5 Best NHL Backup Goaltenders

*This article was most recently updated in Feb. 2024

These days, there’s sometimes a fine line between NHL starters and their backups. Take Detroit Red Wings goalie Alex Lyon for example. Up until he got pressed into duty to start off the Florida Panthers’ near-miracle run to the 2023 Stanley Cup Final, he hadn’t gained any traction in the NHL at all.

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Now, with Red Wings teammate Ville Husso out, he’s passed over James Reimer to become the temporary starter. He’s been so effective, having earned a 14-6-2 record overall, with a 2.54 goals-against average (GAA) and .921 save percentage (SV%), that he may even steal the starter’s job altogether once Husso returns.

Alex Lyon Detroit Red Wings
Detroit Red Wings goalie Alex Lyon – (Evan Sabourin / The Hockey Writers)

Now, Lyon didn’t make this list of the best backups in the NHL today. Without the prolonged track record, he just misses the cut. Taking into account the level of success each has enjoyed up to now in their respective careers, their overall potential, stats and cost-effectiveness, here are the top five backups in the NHL:

5. Alex Nedeljkovic (Pittsburgh Penguins)

Another goalie who’s blurred the lines significantly is Pittsburgh Penguins netminder Alex Nedeljkovic He had coincidentally overstayed his welcome with the Red Wings to the point he ended up playing more games in the American Hockey League than the NHL in 2022-23, despite having earned a nomination for 2021 Calder Memorial Trophy while with the Carolina Hurricanes.

Alex Nedeljkovic Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Alex Nedeljkovic – (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

That small-sample-size success prompted Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman to roll the dice on, trade for and extend Nedeljkovic. While it didn’t work out with Wings, the Penguins rolled the dice on him anew, inking him on the cheap to a one-year, $1.5 million deal. He’s since begun stealing starts from incumbent Tristan Jarry. With an 8-4-3 record, 2.63 GAA and .917 SV%, he may be out of his hair by July 1 though, having earned another chance as a starter elsewhere.

4. Jonathan Quick (New York Rangers)

Speaking of goalies who have found new life as a backup, Jonathan Quick probably epitomizes the trope better than anyone. He’s now a decade removed from his second of two Stanley Cups with the Los Angeles Kings (winning the 2012 Conn Smythe Trophy after the first). After a few more seasons at the relative statistical top of the league, Quick’s play began to drop off some. It got so bad, with Quick sporting an .876 SV% last season with the Kings, that they felt the need to trade him at the deadline to the Columbus Blue Jackets, without an heir apparent to take the reins.

True, the Kings got fellow unrestricted free agent Joonas Korpisalo back in exchange. However, he himself was hard to see as a legitimate starter (which, his new team, the Ottawa Senators, are just now discovering somehow), having never played more than 37 games in a season.

Jonathan Quick New York Rangers
New York Rangers goalie Jonathan Quick – (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The hole in net forced the Kings into signing journeyman Cam Talbot, which has undeniably worked out for the best. Meanwhile Quick landed with the Rangers, to back up 2022 Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say Quick has outplayed him, having earned a 12-4-2 record thus far, with a 2.27 GAA and .919 SV%.

Even though Shesterkin has a mediocre 2.78 GAA and .902 SV%, it’s hard to say there’s a goaltending controversy afoot, though. At 38 years old, Quick’s best seasons are obviously behind him, but it is encouraging to see he has something left in the tank, having accepted a different role than the one to which he had grown accustomed.

3. Charlie Lindgren (Washington Capitals)

At one point in the not-too-distant past, Charlie Lindgren was the odd man out with the Montreal Canadiens. It should be pointed out Lindgren was also once seen, at least potentially, as Carey Price’s heir apparent, before Cayden Primeau took hold of the unofficial title (only to eventually give way to Samuel Montembeault).

Related: Canadiens Goalie Montembeault a Starter in Principle Not Practice

The Canadiens acknowledged as much when they made Lindgren a regular on the taxi squad during the 56-game 2020-21 NHL season. Someone had to fill the role, but Lindgren only ended up making three total appearances that season, all in the AHL. The Canadiens made it clear they didn’t see a need to invest in his development any more… or a future for him as a Hab. Their loss.

As an unrestricted free agent, Lindgren signed with the St. Louis Blues for 2021-22. He impressed over a small five-game sample size, eventually earning a three-year deal with the Capitals. Now with some semblance of job security, Lindgren’s making the most of the opportunity, especially in his second season on the job.

