New Jersey Devils v Dallas Stars

Looking for a free agent goalie this summer? Go for a backup

While the Ilya Kovalchuk Saga dominated the biggest headlines during last summer’s free agent months, the most surprising storyline involved NHL teams closing up their pocketbooks when it came to free agent goalies. Really, the only netminders who signed good deals that summer were restricted free agents such as Carey Price, Steve Mason and Jaroslav Halak. Halak was the only one of the three to sign with a different team to boot.

Judging by Craig Custance’s top five UFA goalies list, there won’t be many options for hockey teams searching for a No. 1 goalie. Especially when you consider the fact that the Coyotes would fall apart without Ilya Bryzgalov and Breezy actually might not find a better fit than Dave Tippett’s stingy defensive system, either.

(I’d also strongly advise the Senators to re-sign Craig Anderson. Like, now.)

Then again, there really aren’t that many teams looking for a top goalie at this point. If the Blackhawks manage to keep Corey Crawford and the Maple Leafs decide that James Reimer is their goalie of the present as well a the future, the list of teams looking for a starter probably boils down to: the Lightning, Avalanche, Islanders and Panthers.

Yet there’s one other goalie-related trend developing in the league: it seems like there’s a bit of a Renaissance in the backup position. From sturdy veterans such as Brian Boucher and Brent Johnson to surprise starters such as Crawford to surprisingly successful reclamation projects like Jose Theodore and Andrew Raycroft, No. 2 guys have been saving the day for many NHL teams. Just look at how well the Devils are doing with Johan Hedberg – and conversely, how over-worked Ryan Miller is since the Sabres don’t trust Patrick Lalime – and it’s clear that a dependable backup is one of the most underrated assets in the league.

Sure, these guys aren’t the netminders you want leading your team during Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, but they might give your starter crucial rest to get there. Here’s a quick list of some of the best backup goalies (or should-be backups) who will be available this summer:

  • Hedberg
  • Theodore
  • Boucher
  • Chris Osgood
  • Mike Smith
  • Ty Conklin
  • Josh Harding
  • Alex Auld

There are also three wild card options if teams want to roll the dice: Marty Turco, Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Ray Emery. Even Peter Budaj and Martin Gerber might have a shot at being halfway competent.

Looking over that list of goalies, let’s put this simply. Barring injuries, your team’s GM won’t have any excuse for riding a workhorse starter for 31 straight games next season. Maybe you can’t find a home run in the goalie market (unless you’re lucky enough to land Tomas Vokoun or Bryzgalov), but it’s better to hit for average rather than power in free agency in general.

Long story short, no team should be without backup in the 2011-12 season.

Oilers go captain-less, name four alternates instead

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Edmonton’s made a fairly significant shift in its leadership group.

The big news is the Oilers won’t have a captain this season, as Andrew Ference will relinquish the “C” he’s worn for the last two years.

Ference will, however, remain part of the group and wear an “A” as part of a four-man alternate captain collective, one that also includes Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall.

The news of Ference being removed as captain doesn’t come as a huge surprise. The veteran d-man is a well-respected leader, but isn’t expected to be in the lineup every night this season.

The decision to go without a captain, though, is something of a surprise, especially given what new head coach Todd McLellan endured during his final season in San Jose.

The Sharks’ captaincy issue — stripping Joe Thornton, then going with four rotating alternates — was an ongoing problem, something that players, coaches and GM Doug Wilson had to repeatedly address until it blew up in spectacular fashion.

That said, the circumstances in Edmonton are quite different.

It’s believed the club’s intentionally keeping the captaincy vacant, on the assumption that Connor McDavid will evolve into a superstar and, subsequently, the club’s unquestioned leader.

Finally, McLellan noted that with Eberle currently sidelined, a fifth Oiler would be added to the leadership group — veteran forward Matt Hendricks, who will serve as a temporary alternate.

Brandon Sutter didn’t have the greatest preseason

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When Brandon Sutter was acquired by the Vancouver Canucks, GM Jim Benning called the 26-year-old a “foundation piece for our group going forward.”

Sutter was quickly signed to a five-year extension worth almost $22 million, more evidence of how highly management thought of the player.

Fast forward to yesterday, when Benning was asked the following question:

“What does it say that you made the trade for Sutter, you called him a ‘foundation’ player, and it took him until the final night of the preseason to find a spot (with the Sedins) on the wing, which isn’t his natural position?”

Here was Benning’s response:

“Well, [head coach Willie Desjardins] wants to try that out, he thinks that’s going to be a good fit. At various times, the Sedins played with wingers with speed, with [Ryan Kesler], who could get in on the forecheck and had a good shot. Sutter brings some of those qualities, too.”

While all that may be true, Sutter was not signed to play the wing; he was brought in to play center, specifically on the second line. He finished the preseason with zero points in five games. And as mentioned, he’ll start the season on the wing, not his natural position.

Meanwhile, youngsters Bo Horvat, 20, and Jared McCann, 19, had outstanding camps and are expected to start the regular season (tonight in Calgary) centering the second and third lines, respectively.

Though Sutter did finish the preseason with 12 shots on goal, up there with the most on the Canucks, it’s fair to say he did not look like a “foundation” player.

“I haven’t seen him play his best,” Desjardins said last week. “I see a guy who’s big and a good skater and who understands the game real well, but just hasn’t got that involved.”

Now, we are only talking about the preseason here. New players often take time to get comfortable. Perhaps playing with the Sedins can provide Sutter with some confidence.

“I know he’ll be there and I totally believe that,” said Desjardins.

But it hasn’t been the best start, and if it wasn’t for the encouraging play of the youngsters, it would be a far bigger story in Vancouver.

Related: Canucks roll the dice on rookies, waive Vey and Corrado