The Rise of the Backups: Why second-stringers are more important than ever

A team’s No. 2 option in net is no longer just a benchwarmer. And in some cases, he’s as crucial as the No. 1.
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Jordan Binnington hoisted the 2019 Stanley Cup, and it might have felt lighter for him than for most goalies. Between the AHL, NHL regular season and playoffs, he appeared in 74 games last season. Added up, it was a starter’s workload, sure. But stretched out from October to June? Meh. Martin Brodeur used to pack 74 games between October and April. By June during his championship years, he’d crest 90 games. So Binnington was lemon-fresh by comparison when his Blues won it all last June.

So were the three 2018-19 Vezina Trophy finalists. Winner Andrei Vasilevskiy and runners-up Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner started 53, 45 and 43 regular-season games, respectively. Their “backups,” Louis Domingue, Anton Khudobin and Thomas Greiss, combined to average 34 starts with a .920 save percentage. They carved out significant roles in their creases as understudies for the season’s three best goalies.

And those No. 2 netminders weren’t exceptions by any means. They represent a trend across the NHL: the rise of the backup. The term “backup” feels like an insult to what these goalies bring to their teams today. As recently as 2009-10, six goalies league-wide started 70-plus games, meaning their backups were really just that: emergency fill-ins whose jobs were to merely not embarrass their teams. Last season, zero goalies started 70 games – for the third time in the past four seasons. We also saw the fewest goalies ever with 60-plus starts. Meanwhile, the number of netminders starting 20-plus and 30-plus games reached all-time highs. An incredible 56 netminders started 20 or more games in 2018-19. In 1997-98, 38 did. The 1A/1B structure has taken over as the league’s dominant goaltending configuration. But why?

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The simplest, most common answer is load management. The goaltending position is more physically demanding today than it was 20, 10 or even five years ago. Crackdowns on obstruction and, more recently, slashing have opened up the game, producing more room for skill players, more east-west play and, for goalies, much more lateral and vertical movement. The 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons yielded the two highest average shot totals per game since 1970-71.

Goalies work so hard now that their bodies need extra recovery time. Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill arguably drives the bus on the 1A/1B philosophy, having rostered Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen before rolling with the Bishop-Khudobin duo. For Nill, 65 games are “too much to ask” of a starter in today’s NHL. “It’s the back-to-backs that are tough, combined with the travel,” Nill said. “And because of how competitive and close the games are, there is just so much more pressure on goalies nowadays. It’s a tough position to play. We’ve changed the rules so you can’t hold up guys in front of the net anymore, and you have to have a good goaltending performance to win every night.”

It seems you can’t win the Stanley Cup with an overworked goalie anymore, judging by a sampling of the past 20 NHL seasons, excluding lockout-shortened 2012-13. Between 1997-98 and 2002-03, five of six championship netminders were bell cows who started at least 60 games that regular season. Between 2003-04 and 2011-12, two of eight Cup-winning goalies were 60-start guys. Just one of the past nine Cup-winning netminders started 60 games in the regular season, including none of the past six.

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Yes, Cam Ward, Matt Murray and Binnington won Cups as rookies who weren’t their teams’ year-round starters, but that doesn’t make their smaller sample sizes confounding variables. It’s the opposite. It’s hardly a coincidence that we’re seeing rookie goalies on Cup-winning teams. The freshmen are the youngest, spryest, freshest options available.

The league has caught on to the importance of a rested starter and, in turn, now values the No. 2 netminder more. Just look at how teams distribute their salaries. In 2010-11, 25 goalies earned at least three percent of their teams’ salary-cap total. The past three seasons, we’ve seen record high after record high, with 37, 38 and, in 2019-20, a whopping 39 goalies earning at least three percent of their teams’ salary caps, which means an AAV of at least $2.45 million.

Being a “backup” is noble, important work in today’s NHL.

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