Charlie Lindgren Washington Capitals
Washington Capitals goalie Charlie Lindgren – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Lindgren currently has a 10-7-4 record with a 2.58 GAA and .915 SV%. In comparison, Capitals starter Darcy Kuemper is 11-12-3 with a 3.17 GAA and .894 SV%. Any talk of Lindgren developing into the starter for the Canadiens was obviously premature, then. However, he’s definitely in the process of proving the doubters at the opposite extreme, the Habs themselves included, wrong.

2. Casey DeSmith (Vancouver Canucks)

Similarly cast off by the Montreal Canadiens (and Penguins before them), Casey DeSmith has turned a less-than-ideal situation into arguably the most ideal one, bar none.

For some context, DeSmith had been seen as the Habs’ third-best goalie (perhaps unjustifiably) after his offseason acquisition. Then, the Canadiens flipped him, opting to go with a trio of Montembeault, Primeau and Jake Allen.

Casey DeSmith Vancouver Canucks
Vancouver Canucks Casey DeSmith – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Now, instead of languishing low on the depth chart of a team well outside the playoff picture to start the 2024 calendar year? He’s the Vancouver Canucks backup to Thatcher Demko, on one of the best teams in the league. To top it all off, he’s also posting some of the best numbers of his career.

DeSmith is 7-3-5 with a 2.74 GAA and .906 SV%, as if anyone should be surprised. In a relatively small time, DeSmith, who debuted with the Pens in 2017-18, has established himself as a reliable No. 2. At 32, he’s likely won’t hit the career-high 38 appearances he made in 2022-23 again (when his stats dropped off), as his role is effectively cemented at this juncture. At least he’s in the process of recementing it as one of the better backups in the league. There’s definitely nothing wrong with being one.

1. Semyon Varlamov (New York Islanders)

New York Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov had been a top backup in this league, even when he counted $5 million against the cap. There’s little reason he wouldn’t remain in the running, now that he’s re-signed for $2.75 million per season, albeit through 2027 (when he’ll be 39).

Semyon Varlamov New York Islanders
New York Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov – (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Varlamov had signed his $5 million-per-season deal ahead of the 2019-20 season, but that was before Ilya Sorokin’s early 2021 debut. Over the following three seasons the two goalies reversed roles to the point Sorokin has become an elite starter, with exception to his performance thus far in 2023-24.

As a result, Varlamov’s amount of games played has understandably decreased. However, he’s still contributing, with a 6-6-4 record, 2.90 GAA and .912 SV% this season, outperforming Sorokin for all intents and purposes. While you shouldn’t necessarily count on that continuing into the long term, it’s a safe bet Varlamov will remain a great backup for the foreseeable future, arguably the best in the league.

21 thoughts on “5 Best NHL Backup Goaltenders”

  1. I feel like this list is completely focused on the present. Not a terrible list, people are really jumping on the McElhinney selection, but think about how long he’s played in the NHL, he’s earned it. Then, compare that to Gibson and Vasilevskiy and Raanta, none of whom played in the NHL until 13′-14′. McElhinney isn’t a flashy name or high draft pick, that doesn’t mean he isn’t just as capable of winning NHL games as any of them.

    • As much as I like Eddie Lack’s potential to be an NHL starter (which he displayed in the AHL and off an on in the NHL), he has a losing record (both this year as a backup, and last when he got a shot to start following Luongo’s departure), which kind of disqualified him from consideration here.

    • Yes, presumably to give him more playing time as he’s only had one start this month. It’s unfortunate timing on my part, but I stand by my assessment.

      • Fair enough. What about Enroth? As a Sabres fan, I’ve seen him play remarkably well as a starter on an absolutely abysmal team. Now that he’s backing up Lehtonen in Dallas, where would you rank him?

        • I’ve always liked Enroth and feel if he just had a little bit more size he could be a reliable starter in the league. However, he kind of drew the short straw being drafted by Buffalo and forced into duty for a team managed to tank the last few seasons. I unfortunately can’t really give him much credit as a backup with Dallas either seeing as he has yet to win a game despite making three appearances since being traded there (two starts).

    • The only reason Raanta was send down is because they can’t send down the overpaid Corey and they won’t Scott up , so they can win some games.

  2. I honestly think that if the Blues are ever going to go anywhere in the playoffs, Jake Allen will be the guy to take them there.

