I know we're all worried about the goaltending situation for the Lightning. Even the slightest of rumors get magnified out of proportion to their original form. And while Steve Yzerman has said he'll take his time and not make any moves until after the World Championships, which end Sunday, that doesn't mean he's not hard at work making decisions.
And those decisions are going to be very tough ones. Currently, the team has 3 goalies under contract for 2012-13: Mathieu Garon, Dustin Tokarski, and Pat Nagle. Jaroslav Janus will be a Restricted Free Agent as of July 1. Riku Helenius has no contract with the Lightning, but the franchise holds his North American rights. In other words, the situation in goal is unsettled to say the least. It seems reasonable to think that everything hinges on who will partner with Garon in Tampa Bay in the fall. Everything else will flow from that.
And to decide that, Yzerman and his staff first have to figure out where the goalies in the system are right now and project where they are likely to be in the next year. Then they have to weigh that against the kind of talent available outside the franchise and decide whether to wade into the very unpredictable goalie market.
I don't envy Yzerman this job. Here are a few possible scenarios for goaltending based on how the team evaluates the talent currently in the system and the team's needs. Each one has its benefits and problems, and there are fewer really good solutions than one might think based on the rumors and speculation out there right now.
1. Assesment: They think Tokarski is ready to face NHL action and can be relied upon if Garon falters.
Action: Garon as starter, Tokarski as backup, at least to start the season. This assessment would have to presume that either the team doesn't need elite goaltending to succeed (that the problems of 2011-12 can be more easily fixed by addressing other areas) or that 2012-13 can be a rebuilding/growing year. I see no scenario in which Tokarski would be expected to carry the club in 2012-13. If they put their faith in Tokarski, he should be expected to perform at or just above league average. Anything else a bonus.
2. Assessment: They think Tokarski needs one year or less to be ready.
a. Action: Sign a veteran to a one or two year deal. This is the least satisfying of all the possibilities. There just isn't anyone out there who's going to get us all excited. None of these guys will steal a season for the Lightning. And they'd better be cheap. In any event, this is a compromise solution that puts off the question for another year.
- Dwayne Roloson --unlikely. I think Roloson wants to play again, but I doubt it will be with the Lightning. If I'm really honest, I'd be surprised if he's in the NHL next season, though I've heard talk of him being a backup somewhere. I hate seeing him go and it makes me want to cry, but I can't escape that feeling, even as I hold out a slim hope in my heart that I'll get to see him play again.
- Tomas Vokoun --also very unlikely. He's already said he won't be back with Washington, and rumors have it that he's in talks with KHL's Lokomotiv. His agent says he wants to play in the NHL. I don't see Yzerman looking very hard for a way to make this work. Vokoun's just not worth it when there are so many other options.
- Martin Biron --His time may be over in New York. He's a great teammate and backup. Maybe not the best idea if you're thinking you might end up having to rely on him for 35-40 games. Biron's talents would be better put to use mentoring a young up and comer, and it may be worth tying him to a two-year deal so he can work with Tokarski or Janus in 2013-14. It's something to consider, anyway.
- Scott Clemmensen --We don't know what the Panthers plan to do in goal, but if they think Markstrom is ready, either Clemmensen or Jose Theodore will have to go, and since Clemmensen's an Unrestricted Free Agent this summer, it's likely to be him. He's an okay fit, not a perfect one, and really can't be expected to put up better numbers than Garon. You do know what you're getting with him, though. For three years, he's been within .003 of his career save percentage.
b. Action: Sign Riku Helenius to a tryout contract or a one-year, one-way deal. [I feel like Helenius will want some off-the-record assurances that the team's committed to him not just as a stopgap for Tokarski. Another problem is that, as Damien Cristodero pointed out, Helenius has a year left on his JYP deal and there's no transfer agreement between the SM-Liiga and the NHL.] As impressive as Helenius's year was in Finland, it was just a single season in a very different league. I think the possibility of this is moderately low, though I'd like to see some kind of relationship built up between Helenius and the franchise, because you never know what could happen in the course of a year.
c. Action: Sign a guy on the bubble between the AHL and the NHL to a one or two year deal. There are a couple of top AHL goalies who could make a jump and not all that many places for them to go. Yzerman could decide to give one of these guys a shot, allowing them to prove themselves and taking on little long-term risk.
