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Free Agent Targets: Backup Goalies

Free agency begins Friday at 11 a.m. central, and the Nashville Predators expect to be more active than usual in the annual free agent frenzy. There are two important needs the Predators will need to fill before the start of the 2013-14 season: a top-six forward and a backup goaltender.

Obtaining that forward is of high significance, but finding a goalie that can be reliable behind Pekka Rinne is important, too.

The Predators have discussed giving Rinne more rest in recent seasons, but it hasn’t worked out. The team has been fighting for playoff positioning down the stretch in each of the last three seasons, causing Rinne to start 90.6% of the last 160 games dating back to Feb. 5, 2011.

There are two factors that add to the importance of finding a reliable backup. One is the potential of Rinne playing for the Finnish national team in the Winter Olympics next February. The other is the fact he will be coming off off-season hip surgery.

If the Predators wish to make a playoff run, giving Rinne more games off than usual throughout the seven-month grind would be beneficial. The last seven Stanley Cup-winning goaltenders have started an average of 65.9% of their teams’ games that season. The only goalie to exceed 80% was Jonathan Quick in 2011-12 (84.1%).

It’s easier said than done to find a goaltender that can be counted on for 15-20 starts next season. 2011 draftee Magnus Hellberg is on the cusp of the NHL. Even though it’d be best for Hellberg’s development to stay in the AHL for the next year or two, he’s knocking on the door. In knowing that, free-agent goalies outside of journeymen backups may not be interested in taking just a one- or two-year contract.

Also, if the Predators plan to spend more on their new backup than they did on Chris Mason last season ($1.5 million), they will be spending close to or over $9 million total on goaltending, which is not ideal. However, it’s not a secret the Predators need to improve the backup goaltender position if they wish to win more games next season.

Chris Mason’s goals-against average of 3.73 and save percentage of .873 were the worst numbers for any full-time backup goalie in the NHL. The new backup will need to perform much better than that.

It will be interesting to see how the Predators approach their pursuit of a backup goalie. Will they target someone right away and sign them quickly? Or will they wait to see how the musical chairs game plays out and if they can get a bargain/steal later in the off-season? There are as many as four, perhaps five teams seeking a starting goaltender, but that number will continue to change as long as the music is still playing.

Predators general manager David Poile said Tuesday that he has a “few” goalies in mind that he would be interested in signing. He also said three times that it is “very important” to find a reliable goalie that can give Rinne more rest than usual.

Here is a list of goaltenders (in alphabetical order) that may or may not be a fit as the backup to Rinne for the foreseen future:

Thomas Greiss
Age: 27
2012-13 Stats: 6 GP, 1-4-0, 2.53 GAA, .915 SV%, 1 SO

Two years ago, Greiss was a reliable backup to Antti Niemi as he made 14 starts and posted a 2.30 GAA with a .915 save percentage (.931 at even strength). Greiss followed it up with a below-average season in 2012-13, as he missed time with a neck injury and saw Niemi start most games with San Jose’s playoff hopes in the balance. Greiss’ career numbers are similar to what Anders Lindback did in Nashville, which is exactly what the Predators need from its backup: solid performances that give the team a chance to win.

Of the goalies that are purely backups, Greiss is one of the better candidates for Nashville.

Johan Hedberg
Age: 40
2012-13 Stats: 19 GP, 6-10-3, 2.76 GAA, .883 SV%, 1 SO

Hedberg is the only one listed here who is not a free agent. He currently has one year remaining on his contract with the New Jersey Devils, but he is no longer needed there after the acquisition of Cory Schneider at the draft. In his three years with the Devils, Hedberg made 32.5% of the team’s starts behind Martin Brodeur. Hedberg is coming off a subpar season, but his first two in New Jersey were stellar for a backup. He has a cap hit of $1.4 million, which is slightly less than what Mason earned last season.

Assuming the Predators wouldn’t have to give up much via trade, Hedberg would certainly be a viable short-term option before Hellberg arrives to the NHL.

Anton Khudobin
Age: 27
2012-13 Stats: 14 GP, 9-4-1, 2.32 GAA, .920 SV%, 1 SO

After a successful season in Boston, Khudobin probably won’t jump at the chance to become a backup to one of the world’s top goalies. He could get a chance to be a 1A or 1B-type starter elsewhere. But if he doesn’t get that chance, he’d be a great pickup for the Predators. He was rock solid in relief for Tuukka Rask last year, his first full season of backup duty in the NHL. Khudobin did see a lot of playing time, too, appearing in nearly 30% of Boston’s games this season.

It’d be a surprise if Khudobin didn’t parlay his great season into a bigger opportunity, not a lateral or smaller one in Nashville.

Jason LaBarbera
Age: 33
2012-13 Stats: 15 GP, 4-6-2, 2.64 GAA, .923 SV%, 0 SO

In four years with the Phoenix Coyotes, LaBarbera has served as the backup to both Ilya Bryzgalov and Mike Smith. For the most part, LaBarbera has done well in Phoenix. His .925 even-strength save percentage in 2012-13 is second-best on this list of five netminders. Does LaBarbera get the disclaimer, though, of being a product of Dave Tippett’s system in Phoenix? His numbers from 2005-2009, pre-Phoenix: 2.91 GAA, .905 SV%. His numbers with the Coyotes: 2.64 GAA, .918 SV%.

If the Predators would be getting the Phoenix version of LaBarbera, he’s worth at least a look. He’d fit well in the locker room, too.

Jose Theodore
Age: 36
2012-13 Stats: 15 GP, 4-6-3, 3.29 GAA, .893 SV%, 0 SO

Since the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season, Theodore has really only had two good seasons – his last season in Colorado and first in Florida. His 2012-13 season was awful, but he was on the worst team in the NHL and had his season cut short due to a groin injury. He’s proven that he can backstop a team to the playoffs and start 50-plus games, so would he be accepting of a backup role? The only time he has really entered a season as the backup was with Minnesota in 2010-11 and signed just prior to the season.

Theodore is a better option than Khabibulin, but he will still be 37 by training camp and may be a liability. If healthy, though, Theodore could start 20 or more games if need be.

 
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