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Game of musical chairs for NHL's masked men

by Dan Rosen
A casual observer sees Evgeni Nabokov and Marty Turco headlining the goalie market and wonders how in the world the two big name guys are still unemployed? But this isn't all that strange as winds of philosophical change appear to be sweeping through the NHL's fraternity of general managers.

The salary cap system allows for only so many big contracts, and after watching a pair of bargain busters in Antti Niemi and Michael Leighton battle for the Stanley Cup last month it's become crystal clear that teams can win a championship in this League without spending through the roof on a goalie.

Instead of re-signing Nabokov or turning their attention to Turco, likely a less-expensive option, the San Jose Sharks Thursday gave a reported two years and $4 million to Antero Niittymaki. They plan on using him in a tandem with Thomas Greiss, and together they'll cost less than what Nabokov wants.

It's a leap of faith, yes, but it's a cheap one and it allowed Sharks GM Doug Wilson to re-sign Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski while saving money for Devin Setoguchi.

Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman chose to give a reported $1.5 million per year to Dan Ellis so he can duke it out with Mike Smith for the No. 1 job. Yzerman gave the big money to Martin St. Louis in a four-year contract extension and then signed Pavel Kubina Friday for two years at a reported $7.7 million.

The Atlanta Thrashers tabbed Chris Mason for two years at a reported $3.7 million to be the buffer for Ondrej Pavelec, who still might not be ready to assume a No. 1 job in the NHL.

Perhaps even more surprising, the Philadelphia Flyers may also be set in goal with Leighton and Brian Boucher coming back as a tandem. GM Paul Holmgren reportedly gave low-ball offers to Nabokov and Turco, and when they didn't bite, he gave Leighton a deal that will pay him $1.5 million for two years.

So where does this leave Nabokov and Turco?

That still remains to be seen (Philadelphia may still be an option), but there doesn't appear to be a great demand for proven winners who are 35-years-old, especially not when most teams appear to have their goaltending situations set already.

One report had Nabokov's agent talking about options in Russia and's Pierre Lebrun posted on his Twitter account Thursday morning that Turco's agent told him it could take "three months" for him to find the right fit.

Here is a breakdown of all 30 teams and what their goaltending situation looks like after the first day of the free-agent frenzy:

Signing Mason gives the Thrashers stability in net as Pavelec continues to mature and develop into an NHL goalie. Pavelec, a 22-year-old Czech, split time with Johan Hedberg last season but posted only a 14-18-7 record with a balloon-like 3.29 GAA that had as much to do with him as it did with the Thrashers defense.

Mason won 57 games with eight shutouts over two seasons in St. Louis and spearheaded their comeback from dead last in the Western Conference to a playoff berth in 2009.
The Bruins are reportedly attempting to trade Tim Thomas and the reported three years and $14 million left on the deal he signed last summer after winning the Vezina Trophy. Tuukka Rask, who is expected to make only $2.5 million over the next two seasons, has assumed the No. 1 job.

If Boston can't rid itself of Thomas' contract, he will challenge Rask for playing time at an expensive price. Either way, the Bruins are comfortable with their goaltending situation thanks to the emergence of Rask, who they acquired via trade from Toronto for Andrew Raycroft four years ago.
There is no question about who the No. 1 is here. Ryan Miller is the Vezina Trophy winner and arguably the best goalie in the world right now. But he's also a goalie without a backup as Patrick Lalime remains an unsigned unrestricted free agent.

The Sabres will need to get themselves a solid No. 2 for Miller, who played in 69 games this past season. It could be Swedish prospect Jhonas Enroth, but more than likely Buffalo will try to pry a veteran off the market. Lalime remains an option. Jose Theodore, who went 20-0-3 down the stretch for Washington, is available. Vesa Toskala, Manny Legace and Yann Danis are out there as well.
No questions on the No. 1 here for GM Jim Rutherford, who is happy to have Cam Ward signed through 2014. Ward, who backstopped the 'Canes to the Stanley Cup in 2006, is one of the League's top goalies when healthy.

