For the first time since 2000, the Sharks head into the offseason without a goalie ready to take the reins for the following season. After setting the bar for future Sharks netminders during his tenure in San Jose, it appears as if Evgeni Nabokov might have stopped his last puck for the organization. With Nabokov leaving, who takes over as the starter for an organization with serious cup aspirations?
The Sharks prospect pipeline is filled with young, skilled goaltenders. Thomas Greiss, Al Stalock, Henrik Karlsson, Harri Sateri and Tyson Sexsmith have all been billed as potential #1 netminders. The problem, though, is that none of these goalies is a known commodity. Even Thomas Greiss, who served as Evgeni Nabokov's backup all season, is a relatively untested player at the professional level. Nabokov's ridiculously high number of starts meant that Greiss only played in 16 games this season, and mostly against subpar competition. His stat line of 7-5-1, 2.68 GAA, .912 s% is admirable, but it's unknown how well he'd be able to handle a bigger share of the starts against better competition.
Without any "sure things" in the system ready for this year, pundits have clamored for a short term signing of an established netminder. Marty Turco, Dan Ellis, and even Evgeni Nabokov have been suggested for a one or two year deal, but both Nabokov and Turco would likely command a contract in the $3MM range or higher. If the Sharks do intend to compete for the cup again this year (it's hard to imagine they won't be a favorite yet again this year), should some of the money be allocated to a better defensive unit?
This past year, the Sharks tried to overcome a weak defensive unit with a strong goaltender, which seemed to work in the regular season. However, there was an extreme amount of pressure on Nabokov (and Greiss) to make saves, as the Sharks were in the bottom third of the league in shots allowed in the regular season (31.4) and in the bottom five in the post season (29.1). The need for a better defensive corps is clear, but without any top four guys currently in the system, the Sharks will likely have to look to the free agent pool or upgrade via trade.
That leaves the team in an interesting dilemma, as it would be difficult to upgrade both the defense and goaltending position and remain under the cap. However, there is one option on the market that could help the Sharks improve in both these areas: Carey Price.
Carey Price has had a tumultuous ride through the NHL, fueled primarily by the cutthroat media and fans of the Montreal Canadiens. Drafted fifth overall in 2005, Price was billed as the team's franchise goaltender. However, after a few disappointing playoff showings and a lack of consistency, Price was benched in favor of the older (25) Jaroslav Halak (who I proposed trading for last year), who took the Canadiens to the Eastern Conference Finals leaving powerhouses Washington and Pittsburgh in his wake. It seems obvious that he earned himself a lucrative contract, and it's nearly impossible that considering his performance Monteal would trade him or strip him of the starters spot heading into next year. He will be the starter. But will Halak and Price RFA's, can they justify keeping both?
It appears not, as trade speculation has swirled all year and seems to have heated up in the last few weeks. Montreal needs to upgrade their current compliment of forwards, as their lack of size and scoring was exposed against the Flyers. Using Price as a trade chip seems to be the most logical way to upgrade that unit.
Back to Price. In my opinion he's gotten a pretty unfair rap in Montreal and around the league; his regular season stats are pretty impressive for a goaltender of his age playing on a team of Montreal's caliber. Over the past three years, he has a save percentage of .912 and a goals against average of 2.60. Compare that with Nabokov, who over the same time frame has a save percentage of .914 and a goals against average of 2.30. While Nabokov's numbers are better, there are a few factors working in his favor. First, Nabokov is much older, and the experience plays a role. Second, Nabokov plays in a less critical hockey market, so the day in and day out pressure is less intense. Third, Nabokov has played behind a much better team; this is evidenced in part by the fact that Price has faced an average 26.9 shots per game over the last three years while Nabokov has faced 24.5.
Even though the stats are similar, it would be wrong for anyone to say that Price is an upgrade over Nabokov in the short term. In fact, I'd venture to say that Nabokov would have better stats than Price in the regular season next year if both played behind the same team. However, long term, Price will undoubtedly be the better option for the team, given his age. At just 22 years old, Carey Price is one of the youngest goalies in the league, and he has three years of 40+ starts under his belt. He's just under a year older than former rookie of the year Steve Mason. This type of experience and youth is something not found often in the NHL.
