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Unmasked: Backup goalies face myriad of challenges

by Kevin Woodley

From the outside, backing up a workhorse starting goalie in the NHL might seem like a pretty easy job, and for long stretches it can certainly look like the hockey equivalent to being a bullpen catcher in baseball.

The role even comes complete with a hat to be worn while chewing gum or opening the door to the bench during the game. Sure, some teams ask their backup goalie to hold a clipboard and chart faceoffs to stay engaged during the game, and others make them throw a headset on from time to time so they can add insights from the bench to the home broadcast, but that doesn't seem like much to ask in exchange for an NHL paycheck.

If only being a backup goaltender was really that easy.

If you buy the argument goalie is the hardest position in sports because it comes with the game-on-your-shoulders pressure of a football quarterback or baseball pitcher, but without any ability to control the play, then imagine facing the best shooters in the world after 10 days sitting on a bench.

Try doing it knowing a poor performance will probably have to be sat on for a couple more weeks, or that a couple of bad games in a row could leave you looking for a job next summer or opening doors for a lot less in the minor leagues. Try doing it when so much of your time between those starts is servicing non-goalie teammates at the expense of your own game.

Does that backup goalie job still seem like an easy gig?

"It's tough for people to understand how hard it is to go in cold and if you are sitting on a bench for seven, eight games in a row and you finally get in there," Calgary Flames goaltending coach Jordan Sigalet said.

Sigalet has the added challenge of trying to keep three goalies sharp right now while the Flames try to figure out what to do with Jonas Hiller, Karri Ramo and Joni Ortio, who requires waivers to be assigned to the American Hockey League. But for all the focus on Calgary's crowded crease and a "win-and-you're-in" philosophy, Sigalet said the split-time situation was easier to manage, at least last season, because neither goalie had to sit for long. The bigger challenge can be keeping a backup sharp while going weeks between starts.

It's a challenge Curtis McElhinney has embraced with the Columbus Blue Jackets, but the job description came with a unique learning curve.

"Just the mental side of learning to be a backup," McElhinney told this summer. "I don't think it's anybody's career goal growing up, but it's a position in the NHL, and I love the challenge of practices and going out there trying to stop these guys. But in the back of your mind you are constantly trying to keep that focus of, 'OK, stick to what works in a game but still try to make sure these guys are challenged as well.'"

Finding that balance is a big part of the challenge for backup goalies.

It's not just that many team practices include wave after wave of shooters with more time and space to pick corners or make late lateral passes to streaking teammates off the rush, but the job description for the backup also includes staying late after practice, effectively serving as a target.

"I'll tell you right now nobody likes shooting for rebounds in practice," McElhinney said. "You just have to be that tool for the shooters out there and challenging them to the best of your ability but still trying to maintain that fine line between the success in a game and doing well in a practice."

The problem is stopping a lot of pucks in the more open practice situations often requires a different approach than a game. For a backup goaltender facing hundreds of shots every day in practice and going a week or longer between starts, playing different in practice can creep into the game.

"You do it over and over and all of a sudden you think that's how to play a rush in a game, but you'll get burned every time at this level," McElhinney said. "The way you perform in a practice doesn't really translate into a good performance in a game. You kind of have to find a happy balance."

Generally speaking, the backup role is better suited to a more technically sound goalie, one that relies less on the rhythm and timing that comes with extra movement. Goalies that put themselves in position to have pucks hit them even when they aren't necessarily feeling great can buy themselves time to work off the rust after long stretches on the bench. Goalies that play too aggressively and rely more on reads and the timing required to make the right ones, tend to be more easily exposed when that timing is off.

Ironically, McElhinney used to be one of those guys. But he took advantage of the extra time between starts to work with Columbus goalie coach Ian Clark, adding technical elements that were missing early in his career.

That may help explain how McElhinney, who arrived in Columbus prior to the 2012 NHL Trade Deadline as an injured throw-in to make the contracts work, has grown into the job with the Blue Jackets. He has been better in spot starts than he was getting chances to play more early in his career, and has come to believe that consistency is a function of improved technique.

"The mental side of the game was always there, but there were just some tools on the technical side that I did not possess," he said. "All of a sudden I have a whole bunch of new tools to work on and things to improve and that's allowed me to build up that consistency a little more where I can fit into a season on a regular basis and help a team out. They always talk about experience, experience, experience, and now at 32 I have got that where I can feel comfortable in those games and those tools, the simple things we build on every day are the things that allow me to go out there and have success, whether it's been five days off or six weeks off."

That has helped McElhinney overcome one of the other significant stress points that come with being a backup goaltender: free agency.

With more good goalies than jobs, he happily spent July 1 watching others engage in the annual game of musical chairs after signing a two-year contract extension with the Blue Jackets worth $800,000 a season. Coming off four consecutive one-year contracts, the security was welcomed.

"It can get stressful, especially for backup goalies," McElhinney said. "You are just kind of fighting for your life with the young guys coming up."

Just one more reason being the backup isn't as easy as it looks on TV.

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