Heading into the off-season there was no more pressing need for the Edmonton Oilers than to find a starting goaltender. Over the past few days, Ken Holland has found himself more wiggle room under the salary cap, courtesy a trade and retirement. The goalie market has already started to shrink and it appears it will come down to one of two names…Jack Campbell and Darcy Kuemper.
The latter is coming off winning the Stanley Cup but is rumoured to be looking for a contract similar to the one his predecessor with the Colorado Avalanche inked with the Seattle Kraken last summer. Philipp Grubauer signed on the dotted line for six-years, at a tidy sum of $5.9 million per season. It’s hard to blame the Saskatoon native for wanting to cash in but can’t see him getting that kind of term.
As of this moment, the teams who are expected to be engaged heavily in acquiring a goaltender via free agency are Edmonton, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals. Two of the three have shown interest in Kuemper in the past and all three would seriously entertain the notion of bringing him into the mix but not for that many years and probably not at that kind of number.
Though he has managed to put together a nice career, we’re talking about a player who just turned 32 years-of-age. Has battled injury through much of his time in the NHL and has eclipsed the 50 game-mark a grand total of twice during his ten seasons in the league. After a slow start to his 2021-22 campaign, he finished off the year on fire but was only so-so during the playoffs and was sidelined twice due to injury.
Not exactly a comforting thought for a guy who wants the term and money Kuemper is after. From an Oilers perspective, clearly they like the player, as they tried trading for him last off-season. Unfortunately, the Avs put together a more attractive package and wrestled him away from the Arizona Coyotes. It played out perfectly for Colorado and yet, they were fine with cutting ties after one season.
That in itself is a red flag, especially coming from a team facing a cap crunch, something both the Oilers and Maple Leafs are all too familiar with. On a one or two-year term, either team might be able to work something out in and around that number but not long term. If Edmonton genuinely believes they have a potential no. 1 in Stuart Skinner, going anywhere close to Kuemper’s demands would be craziness.
With regards to Campbell, it’s no secret Holland has him high on his wish list. Though far from perfect, after carrying the mail for the Leafs over the past two seasons, he knows all too well of the pressure that comes with playing goal in the hockey-crazed Canadian market. And outside of tough stretches during ’21-’22 when lost his confidence and game, he’s been solid during his time in Toronto.
Yes, the Leafs continue to find ways to lose in the playoffs and while Campbell played well in each of their last two series, he was the second best goalie when it mattered most in those games. Granted, the two guys who outplayed him were Carey Price and Andrei Vasilevskiy but Toronto did drop five consecutive series clinching games between those two series. Not a great look by any means.
With that said, it’s difficult to take issue with what Campbell has provided the Maple Leafs since coming over in a trade with the Los Angeles Kings in February 2020. At a cap hit of $1.65 million over the past two seasons, Toronto has got more than their money’s worth from the talented American tender. However, those days are not gone and figuring out what that next number will be could prove tricky.
Despite being a highly touted junior and one of the few goalies to have been selected inside the first round at the Entry Draft (no. 11 in 2010 by the Dallas Stars) it’s taken Campbell a long time to find his NHL legs. Prior to the 49 games he played in ‘21-‘22, his previous career high was 31 and has exactly 135 games on his resume. Not exactly a body of work that merits an annually salary in the $5 million range.
Yet, that is the number he is rumoured to be after and at 30 years-of-age, this could be the one and only time Campbell has a shot at earning a real payday. The fact he has taken home roughly $6 million in career earnings, tells us how important this contract is. The other thing to keep in mind, he would like to stay in Toronto and if the offers he gets are in a similar range, chances are he will remain a Maple Leaf.
Not exactly a ton to choose from but that is what Holland and the Oilers are facing. Do they give in and overpay in term and dollars in hopes one of these two knocks it out of the park or do they go in a different direction. Veterans such as Braden Holtby, Thomas Griess and Jaroslav Halak could be had via free agency but all three are well past their prime and should not be viewed as realistic options.
If the plan is to go out and find a reasonably priced vet to help share the load with Skinner, the obvious target would have to be James Reimer. While not as sexy a name, the veteran guardian continues to be the guy he has been throughout his twelve year career. He’s coming off another solid campaign, which is no easy task playing behind a San Jose Sharks side that wasn’t very good.
With one year remaining on his current deal at $2.25 million and the Sharks going nowhere in the coming season, Holland could easily acquire him in a trade. Yes, at this stage in his career, Reimer is not going to carry the mail on a team looking to be a Cup favourite but that wouldn’t be the ask. It truly would be a partnership with Skinner and keep the organization from making a potentially massive blunder.
Make no mistake, the Oilers have cap space and need a goaltender but if they guess wrong and lock in long-term with a guy that isn’t who they are “hoping” he will be, the aftermath could be ugly. With due respect to both Campbell and Kuemper, that is a real possibility in both cases and it’s not something that can or should be taken lightly by the organization.
The other option at Holland’s disposal, go out and trade for a goalie who is signed but he doesn’t necessarily have the assets and/or long term cap flexibility to make that kind of deal happen. Be it proven names like a Sergei Bobrovsky, Connor Hellebuyck and John Gibson or a younger guy such as Linus Ullmark, it’s not easily done and in some cases, could negatively impact the team in the long term.
At the end of the day, Ken Holland has the space to add that elusive no. 1 goaltender but if there isn’t one out there to be had, making a bad bet would be a mistake. Use the money to improve the overall roster and leave enough flexibility to address the situation, should the need arise. It may be not be the move everyone wants but it’s the one that makes the most sense in the here and now.