One can argue that the hardest position to properly fill in hockey is the role of the backup goaltender. Not only do you need an NHL-caliber goalie who is able to perform without having a consistent playing schedule, but he needs to be good enough to step into the starting role for weeks or even months should injury strike the starter. Also, when a team lacks confidence in their backup, it can create a situation where the starter is overworked, causing play to slip by the end of the season.
When a backup goaltender is able to excel in their role, true magic can happen for a franchise. Suddenly, the starter can take nights off without worry, allowing the team to soldier on with the same confidence in their goaltending no matter who’s in the net.
However, having a backup that is NHL ready can eventually cause trouble for a franchise, forcing the team to underutilize a player. This can cause a massive asset to be stuck on the bench as the established starter takes on the lion’s share of the nightly work.
When that situation happens, the league takes notice, and teams will look to swing a trade for their next franchise goaltender to build around or for a veteran to stabilize goaltending in the short term.
So, who may be among the next wave of starting goaltenders in the NHL? Well, look no further than some of the current backups. The only problem for the majority of these masters of the meshed mansions is the man standing in front of their dream, an uber-talented starter.
Ville Husso- St. Louis Blues
If there’s one thing the St. Louis Blues are known for over the last 10-plus years, it’s drafting and developing NHL goaltenders. After Jordan Binnington led them to their first Stanley Cup championship as a rookie back in 2019, he appeared to be their future in net for years to come, especially after he signed a six-year, $36 million contract extension in 2021.
However, as time marched on, this became less of a certainty. Throughout the 2021-22 season, Binnington struggled, where backup Ville Husso caused a full-on goaltender controversy with his play. In 30-plus games played, he’s posted a save percentage (SV%) around .925, along with a goals-against average (GAA) below 2.5.
By all standards, Husso has been a breakout success for the Blues this season, and without his play, the team may have found themselves on the wrong side of the playoff line. You can argue that he should be the Blues’ starting goaltender for the future, but with Binnington’s contract, it could force a trade so the franchise gets top value from their prime asset.
Either way, expect Husso to be a starter in the near future, as there will be a franchise willing to trade for his services despite his relatively small body of work.
Vitek Vanecek or Ilya Samsonov – Washington Capitals
Every season, a few teams run a true goaltending tandem, where two players split starting duties almost evenly. Typically, this is done when you have a young goaltender who is new to the NHL and not ready to take on 50 to 60 starts just yet, so you pair them with a veteran who can not only ease them into the league but also provide some leadership and training along the way.
Right now, however, the Washington Capitals find themselves with a bit of a different tandem, as two of their high-profile goaltending draft picks have developed into NHL-caliber players at the same time. This has left the team with Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov splitting starts throughout the 2021-22 season.
So far this strategy has worked well, as Vanecek is a respectable 5-3-5 with a .908 SV% in 14 starts whereas Samsonov sits with a stellar 11-2-1 and a .915 SV% in 13 starts.
As the player with potentially the higher ceiling, it seems likely that Samsonov will eventually establish himself as Washington’s full-time starter, but Vanecek has all the trapping to be a starter in his own right, so it would not be surprising to see both players taking over a starting role with a franchise in the coming years.
Alexandar Georgiev – New York Rangers
Heading into the 2020-21 season, the New York Rangers found themselves in a different situation. For the first time in close to 15 years, the franchise wouldn’t have Henrik Lundqvist in net after he was bought out of the final year of his contract.
The Rangers felt confident in this move because of the emergence of Igor Shesterkin, a young Russian goaltender who spent years as a dominant force in the KHL before coming to North America and looking like a starter in his first 12 NHL games. Despite this confidence in Shesterkin, 12 games is a small sample size, which makes having a backup with starting potential important.
This is where Alexandar Georgiev came into play. The 25-year-old Bulgarian goaltender spent the better part of two seasons behind Lundqvist, learning how to play from one of the all-time greats while looking solid in the role. In 77 games played prior to the start of the 2020-21 season, he posted a .913 save percentage (SV%) and a 3.00 goals-against average, which was solid when you consider that the Rangers were in the middle of a rebuild.
While the Rangers gave Shesterkin the starting role for the 2020-21 season, Georgiev still has received plenty of playing time to show that he is more than just a competent backup. They gave him a two-year extension for a reason, and when the opportunity presented itself, he was ready to take over a starting gig in New York. Sure, he may not be their future in net, but he could be a name that gets an opportunity with a different team in a year or two and blossoms into a full-time starter.
Jeremy Swayman- Boston Bruins
After featuring Tuuka Rask as their sure-fire number one starter for more than a decade, the Boston Bruins had to start planning for a new future once it became clear that he would not be ready to play for the 2021-22 season. Due to this, they went out and signed Linus Ullmark to a four-year, $20 million contract to lock down their net.
Despite being paid starter money, Ullmark has yet to really establish himself due to the emergence of Jeremy Swayman. After playing a strong 10 games in 2020-21, Swayman has slowly been taking over more and more starting time from Ullmark, despite the fact that he is playing well when healthy.
As the 2021-22 season progresses, it is becoming clear that Swayman could be the goaltender of the future for Boston, especially as he is still on his entry-level contract and is only 23 years old. However, with Ullmark making $5 million per year, you can’t just leave that big of an asset on the bench, especially if he isn’t playing poorly.
So for now, Swayman may not be able to take over a full-time starting role with the Bruins until they can find something to do with Ullmark’s contract, or they just decide to use both goaltenders in a tandem. Either way, Boston looks to have a solid future in the net for years to come.
NHL Backups Ready for the Next Step
As the 2021-22 season continues, expect to hear more about backup goaltenders as injuries pile up and the playoffs approach. Contending teams will be looking to add depth for a postseason push, so it is likely that we see a number of backups and veteran starters get shuffled around, which can shake up the future for goaltenders across the league.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.