It’s the most unheralded position in hockey, but also one of the most important. There’s nothing worse for players than when they feel they can’t trust the man guarding the twine during the odd night their No. 1 netminder needs a night off – or has an off night. Such worries shake up systems and usually end up in losses.
With that in mind, we thought it prudent to take a look at NHL backups. While training camps are still going on and battles for jobs continue, it’s difficult to handicap everyone. But looking around the league, there are some clear-cut No. 2s who obviously stand out – not just based on ability, although putting some pressure on the starter is an important factor, but on their willingness to take on the role; a usurped No. 1 generally isn’t happy backing up.
The situations in Anaheim, Washington and on the Isle jump to mind there. If J-S Giguere and Jose Theodore begin the year on the bench, we don’t expect them to flourish in the role. The same goes for Martin Biron and Dwayne Roloson.
10. Yann Danis, New Jersey
Danis, you may remember, played for the Islanders last season. It’s fair to say he was peppered with shots playing for the worst team in the league – he faced 32 per 60 minutes during 31 appearances. But Danis still managed a respectable 2.86 goals-against average and .910 save percentage. He obviously isn’t worried about playing time or he wouldn’t have signed with the Devils, so expect a happy camper whose numbers should improve playing in the New Jersey system.
9. Tuukka Rask, Boston
Rask’s inclusion is based as much on potential as anything else. In his lone NHL game last season, the 22-year-old, 21st pick of the 2005 draft posted a 35-save shutout. He’s big, quick, technical and hard to rattle. Tim Thomas is the clear starter in Beantown and Dany Sabourin may get the No. 2 job so Rask can get more American League starts, but the youngster is clearly the best option after Thomas.
8. Alex Auld, Dallas
Incumbent Marty Turco is coming off the worst season of his career, while Auld is coming off one of his best: 43 games played, a 2.47 GAA and .911 save percentage with Ottawa. Auld will be hungry for minutes and give Turco a nice push, just what you want in a backup.
7. Brian Boucher, Philadelphia
Boucher’s numbers the past two seasons have been outstanding. The man who had five consecutive shutouts for Phoenix in 2003-04 to set the longest streak in 80 years (332:01), was great last year for San Jose (12-6-3, 2.18 GAA, .917 save percentage in 22 games). Boucher has had NHL seasons where he’s played a lot of games and also very few, so he knows how to handle the backup role. He, too, will provide good competition for the No. 1 job.
6. Corey Crawford, Chicago
Crawford is expected to push Cristobal Huet for starting minutes with the Hawks. If Huet falters, Crawford will be given the task of backstopping a young team with loads of pressure to match or improve on last season’s Western Conference final appearance. Crawford has put up excellent AHL numbers and in limited NHL appearances, has shown an ability to step up to the next level. For seniority reasons, Crawford gets the nod over Antti Niemi who will likely start in Rockford, though he too could get an opportunity if Huet slips.
5. Dan Ellis, Nashville
The 29-year-old lost his starter’s job to wunderkind Pekka Rinne last year, one season after stealing it from former Pred and current No. 1 in St. Louis, Chris Mason. Ellis makes our list because he’s played the backup role before and will be hungry to prove he’s No. 1-worthy, even if he’s destined for that job on another team a la Florida’s Tomas Vokoun and Mason in Nashville before him.
4. Jaroslav Halak, Montreal
With Carey Price showing last season he’s not necessarily the next Patrick Roy, Halak stepped in and added his name to the starter’s mix in Montreal. In 34 games he was 18-14-1 with a 2.86 GAA and .915 save percentage. Price is the starter to begin the year, but Halak is a close second until proven otherwise and may be destined for a bigger role on another squad.
3. Ty Conklin, St. Louis
When Chris Osgood couldn’t get it done in Detroit last year, Conklin stepped in and almost usurped him as the starter. In 40 games he had 25 wins, a 2.51 GAA, .909 SP and six shutouts. The year before in Pittsburgh: 18-8-5, 2.51, .923. He’s steady, has played for winners and is good enough to offer real competition for incumbent Chris Mason.
2. Josh Harding, Minnesota
Harding may not be a backup for long. Although Minnesota is loathe to move him, he simply can’t go without a real shot at a No. 1 job much longer. Last season on a non-playoff Wild team, Harding won just three of his 13 decisions. But that wasn’t his fault. The 25-year-old’s numbers were Wild: 2.21 GAA and .929 save percentage. If he makes it to restricted free agency this summer, an offer sheet is not out of the question.
1. Scott Clemmensen, Florida
Many were surprised when Clemmensen signed in Florida during the summer. He’s the obvious No. 2, but played like a No. 1 last season in New Jersey, finishing with the seventh-best GAA in the league (2.39) and the ninth-best save percentage (.917). With Clemmensen knowing his situation, we have to assume he’s happy with it. But everyone can also assume he’ll provide a stabilizing force on nights Vokoun doesn’t play and is an excellent insurance policy if Vokoun struggles with injury or gets off to a poor start, as he did last season. Clemmensen is also a good man in the dressing room and a loyal soldier, as he showed last season when demoted to the AHL without complaint upon Martin Brodeur’s return from injury.
The THN.com Top 10 appears Wednesdays only on TheHockeyNews.com.
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