Skip to Main Content

Year of the backup goalie shows growth at position

by Dan Rosen

The pool of goalies capable of winning games on a consistent basis in the NHL has arguably never been as deep as it is now.

Proof of the goalie depth can be found in markets across the League this season. Backups and, perhaps more notable, backups to the backups, have been winning games and stealing headlines.

Cam Talbot
Goalie - NYR
RECORD: 9-3-0
GAA: 1.66 | SVP: 0.938
Among goalies that have made at least 10 appearances this season, eight of the top 10 in goals-against average either started the season as a backup or in the American Hockey League. The same holds true for six of the top 10 goalies in save percentage.

Minnesota Wild goalie Josh Harding was not the team's opening-night starter, but he has put himself into the Vezina Trophy discussion. The Los Angeles Kings withstood the groin injury that kept Jonathan Quick out for nearly two months by riding the red-hot pair of Ben Scrivens and Martin Jones, who has since been sent back to Manchester of the AHL.

The New York Rangers waived Martin Biron, who eventually retired, to give Cam Talbot a chance to be Henrik Lundqvist's backup. His value to the Rangers has only gone up. Lundqvist has struggled all season while Talbot has been excellent.

The Chicago Blackhawks lost Corey Crawford and Nikolai Khabibulin to injuries, but Antti Raanta stepped in and the defending Stanley Cup champions didn't have any drop-off as they remained at or near the top of the NHL standings.

Brian Elliott (St. Louis Blues), Thomas Greiss (Phoenix Coyotes), Frederik Andersen (Anaheim Ducks), Alex Stalock (San Jose Sharks), Justin Peters (Carolina Hurricanes), Marek Mazanec (Nashville Predators), Peter Budaj (Montreal Canadiens), Philipp Grubauer (Washington Capitals) Robin Lehner (Ottawa Senators) and Jonas Gustavsson (Detroit Red Wings) have also won and/or played more minutes so far this season than was initially expected of them.

"A lot of these teams in the NHL have three guys now, but go back to the '90s and a lot of them had one and a backup that scared a lot of people [if he had to play]," Red Wings goaltending development coach Chris Osgood told "Now there are names that people don't know and these guys are capable of playing games in the NHL, maybe not for a long period of time but they can be very successful over a short frame, maybe four or five games. Years ago that wasn't even close to the case where a team could actually have three guys that could go into a National Hockey League game and win the game."

Seven goalies that have made some of the biggest headlines this season weren't even in the League at the start of the season.

Raanta has 11 wins. Talbot and Andersen have nine wins. Jones won eight games before he was sent down because Quick returned. Mazanec has eight wins for Nashville, which lost starter Pekka Rinne in October. Peters, who stepped in for the Hurricanes because of injuries to Cam Ward and Anton Khudobin, has seven wins. Grubauer is climbing the charts and has five wins in nine appearances since Dec. 8.

Jones leads the League with a .950 save percentage and 1.41 goals-against average. Talbot is second in save percentage (.938) and third in GAA (1.66). Grubauer is eighth with a .932 save percentage.

Osgood credited the early-age development of goalies and the coaching they're receiving as reasons why the depth is so good now.

"They're coached a heck of a lot better than they ever have been," he said. "They understand how to play. They just have to get the opportunity and mesh what they already have, their skill level and their know-how, into a pro game. That's their biggest obstacle, learning how to play at this level."

Goalies like Raanta, Jones, Talbot and Andersen have been able to do that quickly because they have been developing either in the minors or in professional leagues overseas for the past several seasons.

Raanta, 24, was a No. 1 in Finland's top professional league, SM-Liiga, the past two seasons. Andersen, also 24, played a full season in the Swedish Elite League in 2011-12 before playing a full season in the AHL last season.

Jones, 23, appeared in 136 AHL games from 2010-13. Talbot, 26, played college hockey before moving to the pros. He appeared in 111 AHL games from 2010-13.

"Now they got a chance to play in the NHL, they've done a good job and realized that they can play," Osgood said. "That's half the battle."

For some, the next battle is mental because no matter how much immediate success they have it's not always enough to keep them in the League. Jones is dealing with that now. Andersen has already dealt with it this season and likely will again when Viktor Fasth can return to the lineup.

They are not subject to waivers, so they can be sent down and called up without any risk of another team putting in a claim on them.

"This is sometimes the hardest part of breaking in young players," Kings general manager Dean Lombardi said. "You can lose a kid here. You get him as an 18- or 19-year-old, he goes through junior, goes through the steps in the minors, but breaking him into the highest level is often the most difficult part. The player has to be ready, that's first and foremost. But it's also timing. It's not like those two mesh all the time. Most of the time they don't."

Osgood said it's on the goalie coach to make sure guys in the position such as Jones, Andersen and Petr Mrazek, who is No. 3 on the Red Wings depth chart, understand their role in the organization and what they still have to do to become full-fledged NHL goalies.

"They need the discipline to go back to the AHL and keep playing the same way," Osgood said. "I always say the key is whether you're in the ECHL or the AHL, you have to play like you would in the NHL. That's about style of play. Don't fall into that trap of letting your game slide or start doing things different than what you'd do if you're in the National Hockey League.

Lombardi gave the Red Wings credit for being the perfect example of making sure players, especially goalies, are "better overripe then underdeveloped."

Osgood spoke in similar terms, referencing Jimmy Howard and Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop as two guys who went through the proverbial process for young goalies and are now bona-fide No. 1s in their late 20s.

Howard is 29 years old and has been a No. 1 for five seasons. Bishop is 27 and a Vezina Trophy candidate.

Ben Bishop
Goalie - TBL
RECORD: 22-5-3
GAA: 1.86 | SVP: 0.935
"They need to play games and get overripe, over-prepared, because it is one of the toughest positions in sports to play," Osgood said. "Although Jones came up and played great for eight or so games and Mrazek came here [to Detroit] and played very well, same with [Darcy] Kuemper in Minnesota, there is still a lot of room for development and growth. Bishop and Howard were overripe and now you're seeing that they're ready to play."

Once the goalie passes the visual test, Biron said he thinks the transition to the NHL actually becomes quite simple.

"One thing about goaltending, and people might disagree with me, but I think it's probably the easiest position to make the transition from minor leagues to the NHL because the game is simpler," Biron said. "It is faster. There are better shots and better speed, but it is so much easier to read because the defensemen and forwards in front of you are not making the silly, inexperienced, minor-leaguer mistakes. You know what to expect. You only have to worry about maybe the 10-foot square in front of you and it's the same in the American [Hockey] League."

The goalies that succeed, Biron said, have the mental toughness to match their obvious ability.

"When you're there in the NHL you have to perform and you have to do it, so I think the pressure is a lot more than another forward or defenseman getting called up," Biron said. "If you're Jones in L.A., you're being asked to do what Jonathan Quick does. You're not being asked to just be a third-line guy, maybe play 10 or 12 minutes. You have to play 60 and win games."


View More