The beginning of training camps can be a difficult and stressful time for NHL players.
Veterans at the end of their careers, and those trying to rebound from disappointing seasons, have a lot to prove at this time of the year.
Two players with a lot to prove over the next few weeks are free-agent goaltenders Tim Thomas and Ilya Bryzgalov, both of whom have fallen from being among the best at their position to players with very little value on the open market.
Tim Thomas closing in on a decision. Possibly today. Discussions continue with multiple teams.— Craig Custance (@CraigCustance) September 10, 2013
Panthers await word from Thomas and Bryzgalov. Can't have both, but intrigued to see if either can earn a spot thru a camp invite.— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) September 11, 2013
Which one of these veterans would be a better fit for teams lacking skill and/or depth at the game's most important position this season?
It depends on the situation each club with interest is facing.
For general managers looking to sign a veteran backup to mentor and provide competition for a young goalie who represents the future of the team in net, the best option is Bryzgalov.
The 33-year-old goaltender, who was recently bought out of the nine-year, $51 million contract he signed with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2011, was a backup with the Anaheim Ducks for a few years before becoming a star player with the Phoenix Coyotes. He has plenty of experience in a backup role and would be an upgrade over many of the No. 2 goalies in the league.
Meanwhile, Thomas has very little recent experience as a backup goaltender. Aside from an injury-riddled 2009-10 season, the Michigan native has been a No. 1 goalie in four of his last five seasons.
But for a team expected to energize its fanbase by making the playoffs or contend for a Stanley Cup this season, Bryzgalov is not the answer. As the chart below shows, Thomas' postseason resume is much stronger.
To be fair, Bryzgalov didn't have the same caliber of defensemen in front of him in Phoenix and Philadelphia that Thomas had in Boston, but there's no question that the 39-year-old is the best fit for a franchise looking to compete in 2013-14.
Which player is the best option for teams that need a goaltending upgrade?
A team like the Edmonton Oilers that has an ultra-talented young core without much postseason experience would be a good destination for Thomas. Edmonton's No. 1 goalie is 27-year-old Devan Dubnyk, whom in his two seasons as the starter, has yet to show that he's a franchise player. His career stats include a 50-59-19 record, a .913 save percentage and a 2.78 GAA.
The Oilers are under a lot of pressure to make the playoffs after stockpiling talent with high draft picks earned as a result of many disappointing seasons. If Dubnyk falters early in the season, having a veteran backup such as Thomas with tons of playoff-race experience and the ability to instill confidence in a young blue line is a good Plan B.
Put simply, any team with playoff or championship aspirations should absolutely consider signing Thomas during training camp.
He's a proven postseason performer who relishes the pressure and expectations that are placed on goaltenders late in the season. Being a backup probably isn't his top priority, but accepting that role on a contender is a lot better than spending another season at home with no NHL job.
Both of these goaltenders have red flags—make no mistake about that. They are potential distractions on and off the ice. But as a player who thrives when people doubt him, Thomas, much more than Bryzgalov, is worth the risk to a team that needs goaltending help this season.
Throughout his entire NHL career, people have told Thomas that he isn't good enough and doesn't have what it takes to be an elite player. He proved them wrong in 2011 and it's this kind of criticism that motivates the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner to perform at a high level.
Thomas isn't a Vezina Trophy-caliber goaltender anymore, but he would be a quality addition to any NHL team that's expected to compete for a playoff spot in 2013-14.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL columnist at Bleacher Report. He was a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, the 2012 NHL playoffs and the 2013 NHL draft.