Rutherford doesn't have a proven veteran as Ward's backup, though he appears content going with Justin Peters, a restricted free agent who went 6-3 in nine appearances last season. The 'Canes are not in the market for a veteran backup even at a cheap price right now.
Rumors that Tomas Vokoun would be traded appear to be false as GM Dale Tallon has shown no inclination to move the veteran goalie and there is likely no team willing to take on his reported $6.3 million salary for the 2010-11 season. But Vokoun's deal is up at the end of the coming season and if Florida falters he could go at the deadline.

For now, though, it's likely that Florida enters the season with Vokoun as the No. 1 and Scott Clemmensen back as the No. 2. They are one of only a handful of teams with more than $7 million invested in net.
The Habs stamped "STARTER" across Carey Price's helmet when they traded Jaroslav Halak to St. Louis late last month and then signed Alex Auld to be the backup instead of a more proven veteran. Price has the weight of a hockey-mad city/province on his shoulders now, and we'll find out if he can handle it.

Either way, the Habs are not currently in the market for a higher priced guy, but they could be if they feel Price doesn't have what it takes. Nobody will know that until the season is well underway.
There are absolutely, positively no questions here and the entire hockey universe knows that. Martin Brodeur is the No. 1, and it probably will stay that way until he says he isn't anymore. When that will be nobody knows, but there is no reason for it to happen anytime soon despite the fact that he's 38.

But with the signing of Johan Hedberg Thursday, the Devils do appear to be changing philosophy a little. The hope is that Hedberg can get 20 or so starts in New Jersey, which will lighten the considerable load that Brodeur has taken on over the years and perhaps make him fresher for the playoffs. Brodeur played in 77 games this past season.
Is Rick DiPietro going to be healthy? It's becoming the age-old question on the Island and the answer lately has been no. Dwayne Roloson is back for another season so the Islanders at least will have stability in net, but in losing Martin Biron they don't have a proven back up should DiPietro go down again.

It's time for DiPietro to show some durability. Roloson turns 41 in October and asking him to play upwards of 50 or 60 games again could be too much. DiPietro has to be the No. 1 all season, but who knows if he can be. He's played in 13 games over the last two seasons.
Henrik Lundqvist is the unquestioned No. 1, but the Rangers hope they gave him some relief by signing Biron Thursday to be the backup. Lundqvist played in 73 games this past season and his backups (an unsuccessful mix of Steve Valiquette, Chad Johnson, Matt Zaba and Auld) went a combined 3-6-1.

Biron is excited at the opportunity to work with Benoit Allaire, who he knows from his teenage years in Quebec. Lundqvist will be the happiest guy in the room if Biron can successfully start 20 or so games. That would help the Rangers considerably should they get to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It's a race to be No. 1 between the high-priced Pascal Leclaire and the inexpensive Brian Elliott, who was the Senators top goalie for some time last season and started for them in Game 1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Elliott eventually gave way to Leclaire in Game 4, but he unsuccessfully finished out the series.

Leclaire is on a contract year, so if he stays healthy Ottawa doesn't have to worry about his motivation. Similarly, Elliott is scheduled to be a restricted free agent, and if he wants a raise he'll have to raise his game as well. He showed he can last season when he won 29 games in 55 appearances.
Leighton is back in the mix and Boucher is, too, so right now it looks like the Flyers will stay status quo despite what people thought was a pressing need to upgrade at this position. Johan Backlund is also still in the system and could push for some playing time as well.

Still, there are rumors floating around that the Flyers will try to shed a big contract in a trade to free up some space to sign a guy like Nabokov, to whom they reportedly already offered a low-ball contract. That's a wait-and-see thing. For now, Leighton and Boucher appear to be the tandem.
Nothing surprising here. Marc-Andre Fleury is the entrenched No. 1 and is signed through 2014 while Brent Johnson will be back as the No. 2. He's signed for two more seasons, in fact. Just as the Penguins have cost certainty on defense, they also have it in net.
GM Steve Yzerman did not go after any of the high-priced guys, but instead landed Dan Ellis, who might be the most underrated and underappreciated goalie on the free-agent market this summer. And Yzerman got Ellis for two years at a reported $3 million, so the price was right, too.

