TORONTO – Leafs general manager Dave Nonis did not concede much in the lead-up to Wednesday's trade deadline, but admitted that the addition of a veteran goaltender may be in the plans.
“If you had someone there that had played a lot of playoff games, maybe some NHL playoff games as a real good third [goaltender], then you probably wouldn't be in the market at all,” Nonis said, noting the general inexperience of goaltenders within the system.
“But having someone there that can help in the event that we need him, I think it just makes sense for us.”
The Leafs goalie chase is rather complex for all its layers and possibilities, most of which begin with James Reimer. The 25-year-old has snatched hold of the starting gig this year with a 13-4-4 record and .920 percentage, gradually building a case as the Leafs goaltender of now and the future. But that case is not yet settled and surely one the organization is uncertain about.
Hence the chase for other, more proven, options.
Miikka Kiprusoff, Roberto Luongo and Nikolai Khabibulin are among the potential considerations, each with plenty of experience and value, but laced with question-marks nonetheless as far as fit in Toronto is concerned.
Kiprusoff may be the most intriguing candidate.
Certainly battle-tested with all-world credentials, he has had a challenging season in Calgary this year – .873 save percentage – injuries and team-wide struggles no doubt a factor in his performance. The 36-year-old did manage a .921 save mark a year ago and has 56 playoff games under his belt, including a trip to the Stanley Cup final in 2004.
Price point of the acquisition aside – and that is unquestionably a factor – there are concerns. Kiprusoff has one year remaining on his contract with the Flames at a cap hit of $5.8 million, the actual salary much lower at just $1.5 million. The Leafs project to have nearly $20 million in cap space available this summer – not to mention the potential for additional room with a pair of compliance buyouts – with a string of players still to sign, including restricted free agents Nazem Kadri, Cody Franson, and Carl Gunnarsson. A Kiprusoff acquisition slices into that space and could diminish other opportunities for upgrade on the roster, notably on defence.
There is also the question of fit and future.
What would a Kiprusoff acquisition mean to Reimer's long-term stay in Toronto? At the surface, it would seem to signal serious question on the organization's behalf as to whether he could be their guy in goal over the long haul. Such a thought is only enforced by reporting from TSN's Aaron Ward and Darren Dreger which suggests that the Leafs have spoken to Kiprusoff's representatives, even discussing a potential extension.
Equally pressing are questions in the immediate. Considering his struggles this season, would Kiprusoff simply supplant the deserving Reimer or hover as a safety option in the playoffs? And if there is some belief in Reimer and he is to develop and secure the job long-term, what benefit does a pricey Kiprusoff serve next year at $5.8 million on a $64 million cap?
Of equal intrigue is whether Kiprusoff is even interested in such a move at this stage in his career.
Other candidates include Luongo, who is a question mark for the obvious reason, none of which relate to his performance and all to his lengthy contract, which carries nine more years at an annual cap hit of $5.3 million. Even early retirement, which is almost certain, would carry significant cap penalties, an anchor in which the Leafs may not want to be apart of.
Khabibulin, at age 40, packs the least excitement, but may be the safest option, provided the Oilers – who are competing for a long-awaited playoff spot themselves – are willing to move him. An unrestricted free agent following the season, he has performed capably with a .930 save percentage (albeit in just eight games) and could fit the bill as a simple, experienced, cost effective option.
All of which leads back to Reimer. While not always razor-sharp or smooth in his performance this year, he has gotten the job done nonetheless, tied for ninth in save percentage among goaltenders with at least 15 starts. It stands to reason that in their quest to find an answer on his long-term potential, he needs to play and - more importantly - play in the postseason. Inexperience is also hardly a qualifier for success or failure in the playoffs as Braden Holtby, Mike Smith, Antti Niemi, Jaroslav Halak and others have proved in recent years.
Still, the Leafs may not want to take that chance, especially with an equally unproven backup in Ben Scrivens. Staring at a likely trip to the postseason for the first time in nine years and with a chance to make some noise in the wide open Eastern Conference, they may be compelled to add an upgrade like Kiprusoff.
Such a move may prove short-sighted, especially as it pertains to Reimer's ability to develop and continue charting upward.
Nonis cautioned that any deal for a goaltender would get struck “only if it makes sense and if the price-tag is reasonable”.
“It's the same as every other position,” he said. “If we can add a goaltender that strengthens our group and helps the guys that we have here then we would look to do it … If not, it's not like we're not comfortable with the two players we have in net, they've done a very good job, both of them.”