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 also has 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 for a franchise 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 as many teams are looking for their next franchise goaltender to build around or for a veteran starter to stabilize goaltending for a run at the Stanley Cup.
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.
Alexandar Georgiev – New York Rangers
- Age: 23
- NHL Experience: 57 games played, 26 wins, .918 SV%
The New York Rangers found themselves in an odd spot heading into the 2019-20 season. They were in the middle of a rebuild that brought an influx of young talent and high-end draft picks into the franchise. Despite this move to get younger, the Rangers still have veteran Henrik Lundqvist on their roster, whose career is starting to fade despite being one of the best goaltenders of the last decade.
However, this doesn’t mean that the Rangers don’t have a young backup waiting to take over the starting role. No, whenever Lundqvist was unable to play in 2018-19, New York called upon 23-year-old Alexandar Georgiev, who broke all expectations with his fantastic play. He went 14-13-4 behind a bad Rangers team, looking solid in his starts.
Now, approximately 30 games into the 2019-20 season, the Rangers find themselves with a bit of a goalie conundrum. While Lundqvist has been a perfectly solid starter, Georgiev has been outstanding, posting eight wins and a .926 save percentage (SV%).
Assuming Lundqvist plays out his contract in full, there could still be two more years before Georgiev is able to take over the starting role in New York. However, he could be a hot commodity on the trade market in the 2020 offseason, or the Rangers could look to move their veteran Swedish goaltender into a backup role and let a new face take on starting duties throughout the 2019-20 season.
Tristan Jarry – Pittsburgh Penguins
- Age: 24
- NHL Experience: 40 games played, 21 wins, .916 SV%
For the Pittsburgh Penguins, dealing with a goaltender controversy is nothing new. Just a few seasons after the Penguins sent a second-round pick to the Vegas Golden Knights in order to sway them to select Marc-Andre Fleury at the expansion draft, the Penguins find themselves once again with two highly talented goaltenders in their ranks.
While Matt Murray was the heir apparent to the Penguins goal after Fleury’s exit, he has struggled to start the 2019-20 season. This has allowed Tristan Jarry to find more starting time than initially expected.
With this extra time on the ice, Jarry has been fantastic, going 7-4 in 11 starts. More impressively, he has a pristine .943 SV% and a 1.81 goals-against average.
Even if this is only a limited sample size, those goaltending totals are impossible to ignore. If he continues to play well, one should expect Pittsburgh to reward Jarry with even more starting time.
Pretty soon, Jarry could be playing his way into the starting role in Pittsburgh. If this happened, Murray would be a big asset on the trade market. If they stick with Murray, Jarry could be traded during the 2020 offseason to a team looking for a new face of their goaltending future.
Jaroslav Halak – Boston Bruins
- Age: 34
- NHL Experience: 501 games played, 261 wins, .917 SV%
As a true journeyman goaltender throughout his 14-year career, few players can say that they have experienced the NHL like Jaroslav Halak. While he has played in a starting role for four different teams for the better part of a decade, Halak has now finds himself playing backup to Tuuka Rask for the Boston Bruins.
In his first season with Boston, Halak went 22-11-4, posting an impressive .922 SV%. Not content to let that strong season be a fluke, he has followed that up with a 7-2-3 record so far in 2019-20, posting a .930 SV%.
Right now, Halak is playing some of the best hockey of his career in Boston. Given the fact that Rask has earned the trust of the Bruins, however, it seems unlikely that he would be able to win the starting role this season.
If this excellent play continues, however, Halak could be a hot commodity when he hits free-agency during the 2020 offseason. While he may be a bit old to try and build a franchise around, he could act as a perfect stopgap for a franchise needing goaltending stability for a few seasons.
Thomas Greiss – New York Islanders
- Age: 33
- NHL Experience: 266 games played, 131 wins, .916 SV%
The 2018-19 season was a bit of a revelation for the New York Islanders, who had the lowest goals-against in the NHL just one season after they had the worst average. This was due in no small part to some stellar goaltending from Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss, who posted career numbers in New York.
After Lehner parted ways with the Islanders during the 2019 offseason, he was replaced with Semyon Varlamov, who was expected to split starting duties with Greiss throughout the 2019-20 season.
While both goaltenders have played well, Greiss has continued to be one of the best backup goalies in the NHL. In 14 games played, he has a 10-4-0 record with a .930 SV%.
Considering his play over the last two seasons, Greiss will likely be in a similar position as Halak as he enters free agency during the 2020 offseason. He could be the perfect veteran goaltender to help stabilize a franchise in need of a short-term starting solution.
Backups Ready for the Next Step
Even though there’s no sure thing in the NHL, it does appear that these backup goaltenders are ready to break out of their colleagues’ shadow. By the start of the 2020 season, any of these players could find themselves taking on a full-time role with either a new team or the franchise that helped them develop their skills.