The Year Of The Back-up Goalie
Every NHL season, it seems as though at least a few back-up netminders are able to spell their starter for a while and help a team succeed. However, in this observer’s eyes, this year more so than seasons past has a glut of outstanding back-up goaltending performances. Most of the stoppers on this list are keeping their teams in tight playoff races, and even forcing their coaches into some tough decisions on who to start on a nightly basis. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
Josh Harding – Minnesota Wild
Does Harding even count as a back-up anymore? It seems like it’s been ages that we’ve been waiting for the 29-year-old Harding to take over for the now 35-year-old Niklas Backstrom in Minnesota, but it looks like he finally has the job.
Let’s face it, the Wild wouldn’t be within a sniff of a playoff position (they are currently 8th in the West) if it weren’t for Harding. His 1.65 GAA and .933 save percentage are both tops in the NHL among goalies with more than 11 games played, and his struggle through a debilitating disease is admirable. A stretch for this list maybe, but I don’t think anyone expected Harding to explode out of the gate like this either.
Martin Jones/Ben Scrivens – Los Angeles Kings
Entering the season, Scrivens was considered little more than a serviceable back-up who was thrown in to necessitate the Jonathan Bernier deal, while Jones wasn’t really on anyone’s radar outside of LA. After all, Jonathan Quick is the main man for the Kings, so other goaltenders could be considered superfluous stop-gaps.
Not so fast though, because things haven’t turned out that way for the Kings. They can thank their two back-ups for their stellar play while Quick struggled with inconsistency and injuries. Scrivens has been great, with a sub-two goals against average and a nice .931 save percentage (it’s worth noting they’re both better than Bernier’s numbers).
Jones on the other hand, has been unworldly. Through 11 games to start his career, he’s allowed just 15 goals. I’ll write it out for emphasis: fifteen. That’s just incredible and, let’s be honest, he’s not likely to ever be able to keep up such a miniscule goals against average over the long-term, but it must give Kings fans a real sense of confidence that they can survive if their Conn Smythe winning goalie goes down.
Cam Talbot – New York Rangers
If I told you about an amazing Rangers goaltender who is among the league leaders in multiple categories and helping the team claw back into a playoff position, it’s almost impossible to think I was referring to anyone but Henrik Lundqvist.
Yet here we are, with 26-year-old Talbot far outplaying his Vezina-winning crease partner to this point in the season. His excellent goals against average (1.66) is more than a full goal lower than Lundqvist (2.73), and his save percentage is significantly higher too (.938 to .908).
More importantly, his personal record is a tidy 9-3-0, while King Henrik is sporting a 14-16-3. Simply put: the Rangers win when Talbot is in net, which is probably why he started three straight games back in December, something unheard of in the Lundqvist era.
Frederik Andersen – Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks are the top team in the NHL, thanks in no small part to the play of Andersen. Incumbent starter Jonas Hiller has struggled at times and last year’s back-up Viktor Fasth has been injured much of the year.
Luckily Andersen has been able to step in and not miss a beat. Through 12 games, Andersen has a record of 10-2 to go along with a 2.07 GAA and a .923 save percentage.
Great numbers from a solid back-up who is outperforming his starter. In fact, Andersen’s stellar play combined with the anticipated arrival of John Gibson might just have made Hiller expendable.
Philipp Grubauer – Washington Capitals
The Capitals have been, to put it mildly, a bit of a mess this season. With 51 points they sit second in the Metropolitan Divison, yet that total would have them on the outside of the playoffs looking in were they in the Western Conference.
Luckily they are in the East however, and also lucky to have Grubauer between the pipes. The 22-year-old German has been by far the best of the three-headed goaltending monster in Washington.
Braden Holtby, who was getting some Olympic buzz during the summer, has seen his game fall apart. Michael Neuvirth, struggling with injuries and a lack of playing time, has quietly asked to be traded.
Through it all though is Grubauer, keeping the Capitals afloat with his 2.16 GAA and .934 save percentage through 13 games. He’s forced a difficult question onto GM George McPhee: which goalie should Washington build around? They already lost a great one in Semyon Varlamov, a mistake they don’t want to make twice.
Honorable Mention: Anti Raanta – Chicago Blackhawks, Eddie Lack – Vancouver Canucks, Thomas Greiss – Phoenix Coyotes, Peter Budaj – Montreal Canadiens, Alex Stalock – San Jose Sharks
It’s near enough to impossible for a back-up goaltender to ever win the Vezina trophy, and Harding is likely they only man on this list that could (and probably will) receive a nomination. That being said, all of these goaltenders have done more than their fair share of the heavy lifting for their respective clubs, many of whom would be languishing at the bottom of the standings without them.
It just goes to show the way the NHL changed during the inter-lockout years. Teams with a workhorse, 70+ start type of goalie have gone by the wayside to make room for more of a platoon style that allows goaltenders to get enough rest while still maintaining their rhythm.
No longer must a team live or die by their starting netminder, and this season has proven what we’ve all suspected for a while now, that depth in the crease has become more important than ever.
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