Three years ago, Alex Stalock wasn’t sure he’d ever play hockey again.
It was February of 2011, and Stalock was coming off of a win in his first career NHL start for the San Jose Sharks, filling in for injured backup goaltender Antero Nittymaki. After the game, he was sent down to their minor league affiliate in Worcester to get some conditioning before being called back up.
But, as described in a story by ESPN’s Devon Heinen, something went terribly wrong. In his first start back in the minors, Stalock severed his peroneal nerve — an integral part of controlling movement in the leg — when an opponents’ skate went over his knee.
Just like that, his career was in jeopardy. But after a year of struggling through rehab and recovery, Stalock found himself back in the game. However, he subsequently broke his finger in freak accident while playing in the Blues’ organization. A year later, though, he came full circle, fully healthy and playing for Worcester yet again. There, he beat out two other goaltenders for the starting job, and earned a spot in Sharks’ training camp in the offseason.
The long journey must all seem worth it now for Stalock. The 26-year-0ld minor-league journeyman is now the backup goaltender for the Sharks, and just had the game of his life against the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday night. On national television in primetime, Stalock backstopped the Sharks to a 3-2 shootout victory. He made 33 saves and stoned both Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Teows in the shootout.
What’s more, Stalock beat the defending Stanley Cup champions after playing the day before. He came in on mop-up duty for Antti Niemi on Saturday, after Niemi gave up three goals on just 14 shots to the Avalanche. Stalock was solid in over 30 minutes of action, stopping six of seven shots and allowing his team to nearly claw its way back from a 4-0 deficit.
Overall this season, Stalock is 5-2 with a stellar 2.03 GAA and a .932 save percentage. He has shown no signs of injury, available on-call to alleviate Niemi whenever called upon.
Unfortunately for him, those calls have been few and far between thus far. Stalock has started just six games, and that is because Niemi leads all goaltenders in starts with 37. Head coach Todd McLellan has always played his top goalie whenever possible in his tenure in San Jose. We saw that with Evgeni Nabokov, and we’re seeing it with Niemi, who finished second amongst goalies with 43 starts last season as well.
Therefore, backup goaltenders have never been of utmost importance to the Sharks. From Brian Boucher to Nittymaki and Thomas Greiss, the Sharks haven’t given much thought to their backup’s departures in recent years.
But for Stalock, things have to be different. Here is a guy who was drafted and developed in the Sharks’ system as one of their top prospects and rising stars. Here is a guy who has overcome a severe, career-threatening injury and has worked his tail off for a second chance. Here is a guy who, despite undergoing enough troubles to write a book, is only 26 years of age, with plenty of untapped potential.
McLellan, the Sharks, and the rest of the league caught a glimpse of that potential on Sunday night. Niemi is clearly still the No. 1 guy, but McLellan would be foolish not to utilize Stalock more often and keep Niemi off the leaderboard for starts by a goaltender. For a team that has had well-documented troubles in the postseason, allowing Niemi to stay fresh will pay dividends when the games really start to count.
Could Stalock one day take over the reigns in San Jose? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
But one thing is for certain: Alex Stalock has earned his stripes, and he is here to stay.