The Russian hockey legend and 1989 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Vladislav Tretiak once said: “there is no position in sport as noble as goaltending.” Perhaps what Tretiak ought to say is that no position is as noble as the backup goaltender.
As much as the 31 NHL starting goalies have a heavy burden to bear, the men who play behind them face even more unique challenges. They have all of the burdens of starters but get fewer opportunities, and the scrutiny on them in those opportunities is intense.
Backup goalies are underpaid and in short supply. Many teams struggle to field a sufficient starting goalie, so employing a terrific backup is one of the greatest luxuries in the NHL. In this article, we’ll take a look at the cream of the backup crop, the top 10 secondary goalies in the league.
Some of them are the 1B in a tandem, some are career backups, some are veterans in what may be their final stop, and some are bright young goalies on the rise who will probably take over starting duties soon. But one thing unifies them all: their teams should be very thankful to have them.
10) Marc-Andre Fleury — Vegas Golden Knights
Marc-Andre Fleury didn’t expect to be left holding the bag as the Vegas Golden Knights’ backup, which led to significant controversy during the 2019-20 playoffs (thanks in part to his agent). But entering the 2020-21 season, assuming Robin Lehner is fully recovered from offseason surgery, it seems like that’s exactly what Fleury will be. While the team will likely frame it as a true tandem, it is clear that head coach Pete DeBoer sees his goalie as a 1A and 1B, and Fleury is the 1B.
Though the Golden Knights have tried to trade Fleury this offseason, it seems no one is willing to take his $7 million salary cap hit in a flattened cap era. So Vegas will have to make due with a $12 million goalie tandem, the second-most expensive in the league.
Still, there are worse things than having a backup who is a former first-overall pick with three Stanley Cups on his resume. Fleury was 27-16-5 last season with a .905 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.77 goals-against average (GAA). Some of his peripheral numbers weren’t promising, but with the incredible safety net of Lehner, Fleury should easily be one of the strongest backups in the league.
9) Henrik Lundqvist — Washington Capitals
No one wanted the Henrik Lundqivst era with the New York Rangers to end the way it did, with an unceremonious buyout after a crushing playoff exit. But the Rangers’ future is Igor Shesterkin, and Alexandar Georgiev is a capable backup in his own right, so it was time to part ways with the King.
But Lundqvist isn’t done with the NHL yet. He’s moved onto the Washington Capitals to pursue one more Stanley Cup, where he will likely back up Ilya Samsonov, another fantastic young Russian goalie. Lundqvist might be 38, but he had a respectable .905 SV% behind a porous defense last season and should be just fine in limited work with the Capitals.
8) Jake Allen — Montreal Candiens
The Montreal Canadiens made the decision to trade for Jake Allen and form by far the most expensive goaltending tandem, even extending the New Brunswick native with a two-year contract at a $2.875 average annual value (AAV). So clearly, they see value in the former St. Louis Blues backup, despite some inconsistency in his past.
Allen possesses strong enough lifetime stats, with a .912 save percentage (SV%) and 2.52 goals-against average (GAA). But if you remove the three seasons where he was a starter (from 2016-2019), his SV% climbs to .917 and his GAA drops to roughly 2.14, a very impressive number.
For whatever reason, Allen has always thrived in a backup or tandem role, and he was absolutely fine once Jordan Binnington established himself as the number one in St. Louis, even outplaying the breakout goalie in parts of the 2019-20 season. Playing near home behind one of the best goaltenders in the world, Allen has a chance to move up this list in the seasons to come, unless, of course, he becomes a starter for the Seattle Kraken after the season.
7) MacKenzie Blackwood — New Jersey Devils
When the New Jersey Devils waived Cory Schneider last season, it looked like MacKenzie Blackwood was destined to be the long-term starter in the Prudential Center. But the Devils signed Corey Crawford to a two-year, $3.9 million contract this offseason, giving their bright young netminder a strong veteran presence to learn from and, presumably, play behind, at least at first.
If Blackwood is the backup, he’ll be an extraordinary one. The 23-year-old finished the season strong last year, claiming a .915 SV% behind a weak New Jersey defense, and even managing 7.29 goals saved above average (GSAA). He looks to be a strong future starting option, but considering the investment general manager Lou Lamoriello made in the Stanley Cup veteran Crawford, Blackwood will probably be the number two for now.
6) Ilya Sorokin — New York Islanders
It seemed like forever in coming, but the New York Islanders finally managed to sign 25-year-old Ilya Sorokin, the young Russian netminder who some consider to be the best of the Russian goaltenders taking over the Metropolitan Division. But Semyon Varlamov was outstanding last season, and the Islanders likely signed him to mentor Sorokin in the first place. They will take their time to develop the young goalie, hoping to secure him for years to come and build their future around him. For now, he will be a top flight backup with elite starter upside.
