On the unrestricted free agent goalie front, no goaltender under the age of 35 is as battle-tested as Josh Harding. At 27, Harding gets his second crack at free agency, after missing the entire 2011 season, he was able to re-up for $750K with the Minnesota Wild last season.
Harding has been a backup for his entire career. 900 shots is the most he’s faced in his career (in 2012) and he also played more minutes this past season than any other, appearing 1855 times. His numbers are good enough to earn him a starters job in the National Hockey League, and being the only legitimate starter on the UFA market at this point, he will probably get a sizeable raise.
First, the particulars. Harding played three seasons in the WHL, being traded from the Regina Pats to the Brandon Wheat Kings in his 19-year old season. He never made it past the second round of the playoffs, but had save percentages of over .900 in each of his three campaigns, going 7th, 3rd and 6th in the league. In his second WHL season in 2003, he won the Del Wilson and Four Broncos Memorial trophies as the top goaltender and most valuable player in the league.
Harding was drafted 54th overall in 2002 by Minnesota but didn’t see NHL action until after the lockout and became the team’s full-time backup in the latter half of the 2007 season. His knee injury in a 2010 pre-season game kept him out of the entire season, but he returned as the team’s backup in 2012. He started 30 games, had an overall save percentage of .917 and had two shutouts, recording 18 quality starts.
He just makes saves
If there’s a positive about Harding, it’s that he has maintained an above average even strength save percentage in each year of his career (EDIT: Oh wait, except one). This could be partly due to playing in a defensive system such as Minnesota’s and they’ve been known to restrict game flow.
Here are Harding’s career even strength numbers. EVSV%+ is a goaltender’s save percentage relative to the league average. “900” in this case is considered league average.
Essentially, Harding is a guy who could come in for the Toronto Maple Leafs and put up average goaltending, something the team has not had in the post-lockout era. The last time that Leafs goalies combined for above league-average EV SV% or above was in 2001 with Curtis Joseph and Glenn Healy.
Goaltending isn’t just a problem that’s affected the Brian Burke regime, but it marred John Ferguson Jr. and Cliff Fletcher as well.
Again, Harding is the only potential starter on the UFA block, and the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team we know is actively pursuing a starter, have a little bit more cap room to work with than Toronto does.
Toronto can’t necessarily do anything unless they have plans to unload one of Colby Armstrong, Matt Lombardi, Mike Komisarek, Luke Schenn or Tim Connolly, but one of those should be enough to sign a starting goaltender. Given that Harding is the only guy on the market, if more than one team is interested the price ought to be driven up.
Missed 3 games (Head injury)
Missed 1 game (Lower-body injury)
Missed 3 games (Lower-body injury)
Missed 3 games (Hip injury)
Missed 7 games (Hip injury)
Missed 82 games (Right knee injury)
Missed 4 games (Head injury)
That’s an awful lot of hockey missed in his short career. He has 95 career starts, but has missed dressing in 103 NHL games due to injury. Obviously, he wouldn’t have started in all of those games, but we are looking at a significant amount of time spent on a stretcher.
Is he right for the Leafs?
At the right price, for something less than, say, $2M, he’s probably a better option than a 35-year old Tomas Vokoun coming off a significant injury. He isn’t a guy that you can slot in the lineup and expect to play 50-60 games, but if Toronto still has plans for James Reimer, he’s a goalie who could potentially split starts.
Without knowing what else is on the table, I think there are better options out there, but by going the UFA route, Harding is definitely the best guy the team could bring in without giving anything up.