For those who are afraid that Price would block current prospects in the system like Thomas Greiss and Al Stalock, there's a few interesting facts to note. Not only does Price have an NHL track record to boast (making him more appealing in a win now environment) he's also a year and a half younger than Greiss and a month younger than Stalock. He's also almost four years younger than Henrik Karlsson. So when we talk about potential, it's arguable that Price not only has more, but also is a better bet to reach his ceiling than the others.
There are other benefits to Price, primarily that he's huge. The 6'3" 219lb goalie is 3" taller and 19lbs heavier than Nabokov. This means he plays less of a reaction game and more of a blocking game. That type of netminder is one that I think would is better suited for the Sharks as currently constructed, and could be a breath of fresh air to a team that's grown accustomed to Nabokov's antics. We've seen how well these types of netminders can perform in the NHL, and the need for such a goaltender was seen against Detroit and Chicago and especially in the Stanley Cup final between Chicago and Philadelphia. With crashing the net and screening the goalie a must in playoff hockey, there is a premium placed on goalies who (unlike Nabokov) don't necessarily have to see the puck to stop it.
The biggest attraction to Carey Price, though, is the low cost needed to sign him. As an RFA, the team who has possession of his rights already has relative control over his value. Add that to the fact that he was basically (although unjustly) run out of Montreal, and you've got the perfect storm on your hands. A young, potential franchise goaltender for a cap hit on a long term deal likely under $2.75MM? Sign me up.
What's doubly intriguing is the fact that Ryane Clowe would likely be involved in the deal. Don't misinterpret that statement, Clowe is one of my favorite players on the team and is by all accounts an important part of the system and in the locker room. However, with the emergence of Logan Couture as a top six forward, the importance of signing RFA's Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi and UFA Patrick Marleau to long term deals and the need for another top-four defenseman, it's irresponsible to commit so much cash to Clowe. He's a good player, but is the third highest paid forward on the current roster behind stars Heatley and Thornton. While I don't think he'd end up there when all is said and done, it's still not a wise allocation of dollars, as Plank pointed to in his piece yesterday.
Assuming that Price signs for a cap hit of around $2.5MM, which I think is extremely reasonable and likely, moving Clowe for him would result in a net gain of cap space of at least $1.125MM. That money could be used in a multitude of ways and would eventually, in my opinion, make the Sharks a much better team come October. It's not often a trade like this is even possible, but the situation has presented itself for this once in a decade type of opportunity. A young starting who is goaltender brimming with potential, attained in a deal which clears cap space? It's an amazing proposition, and one which has been making its way through media outlets for some time now. The Edmonton Journal, TSN and ESPN have all discussed a deal centering on these two players; the fact that it's beneficial for both teams means that it's probably one of the more realistic rumors out there.
Now, more assets would likely have to be involved for this trade to work; it's possible that a young goalie prospect would have to be sent in Montreal's direction. Depending on the prospect, a later pick could possibly be headed back to San Jose, but that's just adding to the speculation at this point. It's a win-win to me, any way that you slice it.
In my opinion, Carey Price is still one of the best young goalies in the league, and is only getting better. A change of scenery would do him a world of good; he could really flourish under a team like the Sharks. That, in addition to the overall cap savings both short and long term, means that the Sharks will be able to upgrade their team in other areas while still retaining the services of Patrick Marleau if they see fit.
While everything remains nebulous at this point, the talk surrounding this rumor leads me to believe that this will be a serious possibility looked at by Doug Wilson and the Sharks. It won't be an easy one to pull off, as Price is one of the better goalies on the market right now. But I do think it's possible.
Ultimately, the improvement of the team for next year hinges on Wilson's ability to sign a big ticket free agent (something that he hasn't been able to do in years past), but a move for Price would still pay dividends immediately and in the future.