Goaltending in the NHL can be an arduous task on a night to night basis.
Even worse for the guy wearing the ball cap at the end of the bench waiting to sub in for the starter.
With the grind of a 82-game schedule, the role of the back-up goaltender is key to an contending team’s fortunes. Not to say that pretenders don’t need their second bananas, but spelling all-world goalies comes with plenty of expectation, criticism and waiting around.
With only two spots (usually) on any team, that makes just 62 total positions available around the world’s best puck loop.
Most goalies who make it aren’t ideally suited to being back-up, since all were starters with their junior, college and minor league clubs.
It’s pretty much a thankless job — except for weary starters who need them — when we come to think of it.
Here are 12 of the NHL’s best, in no particular order.
12. Juuse Saros – Nashville Predators
The nation of Finland has the goaltending situation covered in the Music City. Long-time Finnish goalie Pekka Rinne has been the starter for the Predators since 2008-09, pretty much without exception. He’s had some quality back-ups over the years, but now he has a countryman in Juuse Saros to mentor. And Saros isn’t just there so he can reminisce about life back in Suomi with Rinne, he has the chops to be the starter one day. Drafted 99th overall in 2013, the Forssa born netminder has made a fairly quick ascent to the big league level. He played two outstanding seasons as a teenager with HPK Hameenlinna of the Finnish Liiga and has apprenticed well with Nashville’s AHL club, the Milwaukee Admirals, for a total of 53 games. So far in his brief career as Rinne’s understudy, Saros has posted a record of 10-10-3 in 23 games, with a 2.45 goals against average, .920 save percentage and a shutout. Good stuff.
11. Darcy Kuemper – Los Angeles Kings
The Kuemperor, as he was known for a long time in Minnesota, bolted the wilds of the midwest for the bright lights of L.A. and a number two role behind two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick. At one time thought to be the goalie of the future for the Wild, Kuemper lost the starting job to Devan Dubnyk and the writing was on the wall. Kuemper was drafted 161st overall (sixth round) by Minnesota in 2009 and truly paid his dues. The Saskatoon native cut his chops in the AHL with the Houston Aeros and Iowa Wild (44 games, 2.13 GAA, five shutouts) and even played 11 games in the East Coast Hockey League. His numbers with the Wild were pretty good, considering his status as a back-up. In all, he appeared in 102 games (89 starts), finishing with a 2.60 GAA, .910 save percentage and seven shutouts. His playoff record isn’t huge, but he is 3-1 lifetime in five starts, with a .911 save percentage and 2.14 goals against.
10. Jonathan Bernier – Colorado Avalanche
Let’s face it, being the no. 1 goalie in one of hockey’s craziest hotbeds — Toronto, in this case — is tougher than just about each of the other 30 markets. At one time Toronto’s starter for three seasons after parts of five campaigns with the Los Angeles Kings, Bernier has settled in nicely as a back-up with the Avalanche. It’s hard to believe he is still just 29, too, as it seems he’s been around forever. Bernier began playing junior in Lewiston when he was 16 and was so highly thought of that the Kings drafted him 11th overall in 2006, which is not that common. Bernier was good as a back-up to Jonathan Quick in L.A. — he could give Darcy Kuemper advice — and in Toronto, where he started 140 games on some horrible defensive teams, he was stellar on a lot of nights. He switched places with Frederik Andersen in Anaheim, traded to the Ducks in 2016 and after a decent year there, signed with the Avs to back up Semyon Varlamov. Lifetime, Bernier owns a 109-96-27 record with a 2.66 GAA, .914 save percentage and 14 shutouts.
9. Michal Neuvirth – Philadelphia Flyers
Brian Elliott ought not get too comfortable as the Flyers new no. 1 goalie. Waiting in the wings, as he’s done the two previous seasons behind Steve Mason, is Czech veteran Michal Neuvirth. Other than one season with Washington, who drafted him 34th overall in 2006, Neuvirth has been a career second banana, and a good one at that. The only blemish on what might be considered a very good career, was his 2016-17 campaign, which was forgettable for everyone wearing a Flyers uniform. Otherwise, in 229 NHL games (204 starts), Neuvirth has a record of 95-83-22, a goals against of 2.67, save percentage at .912 and 10 shutouts. In limited post-season duty Neuvirth has been better than his average, fashioning a 6-6 mark, 1.93 goals against average, .933 save percentage and two shutouts.
8. Ryan Miller – Anaheim Ducks
For all intents and purposes, Ryan Miller is not a back-up goalie. But, at age 37, he’ll have to content himself being the guy with the ball cap at the end of the Ducks bench. Miller spent most of his fairly illustrious career in Buffalo, winning a Vezina Trophy in 2010 after a standout season. His top end skill, though, waned a bit during his three seasons in Vancouver and this past off-season he opted to test free agency, signing with Anaheim for two years and $4 million. Not bad money to get into games when John Gibson needs a break. Of all the no. 2s on this list, Miller has played the most games, at 709, 572 of them starts. He has an overall record of 358-262-74, with a .915 save percentage, 2.61 goals against and 39 shutouts. We say it’s a heck of a tandem in Anaheim.
