As we saw throughout this year's playoffs, good goaltending can make or break your team's chances of winning.
We have been lucky to see the likes of Mike Smith, Martin Brodeur and Jon Quick lead their teams through the playoffs and be their top player on a consistent basis. Whether they were a one-season wonder, a savvy veteran or a superstar in the making, they were each their respective team's MVP.
Nonetheless, the goaltending position is one of the key aspects of any team in the NHL. Having a goalie in net that can steal you games is huge. If the players on the team have confidence that their goalies will be there to make that key save, then they are free to play their own games.
So far, the UFA crop of goalies on the market this year has dropped, with some big names already re-signing with their teams, such as Evgeni Nabokov and others being traded to be signed right away, like Tomas Vokoun did with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Even so, there are still numerous goalies out there that should command jobs come next season.
There is an impressive mixture of UFAs for 2012.
They include one of the best goalies ever, some young goalies ready to take a number one job, proven backups and even one that may return to the NHL after a little hiatus.
With only a few weeks separating now and July 1, it is time to start considering where the top free-agent goalies will most likely go. So here are the top 10 on the market and where they are most likely to land before next season.
The biggest gamble in the whole crop of free agents in this year's class of goalies is Antero Niittymaki.
Niittymaki could turn out to be a lot higher than the No. 10 player on this list, but that all depends on his perseverance and how well he can bounce back after a tough, disappointing year last season.
There is no doubt that he has the talents to provide a team with solid backup goaltending, but it does not come without a risk.
After missing a large chunk in the beginning of the season due to hip surgery, Niittymaki saw his job as the Sharks backup disappear to Thomas Greiss, which meant a clearing of waivers—no one wanted to pick him up, as he hadn't been proven since hip surgery—and a stint in the minors. It was his first time in an AHL net since the 2004-05 season.
This year, he only played in 13 games (all in the AHL) and held a 4-8-0 record. His GAA during that time was 3.60.
Teams Possibly Interested: Toronto Maple Leafs, New Jersey Devils, Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins, Winnipeg Jets
If he can show that he has his game back on track, like his past seasons prove he is capable of doing, then he would be an excellent backup to Martin Brodeur in New Jersey. Although it would be ideal to obtain a young goalie to groom while Brodeur is there, Niittymaki certainly provides an intriguing option.
He has shown that he can play many games in a season, which is what would be expected of any goalie backing up Brodeur next year, should he return.
After his move to Anaheim, Ellis has struggled. A new change of scenery may be what it takes to get him going again.
He had a good start to his NHL career in Nashville, putting together two decent seasons. Even two years ago, when he split time between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Anaheim Ducks, he played well.
Last year, it was a different story. Teams should now be seeing him as a backup goalie who can provide relief to their number one. His numbers of the 2007-08 season are long behind when he was awarded the award for having the best save percentage in all of the NHL with a .924, so teams should not be expecting that play out of him next year.
But those numbers could return, and one team will undoubtedly take a chance on him come next season.
If teams were going by his numbers last year in Anaheim, then it would be quite likely that Ellis would be out of a job in the NHL next season. After going a messily 1-5-0 over 10 games, the simplest way to put it was Ellis was not at his best.
Moving teams, and maybe getting a little more opportunity, may turn out to be the best for him. Getting into more than 10 games in a year might help him to be a little more consistent.
Teams Possibly Interested: Tampa Bay Lighting, Florida Panthers, Columbus Blue Jackets, Winnipeg Jets
With Steve Mason in Columbus dropping his wins and playing time year after year, they have a hole to fill. They need someone to come in and push Mason to be the best he can be.
Ellis could be that guy. He will work hard all the time and push himself to get games. Even in practice, he will try to make the saves and that might just be what Mason needs. Also, the Blue Jackets do not have a goalie right now, other than Mason, as Curtis Sanford left for the KHL.
This could be a low-cost option for a Blue Jackets team that does not want to hand out contracts worth a lot of money.
It looks like the "Monster" has run out of time in Toronto. After arriving with so much hope, amid the speculation, he has certainly let down everyone who was expecting big things out of him.
It may have been just a case of getting over-hyped about his level of talent, but Gustavsson does not seem like a sure number one goaltender in the NHL at the moment. He does possess talent, but needs time to perfect it.
After all, let's remember that he has only played in the NHL for three seasons, so writing him off this early in the game may be to the detriment of the Leafs.
If another team wants to take a little risk to what could be a great reward, then they may find themselves hitting the jackpot this year for free-agent goalies. If not for a starter in the long run, then for an excellent backup right now.
Splitting the net with other Leafs goalie James Reimer, Gustavsson just could not get anything going. He ended with a record of 17-17-4 with four shutouts and a 2.92 GAA. Playing on a Leafs team that was a .500 squad at best, he showed that he does have some upside to his game.
The good news is that after looking at his stats, he was able to drastically improve from two seasons ago. If that is a sign of things to come, then whichever team is able to land him for a bargain will have received their money's worth by the end of the year.
