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Vokoun, Smith look to have found best deals

by Justin Goldman
Justin Goldman is one of the preeminent goaltending experts on the Web. His site,, serves as a haven for those who share a passion for goaltending with a mission to enhance and advance knowledge of the goaltending position through a wide variety of interactive and in-depth scouting services. Here he looks at how the first few days of free agency have impacted the goalie position across the League.

During the past few years, the July 1 free-agent carousel has spun wildly in favor of the "cap-friendly" goalies. And when the frantic spinning finally comes to a halt, there seems to be at least one prized talent still searching for a job.
This year was no different, as Florida's Tomas Vokoun was left in the cold when July 1 turned into July 2. Expected by many analysts -- including myself -- to land in Denver, nothing transpired as other goalies started to move.
Despite consistently posting one of the League's best save percentages on a non-playoff team, Vokoun was on the outside looking in as his demands apparently were too rich for a flooded market.
After all, it's a very thin line to walk -- if you demand what you're truly worth in a market flooded by cheaper alternatives, your cost quickly is considered to be way too high.
As a result, Vokoun had to change tactics when Saturday dawned. His agent reached out to Washington and offered a low-cost deal. Suddenly, Vokoun had a job with a team with serious Stanley Cup aspirations. What he didn't have, though, was his initial asking price.
But there were a number of goalies that made out far better after a tumultuous weekend of free-agent signings.
While most of the goalies that landed in new cities maintained similar roles, a few labeled as backups were handed a rare opportunity to prove they can be effective starters.
Of those deals, I feel Mike Smith's situation with the Coyotes is the most promising.
Signing a two-year deal worth $4 million, Smith converted a couple of impressive 2011 Stanley Cup Playoff appearances into the chance of a lifetime.
Instead of being considered an injury-prone backup, his strong play in relief of Dwayne Roloson in the postseason went a long way in proving to NHL general managers that he's more likely to be a reward than a risk.
What makes Smith's opportunity such a great story is the arduous path he traveled last season. A busted finger in training camp was followed by battling inconsistency alongside Dan Ellis throughout most of the first half of the season. When Roloson was acquired, Smith was waived and shipped to Norfolk of the AHL.
But that didn't stop him.
He trudged through all the tough breaks that come with being demoted, as well as clearing re-entry waivers on a recall. Finally, with a month left in the season, Smith had a chance to play again in Tampa Bay.
For a goaltender, facing adversity -- emotionally and physically -- is a necessary component of improving. Some goalies embrace it more than others, because that's one of the sure-fire ways to gain perspective and truly mature.
Sure enough, Smith's difficult learning experiences during the course of the season paid off in April.
By the time the postseason arrived, Smith's entire game -- from technique to consistency to mentality -- had evolved. He no longer was a scrambling goalie getting caught in awkward, injury-prone positions. Instead, he displayed more patience, a more economical butterfly and better rebound control.
Smith in a Phoenix uniform is a perfect match.
Not only will he be very comfortable playing in coach Dave Tippett's defensive-minded system (thanks to their time together in Dallas), but the chance to play at least 50 games is there for the taking. This is important, as a more consistent workload helps develop a more consistent goaltender.
With a bigger frame and better puck-moving skills compared to Ilya Bryzgalov, the No. 1 in Phoenix last season, Smith has the potential to be an eye-opening surprise this season. His passing from inside the trapezoid and above the goal line are icing on the cake. It will be a real asset for the team.
With all of this in mind, I walked away from the weekend's chaos with the notion that Smith was the biggest winner.
But he wasn't the only one to make the most of a wild few days.
Three right-handed catching goalies also obtained quality opportunities. Josh Harding, Mathieu Garon and Jose Theodore all signed low-salary deals right out of the gate Friday afternoon.
Harding, who spent all of last season on injured reserve, re-signed with the Minnesota Wild for one season just minutes before the free-agency period began. Since all he needs is exposure, having another chance to showcase his skills is paramount for his NHL future. The skill clearly is there, so if he can land around 25 starts, I have no doubt he’ll prove he can be a starter in this League for years to come.
For Garon, his new two-year contract with Tampa Bay provides him with security. He's also reunited with his old teammate, Roloson, from their stint in Edmonton. More importantly, Garon's play will benefit from not always having to be thrust into action at the last minute or halfway through a game due to the inconsistent and unstable play of Steve Mason in Columbus.
The other big winner to obtain a potential starting gig was Theodore. Although he's certainly capable of handling that role in Florida, he also struck gold in the sense that the Panthers spent millions of dollars to improve their defense.
Playing behind the newly acquired duo of Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski certainly will make Theodore's life a lot easier. For Florida, they should benefit from completely reversing their goaltending situation, as they go from a costly workhorse in Vokoun to a cost-efficient and experienced tandem in Theodore and Scott Clemmensen.
One other goaltender obtained a starting role Friday, but it came in one of the most puzzling July 1 acquisitions in recent memory.
Semyon Varlamov, who essentially had set sail for Russia due to a lack of a starting job in Washington, was traded to the Colorado Avalanche for a 2012 first-round draft pick as well as a conditional second-round pick.
For many of the other goalies signed this weekend, we saw a significant number of backups extend their careers in new cities.
Peter Budaj will see less playing time in Montreal, but have a chance to improve his game under the tutelage of Canadiens goalie coach Pierre Groulx. This goalie-specific coaching is something Budaj rarely received in Colorado, so the opportunity to improve personally is a big win for him.
Alex Auld will have a much better opportunity to play more games, as he goes from being Carey Price's backup to pushing Craig Anderson in Ottawa on a nightly basis.
Brian Boucher signed a two-year, $1.9 million deal to back up Cam Ward in Carolina. He'll play much less than in Philadelphia, but be more effective in that role compared to the young Justin Peters.
Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who signed a two-year deal worth $2.5 million with the Avalanche, now has an opportunity to close a stellar NHL career with a team that desperately needs a veteran, winning presence in the locker room. With the loss of Adam Foote, the team will benefit from Giguere's experience and leadership all season. More importantly, he makes a great mentor for the eager-to-learn Varlamov.
And that's the way it goes for goaltenders during the free-agent frenzy. It's absolute chaos -- proven netminders are left wandering in the dark, while inexperienced goalies find a way to capture the chance of a lifetime.
But as you so often hear in the world of elite goaltending, it's not what you did to get there, but what you do next.
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