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Weekes: Praise for the backup goaltenders

by Kevin Weekes
Let's talk about life as a backup goalie. We've seen a lot who have been outstanding this year, yet fans and even some GMs don't want to give them the proper respect.

Before we get started talking about the guys like Josh Harding, Brian Elliot and Johan Hedberg, let's look at this in a different way.

Would anyone feel comfortable getting on a plane if there was no co-pilot? Does the co-pilot not matter? When you go out to a nice restaurant, do you think there's just a chef? Do you think there isn't a sous chef back there helping the head chef? Since Joe Biden is a just a vice president, that means he's not important?

That's how a lot of people view a backup goaltender in the NHL. Backups have to hear all kinds of sarcastic comments flung at them, things like, "Oh, he's just a backup."

Just a backup? So it's not important to have a support system? Heck, Batman had Robin.

I wonder if any of these people who criticize backups actually watch hockey. For the people who think they know the game, take a look at the teams that have made the playoffs and made the Stanley Cup Final the last few years. You're telling me Tuukka Rask and Cory Schneider didn't have a huge hand in the success of the Bruins and Canucks? You look at pretty much any team that gets to the Cup or qualifies for the playoffs, and they have a reliable backup goaltender. How about Ray Emery down the stretch for the Ducks last year? How important was he?

So those negative comments must mean that some fans would rather have one goalie and not a backup who can help. There used to be plenty of GMs who thought that way, but you can see them coming around.

Martin Biron
Goalie - NYR
RECORD: 3-0-0
GAA: 0.95 | SVP: 0.963
How about the value of Mathieu Garon, signed by Steve Yzerman to back up Dwayne Roloson? How about what Martin Biron, who is 3-0, has meant to the Rangers this season? Nikolai Khabibulin has been out of this world for Edmonton, but Devan Dubnyk has been really good in a support role.

With most teams, there is little to no gap between starter and backup. You have to have that guy in this League. What if your starter gets hurt, falls ill, struggles mightily? Look at what Jhonas Enroth did with Ryan Miller out of the lineup last year and what he's done with Miller scuffling this year.

Even if you're a goalie in a situation when you know you could go weeks at a time without playing, smart backup goalies will find ways to add value. They can do it in the way they relate to guys on the bench, or maybe they'll offer some words of advice for players about to take part in a shootout. Biron does that. Find a way to have an impact without playing.

Sometimes during the pregame skate, the coach will want to rest the starting goalie, lighten his workload. If the backup takes that seriously, he's going to help those shooters get better. If you want to sit there and sulk and whine about being a backup and not playing, you're not helping anybody.

In the locker room, a backup goaltender can be a support system for guys. Maybe someone is struggling, or made a bad play and received an earful from the coach in front of the whole team. Or maybe that player didn't do anything wrong. As a backup, you can go over there and tell that player not to worry, the guys in the room have your back. That can mean a lot in a situation like that.

A lot of people who slag on a backup don't understand it's one of the most challenging jobs there is in sports, sometimes even more challenging than being the starter. Imagine going three or four weeks without having played, then your coach throws you in there on the road against the Red Wings in a second half of a back-to-back.

As a backup, those are some of the situations you get put in. That's why teams like Vancouver, who manage their backup properly, have success. They make him feel valued. Schneider doesn't go 3-4 weeks without playing a game. Same thing with Boston and Rask. Those are teams that get it. They've done a great job of managing that situation between having a superstar and capable backup.

I was a No. 1 goalie for four years. But when I became a backup, I tried to approach it as I'm a No. 1. When guys faced me, I wanted to shut them down. I wanted them to say, "Yeah, our starter is a superstar, but this guy is good, too. He can play." That goes a long way to guys being confident with you in the net. If you have a mindset of, "Oh, I'm just a backup, and I'll play when they let me play and I won't bear down and get better," then you're not doing anyone any favors.

That was the mindset of a lot of guys. But along the way, goalies got smart. They said they're going to use practice to get better, use the offseason to get better, and that's why a lot of backups have closed the gap.
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