5) Elvis Merzlikins — Columbus Blue Jackets
Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo split time with the Columbus Blue Jackets last season, and Merzlikins looked like the best goalie in the world for stretches when Korpisalo was out with injury. But he ended up starting fewer games in both the regular season and the postseason and will enter the 2020-21 season as the presumptive backup, despite signing a two-year, $8 million extension back in April.
Even so, Merzlikins had elite numbers in his first NHL season with a .923 SV%, a 2.35 GAA, and a 12.10 GSAA to go along with five shutouts, three of which he got in the same four-game stretch in January. He also looked fantastic in two postseason starts. The 26-year-old Latvian netminder could easily take over as the true starter if Korpisalo struggles, but for now, he looks like the 1B in what is indisputably one of the best goalie tandems in the league.
4) Thatcher Demko — Vancouver Canucks
After an incredible postseason performance from youngster Thatcher Demko, the Vancouver Canucks allowed Jacob Markstrom to depart in free agency, and it looked like the 24-year-old American goalie would assume the role as the Canucks’ starter. Instead, they made a surprise splash in the free-agent market by signing veteran goalie Braden Holtby to a two-year, $8.6 million deal. It’s a smart signing, giving Demko the support and mentorship he needs to develop into a full-blown starter without the costly commitment to a more expensive alternative.
Demko will look to improve on a regular season that saw him go 25-13-10 with a .905 SV% and a 3.06 GAA. But in four postseason games, he went 2-1-0 with an unbelievable .985 SV% and 0.64 GAA (that’s not a typo). Clearly, he has the athletic prowess to perform at the highest level, and analysts have long looked at Demko as a potential high-level starter in the NHL. Now, with Holtby, he won’t be forced into that role before he’s ready.
3) Pavel Francouz — Colorado Avalanche
Pavel Francouz took the NHL by storm in his first full season in the league, finishing 21-7-4 with a .923 SV% and a 2.41 GAA, in addition to 13.06 GSAA. He played well enough for the Colorado Avalanche to offer him a two-year, $4 million contract extension in February.
Francouz struggled a bit during the postseason, but his future still looks bright. But the 30-year-old is firmly ensconced as a backup behind Philipp Grubauer entering the 2020-21 season. They will enter the season as one of the most formidable tandems in the league, which will be a valuable commodity in what is likely to be a compressed schedule.
2) Jaroslav Halak — Boston Bruins
It’s almost absurd how little credit Jaroslav Halak gets for the remarkable career he’s assembled. The greatest Slovakian goaltender of all time, he’s played 14 seasons in the NHL for the Montreal Canadiens, the Blues, the Islanders, and the Bruins. Whether a backup, in a tandem, or a true starter, his numbers have rarely dipped below good-to-great, and now, in Boston, with Tuukka Rask at his side, he is the very best backup in the league.
Halak’s career numbers speak for themselves: 272-167-58, a .916 SV% and 2.48 GAA, 94.9 goalie point shares, and several seasons with a double-digit GSAA are just a few of his many accomplishments. During the 2019-20 campaign, he recorded his 50th career shutout and currently ranks in a tie for 30th with Chris Osgood and teammate Tuukka Rask, one shutout behind Jonathan Quick, three ahead of his former teammate Carey Price. Together, Halak and Rask won the 2019-20 Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed by a tandem in the league.
While his incredible career may be overlooked around the league, no one in Boston underestimates Halak’s value. He is good enough to start almost anywhere, but the Bruins are fortunate enough to be able to sit him behind Rask, forming the most formidable goalie pair anywhere in the league. Halak struggled a little bit in the postseason when thrust unexpectedly into a starter’s role, but no on can blame him for that. He’s still one of the very best backups in the league. They don’t call him the Halak Ness Monster for nothing.
1) Anton Khudobin — Dallas Stars
After signing a brand new three-year, $10 million contract with the Dallas Stars, Anton Khudboin is poised to continue his incredible success from the past two years. But even after a sensational playoff run, he is still the definition of an elite NHL backup. He’s never started more than 37 games in a season but carries a lifetime .919 SV% and a 2.46 GAA. His career record is 99-76-25, with 8 shutouts in that time.
Khudobin, whom the Wild drafted in the seventh round in 2004, had been reliable in stints with the Wild, the Hurricanes, a brief tenure with the Anaheim Ducks, and two terms with the Boston Bruins. But since the Stars signed him prior to the 2018-19 season, he’s been on a different level, forming one of the most formidable tandems in the league with starter Ben Bishop.
Now, with Bishop’s continued struggles with injury, he fills an even more vital role. But behind head coach Rick Bowness’ formidable defensive structure, either goalie is set up for success. Khudobin, now 34, may never get a shot to be a true NHL number one, but he’s about as reliable a number two as there is anywhere, and with his new contract, he is being handsomely rewarded for it.
Who Did We Miss?
Do you think your backup belongs on this list? Do you think we gave someone too much credit? Let us know in the comments below. The role of backup goaltender in the league is a volatile and ever-changing one. But right now, we believe these are the ten best in the world.