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.
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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: 24
- NHL Experience: 77 games played, 35 wins, .913 SV%
Heading into the 2020-21 season, the New York Rangers find themselves in a different situation. For the first time in close to 15 years, the franchise will not have Henrik Lundkvist 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 Shestyorkin, 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 Shestyorkin, 12 games is a small sample size, which makes having a backup with starting potential important.
This is where Alexander Georgiev comes into play. The 24-year-old Bulgarian goaltender spent the better part of the last 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, 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 it is likely that the Rangers will give Shestorykin the starting role for the 2020-21 season, expect Georgiev to get plenty of playing time. They gave him a two-year extension this offseason for a reason, and if the opportunity presents itself, he could be ready to take over a starting gig in New York.
Tristan Jarry – Pittsburgh Penguins
- Age: 24
- NHL Experience: 62 games played, 34 wins, .914 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, they found themselves once again with two talented goaltenders in their ranks heading into the 2020 offseason.
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While Matt Murray was the heir apparent to the Penguins’ goal after Fleury’s exit, he struggled throughout the 2019-20 season. This allowed Tristan Jarry to find more starting time than initially expected, showcasing that he could be ready for a starting role with the franchise.
With this extra time on the ice, Jarry was fantastic, going 20-12-1 in 33 games played, posting a pristine .921 SV% and a 2.43 goals-against average.
With that strong season, the Penguins decided to trade the struggling Murray, who was entering free-agency, saving the franchise money while opening up a role for Jarry to take over a starting role. Now, with everything in place for him to be Pittsburgh’s nightly starter, we will be able to see if he will continue his excellent play or if he struggles with the newfound responsibility.
Anton Khudobin – Dallas Stars
- Age: 34
- NHL Experience: 218 games played, 99 wins, .919 SV%
As a true journeyman goaltender, Anton Khudobin has had one of the more interesting careers for a goalie still in the NHL. Over 11 seasons, he’s played for five different teams, offering a solid backup option for the nightly starter.
When he joined the Dallas Stars in 2018, he appeared to be locked into a back-up role once again, as the franchise had just spent big bringing in Ben Bishop the year prior. However, due to injuries suffered by Bishop, Khudobin has taken on more starting time than expected.
In two seasons with Dallas, he played in 71 games, posting a strong .926 SV% and a 2.42 GAA.
Where he really made his mark on the franchise, however, was in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. After Bishop struggled with injury, he took over the starting role, going 14-10 with a .917 SV% and a 2.69 GAA.
At no point did he look overwhelmed or out of place in these playoff starts, and his play helped lead the Stars all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. Now, with the news that Bishop will be out of the line-up to start the 2020-21 season, it appears that Khudobin will be asked once again to be the starter for Dallas.
If he continues to play this well, he may hold onto this starting role even when Bishop returns from injury.
Either Columbus Blue Jackets Goaltender
After the Columbus Blue Jackets lost Sergei Bobrovsky at the start of free agency in 2019, there was uncertainty in net for the first time in seven seasons for the franchise. Sure, they had two young goalies that were looking like a solid option, but there was no way that either could replace what Bobrovsky brought each night.
Fast forward to the 2020 offseason, and we can safely say that Columbus is happy with how things worked out. While Bobrovsky struggled to establish himself with the Florida Panthers, both Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo have shown that they are potential franchise goaltenders.
It started in the regular season when Merzlikins took over for an injured Korpisalo and went on to win eight straight games, including five shutouts. By the end of the season, he went 13-9-8 with a .923 SV% and a 2.35 GAA.
Not to be outdone, Korpisalo posted a 19-12-5 regular-season record, with a .911 SV% and a 2.60. While these numbers were a bit below Merzlikins, he shined in the postseason, posting a .941 SV% and a 1.90 GAA in nine games while helping the Blue Jackets advance past the Toronto Maple Leafs in the play-in round and made 85 saves in a 5 OT marathon against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
With both players being 26 years old and under contract until 2022, the Blue Jackets have a little bit of time to decide who will be their long-term starter. For now, expect Columbus to run one of the best goalie tandems in the NHL while they decide who to keep and who will be traded to become some else’s starter of the future.
Backups Ready for the Next Step
Even though there’s no sure thing in the NHL, it does appear that these goaltenders are ready to have a big 2020-21 season. While some are in line for starting ice-time while others are still waiting for the opportunity, don’t be surprised if any or all of these goalies are helping to lead their teams to the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.