Oops. The Pittsburgh Penguins cut bait with struggling veteran backup goalie Antti Niemi and placed the goalie on waivers, Monday. Niemi stumbled to a .797 save percentage through three starts this season, one season after a near-disastrous campaign in Dallas in which Niemi posted a next-to-last in the league .892 save percentage. The Penguins backup goalie slot is now essentially vacant.
Sadly, this was the more likely result than the 34-year-old netminder rediscovering his 2013 form. It was a nice try, but this was a clear mistake by the Penguins and General Manager Jim Rutherford. Perhaps his first mistake as Penguins GM (Seriously. This writer can easily defend the hiring of Mike Johnston and the Daniel Winnick trade, regardless of results).
Worse for the Penguins, while they waited and hoped Niemi would regain form, even after his atomic implosion in the 10-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the second game of the season, they missed on potential backup Calvin Pickard.
Pickard, 25, was placed on waivers by the Vegas Golden Knights despite being the first pick in the Expansion Draft. VGK waived, then traded Pickard to Toronto to make room for waived Boston Bruins netminder, Malcolm Subban. The Penguins could have claimed Pickard, and certainly, enough fans on Twitter called that one.
Penguins depth goaltender, Casey DeSmith, from Wilkes Barre/Scranton will serve as the Penguins backup until the Penguins move forward. DeSmith, 26, signed a two-year contract this summer after he posted a .926 save percentage in 29 AHL games last season, as the backup to prized prospect Tristan Jarry. DeSmith is not typically discussed as an NHL goaltender, and his work in the preseason would re-enforce that notion.
So, what now? The Vegas Golden Knights are down to Oscar Dansk in goal because Marc-Andre Fleury and Subban are on IR. VGK has a surplus of NHL defensemen, so they will be a strong competitor on the slim—very slim—goalie market.
The bet here is that Jarry becomes the backup, but if the Pens don’t want to potentially stunt his growth, they could look to outside options.
There are slim pickin’s around the NHL. But…here goes…
3 Potentials: Penguins Backup Goalie
3. Reto Berra, Anaheim Ducks. Berra, 30, is the third goalie in the Ducks organization. The 6′-4″ Swiss goalie has not set the world afire in his five year NHL career, though he has been serviceable in limited time.
Last season, Berra posted an atrocious .876 save percentage in seven games for the Florida Panthers. In 2015-16, Berra was solid for the Colorado Avalanche and created a buzz among scouts and teams who began to look at the netminder in a better light. Berra posted a .922 save percentage for the porous Avalanche in 14 games. The season before, Berra popped a .918 percentage in 19 games for the Avs.
Berra wouldn’t be the Penguins first choice, but beggars don’t get first choice…
Ellis, 23, was signed as a college free agent in 2016 after a dominating NCAA season with Providence. Ellis is an averagely sized goalie, just 6’-1”, but has been remarkably solid in the AHL. In his first professional season, the former Friar posted a .918 save percentage in 34 AHL games.
This season, he is off to a hot start; 1.35 goals against average and a .956 save percentage.
Would Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli make it easy on Rutherford? Probably not. Acquiring Ellis would be akin to calling up Tristan Jarry from WBS, but Ellis doesn’t have the same pedigree, so the Pens could look to use a player like Ellis while Jarry builds his game in the AHL.
1. Cam Ward, Carolina Hurricanes. This is the home run ball if the Penguins can make it happen. Ward is now the ‘Canes backup to Scott Darling, but making $3.3 million in the final year of his contract.
The 13-year veteran stumbled to a 2.69 goals against average last season and .905 save percentage in 61 games. Ward, 33, has playoff experience and a Stanley Cup ring.
The Hurricanes ownership is in flux and attendance this season has been…worse than Niemi’s stats. The Hurricanes drew less than 8,000 for their second game of the season. Carolina has playoff hopes and parting with goalie insurance is unlikely at the top of GM Ron Francis’ to-do list. Perhaps economic factors could help the Pens.
The Hurricanes do have formerly touted goalie prospect Alex Nedeljkovic, 21, in the AHL, but Francis has been critical of Nedeljkovic’s development and maturity.
For the Penguins to wrangle Ward, it could take some creative deal-making and teamwork between the former partners, Francis and Rutherford. The Hurricanes would need a backup goalie to replace Ward, lest they roll with 28-year-old Jeremy Smith, who played 10 games with the Avalanche last season, as their backup.
One target for the Penguins could have been Pheonix Copley. The touted goalie prospect from North Pole, AK, was dealt to St. Louis in the T.J. Oshie deal but returned to the Capitals organization this summer. Anyone think the Capitals would help the Penguins?
A crazy Johan Hedberg type reach (Hedberg was fifth in line for the SJ Sharks when the Penguins plucked him from obscurity in 2001) would be David Rittich, in the Calgary organization. Rittich, 25, is a late-blooming Czech who was signed before last season as a depth option.
Instead, Rittich has pushed Flames goalie prospect John Gillies for playing time and put up superior numbers. He’s a big goalie, 6’-4” and improving. It’s wildly unlikely, but if we’re speculating—no harm, no foul, right?
Paying for It
The Penguins made a poor decision to sign Niemi. It didn’t work. The team has needed at least two goalies in each Stanley Cup run, so this could be a big decision.
The first quarter of the season is typically a quiet time for trades. GM’s like to see their team before moving players. If the Penguins turn to an external option now, it will be an expensive or risky choice.
And, there aren’t many options.