5 Best NHL Backups

*This article was most recently updated in Jan. 2023

Sometimes there’s a thin line between the skill levels of No. 1 goalies and their backups in the NHL. Not only has it become more common for teams to platoon their goalies in and out, but more and more one-time starters are now finding new life in the NHL as backups, to which this list will attest.

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Also, sometimes all a good goalie really needs is a shot as a backup to prove there’s something more there. Taking into account stats, careers up to now and overall potential, here are the top five backups in the NHL:

5. Ilya Samsonov (Toronto Maple Leafs)

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ biggest question mark heading into 2022-23 was their goaltending. They let their previous No. 1, Jack Campbell, test free agency, opting to go the road less traveled as an on-paper contender by acquiring Matt Murray, who was far from a sure thing after having struggled with the Ottawa Senators.

Ilya Samsonov Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Ilya Samsonov (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

So, signing Ilya Samsonov, as a backup plan made sense in a lot of ways. Samsonov, had split goaltending duties with Vitek Vanecek for the Washington Capitals last season. However, considering his .896 save percentage (SV%) over the campaign (and his career .904 mark), it’s not a huge leap to take to get why the Capitals opted not to so much as sign him to a qualifying offer. Enter the desperate Leafs.

To the Leafs’ credit, the odd arrangement has worked out to say the least, to the point lines have blurred. It’s hard to say which one between Murray and Samsonov has emerged as the clear starter as they’ve each started 16 games as of Jan. 9.

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However, seeing as Murray was injured for a fair bit and Samsonov’s struggled recently, with an .867 SV% over his last five games, things may be starting to normalize in that regard. Still, overall, Samsonov has one of .916 to go along with a 12-3-1 record and 2.29 goals-against average (GAA). It’s fair to say as a result that Samsonov’s been doing his job, going above and beyond in fact.

4. 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 (even if it means very little considering his own recent struggles).

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

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 American Hockey League, as a result. By giving him that role, 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.

Related: 5 Ex-Canadiens the Habs Can Still Use in 2022-23

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, effectively replacing Samsonov above in principle. Now with some semblance of job security, Lindgren’s making the most of the opportunity, having earned an 11-5-2 record, 2.60 GAA and .912 SV% so far.

Any talk of Lindgren developing into an eventual starter as a Hab was obviously premature. However, he’s definitely in the process of proving the doubters at the opposite extreme, arguably the Habs themselves included, wrong.

3. Alex Stalock (Chicago Blackhawks)

Raise your hand if you had the Chicago Blackhawks’ backup goalie as the one who’d be doing the most damage to their purported tank job. Assuming that’s the case, the Blackhawks must have known what they were doing when they signed Petr Mrazek to be their No. 1, not so much with No. 2 Alex Stalock.

Alex Stalock Chicago Blackhawks
Chicago Blackhawks goalie Alex Stalock – (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Mrazek fared poorly in a backup role with the Leafs in 2021-22, while the success he’s enjoyed in his career has more so been a function of the caliber of the team in front of him than anything else. That hasn’t changed in 2022-23, as Mrazek is a paltry 2-10-1, giving up an exceedingly generous 4.19 goals per game in the process.

In comparison, Stalock’s been great. He’s 6-5-1, with a 2.54 GAA and .923 save percentage, which is more anyone could have hoped for (especially the Blackhawks), signing the journeyman goalie. A career .910 goalie, Stalock’s enjoyed modest success before, but at 35, playing for the literally last-place Blackhawks? Few could have seen this coming. You have to believe the Hawks didn’t.

2. Filip Gustavsson (Minnesota Wild)

There’s no doubt who won the Filip Gustavsson-Cam Talbot trade between the Minnesota Wild and Senators. While Talbot’s gotten the job done to a degree for the Sens as their starter, the Wild killed a few birds with one stone. Arguably three, by addressing Talbot’s reported discontent with the Wild, stabilizing their depth below Marc-Andre Fleury in net and clearing out cap space all the while.

Filip Gustavsson Minnesota Wild
Minnesota Wild goalie Filip Gustavsson – (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

Of course, the way Gustavsson’s been playing, the pending restricted free agent may force the Wild to give up a great deal of that breathing room this coming summer. Gustavsson is an impressive 9-6-1 with a 2.25 GAA and .924 SV%. Plus, with Fleury now 38, the Wild definitely benefited in the sense that Talbot was no spring chicken himself at 35. They’d have had to replace him eventually anyway. Gustavsson’s 24.

It remains to be seen if Gustavsson can handle the rigors of a full-time starter’s job. It’s noteworthy he’s played 16 games to Fleury’s 25 (and Talbot’s 23), though. It begs the question, especially with Talbot set to hit unrestricted free agency after what will be another transitional season in Ottawa: Do the Senators make the one-for-one trade knowing what they do now? Probably not.

1. Semyon Varlamov (New York Islanders)

Ideally, New York Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov would count less against the cap. He signed his $5 million-per-season deal back for the 2019-20 season, but that was before Ilya Sorokin’s early 2021 debut. Over the following three seasons the two goalies have reversed roles to the point Sorokin has become an elite starter.

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

There’s still room for Varlamov, though. At least there has been up to now based on how he’s played, with his contract coming due this coming summer. He realistically won’t be re-signed (at least not at his current rate), but that has little to do with performance.

Going on 35, Varlamov’s amount of games played has understandably decreased every season since 2017-18 when he was still with the Colorado Avalanche. However, at 8-4-1 with a 2.75 GAA and .913 SV% in 2022-23 so far, he’s got an outside chance at bucking that trend, as he’s adapted to become an elite backup, arguably the best in the business.

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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