Teams Possibly Interested: Detroit Red Wings, New York Islanders, Minnesota Wild, Winnipeg Jets, Florida Panthers, Columbus Blue Jackets
With Jimmy Howard's role on the team as the starter pretty secure, the Wings may be the best bet to take a chance on Gustavsson. They have had a knack for finding talent out of nowhere.
They just might be able to turn Gustavsson around, especially with him playing in his new role as backup.
Although it will be tough to pry him away from the hands of the Rangers at the moment, after the job he was able to do last year, there should be a few teams who would like to include him on their opening day roster.
Biron is a backup specialist who also has the skill set to play extended periods of time in the net as a starter, should an injury or something occur. Having this potential, should it ever arise, is something not many backups can give to a team. This is one of the reasons he is considered a very valuable piece to the puzzle in net for the Rangers.
He gives them that extra option, especially considering the reduced time now set aside for Lundqvist, and Biron should be given a good paycheck by the Rangers for what he does.
Biron was able to put together a really nice record for himself last year, going 12-6-2, including two shutouts along the way. His GAA of 2.46 is alright, but he is there as a backup and numbers do not matter as long as they get the wins, which he has proven he is able to do.
He is a veteran goalie now who realizes his role and plays it well. Coming into the net whenever you are needed and providing consistent goaltending is key for a backup, and that is just what Biron does.
Teams Possibly Interested: New York Rangers, Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks, Toronto Maple Leafs, Chicago Blackhawks
If he and the Rangers can come to a deal, then there is no reason why he would not stay there. He has complemented Henrik Lundqvist very nicely and can excel in playing numerous games.
With Lundqvist only getting a certain amount of games to keep himself rested and ready to go come playoff time, Biron will be expected to play somewhere between 20 and 25 games a season. He is one of the best backups and has provided the Rangers with a good one-two punch.
There is no reason for him to leave the big city.
He has learned from the best, playing under Martin Brodeur for most of his career, and has now become a veteran backup in the NHL.
He has turned himself into one of the premier backups in the league, but unfortunately that is about all that you will get out of him. Teams should not be lining up to take a stab at him being their number one.
He has shown that he is able to play long stretches of games, like in the 2008-09 season when he played in 40 games, or short stretches, as he has also played in six games in a season.
Nonetheless, he is a great backup and plays his role very effectively.
Putting in 30 games with the Florida Panthers with a record of 14-6-6 is not to bad for a backup. But when Jose Theodore—without knocking his success this year—is your starter, you need to have a solid second guy just in case.
That is what makes Clemmensen so valuable to so many teams. He is a top-notch backup who can have good numbers, while playing lots of games if need be.
Teams Possibly Interested: Boston Bruins, New Jersey Devils, Winnipeg Jets, Detroit Red Wings, Columbus Blue Jackets
Should the Bruins not look to go the easy route and fill the backup position with Marty Turco, Clemmensen should be their next choice. He is a proven goalie, and with him behind Rask, the Bruins would be set in net. Rask will be expected to play a lot of games, but Clemmensen is good enough that he can play whenever needed.
Same goes with the New Jersey Devils. Clemmensen has already spent time in the organization, and getting to play there now would mean a lot more playing time.
He would be a valuable backup to either of those two teams come next season.
Talk about being lucky. After returning to the NHL late last season to help the Bruins in the net after injuries, he may have just found himself a job this year because of it.
With the recent news that Tim Thomas is going to take a year off from hockey, that leaves a void in the Bruins net. That means Turco may be able to grab a job as the Bruins backup for next year.
Assuming he wants the job, Turco will still have to show he can play for more than just a short time to prove he can be a legitimate backup to Tuukka Rask.
He was signed to play on the Bruins in a sort of emergency situation. He only got time in five games and sported a record of 2-2-0. His GAA (3.68) was not spectacular by any means, but with a little fine-tuning, he could present value at the right price if used properly in the backup role.
Teams Possibly Interested: Boston Bruins
Nobody wanted to sign him last year, until the Bruins came calling in March. It would be expected that the same thing happens this year. He did not play out of this world for the Bruins when he arrived by any sense, and it does not look like he revitalized his career with that stint enough to get offers thrown at him. But he did play well enough that the Bruins may be able to keep him as a backup.
He should come at a very fair price, and with the expected load to be handled mainly by Tuukka Rask, Turco could do well playing in 10 to 15 games throughout the year.
How strange it would be if the "Dominator" were to return to the NHL? After all, he is now 47 years old.
By recent accounts, it sounds like he is planning on finding some work somewhere, with the ideal place being in an NHL crease next year.
Hasek has not played in the NHL since his retirement year in 2007-08 with the Detroit Red Wings. After that year, he took a season off before playing once again in the Czech League for Pardubice HC.
Just last year, he played for Moscow Spartak in the KHL. He put together decent numbers but none that rivaled his best years, or even worse, in the NHL.