Ellis will battle with Mike Smith for playing time. The competition should be healthy for both guys as the Lightning try to get back in the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
If second-year guy Jonas Gustavsson wins the No. 1 job in training camp then the Maple Leafs will have the most expensive backup in the League. Jean-Sebastien Giguere is due a reported $7 million in the upcoming season, but he's a pretty good Plan B should Gustavsson falter.

The Leafs seem to be more in the trade market for forwards and/or prospects than goalies, so we can assume they are set in net for now. Still, with Brian Burke manning the phones, one can never be too certain.
The Capitals are going young as they are turning to the next generation for their netminding this season. Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth are expected to start the season as a tandem, and both are 22.

Varlamov has been the Capitals' playoff goalie each of the past two seasons while Neuvirth won the Calder Cup with Hershey this past spring. Washington GM George McPhee gave himself at least one veteran goalie in the system by signing Dany Sabourin to a two-way contract Thursday night.
Jonas Hiller is signed through 2014 and he is the unquestioned No. 1 goalie. Curtis McElhinney should return as the backup for at least one more season. He's scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after the 2010-11 season.

Hiller will be looking to build on the career-high 30 wins he put up in 2009-10. He played in 59 games last season and it's likely he plays in the high 60s this coming season. He had to battle for playing time with Jean-Sebastien Giguere last season before the Ducks traded Giguere to Toronto.
GM Darryl Sutter has had to defend some of his recent transactions (signing Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay), but he has no issues in goal with Miikka Kiprusoff returning. He is signed through 2014.

Sutter also thinks he took care of the backup situation by signing towering 26-year-old Swedish netminder Henrik Karlsson to a one-way contract Thursday. The one-way deal proves that Sutter and the Flames believe Karlsson is the man to backup Kiprusoff even though he's never played in the NHL.

He likely won't have to do too much considering Kiprusoff has played in at least 73 games every season since the work stoppage.
A very interesting situation could be brewing here as the Blackhawks could be considering dumping Cristobal Huet and his reported $5.625 million salary in the AHL to free up cap space so they can bolster their now depleted Stanley Cup championship roster.

Niemi, who is due a raise this summer, is the clear-cut No. 1 now (how could he not be?), and if Huet goes to the minors it's likely that Corey Crawford comes in as an inexpensive backup. Crawford has spent the last five seasons in the AHL and has been biding his time to get a full-time NHL job.
Avs fans are looking at another season with Craig Anderson as the No. 1 and Peter Budaj as his backup. Both are signed through this coming season, and there's no reason to believe the tandem can't work again to get Colorado to the playoffs.

Anderson won 38 games as the workhorse and Budaj filled in when necessary, starting 11 games, appearing in 15 and winning five. They each had a 2.64 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage.
It's possible that no other team in the Western Conference will spend fewer dollars on goaltending than the Blue Jackets, who have just under $2 million invested in Steve Mason and Mathieu Garon. It could be money well spent if Mason has a bounce-back year after a tough sophomore campaign.

After winning the Calder Trophy last season, Mason flopped in 2009-10 and had the worst goals-against average (3.09) and save percentage (.901) among goalies that played in 50 or more games. He was 20-26-9 with five shutouts, but he's also only 22-years-old. Garon is a suitable veteran backup.
Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk moved on the future of the position for the Stars last season when he traded for Kari Lehtonen and signed him to a three-year contract extension. That forced Turco out of the picture after seven seasons in Big D.

