5 Best NHL Backups

The NHL condensed the 2020-21 NHL season to 56 games due to the pandemic, with teams loading up on proven goalies to keep their starters rested. However, despite the full 2021-22 schedule, the pandemic has hit another gear, somewhat hitting teams off guard this time around, leading to even more opportunities for backups.

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It’s a phenomenon that’s reflected in this updated list of the best backups in the NHL today, with a slew of new names getting recognition for their ability to find success in a pinch. Taking into account their success and workloads so far this season, careers up to this point and overall potential, here are the top five:

5. Ville Husso (St. Louis Blues)

Charlie Lindgren has technically been the story for the St. Louis Blues. He has gone from the Montreal Canadiens’ taxi squad in 2020-21 to earning a .958 save percentage. What the stats don’t say is he’s far down on the Blues’ depth chart and only got in his games this 2021-22 season due to an unprecedented stretch of injuries in net (and throughout the lineup).

Related: Blues Goaltending Shining Bright Despite Injury Woes

Ville Husso, the Blues’ primary backup, has been far from a slouch for his part. Husso has earned a 4-2-1 record with a 2.28 goals-against average (GAA) and .931 save percentage (SV%), figures that put starter Jordan Binnington’s stat line to shame.

Ville Husso St. Louis Blues
St. Louis Blues goalie Ville Husso – (Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images),

Now, Binnington’s success story, in which he made the jump from journeyman to NHL No. 1 has been well-documented. So, it’s clear he should be watching his back, even though the Blues could likely stand to see a little more from his heir apparent. The 26-year-old Husso, who’s had an equally long road to the NHL, makes his debut on this list in his sophomore season, having gone 9-6-1 with a 3.21 GAA and .893 SV% in his rookie campaign. Due to those mediocre numbers and a general lack of NHL experience, Husso takes just the No. 5 spot.

4. Kaapo Kahkonen (Minnesota Wild)

Kaapo Kahkonen may have found his niche in the NHL as a No. 2. He stormed out of the gate in the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season, but ultimately saw his numbers drop as he split goaltending duties with Cam Talbot, nearly 50-50, with the latter ending up with the edge in terms of playing time.

Kahkonen still finished with a 16-8 record, but a mediocre 2.88 GAA and .902 SV%. In comparison, in relatively limited action this season, he’s 6-2-1 with a 2.51 GAA and .915 SV%. Meanwhile, Talbot’s struggled, potentially opening the door for Kahkonen to get more starts.

Kaapo Kähkönen Minnesota Wild
Minnesota Wild goalie Kaapo Kähkönen – (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Time will tell whether or not Kahkonen’s play similarly suffers with the greater workload like it did last season. What’s clear is neither he nor Talbot is the Wild’s goaltender of the future in the organization’s mind, as they took Jesper Wallstedt No. 20 overall at the 2021 NHL Entry Draft.

However, Talbot is already 34 and poised to hit unrestricted free agency in 2023. There are no guarantees Wallstedt will be ready by then, making Kahkonen the team’s best option in the medium term. He’s proving to be a good one overall.

3. Jaroslav Halak (Vancouver Canucks)

This is somewhat of a legacy selection, considering Jaroslav Halak’s long and successful career as a 1B goalie. He’s just 1-4-2 this season, playing behind Vancouver Canucks starter Thatcher Demko, but part of that is due to the Canucks being far out of the Western Conference playoff race as a sub-par team overall. Halak’s still got a decent 2.59 GAA and .915 SV% to his credit, even as his career enters its twilight.

Jaroslav Halak, Vancouver Canucks
Vancouver Canucks goalie Jaroslav Halak – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Keep in mind, Braden Holtby, who’s enjoyed somewhat of a career resurgence with the Dallas Stars, couldn’t make it work with the Canucks either. Holtby’s contract was bought out, after he went 7-11-3 with a 3.67 GAA and .889 SV% playing behind a similarly struggling Canucks team last season, ultimately cementing Demko’s road to becoming the team’s undisputed No. 1. Comparatively speaking, Halak’s doing a great job in his specific role, generally giving the Canucks a chance to win whenever he plays… however long he remains a Canuck anyway.

2. Anthony Stolarz (Anaheim Ducks)

Contrary to popular belief, Anthony Stolarz did not just appear out of nowhere like a master illusionist. This is just the first real chance he’s had to stick in the NHL after turning pro in 2014.

Up until this season, Stolarz has had cups of coffee with the Philadelphia Flyers, who drafted him, and Edmonton Oilers, generally putting up decent numbers. His stats have really taken off as a member of the Anaheim Ducks, where he first signed in 2019. Ryan Miller, himself no stranger to rankings such as this, had just been the primary backup up to last season, inadvertently roadblocking Stolarz.

Anthony Stolarz Anaheim Ducks
Anaheim Ducks goalie Anthony Stolarz – (Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images),

Now that Miller’s retired, the door has opened for Stolarz, who’s making the most of his opportunity. He’s got a 6-3-1 record with a 2.22 GAA and .931 SV%, one game shy of the career-high 12 he played in 2018-19 as of early January 2022. He’ll easily pass it and then likely build off his great season overall moving forward.

1. Jake Oettinger (Dallas Stars)

The Stars’ goaltending situation is complicated. An injured Ben Bishop had in theory been the team’s starter, but it was Anton Khudobin, who’s earned accolades as a career backup himself, who backstopped the team to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final in his absence.

As a result, Khudobin got rewarded with a new contract and the majority of starts last season, splitting time with Jake Oettinger. Khudobin stumbled though, with the Stars signing a newly bought-out Holtby as something of an insurance policy.

Jake Oettinger Dallas Stars
Dallas Stars goalie Jake Oettinger – (Photo by Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images)

Holtby has exceeded expectations, helping the Stars to clear up their crowded-crease crisis. They’re now going with him and Oettinger, having placed Khudobin on waivers, with Bishop retiring. Of course, Holtby can’t afford to grow complacent, considering Oettinger, selected No. 26 overall in 2017, is clearly the Stars’ goalie of the future, if not the present. He’s 8-2 with a 2.22 GAA and .923 SV%.

So, even though Holtby has played most of the games for the Stars so far this season, look for their roles to reverse sooner or later. As Holtby is only under contract for this season it could very well be the former, at which point Oettinger may very well no longer qualify for this list of the NHL’s best backups.

21 thoughts on “5 Best NHL Backups”

  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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