- Craig Custance
It was the logical move. Veteran goalie Scott Clemmensen was back from knee surgery and the Panthers needed to find the roster space to activate him behind Jose Theodore. So talented rookie Jacob Markstrom had to go, sent to the Florida Panthers' AHL affiliate in San Antonio. Logical, but not easy.
"It's never easy," said Panthers GM Dale Tallon during a Monday evening phone conversation. "I think we were thinking we're going to be conservative and make sure what's best for him long-term. If he's going to be a No. 1, he's got to play No. 1 minutes."
That wasn't going to happen right now in the NHL, but during Markstrom's five-game NHL trial period, something happened. The Panthers' timeline for him sped up considerably. Last year the 6-foot-3 Swede battled inconsistencies and injuries and Tallon wasn't exactly sure what he had in the young goalie. Now he knows. Markstrom went 2-2-1, with a 2.05 goals-against average and .944 save percentage. Chances are that the next time he returns to the NHL, it will be for good.
Despite all the big spending Tallon did during the summer, he kept his goalie costs low, and that could pay off this season. Jose Theodore was signed to a two-year deal worth $1.5 million per season, a deal that includes a no-trade clause according to CapGeek.com. Clemmensen is playing in the final year of a contract worth $1.2 million and a trade may ultimately be the solution in Florida. Tallon has a talented goalie ready to seize the starting job and hasn't ruled out the possibility of dealing a goalie to create an opening for him.
"You never know," Tallon said. "There are things that can come into play moving forward. We'll see what happens. I think we have good depth in our organization in goaltending. I'd rather err on the side of caution."
Clemmensen will need time to prove he's healthy, but his track record is strong enough that you know what you're getting if teams are interested in dealing for him. In two seasons with the Panthers, Clemmensen finished with nearly identical save percentages -- .912 and .911.
"Scott is a real pro, he knows his role really well," Tallon said. "Our guys like him. They have confidence in him and he and Jose work well together. It's all positive."
The goalie market is an interesting one right now. On the high end, teams willing to part with serious assets could likely pry Cory Schneider away from the Vancouver Canucks or Jonathan Bernier from the Los Angeles Kings.
The New York Islanders are showcasing Evgeni Nabokov, who allowed three goals on 12 shots last night against the Boston Bruins. In five games this season, Nabokov is 1-3-0 with a .911 save percentage and 2.81 goals against average. His numbers aren't eye-popping, but he's also earning just $570,000, which makes him attractive to teams against the salary cap or teams like the Columbus Blue Jackets who are already spending a lot on payroll. According to reporter Chris Botta, who is well-connected with the Islanders, the asking price for Nabokov is a second-round pick. That's a bit steep.
Another interesting option might be Josh Harding. The Minnesota Wild aren't actively looking to deal right now, but GM Chuck Fletcher is always open to a traditional "hockey trade" that helps both teams. Harding is earning a very reasonable $750,000 this year and is an unrestricted free agent. He's hasn't lost a game in regulation. He's at 4-0-1 with a 1.18 goals-against and .965 save percentage this season. The one time I saw him live this season, he was outstanding in a win over Detroit, single-handedly keeping the Wild in the game. It's a tough decision for the Wild -- do you ride the hot goalie or strike a deal while his value is growing? Tallon may not be the only general manager faced with tough decisions in goal this season.
• Tallon said he's happy with the way things are progressing in Florida. The Panthers currently sit in the No. 8 spot in the East with 15 points and look capable of pushing Tampa and Carolina for second place behind the Capitals. Tallon has been pleased with the effort of his completely rebuilt team. "They're playing hard every night. We're in every game," he said. "Our guys are starting to come together. If you would have told me we'd be 6-4-3 at this point, I would have been very happy with it. We're playing hard and starting to get the systems more naturally and get a feel for what works best."
Tallon's risky trade for Brian Campbell is paying off, and his splash into free agency received lots of attention, but he's really excited about the young talent being collected in the organization. Besides Markstrom, Erik Gudbranson and Jonathan Huberdeau are potential future stars. "These are all a big part of our future," Tallon said. "It really gives us a lot to look forward to."
• I spoke recently with Dave Poulin, Toronto's vice president of hockey operations, for a Mark Howe story I'm working on, and he had high praise for 21-year-old Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner. Like Howe, Gardiner is a converted forward and Poulin sees similarities between the two. It's not to say Gardiner is a future Hall of Famer, but Poulin sounded excited about his high-end potential.
"This kid was made a defenseman his senior year in high school," Poulin said. "I sort of have a theory on that right now. Jake plays like Mark Howe plays ... I see (Howe) on the ice in this young player. He's such a good skater. If you beat him to the outside, he simply turns around and skates. That's what Mark did." Gardiner's development is providing GM Brian Burke with options on defense.
• With Davis Payne the first coaching casualty of the season, the shift naturally moves to who will be next. Don't look to Vancouver. GM Mike Gillis told the Vancouver Sun that Alain Vigneault is rock solid in his position as the Canucks coach as Vancouver battles mediocrity at 7-7-1. "Alain's not going anywhere," Gillis told the Sun's Iain MacIntyre. "I'm completely confident in our coaching staff. We made a number of changes (to the roster). We had the best season last year in the history of the Vancouver Canucks. We need to complete our task and Alain is the right person to do that."
Carolina's Paul Maurice's job appears safe right now as well.
• Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman has been working the phones to add help on defense, but in the meantime, Matt Gilroy is poised to get additional responsibility on defense with Victor Hedman hurting. According to TampaBay.com, Gilroy is expected to join Eric Brewer on Tampa's top pair and he said he's getting more comfortable in Guy Boucher's system. The challenge with the former Rangers and Boston University defenseman is managing his offensive impulses and limiting his risk taking. "It's going to be a process with me, still," Gilroy told Damian Cristodero. "I'm more under control."
Craig Custance writes that Jacob Markstrom's development could prompt the Panthers to trade one of their other goalies later this season, and offers an examination of the goalie trade market league-wide.