In the Pipes: Why 2010 NHL Free Agency Is All About Goaltending

Benjamin BenyaCorrespondent IIJune 27, 2010

CHICAGO - MAY 23:  Goaltender Evgeni Nabokov #20 of the San Jose Sharks makes a second period save while taking on the Chicago Blackhawks in Game Four of the Western Conference Finals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the United Center on May 23, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

With the recent re-signing of Montreal's Tomas Plekanec and San Jose's Patrick Marleau, the 2010 NHL Free Agent frenzy has slowed to something of an Ilya Kovalchuk Sweepstakes and nothing else. 

Sure, other cash pieces, like Alexander Frolov, Dan Hamhuis, and even Bill Guerin will draw considerable attention, but this free agent season has less to do with superstars than the NHL Entry Draft. When it comes right down to it, the top free agents to watch this offseason will be coming from in between the pipes. 

Recently, nearly all of the NHL's 30 teams have been more than content with their netminder situation. The biggest offseason acquisitions for that position over the last few years?

Ray Emery, Jose Theodore, Cristobal Huet, and Craig Anderson.

Granted, some of them have shined to the nth degree, it still doesn't read like a highly provocative or attractive A-List.

In 2010, the list has expanded in both supply and demand, with more than a half-dozen teams attempting to secure a goalie who can win them a Stanley Cup. Each one of these tenders has something to prove, too, making it all the more interesting to see where they bounce around on July 1. 

Sitting atop the list of potential free agents is Evgeni Nabokov, who, until recently, couldn't be seen in anything but a San Jose Sharks jersey. Nabokov's quality of play in the regular season was as consistent as ever, but that consistency, without a spectacular, season-changing set of performances, has turned to frustration in a Sharks organization tired of treading water. 

The Sharks already have a tentative deal set in place to ship the 2010 Olympian's rights to the Philadelphia Flyers just before the July 1 deadline. But seeing as how Philly dropped the ball on signing Dan Hamhuis before the break, will they be able to woo Nabokov for one more shot at the Stanley Cup? 

And speaking of Philadelphia, it would appear as if the Flyers are already abandoning the lackluster experiment that saw them make the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in more than a decade this June. Neither Ray Emery nor Michael Leighton are slated to return to the team, making both a mid-priced gamble for teams requiring immediate assistance with little cash to spend.

Emery's days in Philadelphia were tarnished in only half a season, thanks to injury and antics. While the Flyers recognized the risk-reward factor with the former Stanley Cup finalist, there are few teams willing to make the same decision thanks to a deeper crop of goalies this off-season.

Michael Leighton's stock rose dramatically after posting three shutouts against Montreal in the Eastern Conference Finals. However, fans and teams still know very little of which Michael Leighton will show up for an 82-game season. Will it be the Leighton who stepped in and surrendered soft goals to the likes of Sean Avery or the Leighton who was two wins from a Stanley Cup? 

If anything, this free agent period is ripe with Philadelphia goalie cast-offs. Former highly-touted Flyers prospect Antero Niittymaki was given ample time to sink or swim with both Philadelphia and his current organization, the Tampa Bay Lightning. So when he floundered, the Lightning didn't think twice about keeping Mike Smith around and letting Niittymaki, who may be nothing more than a backup come the start of the season, test the waters. 

The Lighting may instead be interested in a cheaper solution for a forgotten source in Martin Biron. Biron's signing to the New York Islanders was nothing short of baffling last summer. The Isles, who had already extended an offer to Dwayne Roloson and were still keeping Rick DiPietro on the books, had little need for Biron, despite his impressive comeback trail with the Flyers. 

Much like Craig Anderson was last season, Biron could turn out to be the steal of the off-season if a cash-strapped squad, like San Jose, swoops in to take control.

One goalie who knows a lot about NHL comebacks is also the last one to ever win the Hart Trophy: Jose Theodore. After some dynamic uncertainty in last year's playoffs, Theodore reclaimed the top spot for the Washington Capitals and was furiously unstoppable throughout the regular season. 

But soon enough, the Capitals, and Theodore, would crumble epically in the playoffs, leaving the team in disarray and looking for a new direction. While one would have to believe Theodore is a valuable asset to the Caps, they've been preparing to replace him with Semyon Varlamov and Michael Neuvirth for over a year. 

Theodore's market value is great for a team looking to make a regular season impact (see: Sharks, San Jose) but may also be a steal for a division rival (see: Thrashers, Atlanta). 

This offseason has been quite a productive one for the Atlanta Thrashers. In the deal that keeps on giving, the Thrashers have literally found a way to acquire Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel, Ben Eager, Johnny Oduya, and Niclas Bergfors for one Ilya Kovalchuk. The problem? Atlanta's only puck-stopping corps are soon to depart.

After trading Kari Lehtonen last season to Dallas (who is as much in this hunt as any other team), the Thrashers left themselves with inconsistent Ondrej Pavelec and once-great Johan Hedberg, the latter of whom is a free agent. 

Hedberg may be the best kept secret for any of these potential contenders, as he's shown that he can go the distance and was a starter in both the old and new NHL incarnations. Remember the Manitoba Moose that saved a Pittsburgh season? Lightning can strike twice, folks. 

Then, there's Marty Turco. Seen as a terminal choke-artist without the focus or heart of his predecessors, Turco may have more to prove to any team willing to sign him than any of these other players. 

The Stars were a rollercoaster of talent with Turco in the lineup, often wondering if they'd even make the playoffs, much less advance to the Western Conference Finals to play Detroit just a few years ago. If Turco hadn't fallen flat again, we might be writing a different story altogether. 

And, of course, having already chronicled a handful of decent prospective starters, we wouldn't be doing any justice if we didn't mention the Island of Misfit Goalies, which now includes Dan Ellis, Manny Legace, Chris Mason, and Vesa Toskala. What do these four have in common? All of them lost their starting jobs and are now being shuffled into someone else's deck.

Who will be the diamond in the rough? Come Thursday, we should have some idea.