In my 15 years of following the NHL, there has never been such an unpredictable future when it comes to the goalie position.
When I was just a child, Roberto Luongo, Martin Brodeur, Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek, Jose Theodore and Ed Belfour were a handful of the very few legitimate superstar goaltenders. It seemed like the Vancouver Canucks had just won the Stanley Cup when they traded for Luongo in 2006, since they were one of the very rare NHL teams that could say they had a superstar in net.
But over the years, the goalie position has evolved. In any given season, at least 23 of the 30 teams can say they have a reliable and proven number one goalie. Even a few teams can say they have two capable number one netminders.
With that, there are a large number of goalies who face uncertain futures. Here's a look at what it holds for some of them
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15 Peter Budaj: Retirement in 2019
Peter Budaj has spent his 11-year NHL career primarily as a backup, but spent almost all of 2015-16 in the minors. A lower body injury to Jonathan Quick (that will keep him out until March), forced the Los Angeles Kings into bringing up Budaj from the AHL. He was expected to be Jeff Zatkoff's backup, but Budaj has actually performed like a true number one goalie.
This season, Budaj is 18-11-3 with a 2.13 goals against average, .916 save percentage and four shutouts. But Budaj is 34 years of age, and when Quick returns, his days of being an NHL starter will be all but over. Before the 2019 season begins, Budaj will be 36 years of age. Expect Budaj to announce his retirement after what will have been a solid 12 years in the NHL.
14 Jaroslav Halak: To the KHL in 2018
The former Montreal Canadiens playoff hero spent three years with the St. Louis Blues as a legitimate number one goalie. He was then traded to the Washington Capitals during the 2013-14 season, and then found new life as another standout number one netminder when he joined the New York Islanders in 2014-15.
Unfortunately for Jaroslav Halak, this appears to be the end of the line for him. The Islanders placed him on waivers then demoted him to the AHL after he went unclaimed. Halak has a mere 6-8-5 record with an awful 3.23 goals against average and .904 save percentage. This is now Thomas Greiss' team.
It's been a nice run for Halak, who nearly guided the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup Final all by himself in 2010. But with most NHL teams already locked and loaded in the crease, Halak's best bet will be to play overseas in the KHL.
13 Philipp Grubauer: Traded to Winnipeg Jets
In case you didn't know, the Winnipeg Jets have arguably the NHL's brightest future and are stockpiled with so much young talent. But Paul Maurice's worn-out system, a leaky defence and horrendously terrible goaltending have held the Jets back from being a playoff contender in 2016-17.
The promising Connor Hellebuyck is far from ready to be a legitimate number one, and backup Michael Hutchinson is never going to be a starter. Philipp Grubauer has been a nice backup for Braden Holtby in Washington. He's 7-1-1 with a ridiculous 1.94 goals against average and .929 save percentage.
For obvious reasons, the Capitals are going to stick with Holtby as their long-term number one. The Jets likely won't chase expensive goalies on the wrong side of 30 like Ben Bishop or Marc-Andre Fleury, but Grubauer (25) is younger and won't be as expensive. Look for the Jets to offer up a pair of draft picks to nab the Capitals goaltender this offseason.
12 Cam Ward: Retirement in 2021
Cam Ward appeared to be on the path of greatness in 2006. The rookie netminder led the Carolina Hurricanes to their first-ever Stanley Cup championship and he took home the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. But the Hurricanes have made the playoffs once since their championship season, and Ward hasn't been a legitimate number one goalie for years.
He hasn't had a 30-win season since 2011-12. His save percentage in 2016-17 (.915, which isn't that great), is his best in five years. The Hurricanes are starting to show some promise with their stock of young defencemen plus Victor Rask and Jeff Skinner at forward. But Ward is not the long-term solution to turn this team back into a Stanley Cup contender.
The Hurricanes will likely let him play out his contract, but Ward will retire in 2021 when he's 37 years old, while the team will be with a younger and better number one by then.
11 Kari Lehtonen: Europe in 2018
Kari Lehtonen was once a bonafide number one goalie for the Atlanta Thrashers and Dallas Stars. Though it's not entirely Lehtonen's fault, GM Jim Nill has ignored the defensive position and it's been impossible for the former to play like a number one. His contract is up next year, and there's no doubting the Stars will have other options by then.
