The Jhonas Enroth Factor: How Valuable is L.A.’s Backup Goalie?

You never know the true value of something until it’s reduced. Those clean white sneakers you own are an under-appreciated accessory, that is until they get dirty and scuffed up. That’s when anger sets in, followed by panic. I need those. I need those shoes. I need them to be at their best.

Still with me, non-sneaker heads? That’s the first reference I thought of when trying to explain the Los Angeles Kings goaltending situation. On the surface it’s simple: just plop the other-worldly Jonathan Quick in between the pipes and they’ll be fine. That’s definitely holds merit in a big game, and most likely in a playoff series. But what about accounting for the other 82 games on the schedule? And heaven forbid, what if Quick is not healthy?

The backup goalie position works in one of two ways for every NHL team, barring an injury. Either there is a definitive starter and the backup is used sparingly to keep the seat warm, or the club has two goalies that are in constant competition for the starting position as the season rolls along (such is the case in St. Louis and Toronto). The former holds true in L.A., where Jonathan Quick has cemented his position as alpha dog. Since Quick’s taken over, the Kings have had their share of backup netminders, with each of the last three (Jonathan Bernier, Ben Scrivens, and Martin Jones) being traded to a team inquiring about a potential starter. The results have been mixed on that front, but it has left the Kings constantly searching for a quality second goalie.

Enter Jhonas Enroth, who seems like he has been around the NHL block far more times than his 27-year-old age would indicate. What separates Enroth from Bernier and company is that every prior backup Kings goalie had no experience as a full-time starter. Enroth did, albeit very brief and chaotic. The 2014-15 Buffalo Sabres were pushing the limits as to far an NHL team could sink, and they may have been on the verge of being transferred to Joe McGrath in the Federal League. Enroth entered the season as the starting goalie, but never lived up to whatever unpractical expectations can be put on a young goalie playing behind the league’s worst defensive core. He was traded to Dallas at the deadline, and became a free agent this past off-season. With Martin Jones on his way out of L.A., the Kings decided to make Enroth their newest goaltending addition.

Promising Early Results

Enroth has played in 10 games for the Kings, an ideal number that highlights both Quick’s health and performance as the starter. In eight starts Enroth is 4-3-1, with a goals against average of 2.11 for the year. While the sample size hasn’t been great, there is reason for optimism. Both his goals against average and save percentage (.931) would be ranked in the top 15 of goalies, assuming he had played enough games to qualify. Now I know you can’t automatically assume a goalie will play that well with many more starts, but it’s comforting to know that Enroth has done a capable job when called upon.

And let’s make another point abundantly clear. Enroth is not a young up-and-coming backup goalie who has a mysterious element to his game. The NHL is familiar with who he is, and has plenty of tape on the Swedish netminder. A young baseball pitcher might catch teams off-guard the first time he faces their lineup, but he will find it much more difficult when the hitters are able to study his arsenal. Likewise, Enroth doesn’t have the luxury that Jones and Scrivens had the previous two seasons, when the virtual unknowns were able to catch teams by surprise. They know who Enroth is, what he can do, and where he is vulnerable. That basis actually makes his stats more impressive.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The tale of Enroth’s 2015-16 season is precisely the reason why you can’t judge any professional athlete solely off of their stat line. His goals against and save percentage are great numbers, but they serve as a balancing act between the dominant and sub-par starts that the Swedish goalie has had this year. Where does the truth lie? As always, it’s somewhere in the middle.

The first thing you notice when you look at Enroth is his size, or should I say, lack of size. At 5’10 166lbs, Enroth is nowhere close to the prototypical NHL goalie. But that’s not to say he’s the Danny DeVito to Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie Twins, because Enroth can certainly overcompensate with his agility. He has great instincts, strong reflexes, and uses his quickness to make outstanding saves on occasion. This was Enroth against the Red Wings earlier this season:

The slowed down version of this play highlights just how difficult it is to even be in position to make a save of this caliber. If Enroth isn’t displaying a proper technique, tracking the puck the entire way, and able to anticipate the final pass, it’s an automatic goal at this level. By completing those three tasks, all Enroth has done is give himself a chance to make an elite save. From there, it requires that agility I previously mentioned, which is among the game’s best.

The Kings did not play well against the Ducks earlier this month, but there was one positive play in that game. Here is Enroth committing highway robbery against perennial All-Star and Kings hemorrhoid Corey Perry:

First off, terrible, terrible defensive breakdown by the Kings. The Ducks had already chased Quick from this game, and were on the verge of extending their lead. Enroth is in the dubious position of having scoring threats on both sides of his net, so he couldn’t over-commit until the last second. The amount of ice he covered was sensational, and he had a plan when he reached his final destination. Enroth didn’t just dive and lunge across the crease; instead, he squared up, raised his glove hand, and made the save. Did he guess right? Perhaps, but having good instincts is another positive attribute for a goalie.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Jhonas Enroth, however. The biggest knock against him during his run in Buffalo was a lack of consistency, as he struggled to bring the same energy level from one game to the next. As a backup you don’t have to worry about a long run of starts, but you certainly must show up when your number was called. Against Toronto, that didn’t happen:

The first of Leo Komarov’s two goals was just a great offensive effort. Not many goalies are going to stop a tip play at that speed, with little defensive help to boot. But the second? Enroth has to do a better job tracking that puck. He fails to see it initially, is slow to cover the crease, and allows an easy backdoor tap-in that could have been prevented from the start. His agility is off the charts, and yet on this particular play he reacted like Cam Netwon going for a fumble in the Super Bowl. We’ve seen him on his angles and lay out to stop a goal in more difficult situations, so we know it’s in his bag of tricks. Whether it’s a lack of stamina or focus, there have been breakdowns in Enroth’s game from time to time.

Will He Be a Factor Down the Stretch?

If the Kings have a big game to win, they will ask Jonathan Quick to win it for them. But last season Quick was exhausted by April, and several voices around the league questioned the club’s decision to play him so much. This year, with the Kings in a much better position record-wise, I certainly expect Enroth to get several more starts down the stretch. He has proven he can do a wonderful job as a spot starter, and is able to get up for games against quality teams. Remember, he’s not starting exclusively against lottery teams at the bottom of the NHL barrel. Enroth holds wins over the Islanders, Sharks, and Blues, and coach Darryl Sutter will not avoid playing him due to the strength of L.A.’s opponent.

Despite the Kings’ early season successes, the pressure is still on for Enroth when he plays. The last thing this team needs is to stumble into the playoffs, and losing a few games towards the end of the year could cause some doubt to creep in. Are we really as good as we think? Can this guy win us a game if Quick goes down? Every Western Conference team will be looking for an edge on the Kings, and Enroth owes it to his club to hold up his end of the bargain.

What This Opportunity Means for Enroth

I sincerely doubt that Enroth is a dummy. He knows there really is no long-term future for him in L.A., if he wants to be a permanent starting goalie again. The best thing Enroth can do is continue to play lights-out when he gets his chances, and make the rest of the league take notice. If he does that, there will be an opportunity for him to start in somebody’s net. Much like competent NFL Quarterbacks, there’s always a shortage of starting goalies in the NHL.
There’s a lot to love, and a little to hate about Jhonas Enroth when he’s in net. The Kings know they are getting a wild card, someone who thrives in chaos and struggles with long-term consistency. But if Enroth is motivated to be a major player again, he’ll continue to take advantage of his minor role in Hollywood. Stay tuned.