7. Petr Mrazek – Detroit Red Wings
The mark of a good back-up netminder is how well he plays in a starting role, compared to when he’s second on the depth chart. The results on Red Wings no. 2 Petr Mrazek are mixed, but not bad when combined. In 2015-16 the Ostrava, CZ born Mrazek was thrust into the starting role when star goaltender Jimmy Howard under-performed. His numbers were eye opening. He started 49 games, winning 27 and recording a 2.33 goals against average, .921 save percentage and four shutouts. This was a year after winning 16 of 29 in a back-up role, with a .918 save percentage, 2.38 GAA and three shutouts. Thus, he played pretty much the same between 2014-15 and 2015-16. Then 2016-17 rolled around, not a banner campaign all around in Detroit. It showed in Mrazek’s play in relief of the injured Howard. He went 18-21-9 in 44 starts, with a 3.04 GAA, one shutout and a .901 save percentage. Howard is healthy again this season and we think Mrazek will bounce back and be great as the no. 2.
6. James Reimer – Florida Panthers
Like Jonathan Bernier, James Reimer was once a lightning rod for criticism in Toronto. Drafted in the same year as Bernier, but not in the same round (Reimer went 99th overall to Toronto in 2006), the Morweena, MB native apprenticed for parts of three seasons in the Leafs farm system before going up to the Leafs for good during the 2010-11 season. Despite playing fairly steady goal, the Leafs never did anoint him no. 1. On some very defensively suspect teams, Reimer deserved a better shot at being the top goalie, what with his career record there of 85-76-23, .914 save percentage and 2.83 GAA. He was liberated out of the Leafs fishbowl at the 2016 deadline, playing a handful of games with the San Jose Sharks before signing a five-year contract with Florida on July 1, 2016. He and veteran Roberto Luongo now form a very potent duo in south Florida.
5. Connor Hellebuyck – Winnipeg Jets
Along with Juuse Saros in Nashville, Connor Hellebuyck might be a key part of the new breed coming down the line to supplant aging incumbents around the NHL. In just three seasons, Michiganite Hellebuyck has gone from back-up in 2015-16, to starter last year and now back-up again to newly arrived Steve Mason. A superstar at UMass Lowell of Hockey East, Hellebuyck was drafted 130th overall by the Jets in 2012 and spent 88 games in the minors before being called up to Winnipeg midway through the 2015-16 season. He was part of a three-goalie carousel that year, playing in 26 games, winning 11 with a .918 save percentage, 2.34 GAA and two shutouts. Thrust, probably a little too early, into a starting role last year, Hellebuyck struggled at times in 53 starts. Even still, he had moments of brilliance, posting four shutouts. Now a back-up again, he is a reasonable alternative to Mason, when the Jets need him.
4. Chad Johnson – Buffalo Sabres
Under the definition of “NHL journeyman” it says, “see Chad Johnson.” Now in his eighth season after being drafted by Pittsburgh 125th overall in 2006, Johnson is now with the sixth team, the Buffalo Sabres (who he has played with twice). To say it’s been a whirlwind of a career for the Saskatoon native would be a huge understatement. Johnson signed back with the Sabres on a one-year, $2.5 million contract to spell starter Robin Lehner. Johnson had arguably his finest season with Buffalo in 2015-16, putting in a career high 40 starts. He finished with a 22-16-4 record, .920 save percentage, 2.36 goals against average and a shutout. He was no. 2 to Brian Elliott in Calgary last season and started another 36 games, posting three shutouts and a 2.59 GAA.
3. Peter Budaj – Tampa Bay Lightning
With Ben Bishop gone, the door is open for the tandem of Andrei Vasilevskiy and Peter Budaj to shine in Tampa Bay. Vasilevskiy is the incumbent no. 1, which means Budaj, at times a starter with Colorado, Montreal and the Los Angeles Kings, will assume back-up duties. He was excellent in relief of injured Jonathan Quick with the Kings last year, having his finest season since breaking into the NHL with the Avalance in 2005. In 51 starts before being dealt to Tampa Bay at the deadline, Budaj registered a record of 27-20-3, with a .917 save percentage, 2.12 GAA and seven shutouts. In all, the Czech native has appeared in 357 NHL contests (239 starts), recording an overall GAA of 2.67 with 18 shutouts. The Bolts will be well protected at the back end.
2. Carter Hutton – St. Louis Blues
The University of Massachusetts at Lowell is well represented on this list. Like Connor Hellebuyck, Thunder Bay, Ontario born Carter Hutton starred for the Hockey East club, putting in four seasons there. However, he went undrafted in his year (2004), signing a free agent minor league deal at the end of his NCAA career in 2010 with Philadelphia. He bounced around for four seasons with three different clubs, finally getting into his first game action (one start) with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2012-13. That led to a free agent contract with Nashville, where he was a starter when Pekka Rinne went down with an injury during the 2013-14 campaign. Hutton remained there until 2016, when St. Louis picked him up as a free agent. He excelled as Jake Allen’s back-up, going 13-8-2, with a career high four shutouts and 2.39 goals against average. In his lone game for the 4-0 Blues this season, he stopped 32 of 33 as St. Louis beat the Rangers 3-1.
1. Philipp Grubauer – Washington Capitals
In terms of goaltending, there is an embarrassment of riches in D.C. That is, when two-time All-Star and 2016 Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby needs the rare rest or can’t go, the Washington Capitals don’t lose much when no. 2 Philipp Grubauer mans the pipes. With Holtby able to play so many games, Grubauer might be the best kept secret in the NHL. The German wonder was drafted 112th overall by the Caps in 2010 and has since got into 67 games, starting 52. The majority of those games only came after a good grounding in the AHL with Hershey, where he played 105 games. A graduate of the Ontario Hockey League, Grubauer has an overall NHL record of 28-21-8, along with a stellar .922 save percentage, 2.28 GAA and three shutouts. For our money, he’s the best second stringer in the league.