He is a warrior though, and I would not put it past him to impress some teams just enough that they would give him a tryout to earn his contract.
In the 2011-12 season, Hasek played in the Russian KHL. He was able to put together a record of 23-19-3 with a GAA of 2.48. Comparable to his NHL days, he never posted a higher GAA than 2.83, once he became a consistent starter in the league.
In the KHL last season, he was also able to put together seven blank sheets through the 46 games he played in. They are some decent numbers, and numbers that show he still has some game in him.
But are they good enough to attract teams?
Teams Possibly Interested: Detroit Red Wings, Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals
Hasek's best bet to get onto an NHL roster next year will most likely be through a tryout. Most teams, especially with his age, will not be willing to hand over the cash to him blindly. He will need to show that he can still play and that another year will not be too much for him.
Should he perform well, then there seems to be no reason why he could not make a team as a backup, considering his recent play in the KHL.
After all but guaranteeing that Brent Johnson will be making an exit from the Penguins once free agency begins when the Penguins signed Tomas Vokoun, Johnson will now become one of the top backups in play for free agency.
He has done just what the Penguins needed for him to do during his time in Pittsburgh. Johnson has been able to show that he can play a low number of games in a season and still put up decent numbers.
He will be a sought-after goalie to add to a team that already has a true number one. Johnson should not be expected to play in over 25 games, and if a team can manage that appropriately, then they will have one of the best backups.
Except for this season, with his numbers dropping quite a bit, Johnson has been crucial for the Penguins to still put up wins, even with Fleury resting.
As mentioned above, Johnson's numbers fell this year, and he was only able to post a record of 6-7-2, a far cry from two years ago when he was 13-5-3. His age may be getting to him now, as he will turn 36 next March, but he has proven before that he is able to bounce back after less than great seasons.
His record last year aside—and the 3.11 GAA—Johnson is a reliable backup option for many teams in need of a goalie for this role.
Teams Possibly Interested: New York Rangers, San Jose Sharks, Minnesota Wild, Carolina, Detroit Red Wings
Just a gut feeling, but Minnesota has a nice ring to it when you mention Brent Johnson. He will be playing behind a goalie that is very similar to Fleury, in that Backstrom will be playing the majority of the games. Johnson may be even relied on less than in Pittsburgh, and that would be the ideal scenario.
Either way, no matter how many games he plays, Minnesota would be a good fit for Johnson to consider.
Although getting up there in age—he's 40 now—Brodeur has shown that he can still compete, and even outplay, some of the league's younger superstars.
After the Eastern Conference series win over the New York Rangers, Brodeur showed moments of his former self and was able to outduel King Henrik to advance his team to the finals. Once there, although they could not win the series, Brodeur played some of his best hockey.
He is a fighter, that is for sure, and it would not be a surprise if he came back to the NHL for one more shot at a Stanley Cup. Even at his age, and with the shortened offseason he has to endure, he seemed to have a little more motivation that may carry over into next year.
This year's playoffs showed what Brodeur is all about. He is a clutch goalie who comes to perform during big games. Although during the regular season he had some rough stretches, he was still able to post a 31-21-4 record with a 2.41 GAA. His load of work will have to be shorter, as it was this year, if he comes back, in order to save himself for the playoffs.
No matter where he goes in the offseason, his goal will be to once again make it to the finals, which means teams can only expect somewhere around 50 to 60 games out of him during the season.
Teams Possibly Interested: New Jersey Devils
Although many teams would love to have the chance to have arguably one of the best goalies to ever play the game in their crease come the start of next season, it is very unlikely that Brodeur will go anywhere else but New Jersey. That is, unless he decides to hang up the skates and retire.
After his recent trip to the Stanley Cup Final, which saw Brodeur play very talented and inspired hockey, it still looks he has the drive to play. Whether he brings his talent back into the league and to the Devils remains to be seen.
He is the cream of the crop for the goalies that are available this summer. He should be expecting many teams to be interested in his services.
Harding has spent his time growing behind Wild superstar Nicklas Backstrom, and he now deserves his shot at being a number one goalie somewhere.
He was able to get quite a bit of playing time last year, more so than previous years, after an injury to Wild starter Nicklas Backstrom ensued. His numbers were not stellar, and he may still be a work in progress, but he does possess the talents to be a bona fide number one somewhere in this league.
Putting together a record of 13-12-4 with a 2.62 GAA is all right, but could do with some improvement. Nonetheless, Harding will be called upon very quickly.
Teams Possibly Interested: Minnesota Wild, Toronto Maple Leafs, Chicago Blackhawks, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers
Unless he and the Wild can work out a deal that works for both parties, the best bet would be for Harding to travel south. The Tampa Bay Lightning need a goalie badly to complement the rest of the talent they have. Taking the chance that Harding, who is only 27, will be their man for the future sets them up nicely.
With continual improvement from him in the coming years, it will mean that the rest of the young players in the system will be able to grow with him.