The Columbus Blue Jackets are heading into the 2023-24 season with reason for optimism.
A new coach, a stud prospect, and a solidified blueline will do that. But so much of the season, as we know, hinges on what happens between the pipes. Can Elvis Merzlikins and Danill Tarasov stay healthy, and more to the point, can they each put together strong a strong season? If the answer is no, the solution to that problem isn't likely coming from AHL Cleveland, who will be leaning on Jet Greaves (22) and Pavel Cajan (20).
With that in mind, it may make sense for the organization to add a depth goaltending piece heading into training camp/preseason. But in mid/late August, who is available?
A quick filter on CapFriendly shows 14 goalies who are UFA on expiring contracts. Of the 14, four of them offer little or no NHL experience and are therefore eliminated from the pool. Another, Jon Gillies, actually played in three games for the Blue Jackets last season. He isn't exactly the insurance the club would be searching for, so, that leaves nine candidates.
In age from oldest (41) to youngest (31) those nine are:
- Mike Smith
- Brian Elliott
- Jaroslav Halák
- Cory Schneider
- Anton Khudobin
- Jonathan Bernier
- Aaron Dell
- Michael Hutchinson
- Jean-François Bérube
The reality is that none of these names jump off the page. Even the youngest player, Bérube, is on the decline. And let's be honest - these players are available for a reason. Some combination of worsening play, injury history, and the fact that there are only 64 NHL jobs up for grabs means that the pickings are slim. Do any of these players make sense?
Well, if the hope is to have someone who can play games and is durable, there are a few interesting options. Jaroslav Halák has played 581 games and has been a reliable backup for years. He's 38 and, based on his prior contracts, would command somewhere in the $1.5M AAV range. That's not a bad flier. He's a career .917 goalie, which is excellent, but even in recent years, he's been solid. In his past five seasons, he's been at .913. But he reportedly acknowledged in an interview that he's not interested in being an NHL third-string goalie. So that may be that.
Mike Smith, who is on the list on a technicality, would be an interesting solution, but he spent last year on LTIR, and he'll almost certainly announce his retirement ahead of the 2023-24 season.
What about someone like Brian Elliott? He's been a backup for the past five seasons, most recently with Tampa Bay. At 38, his game has really dipped and there's real reason to wonder if he's just washed. On the other hand, he could be exactly the type of insurance policy that makes sense. He would not be a waivers risk, he would be inexpensive to add, and if you needed him to play a few games, he would be a serviceable, although not inspiring, option.
Most of what could be said for Elliott serves as a stand-in for the remainder of the names on that list. These are flawed players, either by virtue of their advanced age or their lack of NHL success. They're UFA in mid-August for a reason, in other words.
Still, the Blue Jackets should take a flier on one of these goalies for training camp, as there is virtually no downside.