Lehtonen will be 34 when he hits the market next season, and it's tough to see him finding a starting gig in the NHL. His best (and probably only option), will be to head overseas to Europe, where he'll undoubtedly find a chance to be the starter. Perhaps he could play in his home country of Finland, but there are many more choices in Europe than in the NHL these days. He's still capable of starting somewhere, but it's no longer going to be in the NHL - as his 2.90 goals against average and .897 save percentage will tell you.
10 Scott Darling: Signs with Philadelphia Flyers
In this third season with the Chicago Blackhawks, Scott Darling has proven that he's more than capable of being a legitimate number one goalie. But it's impossible to see a logical scenario where the Hawks decide to move on from two-time Stanley Cup champion Corey Crawford. It's his team and they have no reason to turn to Darling.
Back in December, Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times noted that Darling (now 28), can't keep waiting around for his chance to be the number one goalie in Chicago. Though Darling's stated his desire to say, Lazerus brings up how another team will likely offer the pending UFA more money and a chance to start elsewhere.
The Philadelphia Flyers haven't had a legitimate number one goalie since Martin Biron some seasons ago. With Steve Mason set to be a free agent, look for GM Ron Hextall to open up his wallet and pay Darling to be their new franchise netminder.
9 Steve Mason: Signs with New York Islanders
Speaking of Steve Mason...
Despite having rather lackluster blueliners in front of him, Mason has done his part in saving the Flyers from misery. Mason helped them reach the playoffs in 2014 and 2016 after the team looked out of it for the first couple of months in both seasons But make no mistake - his stats are not that great, and the Flyers would be on the same level as Pittsburgh and Washington if they could get a real starter.
Mason is just 14-14-6 with a 2.80 goals against average and .903 save percentage this season. The Flyers would be better off going with Scott Darling, and Mason won't have the desire to return as a backup.
But the New York Islanders will need someone to battle with Thomas Greiss for the starting job, and Mason is a solid option. If they sign him for two-three years, it gives them some insurance in net and Mason a chance to continue his number one goalie days.
8 Ryan Miller: Traded, Signs Elsewhere, retirement in 2018
So this is a little complex, but basically Ryan Miller is likely to bounce around more than I did any time I entered a blow up castle. That's a lot of bouncing, by the way.
Miller is a pending UFA, and the Vancouver Canucks would be wise to trade him at the trade deadline. Rumors have him linked to the Dallas Stars, and he'd be an upgrade over the mediocre tandem of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi. The Stars should take a chance on Miller, who could fetch the Canucks a first-round pick.
Then in the offseason, someone will sign him to a one-year deal as a backup. The Pittsburgh Penguins make sense as they're bound to lose Marc-Andre Fleury at some point, and they give Miller his best chance at winning a Stanley Cup.
But Miller has already shown his age, and he's not going to get much better. Look for him to hang up his pads for good after the 2017-18 season.
7 Antti Niemi: Heads to KHL in 2018
Some people forget that he backstopped the Chicago Blackhawks to their first Stanley Cup in 49 years seven seasons ago. Antti Niemi then spent five solid seasons with the San Jose Sharks, but they chose to roll with Martin Jones as their future netminder, leaving the Stars to pickup Niemi.
He's been a major disappointment in Big D. His .905 save percentage and 2.67 goals against average in 2015-16 were the worst Niemi posted as a regular starter. His GAA this season is at 2.88, and he only has a .910 save percentage. That is pretty bad to be quite honest with you.
So with that, it doesn't make sense for many to take a look at the man who'll be a 34-year-old free agent in 2018. Niemi, a native of Finland, may feel the desire to return to his home country/continent. That'll give Niemi his best chance to be a regular starter.
6 Craig Anderson: Retirement in 2018
It's been a unique journey for Craig Anderson, who went from career second/third stringer to a Vezina-caliber netminder for the Colorado Avalanche in 2009-10. He's since been the Ottawa Senators' number one goalie, and was crucial in getting them to the postseason in 2012, 2013 and 2015.
The thing is, Anderson will turn 36 years old in May, and as many are aware of, he's missed large portion of this season to support his wife Nicholle, who is fighting cancer right now. Anderson looks like he could play for another few years, but there's a good chance he decides to walk away from the game before long. Next season will likely be his last as he dedicates his time to family. The Senators could also offer Anderson a front office role should he decide to retire.