Lehtonen, the No. 2 pick by the Thrashers in the 2002 Entry Draft, is 26 and is believed to be ready to be the No. 1 goalie. But just in case, the Stars signed 30-year-old veteran Andrew Raycroft to a two-year contract Thursday. Raycroft will be Lehtonen's backup, but he can play 25-30 games.
For now, the Wings think they are set with Jimmy Howard and Chris Osgood returning as the tandem. They'll be monitoring Howard's play because he is due to become an unrestricted free agent after the upcoming season and Detroit will have to determine how valuable he is compared to what could be on the market next summer.

Osgood is also set to become an unrestricted free agent, but at a reported $1.1 million for this season he's a valuable backup to Howard, who developed into the No. 1 this past season and won 37 games.
There are some question marks here with Nikolai Khabibulin reportedly facing DUI and speeding charges stemming from his arrest after midnight Feb. 8. Khabibulin, who is signed for three more years, is also coming off back surgery.

The Oilers still have Jeff Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk, a pair of restricted free agent goalies who received qualifying offers. The hope, of course, is that Khabibulin returns and is able to earn the big money he is getting on his contract. If not, perhaps the Oilers will look elsewhere, but not right now.
Jonathan Quick is the No. 1 and right now Erik Ersberg is slated to return as the No. 2. Prospect Jonathan Bernier also might be ready to challenge for an NHL job, but we won't know more about that until training camp. The Kings appear set in net and at a low cost, too.

The one thing they could consider doing is trading away Bernier in a package to land a proven defenseman or even winger should they not win the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes they are reportedly heavily invested in.
Niklas Backstrom, set to earn a reported $18 million over the next three years, is looking to be better in 2010-11 than he was in 2009-10, the first season of his contract that he signed late in March 2009. Backstrom was 26-23-8 with a 2.72 GAA and .903 save percentage, by far his worst numbers in the NHL.

The Wild offered restricted free agent Josh Harding a qualifying offer and for now it appears he is again in their plans to be the No. 2. Trading Harding is an option, too, but the Wild would still need a backup goalie.
In choosing to let Dan Ellis walk, the Predators left themselves the task of finding a backup for Pekka Rinne, who is the established No. 1 in Nashville right now. That backup could come from within if the Preds feel AHL goalie Mark Dekanich is ready to make the jump to the NHL.

If Dekanich can serve as Rinne's backup, playing time in Milwaukee will open up for top prospects Chet Pickard and Jeremy Smith. Nashville GM David Poile would love to see them have a healthy competition in the AHL with the hope of bringing one, if not both, up to Nashville the following season.

The Predators, though, could also be in the market for one of the veterans still left unsigned.
Vezina Trophy-finalist Ilya Bryzgalov is home in Phoenix, where he should be the No. 1 for at least one more year. If he has another big season, Bryzgalov might price himself out of the desert when he could become an unrestricted free agent next summer. Odds are Phoenix will try to lock him up before then.

As for Bryzgalov's backup, Jason Labarbera is also signed for one more season, so the tandem will return.
The biggest difference in the Silicon Valley will be who is between the pipes. Evgeni Nabokov is gone and Antero Niittymaki has arrived to team up with Thomas Greiss. Clearly, Doug Wilson believes he can still win without spending too much in goal, but this is still very much a gamble.

Not that Nabokov had unprecedented success in the postseason, but he has played in 80 games compared to the grand total of 113 minutes combined between Niittymaki and Greiss. learned from a source that the Blues offered good money to Chris Mason before trading for Jaroslav Halak, but they landed themselves a goalie coming off a fantastic playoff run. Halak was hungry to be the guaranteed No. 1 and he has that in St. Louis.

Ty Conklin will again serve as the backup, which is key because he can play 20-25 games, giving Halak a chance to work his way up to 60-65. He has never appeared in more than 45 games in one season.
Roberto Luongo will be the highest paid goalie in 2010-11 at a reported $10 million. The captain of the Canucks isn't going anywhere, but come playoff time he'll face some difficult questions again. That's to be expected, though, after bowing out to the Blackhawks in the second round for two straight years.

Cory Schneider looks like he'll be Luongo's full-time back up this season. The 24-year-old former first round pick has played in 10 NHL games over the past two seasons.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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