In a curious but intriguing move that may turn the Western Conference playoff race upside-down, the Los Angeles Kings acquired the No. 1 available goaltender on the NHL trade market Sunday, landing Ben Bishop from the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The primary question surrounded the timing of the deal: Why did the Kings wait until now and not make the move weeks ago?
"Preferably, I would have done this deal two weeks ago," answered Kings' general manager Dean Lombardi, "but this is just the way trade-deadline deals seem to work."
Less than a day before completing the trade for Bishop, the Kings finally got their starting goaltender and two-time Stanley Cup champion, Jonathan Quick, back in the lineup after a 59-game injury absence.
In effect, the Kings now possess two of the top goaltenders in the game, after muddling through most of the NHL season with none.
Moreover, by landing Bishop, it also prevented its main rival in the playoff race, the Calgary Flames, from making a play for him.
The Flames and the Kings meet four times in the final quarter of the season, including Tuesday night in Calgary; and those games will, in large part, determine which of the two teams makes the playoffs and which doesn't.
Lombardi was clear: He considers Bishop more than just an insurance policy in case Quick's groin injury flares up again.
"Every game down the stretch here is critical," Lombardi said. "Let's face it, there's not a lot of room for error. We wanted to make sure we have a No. 1 goalie in there, every night."
In another deadline deal with playoff implications, the Minnesota Wild acquired centre Martin Hanzal and winger Ryan White from the Arizona Coyotes for a first, a second and a conditional draft choice, pending the completion of Sunday night's trade call. And while Minnesota is sending a signal they're going all in this year, for the Kings, they are simply trying to qualify for the playoffs.
Bishop, a teammate of Quick's on Team USA's World Cup team, has an impeccable pedigree. Last year, he won 35 games for Tampa and posted a sparkling 2.06 goals-against average, top in the league among goalies who played 25 or more games. He had struggled early in the season, partly because of the uncertainty of his status in Tampa, but after returning from a lower-body injury in January, he'd won five games in a row and gave up just six goals in that span.
As a pending unrestricted free agent, Bishop was one of the biggest names being shopped in advance of Wednesday's NHL trading deadline – and it looks as though the Kings got him for a relatively reasonable price. In exchange for Bishop and a 2017 fifth-round pick, Tampa received goaltender Peter Budaj, defensive prospect Erik Cernak, a 2017 seventh-round pick, plus a conditional pick from the Kings.
Budaj had been a fabulous fill-in for Quick for most of the season, keeping them in the playoff hunt, but the Kings become a far different and more confident team when Quick is between the pipes.
Bishop is unlikely to stay in Los Angeles beyond this season, and he could still eventually become an option for the Flames, depending upon how the final six weeks of the season and playoffs play out.
Last summer, the Flames had permission from Tampa to speak to Bishop about a contract extension if the two teams could agree to a trade. It didn't happen, largely because Bishop's contract demands at the time were a reported seven years at $7-million (U.S.) a season. With a cheap, young high-end talent such as Andrei Vasilevsky in the pipeline, Bishop had little future in Tampa, mostly for salary-cap reasons.
Long term, there are at least two other teams beyond Calgary – the Philadelphia Flyers and the Dallas Stars – who also have a need for what Bishop can provide. But neither the Flyers nor the Stars are a serious playoff threat, which means they can circle back to Bishop in the summer, when he hits the open market and the bidding for his services could bring him a dizzyingly high contract.
Bishop was a Vézina Trophy finalist last year, and made it to the 2015 Stanley Cup final. In all, he has 36 playoff appearances on his résumé over the past two years. Two other numbers of significance: He stands 6-foot-7, and is 30 years of age – not old historically by goaltending standards. The Kings' own salary-cap concerns will likely mean Bishop is just a short-term solution.
"This type of injury [to Quick] was very serious and the history of comebacks can go either way," Lombardi said. "Jon is a tremendous athlete and one of the game's top competitors. So you certainly don't worry about the mental part with Jon. But when you've been out this long, to think you're going be able to play him on the same ratio as in the past, of playing Jon 70 games, that's totally impractical.
"It's not the best way to break in a guy that's been out this long, especially with the condensed schedule, and it isn't quite frankly the best thing for his long-term future."
Calgary, meanwhile, has been on its best run of the season, and is getting improved goaltending from the tandem of Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson. Calgary's 3-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday afternoon was its fourth in a row, and opened up a six-point lead on the Kings, who hold two games in hand. In fact, the Flames are now just two points behind their arch-rivals, the Edmonton Oilers, in the Pacific Division standing. Their recent surge may have caused them to back off on Bishop. Elliott and Johnson, who are both on expiring contracts, represent a vast improvement over last year's quintet of Calgary goaltenders, who finished last in the league in goals allowed.
The Flames haven't had a stabilizing presence between the pipes since Miikka Kiprusoff retired. It wasn't a coincidence that the only deep playoff run Calgary's gone on came in 2004, when Kiprusoff was at the height of his powers – an elite goalie that took a pretty good team within a victory of a championship. L.A. picked up netminding insurance without paying a significant premium, which was probably the most interesting part of the story.
Sometimes, you may think the price of additional goaltending help is too high. Then you ponder the cost of muddling along without it and you realize, it's worth it in the end.