Last season I wrote an article for The Hockey News’ Playoff Preview issue about the Tampa Bay Lightning, comparing the 2018-19 edition to the one that clinched the franchise’s first and only Stanley Cup back in 2003-04. Needless to say, the two squads did not have similar playoff experiences when all was said and done.
But there was an interesting thread that was brought up by several members of that ‘04 squad and it was the importance of backup goalie John Grahame. While Nikolai Khabibulin was undoubtedly the crease star for the Bolts during the run to the Cup, several teammates noted how Grahame was crucial to the cause overall.
“Khabby did not play well in January,” said captain Dave Andreychuk. “He had a bit of a slump. Johnny Grahame came on and the 36 points he got for our team (that year) were essential in us finishing first.”
Last year, Louis Domingue played the same role for Tampa Bay, pitching in when starter Andrei Vasilevskiy got hurt. In the end, Columbus slapped down the historical comparison in four games, but if anything, we’re seeing just how crucial backup goalies are in an era of fast hockey where even the top starters need ample rest to be effective.
So who are the best backups in the NHL right now? Here are five to consider (and note that Thomas Greiss is not a backup – he works a battery with Semyon Varlamov on the Islanders):
Anton Khudobin, Dallas Stars
Just the perfect backup: Khudobin has a 6-3-1 record for the Stars, giving Ben Bishop the rest he needs for a potential Stanley Cup run. Khudobin’s .929 save percentage is exemplary and for those of you who like their statistics on a higher level, his Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) is a robust 5.78 (Bishop is slightly higher at 7.83).
Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh
The only reason I didn’t put Jarry first was because the Penguins haven’t done a lot of winning when he’s in net, though with their injury woes it’s not surprising. Jarry is 3-3-0 so far, but his GSAA is top-10 in the NHL at 6.79 and his .945 save percentage is behind only Louis Domingue – though Domingue has only appeared in two games for New Jersey. If Pittsburgh survives the regular season, they can thank Jarry for getting them crucial points on nights when Matt Murray’s not in the crease.
Antti Raanta, Arizona Coyotes
This is a great one because Raanta has been a starter in the past, but giving up that spot to Darcy Kuemper has not diminished his effectiveness. Raanta is 5-2-2 for the Dogs with a sparkling .926 save percentage and 5.91 GSAA.
Jaroslav Halak, Boston Bruins
On a lot of other teams, Halak could still be a starter. Of course, Tuukka Rask holds that post eminently in Boston and there’s no reason to expect that to change. What Halak does is give the Bruins a rock-solid second option and the rest that Rask needs for a long playoff run, which is what happened last season. Rask and Halak basically split the regular season before Rask took over for the post-season, getting the B’s all the way to Game 7 of the final. This year, Halak has a .924 save percentage in eight appearances, earning at least one point for Boston in seven of those games.
Brian Elliott, Philadelphia Flyers
I’m throwing statistics out the window on this last one, although Elliott’s .913 save percentage is good. What I like about Elliott is how he has taken pressure off young Carter Hart, who has struggled as a sophomore NHLer so far. Had it not been for Elliott, the Flyers would be toast already. As it is, they’re still hanging around the Wild Card picture in the East.
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