Monday, June 09, 2014

If not Emery, then who?

Without appropriate action on the part of GM Ron Hextall and his agent, Ray Emery's second stint with the Philadelphia Flyers is set to end at midnight on July 1, the official conclusion of his one-year, $1.65 million contract.

Last season, the 31-year-old Ontario native performed pretty much how a veteran backup on a team with wild momentum swings would, going 9-12-2 with a 2.96 goals-against average and a pair of shutouts over 28 appearances.

Subbing for Steve Mason in the first round of an eventual seven-game loss to the New York Rangers, he played to his capabilities given the defense in front of him, going 1-2 in three starts.

Emery also provided counterpoint in the crease. While Mason is a wide-eyed kid looking to revitalize his career, showing his leadership through performance as the No. 1 guy going forward, Emery was the wily vet, his best days behind him, providing guidance and a bit of a push for the new guy and the looming spectre of brutal assault to the opposition.

And yes, "Emory and Ivory" was a clever way to market the duo, an opportunity for promotion that doesn't come along very often unless you're stockpiling the Phillies pitching staff.

While Paul Holmgren cited Emery's 17-1-0 record with the Chicago Blackhawks two seasons prior as a deciding factor in his signing last July, there's simply no way Emery could ever live up to those numbers here with a defense we'll be charitable and say isn't very close to Stanley Cup caliber. So, the question becomes, how can Hextall justify re-signing a goalie over 30, with a losing record and GAA approaching three-per-game even with the salary cap due to increase?

Let's look at the options.

Unrestricted Free Agents: It's a bonanza of big-name talent at the high end of the cap among UFA goaltenders, automatically disqualifying the top nine names (Ryan Miller, Martin Brodeur, Jonas Hiller, Tim Thomas, Devan Dubnyk, Evgeni Nabokov, Ilya Bryzgalov, Nikolai Khabibulin, Tomas Vokoun) with Emery holding the 10th highest cap hit of those available.

Below that, it's the sure-to-retire Jean-Sebastien Giguere, but the next two names following practically leap off the page: Jonas Gustavsson and Scott Clemmensen.

Gustavsson, an imposing agile presence in the crease at 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, went 16-5-4 with a 2.63 GAA in 27 games for the Red Wings. His cap hit was just $1.5 million last season for the final season of a two-year, $3 million deal, and at age 29, has only slight wear-and-tear thanks to 141 games in parts of four NHL seasons under his belt.

He did well to keep Detroit afloat last season in the face of its bizarre and never-ending string of injuries, which included incumbent Jimmy Howard, and was a factor in keeping the Wings in the thick of the playoff race in spite of that. A multi-year deal where a cap hit reaches the $1.5-1.75M range will work to the Flyers' benefit while Hextall attempts to rebuild the defense and try to shop some of the bigger albatross forward contracts.

Clemmensen, like Emery, is a journeyman with some additional miles, but you know right off the bat there's no chance he'll do enough to take over a starting spot. At 36, the Iowa native and national champion with Boston College has played 188 games for three other NHL organizations plus 199 AHL appearances for their affiliates since 2001. He was 6-7-1, 3.09 in 17 games for the Panthers in 2013-14.

It's been five seasons since he took over for an injured Martin Brodeur, going 25-13-1 with a 2.39 GAA and two shutouts in 40 appearances for the Devils -- but nice to know he can take the mantle if Mason should be sidelined long-term. It wouldn't make much sense to sign him to anything more than a one-year deal, and for something close to his $1.2M cap hit from last season, it's another no-brainer to kick the tires.

Below that, we start heading into the remainder bin as the cap hits quickly shrink below $1 mil: Jason LaBarbera, Joey MacDonald, Thomas Greiss, Cristopher Nilstorp and the Phantoms' Yann Danis.

Restricted Free Agents: The talent pool drops off considerably. Top name on the list is Toronto's James Reimer at a cap hit of $1.8 million, but since he'll be looking to get out of Hogtown and go somewhere quieter in pursuit of a starting job, he shouldn't be on the Flyers' radar. Emery was signed to give Mason a push, but Reimer's the kind of goaltender who might want to shove Mason out of the spotlight and this franchise cannot stand another crease controversy. 

After that, only three other names leap out: Anders Lindback, Antti Raanta and Robin Lehner.

Lindback ($1.8M cap hit) is Bob Clarke's wet dream: a goaltender attractive because of the way he performed against the Flyers. The rangy 26-year-old Swede (6-foot-6) went 3-0-0 while stopping 88-of-95 Philadelphia shots in three games this past season. Overall, he went 8-12-2 with a 2.90 GAA and one shutout in 23 appearances for the Bolts, and is just 34-35-5 in 85 appearances in four NHL seasons with Nashville and Tampa Bay.

Raanta ($1.4M) took Emery's slot as Corey Crawford's backup in Chicago. The 25-year-old Finn survived his first season of North American hockey by going 13-5-4 with a 2.71 GAA and one whitewash in 25 contests for the defending champions. Small-ish at 6-foot and 187 pounds, Raanta nonetheless moves well and is positionally sound, but has none of the emotion, spirit or flair the Flyers might be looking for.

Lehner, at 22 already having seen parts of four NHL seasons with the Ottawa Senators, might be the pick of the crop. With a cap hit of just $870,000 and more experience than most goaltenders his age, one can overlook a 12-15-6 record, goals-against above three and a .913 save percentage in 36 games for a struggling Senators club and see how those numbers might improve on a Flyers team presumably on the upswing.

Emery should recognize that he's in the portion of his career where he shouldn't be looking to get rich or find a franchise that needs a starter, so it's tough to imagine his demands being unreasonable on Hextall if he wants to remain in Philadelphia. If he wants to find a comfortable situation on a potential Cup winner, then it's likely we've seen the last of Razor here.

One potential cringeworthy destination in that case, is Pittsburgh, which needs to find a suitable replacement for Tomas Vokoun, whose potential for recurring blood clot issues plus his advancing age, puts his career at risk.


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