By Steven Ellis
Being a backup goalie in the NHL is a tough task, even in a world where they get more starts than ever before. You’re often called upon for the second half of back-to-back games or against a team clawing their way out of the basement. Mentally, it can be tough knowing you’re there just to give the starter a rest more than anything. Some backups take their role in stride and help make their team a contender. Others falter in the face of infrequent playing time and spot duty.
Let’s take a look at some of the heroes and zeroes among NHL backup goaltenders this season.
Anton Khudobin, Boston Bruins: Once upon a time, Khudobin was one of the most highly touted goalies in the AHL. He was a workhorse in the minors, typically playing for average teams, and his first few stints in the NHL went pretty well. But his stock has gone down in recent years, after mediocre seasons with Anaheim, Carolina and Boston. This year, though, Khudobin, has been a pillar of strength for the Bruins. He’s 7-0-2 with a .932 save percentage and a 2.22 goals-against average, while his crease partner, undisputed No. 1 Tuukka Rask, has struggled to an 4-8-2 record. Khudobin's numbers are better in every aspect and, yes, he has faced weaker competition. But in his past five starts have resulted in wins against Pittsburgh, New Jersey, San Jose and Los Angeles, as well as an overtime loss to Toronto. If he continues to play this way, he could get another shot at a starting job somewhere else next season – or perhaps even this season in Boston, if Rask can'tr get untracked.
Anders Nilsson, Vancouver Canucks: Playing for a middle-of-the-pack team that has struggled defensively, Nilsson has nearly half of his team’s wins despite playing 10 fewer games than Jacob Markstrom. Again, Markstrom is counted upon for the tougher games, but beating Pittsburgh, Washington, Los Angeles and taking St. Louis to overtime is no simple feat. Nilsson's 43-save night against the Penguins on Nov. 22 was one of the most impressive goalie performances of the season.
Vegas Golden Knights’ backups: It’s been well documented how the Golden Knights have exceeded all expectations this season. But when Marc-Andre Fleury went down with a concussion in mid-October, any hope of Vegas keeping up with their hot start seemed to have evaporated. Then Malcolm Subban got hurt. Then Oscar Dansk. And yet, the Knights kept winning. Subban returned to action in late November and sits at 4-1-0, while Dansk has a shutout and went undefeated in three starts. Maxime Lagace, the team's fourth-string goalie, carried the load and went a respectable 5-5-0, while being backed up by Dylan Ferguson, an emergency recall from the WHL who was a seventh-roundf draft pick in June. As a whole, Golden Knights' backups have been able to keep Vegas in the playoff mix while minimizing the damage from losing Fleury.
Antti Niemi, Montreal Canadiens: You know it’s been a rough year when you need to check the daily transaction section to make sure Niemi hasn’t been placed on waivers again. A Stanley Cup champion with Chicago back in 2010, Niemi has yet to win a game in seven tries this season and holds a 5.50 GAA and a .845 save percentage, the second-worst mark for any goalie with at least one start this season. Niemi has started four games this season while playing on three different teams, with his best performance coming for a struggling Habs team in a shootout loss to Nashville. When you’ve been on waivers twice in less than a month and can’t seem to string together a complete game, it’s tough to have confidence in what has been a rapidly declining career for the Finnish netminder. When Al Montoya returns to Montreal, where will Niemi’s career take him next?
Eddie Lack, Calgary Flames: Everything has gone wrong with Lack’s career since his trade from Vancouver to Carolina at the 2015 NHL draft. There were expectations that Lack would take over for a struggling Cam Ward in Carolina, but two seasons went by with very little to show for it. This year, Lack was brought in to back up Mike Smith, who likely wouldn’t be able to start as many games as he had in recent years with Arizona. Well, four games later and Lack is in the AHL, and he might not find his way back up to the NHL anytime soon without a trade shipping him out of the organization. His lone win required him to make just 13 stops, but he only had to play two periods against St. Louis. His last start against Detroit resulted in him allowing five goals on just 15 shots, earning a trip on waivers. Lack’s starts have been few and far between, but he just couldn’t get the job done when required.
Juuse Saros, Nashville Predators: Saros is just 22, and his struggles this season appear to be more of a usage issue than a goalie who's not good enough to play in the NHL. With only five starts heading into December – and just two in November – Saros isn't getting enough action at this point in his career. Statistically, he's near the bottom of the league in save percentage, a surprising fact when looking at Nashville’s defense corps. Say what you want about Pekka Rinne, but he wins games and when he does, there's no point in making a switch. Saros getting sent back to the AHL's Milwaukee Admirals and have Anders Lindback sit on the bench instead was a smart move by the Preds.