- Cedrick Desjardins --Again, extremely unlikely. When you let a guy go, you generally do so knowing you won't get them back. Desjardins's numbers were good in the AHL this season, when he played. And that's the kicker. Not only was he sidelined at the start of the season with the shoulder injury that lost him his shot in Tampa Bay, he had a lower body injury that kept him out for most of January and February.
- Mark Dekanich --risky. I love the guy, but he didn't play a single NHL game this season and just got back to working out a few weeks ago. How hard will it be for him to get back up to speed? He's solid and he knows he needs to prove himself before getting a long-term contract. Still pretty low odds that Yzerman goes this direction.
- Matt Hackett --if Minnesota decides to hang onto Josh Harding, Hackett could be a trade target. If Wild fans are any indication, though, it seems that Harding would be the odd one out. Either guy would be helpful in Tampa Bay, though Harding might have more incentive to prove detractors wrong.
- Eddie Lack --currently stuck between Cory Schneider and Matt Climie, Lack's future now depends on what happens with Roberto Luongo. If Lu leaves Vancouver, Lack should get promoted and will not be on the market.
- Ben Scrivens--Toronto has a real problem in goal. Scrivens is putting up a top-five AHL season (.926/2.04 in 39 regular season games and .951/1.43 in 9 playoff games), but they've also got James Reimer, Jonas Gustavsson (UFA this summer), and Jussi Rynnas (RFA this summer) to worry about. I never underestimate the ability of the Maple Leafs to mismanage goaltending talent, so I wouldn't be surprised if either Scrivens or Gustavsson or both are available. Scrivens is worth a shot. Gustavsson is not. Rynnas is probably worth it, too, but isn't ready for the NHL (and might need to get into a looser system).
3. Assessment: They think both Tokarski and Janus need more than one full year OR are willing to use them as trade assets at some point rather than slot them into the Tampa Bay system. This could be due to any number of triggers: getting a very good offer for one of them; not feeling like they fit the system; tweaking the balance between goaltending and the rest of the roster; or not having a lot of confidence in one or both of them long-term. Letting one of these guys go in a trade is not an indication that the goalie is Bad At His Job. It is more likely to mean that Yzerman is weighing what he can get for them against how much he thinks they fit the team's style and needs.
Action: Acquire starter with NHL experience who can "hit the ground running" and who'll be around for a little while.
- Roberto Luongo --I've already made the case that Yzerman ought to take a long look to see if this can be made to work. No denying it's a tough fit contractually, but it's a fantastic fit hockey-wise.
- Cory Schneider --Conventional wisdom says that Schneider's off the market. People say a lot of things, though, and we're wise not to believe all of them. Schneider's a great fit for Tampa Bay as long as Yzerman doesn't have to gut the roster to get him. Has about the same likelihood of actually happening as Roloson re-signing.
- Josh Harding --the more I think about the situation, the more I think that if there's a guy most likely to be brought in from outside the organization, Harding is that guy. Fairly good style fit, tons of motivation for him, and a high probability of a favorable contract for the team. Even if he's a bust--he has a bad injury history--chances are he's cheap. But he's got a lot of upside and plays a good positioning game that's supplemented by mobility outside the crease. A risk, but not a bad risk, and one with potential for a big payoff.
- Jonathan Bernier --Another highly touted "young stud," Bernier may or may not actually be available. He's signed through the end of next season, and I suspect that the Kings are as willing to hold onto him for another year as they are to deal him this summer. The price would need to be just right. He'd be an okay fit. He's not a pure reflex/scramble-type goalie in the Hasek mold, but he does need to have the freedom to set his own parameters. Turning him into a blocking goalie would be a mistake. He's also only had 38 NHL starts.
- Anders Lindback --No. Just no. He's very good, but inexperienced and his style is far too different from Frantz Jean's style for him to have a hope of a chance here. Yes he needs to learn control. No he doesn't need to rely on that alone. He'd do about as well in Tampa's system as Pekka Rinne would, especially since those two are virtually identical when it comes to biomechanics and mentality. [Try to tell them apart without looking at masks/pads/numbers. I dare you.] He'd be cheap, though.
We will never be privy to the detailed thought process Yzerman uses to make this decision, but we can tell something about what he is thinking by what direction he chooses to take. Either the team is ready to put all their eggs in Dustin Tokarski's basket or they aren't. Who Yzerman chooses to take on and for how long will tell us something about his assessment of Tokarski and Janus, who have definitely earned the right to be taken seriously.
Something will have to be decided, but luckily it doesn't have to be decided right away. And it's going to be a tough decision.