I couldn't help but notice something interesting when the NHL released its three stars of the week on Monday. Sure, Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals was named the first star. That wasn't a surprise. But right behind him were Martin Jones of the Los Angeles Kings and Carter Hutton of the Nashville Predators, a pair of undrafted goalies who were playing in the American Hockey League last season.
And they're not the first goalies who have surprised people this season. Consider the excellent play of guys considered "backups," such as Antti Raanta, Ben Scrivens, Jonas Gustavsson, Cam Talbot, Marek Mazanec and Frederik Andersen.
They're all proving they can play in the League. It's a limited body of work, but at least from a talent and ability standpoint, they're proving themselves. It just goes to show you how unpredictable sports can be at any position, but especially in goal. There can be an injury or a trade or someone not performing up to their level. That's why I definitely think it's been the year of the "backup."
What irks me, and the reason I use quotation marks when I say "backup," is when people say things like "he's a backup" or "he's a starter." Sometimes you have to let time play out because you can miss out on a lot of good goalies by putting labels on them.
These are overnight successes in the NHL in some cases. But where was everybody when they were doing it in the American League? Scrivens helped take the Toronto Marlies to the Calder Cup Final two years ago. Jones was one of the best goalies in the AHL at the start of the season. Hutton spent time in Rockford earning his stripes.
I think when you look at these guys, you see that the gap between "starter" and "backup" continues to shrink. This is not your father's NHL where the starter plays 78 games each season. I don't know if there is a starter who can play 75 games anymore the way Grant Fuhr did for the St. Louis Blues or the way Martin Brodeur used to. I just think the game is too fast, it's too physically demanding.
Look at the difference between the No. 2 and No. 3; in some cases there is no gap at all. How big is the gap between Jonas Hiller, Viktor Fasth and Andersen with the Anaheim Ducks? How much of a gap was there last season between Craig Anderson, Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop with the Ottawa Senators?
Talking to Kings goalie coach Bill Ranford, it sounds like Jones and Scrivens have been putting in a lot of work to get to where they are. Just the way L.A.'s longtime goaltending tandem of Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier did to get where they are. They're paying the price that it takes to get better. Instead of being in the AHL or ECHL and sulking, which is understandable when you know you can play in the NHL, those guys are channeling that energy to work on their game and watching video and being pros.
Look at Cam Talbot. How many times has Talbot been on the ice with New York Rangers goalie coach Benoit Allaire over the past few years to become who he is? And out of the University of Alabama-Huntsville, by the way. Not Michigan State or Wisconsin or Boston College or Boston University. There is a great example of how when you're willing to put in the work and you're hungry and you're humble, they'll find you and the opportunities will present themselves.
Sometimes it's not going to happen right away. Going back to my experiences, there were times when I was ready. I heard John Vanbiesbrouck tell me I was ready. Same with Curtis Joseph or Glenn Healy. The fact of the matter is the opportunity might not have been there and I had to go back to the International Hockey League at the time.
Gustafsson, who is playing well as the Detroit Red Wings' starter now that Jimmy Howard is out with an injury, is a unique case. Expectations were high for him with the Toronto Maple Leafs and he wasn't able to "meet them." Bear in mind, this guy had to battle a lot of adversity and I have to give him a lot of credit. He's had two or three heart surgeries and both of his parents have passed away, so he had to manage high expectations as well as health and personal challenges. Here he is right now playing exceptionally well for the Red Wings behind an All-Star in Howard.
If I'm an NHL general manager, I'm focusing on development at the NHL and minor-league level; how they practice and the structure our goalie coach installs. That can be the difference between your team making the playoffs and competing for the Stanley Cup, and being on the outside looking in.