The list is endless. There’s future Hall of Famers Ed Belfour and Dominik Hasek, a promising star like Vesa Toskala, journeymen Robert Esche and Martin Gerber, and even the possibility of Conn Smythe winner J.S. Giguere.The number of goalies who could change teams this off-season is staggering, and Panther coach Jacques Martin is carefully weighing his options as he moves toward the most important weeks of the summer.
Three weeks before the Entry Draft and less than a month before the frenzy that is free agency, the Panthers’ coach is devising a plan and looking at a plethora of options when it comes to who could be in goal for the upcoming 2007-08.
“There’s a lot of different scenarios and a lot of different options,” Martin agreed. “We haven’t firmed up our decisions regarding goal. They’re not quite clear at this point.”
And that’s because much will depend on the decision of three teams: the Ducks, Wild and Sharks.
Giguere, making $3.99 million for the Ducks, will become an unrestricted free agent July 1 and is expected to command approximately $6 million.
With the Ducks committed to paying defensemen Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer a combined $13 million next season – they’re also likely to resign Teemu Selanne and restricted free agents Dustin Penner and Travis Moen - they may have to let Giguere loose and take a shot in goal with Ilya Bryzgalov, who is making $1 million and is three years younger than the 30-year-old Giguere.
The Sharks and Wild are also looking at cap issues
With Evgeni Nabokov holding a no-trade, $5 million contract, the Sharks could take $1.375 million off the books by trading Toskala. Meanwhile, now that the Wild have signed Nicklas Backstrom to a $6.2 million deal, they will likely try to trade Manny Fernandez, who is set to make $4.33 million in 2007-08 and $4.5 million the following year.
With Backstrom locked up in Minnesota
, Giguere is the only big name who could become an unrestricted free agent. He could command a $7 million contract.
The group under Giguere includes veterans Curtis Joseph, Robert Esche, David Aebischer, Kevin Weekes, Mike Dunham, Mathieu Garon, Jocelyn Thibault, Hasek and, yes, Belfour.
Coming off back surgery and an inconsistent season in Toronto
in 2005-06, Belfour wound up carrying the Panthers the second-half of last season. With Alex Auld struggling in his third NHL season before getting injured, Belfour played in 27 consecutive games from Jan. 20 through March 27 while compiling a 15-8-4
Martin believes the Panthers goaltending situation wasn’t settled last year until the second half of the season.
“I think what happened was Alex had a fairly good start, but the team had trouble shortly after the start and they weren’t getting goals for him,” Martin said. “Then Eddie was coming off back surgery and I don’t think he really started coming around and was 100 percent until sometime in December.”
Martin believes Belfour’s training regiment allowed him to play as well as he did during the second half of the season. But is it too much to ask a 42-year-old to be your No. 1 goalie?
“Well, that’s a legitimate question,” Martin said. “When you look at guys like Belfour and Hasek, they’re making less money because there is a higher risk with them than a 28 or 30-year-old. When you’re older and get injured, the recovery time is longer. So there can be that drawback.”
One scenario for the Panthers is to hope Auld can come back healthy from knee surgery and battle Belfour for the No. 1 spot as he did last year during the opening month. To accomplish such a competition, Martin would have to sign Belfour as an unrestricted free agent and give Auld a qualifying offer (approximately $1.6 million) by June 25.
A second scenario has Martin not qualifying Auld, signing Belfour and looking at goalies such as the Bruins’ Tim Thomas ($1.2 million) or Hannu Toivonen now that they’ve signed their goalie of the future in Tuukka Rask.
Yet, a third option is letting Belfour and Auld go, signing a No. 1 goalie and keeping Craig Anderson or trading for someone like Thomas as a backup.
“A lot will be determined on what teams are looking for and which players they’re willing to trade,” Martin said.
Could Martin swing for the fences by making noise at June 22-23 Entry Draft in Columbus, Ohio? Could he make the kind of blockbuster deal the Panthers have in the past?
“We’re still trying to improve in certain areas and fill certain holes with free agents,” said Martin, who could be shopping or a couple forwards come July. “I don’t know if we’re at the level with our depth that would allow us to make the kind of deal Florida has a reputation of making. But, again, there’s a lot of different scenarios. And we’re keeping all our options open.”