeated. Bringing him back for another season is not a risk that Ken Holland should be taking. Instead, Holland should probably be looking for towards the future and try to bring in a goalie that can help this team for more than one season.

I can’t see a scenario where the team trades Mikko Koskinen. First off, I think they like him when he’s part of a solid 1A/1B duo. Secondly, I can’t see a team out there being willing to take on his $4.5 million cap-hit as part of a trade, especially when there are better options than him on the free-agent market. It just wouldn’t make a lot of sense.

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When Koskinen is being pushed, he’s usually at his best. So the focus for the Oilers should be on finding a goaltender who can compete with Koskinen for the crease. How can they do that? Well, there are two ways.

The first would be to sign a goaltender in free agency. There are a couple of variables to consider when it comes to that. First off, we don’t know how much cap space the Oilers will have. If they can find a way to move on from pricey veterans like Kris Russell and Alex Chiasson, then they might have enough money to afford a goaltender in the $4.5-$6 million range. Of course, that would also mean that they wouldn’t be able to afford a significant upgrade on their blueline or on the wings.

If the Oilers can’t move out any big contracts, then they might need to settle for a more veteran option who will sign for cheap. It’s far from ideal and not the route they should be looking to go, but they might be forced to do it.

We also don’t know what the free-agent market is going to look like. In a year where the salary cap ceiling is not going up, we really don’t know how much money the top quality free agent goaltenders are going to be able to command. Of course, if the big names don’t get as much as they want, that will likely trickle down to the mid-tier free agents.

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If the big names are forced to sign for $4.5-5.5 million a season, then the Oilers could likely afford a solid mid-tier option regardless of how much salary they’re able to shed. If the big names are signing for north of $6 million a season, then it will probably be tough for the Oilers to bring in a quality goalie without shedding a contract or two.

So who are the available goaltenders? Well, I divided them up into three tiers based on how much I believe they’ll sign for.

LOW TIER

THE OPTIONS: C. Talbot, J. Howard, M. Smith, C. Anderson, L. Brossoit, B. Elliott, A. Dell

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Honestly, none of these names are overly attractive options, but they would all likely cost less than $2 million next season, so if the Oilers need to find a cheap option, these are their only choices.

I wouldn’t touch Anderson or Howard and I have a feeling Cam Talbot is going to stay put in Calgary. So there four options are Smith, Brossoit, Elliott, or Dell. When you look at it that way, you could see why Holland might be okay with bringing back Smith on a one-year deal.

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If he did end up having to sign one of these low-tier names, he would get ripped by a lot of fans and deservedly so in my opinion. He needs to upgrade their goaltending this offseason and if he’s forced to go out and sign one of these cheap options, it would just signal that he failed to significantly upgrade the position,

MID TIER

THE OPTIONS: T. Greiss, C. Crawford, A. Khudobin

Let me start this by saying that while Corey Crawford is a UFA, I doubt that he’ll leave Chicago. So really, there are two mid-tier options for the Oilers.

The first is Thomas Greiss, who played in 31 games this season for the Islanders and posted a 0.913 save percentage to go along with a 2.74 GAA. Pretty good numbers for a backup goaltender. He’s also been pretty consistent, posting really good numbers in four of the last five seasons. He’s 34-years-old so he should have a few more good years left in the tank.

He’s coming off a deal that saw him make $3.33 million and I can’t imagine him making more than that when you consider the flat cap and the flooded goaltending market. The Oilers could certainly afford him.

As for Khudobin, he’s almost identical to Greiss, when you look at his age and current contract. He has been a bit more consistent over the last few seasons and he’s coming off a better 2019/20 season that saw him post a 2.20 GAA and a 0.920 save percentage. His current contract paid him $2.5 million and I could see him making somewhere between that and $3.0 million. He’ll be more sought after though, especially when you consider his performance so far during the playoffs.

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These both seem like realistic options for the Oilers if they go the free-agent route.

HIGH TIER

Aug 11, 2020; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN;Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Robin Lehner (90) makes a save during warmup against the Chicago Blackhawks in game one of the first round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

THE OPTIONS: Lehner, J. Markstrom, B. Holtby

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This is where things get interesting. Holtby would certainly be the cheapest option out of the three but he’s also coming off the worst season of the three, by a significant margin. He probably wouldn’t cost more than $5.0 million. Yes, he’s only 30-years-old but he has a lot of miles on him and after leading the Capitals to a Stanley Cup in 2018, his numbers have not been elite.

Still, maybe Holtby would be rejuvenated if he was given a change of scenery and only had to play 45-55 games a season. I would take a look at him if I was Ken Holland, but I think the contract needs to be in the $4.5 million range. I didn’t want to put him in the mid-tier range because his reputation as a big-game goalie will get him paid more than that, but he’s not on the same level as the other two names in this tier.

As for the other two options, if they would be willing to sign in Edmonton on a three or four-year deal, I think you would have to do your best to try and make it work. Both Lehner and Markstrom will easily command more than $6 million per season if they reach free agency, so the Oilers will need to move some money out if they want to make it work, but these guys are both legitimate number one goaltenders. They’re the types of goalie who can win you a playoff series, which the Oilers need.

Would I love to see one of Lehner or Markstrom here next season? Absolutely. Is it realistic? Probably not. I just can’t see the Oilers being able to afford either of them. I don’t hate the idea of adding Holtby, Greiss, or Khudobin, but none of them are long-term answers. If they want to get a goalie that can be their starter for the next five or six years, they’ll likely need to go the trade route. That’s the area I’ll look at in my next piece.