Battles for the No. 1 goalie spot heading into any given season often isn’t where teams want to be.
The uncertainty for hockey’s most important position is unsettling and often means the team embroiled in a training camp battle for that club’s top job is far closer to the draft lottery than the Stanley Cup.
Today, we will focus on a few teams that don’t necessarily have that position locked up, and look into four battles that should play out once training camp gets underway in a couple month’s time.
1. Edmonton Oilers
Mikko Koskinen is Peter Chiarelli’s last defining moment in a terrible tenure with the Oilers. Chiarelli, apparently with the blessing of the team, gave .900-save-percentage man Koskinen a three-year, $13.5 million raise because of reasons that may never been fully certain.
The deal paved the way for a lot of scrutiny, the exit of Cam Talbot and the continuation of what was a compounding year of bad in Northern Alberta.
Now, the Oilers have Mike Smith in the mix, the goalie who started 40 games and posted an .898 save percentage for the Calgary Flames last season in a timeshare with David Rittitch. But Smith’s experience in the playoffs led head coach Bill Peters to give him the nod in goal.
And now Smith heads up the road to battle for a job in Edmonton. Sure, Koskinen has the contract, but there’s no question that Smith could outplay him in training camp and set up a big decision for newly-minted coach Dave Tippett. Tippett knows Smith well from his days as the bench boss in Arizona.
2. Arizona Coyotes
Speaking of the desert dogs, what’s the plan there?
They essentially have two starting-caliber netminders with Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper. Raanta’s season was derailed thanks to injury. He made just 12 starts before Kuemper took over the starting role.
Raanta’s 2017-18 campaign was outstanding with a .930 save percentage across 47 starts. The Coyotes had found someone to replace Mike Smith as a solid No. 1.
When the lower-body injury ended Raanta’s season in Nov. 2018, it would have been easy to write off the Coyotes — something many did.
Kuemper would start 55 games, winning 27 of them and posting a .925 save percentage. His play gave the Coyotes a chance down the stretch, and while it ultimately ended with them not making the playoffs, it certainly showed that Arizona had two viable options between the pipes.
That’s what makes this situation interesting. A time-share might be ideal here. It’s something that’s worked for several teams, including the New York Islanders, and to a certain extent, the Boston Bruins — while not a true timeshare — were able to rest Tuukka Rask more with a quality backup, allowing them to reach Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
If general manager John Chayka wants, he also has quite the asset in either goalie on the trade market, too. Kuemper is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and will likely be looking for a raise.
For now, they have one of the better goaltending tandems in the league and some decisions to make because of it.
3. Ottawa Senators
Craig Anderson has one year left on a deal that will pay him $4.75 million this coming season.
Anders Nilsson is getting $2.6 million next season and impressed in 26 games played last season after getting shipped to Ottawa from Vancouver.
Mike Condon is set to make $2.4 million this season.
Nilsson seems the best bet to grab the starting role after the Sens gave him a two-year deal earlier this summer. Anderson’s season last year wasn’t great and Condon isn’t going to be the starter after playing two games last season.
Nilsson, on his sixth NHL team since being drafted in 2009 by the Islanders, finally found his stride in Ottawa, posting a .914 save percentage on a bad Senators team.
4. Los Angeles Kings
Yes, Jonathan Quick has four years left and yes, he’s getting paid $5.8 million.
He was also a complete disaster last season between the pipes. So were the Kings, for that matter. But who really stood out among the wreckage was backup Jack Campbell.
While Quick, 33, had a less than ideal .888 save percentage across 46 starts, Campbell, 27, and getting paid $5.125 million less than his teammate, put up a .928 on a very bad team. It’s impressive.
While the Kings haven’t done much to improve themselves this summer, giving Campbell a shot at the starting gig might light a spark elsewhere in their lineup. They did seem to play better in front of him, and he inspired confidence with his play.
Perhaps the time is now to give Campbell is chance and let Quick groom him (and potentially Cal Petersen) as the Kings begin to look to the future.