With the recent call-up of goaltender Brad Thiessen from the Wilkes-Barre club it seems the Penguins are grasping at straws to try and relieve the pressure on their star netminder, Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury is on pace to seen action in over 70 games this season, and at one point made 23 consecutive appearances for the Pens. While his performances (and numbers) have been stellar – 31 wins, 2.36 GAA, .911 Sv% – any rational fan of the team should be fearful that Marc-Andre could become overworked, and thus fatigued during the stretch run and postseason. Unlike last season Brent Johnson has so far been unable to relieve the pressure on Fleury. Johnny’s inability to put together a quality start – reflected by his 3.17 GAA and .882 Sv% – means that the Penguins’ hand could be forced into acquiring a serviceable back-up goaltender before the trade deadline. If Thiessen doesn’t provide the necessary spark in the backup position, look for the Penguins to make a move before Monday’s 3 p.m. deadline.
So who would the Penguins be looking to acquire? Which goaltenders are even available? Of course, the obvious names come to mind: Jonathan Bernier, Cory Schneider, perhaps even 6′ 7″ Anders Lindback. But the Penguins wouldn’t be in the market for “big” names like the aforementioned netminders. The team would instead be looking for someone who could give 5-7 quality starts down the stretch and fit in well within the dressing room. If the Penguins find themselves making a move to acquire a goaltender, here are a few names to consider:
- Josh Harding – Minnesota Wild
Earlier today when I asked Joe Depto, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ writer for The Fourth Period Magazine, whether the Penguins might be interested in trading for a goaltender, Josh Harding’s name was mentioned. Still only 26 years old, Harding has the talent necessary to be a #1 goaltender in the NHL; however, much of his career has been maligned by nagging injuries which have caused him to miss parts of the past few seasons. Nonetheless, Harding has posted respectable numbers in his time with Minnesota – 37 Wins, 2.64 GAA, .916 Sv% in 107 career appearances – and should be able to slot in as a more-than-capable #2 behind Marc-Andre Fleury. Harding is probably the most attractive back-up option available to the Penguins in the current trade market.
- Antero Niittymaki – San Jose Sharks
With Antti Niemi and Thomas Greiss in their goaltending stable, one might venture a guess that Antero Niittymaki is most likely available for the right price. Niittymaki has experience as a starting goaltender in the NHL, and has made 234 career appearances for the Flyers, Lightning and Sharks. Niittymaki’s career statistics aren’t nearly as glowing as Josh Harding, but with a 2.95 GAA and .902 Sv% the price-tag would likely be much more affordable for a Penguins team less than thrilled to be dealing for a goalie in the first place. When the available goaltenders are few and far between, experienced veterans like Niittymaki become much more attractive to those teams in need.
- Curtis Sanford – Columbus Blue Jackets
Two weeks ago I probably would have left a name like Curtis Sanford off this list. His play so far this season would normally make him untouchable, even for a team like Columbus. But with the departure of Antoine Vermette and Jeff Carter in the past week, it looks like GM Scott Howson has already begun gutting his roster. With the ‘firesale’ in full swing, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Curtis Sanford dangled to a few needy GMs looking for that goaltending push that could mean the difference between playoff glory and a first-round exit. While Sanford’s career numbers are pretty much on par with Niittymaki (2.70 GAA / .905 Sv%) he has been able to post a 2.52 / .915% on an absolutely horrendous Blue Jackets squad in 2011-12; one would believe that on a stout defensive team like Pittsburgh Sanford could flourish in a limited role.
- Nikolai Khabibulin – Edmonton Oilers
Okay, I have to admit that I only included the ‘Bulin Wall’ on this list because I would love to see this guy in a Pens’ uniform. The Edmonton Oilers are currently sitting 12 points out of eighth place in the Western Conference, and the team theoretically should be ‘sellers’ at the trade deadline. Their future #1 goaltender, Devan Dubnyk, will likely be seeing the bulk of the starts down the stretch and Khabibulin is definitely not in the club’s long-term plans. These factors should indicate that Khabibulin could become available for the right price, but the Oilers will likely want to keep him around as an insurance policy. The aging veteran clearly has some good hockey left in the tank (2.60 GAA / .914 Sv% in 2011-12), and his presence could be exactly what the Penguins need to bolster an already well-performing squad.
Clearly if Thiessen can come in and provide the Penguins with a quality start – either Saturday or Sunday – then all bets are off. The Penguins could be inclined to allow last year’s Baz Bastien winner to man the nets, taking some of the pressure off Fleury and allowing him to maintain his energy-levels for the postseason. If Joey MacDonald’s recent success with the Red Wings is any indication of what might happen for the Penguins, then this entire conversation could become moot. But until then, I hope Shero is planning for every possible contingency. If the Penguins do end up acquiring a goaltender to support Marc-Andre Fleury, expect one of these names to be donning a Penguins jersey in the spring.