    • His save percentage does scare me off a tad (there are shades of Ryan Miller from last year there), but next year? Maybe. I think he’s really come into his own recently, especially with Elliott faltering somewhat. At the very least, it must be comforting to know there’s a decent plan B should something happen to the latter.

  3. Carter Hutton did a better job when Pekka Rinne was injured than Cam Talbot is doing in Lundqvist’s absence. While his numbers as a “backup” (playing once every three weeks, on the road, in the second half of back to backs, against rested teams like the Blackhawks, Ducks and Bruins) are substandard, his performance as the de facto #1 when Rinne went down (preserving the win over Vancouver, beating Washington and Colorado, and shutting out the Penguins in Pittsburgh), helping the Predators extend their margin over the Blackhawks and stay ahead of a Blues team which was on a 10 of 11 streak was pretty exemplary. Lots of Nashville fans thought the team would tumble to third in the Central in Rinne’s absence.

    • I do have to give credit where credit is due, and Hutton did do a good job in Rinne’s absence (relatively speaking last year as well, when the Predators were not nearly as good; no offense). However, I also took into account Talbot’s rookie season, which was much, much better.

  4. BTW your Jake Allen comment of his most wins from a back up this year…Dumb as shit lol. Of course he has more wins than the other backups he’s had more starts thus allowing him a shot to compile these wins.

    It’s only logical Spock.

    • You’re missing one key element… Allen has 17 wins in 23 starts (.739). Gibson has 5 in 9 (.555). It’s also not as if St. Louis is a better team than Anaheim, either. The Ducks have one more point. Where’s the logic behind that?

  5. “how much confidence the head coach has in their abilities, their actual abilities, their body of work, and, most importantly, their likelihood of earning a win,”

    When you lead with this when discussing back up goalies, and then forget John Gibson I can’t take you seriously.

    I’d have him first, ahead of Allen and Vasilevsky.

    If you didn’t want to include him as part of the discussion because he may be sent back down when Andersen is back, fine, maybe state that caveat but he currently is in the NHL, he’s the backup to Andersen as far as I’m concerned, Bryzgalov is simple a place holder otherwise he’d be getting these starts not Gibson.

    The fact you forgot him is laughable, the fact that Curtis McElhinney is on this list over him shows me you didn’t actually take individual talent into consideration. Let alone their ability to win the starter job, confidence of their head coach, and their body of work.

    And yes do not be surprised when McElhinney disappears into obscurity. After all this is the same guy Who’s only played 97 games (I can’t believe it’s that many) while compiling a 2.97 GAA, .902 SV% and a 39-47-0-6 record.
    I don’t know if you know…but those are bad ratios. Making this season seem almost Vezina worthy (2.70 GAA .918 SV%) and worth inclusion on this list.

    Sure he’s taken a step forward and improved his SV% but that’s bound to happen when you each shot you face is your new season high total, and as long as he continues to play at this level his numbers will improve. But lets be real here. This is a 31 years journey man who has found himself in a beneficial situation thanks to Bobrovsky’s injury history. Nothing more than that…sure he could wind up being the second coming up Tim Thomas…but the odds say no, and I say a couple backups not listed are better than McElhinney.

    • I didn’t forget Gibson. I purposely left him off this list. He just didn’t make the cut. Based on his stats and win percentage this year, and, after all, that is what I’m ranking here, the best backup goalies in the NHL this year.

      I did take into account McElhinney’s less than stellar record in past years, which is why he’s as low as he is on this list. However, his stats are better than Gibson’s, despite him playing on a (much) worse team. You say that’s bound to happen when each shot he faces is a new season high total, but that’s not the way averages work, especially not for an admitted journeyman goalie. The more shots you face, the more your stats average out. That’s why a goalie like Carey Price doesn’t technically actually have the best save percentage in the NHL. Detroit Red Wings goalie Tom McCollum does (.960 in two starts).

  6. Lol, any conversation about best back-ups without Martin Jones in it, is a joke. Maybe you should stay up past your bed time and watch some West Coast Hockey once in a while to see how its really done.

    • You do realize the top two on this list are Western Conference goalies, right?

      I did consider Jones, but at the end of the day his 4-3-2 record this season and .908 save percentage weren’t enough to give him any serious consideration. He had a great season last year, no doubt, but, currently, I’d take any one of the above five on this list before Jones in a pinch. The Kings haven’t played him in over a month.

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