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, 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) Jake Allen — St. Louis Blues
This may be a controversial pick right out of the gate. But Jake Allen’s numbers as a backup and in a tandem throughout his career have been tremendous. In fact, he’s only struggled when forced into a full-time starter’s role. But this season, after losing his job to Jordan Binnington in the 2018-19 season, Allen returned right back to top form as a backup.
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.
Allen has forfeited a lot of trust from fans of the St. Louis Blues because of his shaky performances as a starter. But his 2017 Playoff series against the Minnesota Wild proves how strong he can be when he’s on his game. As difficult as it can be to find a worthwhile backup, teams could do a lot worse than Allen.
9) Thatcher Demko — Vancouver Canucks
This spot was going to go to Igor Shesterkin, the incredible young netminder for the New York Rangers. But before we could even finish the column, head coach David Quinn officially promoted Shesterkin to the number one goalie role in New York. That was good news for him, no doubt. But we needed a suitable replacement fast (an ironic twist for a backup goalie article).
Thatcher Demko hasn’t quite yet put together phenomenal NHL numbers. But the promise he’s shown, plus the inconsistent defense he plays behind with the Vancouver Canucks, has more than earned him a spot on this list. He’s got a very bright future, there’s no doubt of that.
The 2019-20 campaign has been Demko’s first season with regular NHL playing time. He’s currently 10-5-2, which is respectable. His .909 SV% isn’t terrible, and while his minus-0.19 GSAA and 2.92 GAA could be improved, he’s offering the Canucks quality starts 70.6 percent of the time.
Demko was the 36th overall draft pick in 2014, and he’s been a highly-rated prospect most of the time since then. His numbers will continue to improve. Jacob Markstrom, the starter in Vancouver, is on an expiring deal this season. While the Canucks are reportedly working to extend him, they have some leverage. If push comes to shove, they can always turn to Demko. He’s probably their longterm future, anyway.
8) James Reimer — Carolina Hurricanes
James Reimer is one of that rare breed of goaltenders who never really becomes a starter for an extended period, yet remains a successful backup in the league for a long time. Drafted in the 4th round in 2006 by the Toronto Maple Leafs, he’s started more than 40 games in a season just once, playing 42 in relief of an injured Roberto Luongo with the Florida Panthers in 2017-18.
Reimer has suffered plenty of injuries of his own in his career. That’s a big part of the reason he’s never gotten a chance to play more frequently. And his career numbers won’t amaze anyone: he’s 158-126-40, has a .914 SV%, and a 2.80 GAA in stops with the Maple Leafs, Panthers, the San Jose Sharks, and his current Carolina Hurricanes.
Still, while those numbers don’t inspire most fans, they are just the kinds of performances that earn someone regular opportunities as a backup. Now approaching 32, it’s likely the role he’ll hold for the rest of his career. But if your team is ever in the market for a veteran backup goaltender, they could do a lot worse than Reimer.
7) Pavel Francouz — Colorado Avalanche
Prior to the 2019-20 season, very few but the most rabid Colorado Avalanche fans knew who Pavel Francouz was. But that hasn’t stopped him from putting together an incredible rookie season at the age of 29. So far, he’s started 18 games and won 13 of them, collecting 10.20 goals saved above average (GSAA) in the process. That metric measures a player’s SV% against the league average SV% on the same number of shots, and 10.20 is a very good score, especially for a backup with limited opportunities.
Francouz’s hockey card numbers look terrific, too, with a .925 SV% and a 2.42 GAA. He’s slightly outperformed his partner, Philipp Grubauer, but has remained in a backup capacity. At his age, it’s tough to predict what the future might hold for Francouz, but one thing is certain: as an unrestricted free agent (UFA) at season’s end, he will be due a significant raise, whether as the Avalanche’s backup or someone else’s starter.
6) Antti Raanta — Arizona Coyotes
When the Arizona Coyotes traded a prized young defenseman and a top draft pick to the Rangers for Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta in 2017, they doubtlessly did not expect Raanta to return to the backup duties he’d held behind Lundqvist anytime soon. Unfortunately, a massive injury he suffered in his second season with the team, coupled with the meteoric rise of Darcy Kuemper in his absence, means Raanta is back to the second string.
While the two form more of a true tandem than others on this list, there’s no question that Raanta is still the 1B to Kuemper’s 1A. He hasn’t quite returned to the tremendous stats he had before the injury, but he’s still a more reliable backup than all but a few starters in this league, and the formidable duo has the Coyotes in the playoff hunt again for the first time in many years.