Either way, it's been a great ride from Anderson, but he'll do the right thing and choose family over hockey.
5 Brian Elliott: Signs with Buffalo Sabres
After Brian Elliott posted five incredible seasons with the St. Louis Blues that saw them reach the playoffs in each of those seasons, the team rolled with Jake Allen as their starter for the future. St. Louis traded the former to the Calgary Flames for a second-round pick at last year's June Entry Draft.
Elliott's tenure with Calgary has been lackluster at best. He's 8-10-1 with an awful 2.95 goals against average and .889 save percentage. The pending UFA doesn't make much sense for the Flames' long-term plans, as backup Chad Johnson has outplayed Elliot by miles.
With that, the Buffalo Sabres could turn to Elliott and have him push Anders Nilsson and Robin Lehner for the starting role next season. Elliott's not going to get a mega contract, but the Sabres will probably overpay the veteran to give them a stable puck stopper. Look for them to pay him $10 million over two years.
4 Roberto Luongo: Retires in 2019
Roberto Luongo has done more than enough to lock up a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame. The two-time Olympic gold medalist recently passed Terry Sawchuk for fifth place in career wins, and he'll likely finish in the top-10 in career shutouts.
That being said, the soon-to-be 38 year old is finally showing his age. After posting a respectable 2.35 goals against average in each of the last two seasons, Luongo's has moved up to 2.39. He's just 12-10-5 this season after going 35-19-6 a year ago.
The Panthers have Luongo under contract until 2021-22, so he basically gets to keep playing until he hasn't had anymore. We haven't seen many goalies play well into their 40s over the past two decades, and it's hard to see Luongo being an exception. With a family to raise in Florida, look for 'Bobby Lou' to hang up his skates and pads in two years from now.
3 Henrik Lundqvist: Retires in 2021
Henrik Lundqvist has been far-and-away the NHL's best goalie since he bursted onto the scene as a rookie in 2005-06. He's posted 30 wins every year except the 48-game 2012-13 regular season. It's easy to believe he'll post 30-plus once again this year.
That being said, the stats don't lie in the fact that Lundqvist is slowly succumbing to father time. His current 2.55 goals against average is the worst of his NHL career, and the 2.48 he posted last season was far-and-away the worst of King Henrik's career. His .912 save percentage so far in 2016-17 is tied for the worst of his career. Backup Antti Raanta has actually outplayed him with a 10-4-0 record, 2.28 goals against average and .921 save percentage with two shutouts.
Lundqvist is still a top-10 netminder, but in two years from now, he'll likely be a backup. Two years after that? Retirement awaits for the greatest goalie in New York Rangers history. He'll be 39 years old by then, and it's difficult to see his wearing-down body playing past that.
2 Ben Bishop: Signs with Calgary Flames
It's been obvious for almost two years now that Ben Bishop will not be a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning after he becomes a free agent this summer. They have a younger option in Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has done more than enough to show he's a legitimate franchise goalie to build around.
Ben Bishop was close to being dealt to the Flames at last year's draft, but he reportedly wasn't able to come to an agreement on an extension with the team. That being said, the Flames are in the playoff hunt with career backup Chad Johnson leading the way. Imagine them if they can land Bishop.
A true number one is the last weakness on this Flames team. Bishop will want money and a chance to win championships. All of the contenders have number ones, and rebuilding teams tend to stay away from hefty contracts for goalies. Look for the Flames to sign Bishop for around $30 million over five years.
1 Marc-Andre Fleury: Traded to Dallas Stars
Marc-Andre Fleury will forever be an icon to the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise, but the team has a better, younger and cheaper option with Matt Murray, who guided the team to a 2016 Stanley Cup championship.
Fleury is still a number one goalie, but the Penguins have will be forced to lose either Fleury or Murray in the Las Vegas Expansion Draft. There's no doubting they'll do everything they can to protect Murray, so that leaves Flower the odd man out.
He's been linked to the Dallas Stars, who won't be a Cup contender until they solve their goaltending woes. There have been rumors about the Stars trading for Fleury while sending Lehtonen or Niemi back to the Penguins in a package deal. The Stars are easily the best option and fit for Fleury, and they'll do whatever it takes to bring him on board.
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