Raanta carries a .915 SV% and a 2.82 GAA so far in the 2019-20 season, but he also has a strong 5.02 GSAA and two shutouts. He has another year left on his contract, but with the Coyotes committing to Kuemper with a new contract and now pressed against the salary cap, might they trade him to a team that could give him another chance as a starter?
5) Anton Khudobin — Dallas Stars
Unless you’re a consummate hockey connoisseur, Anton Khudobin may be one of the best and most consistent goalies you’ve never heard of. He’s never started more than 37 games in a season but carries a lifetime .918 SV% and a 2.47 GAA. His career record is 97-75-22, 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 Dallas 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.
In the past two years, as of this writing, Khudobin has a .925 SV% and a 2.45 GAA. Even more impressively, he had a GSAA of 16.04 in his first season with the Stars and is building on that in 2019-20 with a 12.45 mark. Like others on this list, he is a pending UFA. Dallas would be insane to let him go, especially with Ben Bishop’s tendency toward injury, but if they want to keep him, it will probably cost them a little more than the $2.5 million per season they’re currently paying him.
4) Elvis Merzlikins — Columbus Blue Jackets
Where does one rank a goaltender in his first NHL season, who hadn’t recorded a win until December, and then became the hottest goalie on the planet after his starter went down to injury? Right now, that’s the conundrum we face with Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets. While he has limited experience, it would be foolish to rank him any lower on this list right now, given what he’s shown in the past few months.
Merzlikins collected his first NHL victory on New Year’s Eve 2019, but he hasn’t looked back since. He’s now 12-7-5, with all 12 of those wins coming in six weeks’ time. He’s got a .930 SV% and a 2.18 GAA in that time, and, most impressively, five shutouts over the course of eight games. But don’t ask him how he keeps blanking opponents:
I have no idea what is going on, but it’s good. I know that it’s good… In Lugano [Merzlikins’ Swiss team] I did in three years maybe ten shutouts. Now I’m, how many?
Elvis Merzlikins when asked about his streak of five shutouts in eight games
Whether he has the answers in front of the media or not, he’s certainly had the answers on the ice. Merzlikins’ place on this list may be the most volatile. He could plummet back down to earth and drop off it, or he could prove his current numbers and become a starter. Either way, he belongs here right now.
3) Thomas Greiss — New York Islanders
Thomas Greiss, a 34-year-old goaltender from Füssen, Germany, is the definition of a career backup. But over the past five seasons with the New York Islanders, he’s turned that career into a very successful one, playing behind a bevy of different goaltenders. Look no further than the 2018-19 season, where he and fellow goalie Robin Lehner won the Jennings Trophy under new head coach Barry Trotz. His 2.28 GAA that season was vital in bringing home the silverware.
Greiss is now playing behind Semyon Varlamov after the Islanders signed him to a four-year contract when Lehner departed. If top prospect Ilya Sorokin ever leaves the KHL, Greiss, who is in the final year of his contract, may need to look for a new opportunity. But with the consistent numbers he’s put up as one of the league’s very best backups, even at his age, it shouldn’t be hard to find.
2) Ilya Samsonov — Washington Capitals
Ilya Samsonov is certainly more in the “biding his time” category than the “career backup” category, but he’s still a backup for now, and he’s been a very good one. So far in his first NHL season, he is a phenomenal 16-4-1, with a .917 SV%, a 2.38 GAA, one shutout, and 4.63 GSAA. It’s just a taste of all the promise he showed as one of the very best goaltending prospects entering the league.
For now, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan insists that Braden Holtby is the starter. But Samsonov has put up far superior numbers this season, and the veteran ahead of him is a UFA when the campaign ends. Quite frankly, the Capitals would be insane to offer a 30-plus-year-old goalie with deteriorating numbers a longterm contract with Samsonov waiting in the wings. Stranger things have happened, but the starting job in the nation’s capital will be his sooner or later.
1) 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: 268-167-58, a .917 SV% and 2.48 GAA, 94.2 goalie point shares, and several seasons with a double-digit GSAA are just a few of his many accomplishments. Earlier in the 2019-20 campaign, he recorded his 50th career shutout and currently ranks in a tie for 30th with Chris Osgood, one shutout behind Jonathan Quick, two ahead of his teammate Rask, and three ahead of his former teammate Carey Price.
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. They don’t call him the Halak Ness Monster for nothing.
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.