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Second-best masked men: Ranking the NHL’s 31 backup goalies

Philipp Grubauer has been one of the best backups in the NHL this season, outperforming his more renowned crease mate in Washington.

It’s not easy being No. 2.

Pity the poor backup goalie, barely seen and rarely noticed. While the starter makes the saves and gets the glory, the backup is the forgotten fixture at the end of the bench, the guy wearing a ballcap at a hockey game and clinging a clipboard.

But, every once in a while, circumstances change and suddenly the backup gets a chance, whether it’s a spot start here and there or a few weeks of regular action in place of an injured No. 1. Play well in these situations, prove your worth and earn your team’s trust, and that might lead to more frequent starts, perhaps even a platoon, and maybe, just maybe, you wake up one day and you’re the No. 1 guy, trying to hold off that kid in the ballcap at the end of the bench.

Here’s how the NHL’s 31 backup goalies have stacked up this season.

(Note: Stats through games played as of March 23, 2018.)

1. Carter Hutton, St. Louis Blues
At times this season, he effectively took over the Blues’ starting job in place of struggling No. 1 Jake Allen. Among NHL goalies who have played at least 20 games, Hutton leads the league in goals-against average (2.02) and save percentage (.934). The 32-year-old journeyman picked a good time for a career year – he’s eligible for unrestricted free agency on July 1.

2. Philipp Grubauer, Washington Capitals
You could make the case that Caps starter Braden Holtby was the best goalie in the NHL in the three seasons from 2014-15 through 2016-17. Not this year, though. In fact, Holtby (3.03 GAA, .906 save percentage) hasn’t even been the best goalie in Washington. That honor belongs to Grubauer, who has sparkled with a 2.29 GAA and .926 save percentage.

3. Anton Khudobin, Boston Bruins
He was Boston’s saving grace – and the NHL’s best backup – when Tuukka Rask floundered in the first quarter of the season. Rask has since gone from terrible to terrific, and might even end up a Vezina Trophy candidate. That’s great news for the Bruins, but it has lessened Khudobin’s role in recent months.  

4. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes
He was playing so well in Los Angeles – 10-1-6 record, 2.10 GAA, .932 percentage – that Arizona acquired him a week before the trade deadline and promptly signed him to a two-year extension. With Antti Raanta up for unrestricted free agency this summer, could the Coyotes be considering Kuemper as their No. 1 next season?

5. Ryan Miller, Anaheim Ducks
His record isn’t overwhelming at 8-6-9, but then you see his .926 save percentage and realize the 37-year-old done-it-all stopper has been a stabilizing influence on a team that was ravaged by injuries this season, not to mention a valuable mentor for young starter John Gibson.

6. Curtis McElhinney, Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs have leaned on Frederik Andersen, who has faced more shots than any other goalie in the league this season. But they might’ve been smart to throw a few more starts at McElhinney, who has stepped up when given the chance. His stats (2.09 GAA, .935 save percentage) are significantly better than Andersen’s (2.80, .918), albeit in limited playing time (16 games). McElhinney has given up two-or-fewer goals in eight of nine appearances since Dec. 20, with the outlier being a 31-save effort in a 3-2 overtime loss to Florida on Feb. 27.

7. Jonathan Bernier, Colorado Avalanche
With 18 wins and 32 appearances, Bernier has been one of the best and busiest backups in the NHL this season. He proved his worth – and kept Colorado in the playoff race – with nine straight wins when Semyon Varlamov was out with injury in January.

8. Keith Kinkaid, New Jersey Devils
He took over as the starter in mid-January when Cory Schneider got hurt, and the Devils didn’t miss a beat in their surprising playoff push. In fact, New Jersey has a better record this season with Kinkaid in net (20-10-2) than Schneider (17-15-7).

9. Juuse Saros, Nashville Predators
It’s all about Pekka Rinne in Nashville’s crease, but Saros has quietly put up stellar stats (2.37 GAA, .925 save percentage) in a supporting role. The 22-year-old has contributed to the Predators’ league-leading 11 shutouts this season with three whitewashes in 19 starts.

10. Malcolm Subban, Vegas Golden Knights
Everything has gone right for the Golden Knights in their expansion season, so why would it be any different for their backup goalie? Subban’s biggest flaw has been the same one that has afflicted every other goalie the Golden Knights have trotted out this season – an inability to stay healthy. He wins when he plays, though, as evidenced by his 11-3-2 record, not bad for a rookie netminder on a first-year team.

11. Aaron Dell, San Jose Sharks
After making his NHL debut last season at 27, Dell has been worth the wait. He was especially busy in December and January, racking up 10 wins (and zero regulation-time losses) in a six-week stretch in relief of starter Martin Jones. He’s 15-5-5 on the season, and gives the Sharks a legitimate Plan B.

12. Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins sent the 22-year-old Jarry down to the AHL this week, but it might’ve been a move to keep him sharp, with the expectation they’ll recall him in time for the playoffs. Or the next time Matt Murray gets hurt, which hasn’t been an infrequent occurrence this season (or during his three-year NHL career to this point). Jarry has 14 wins – and only six regulation losses – in 23 starts for Pittsburgh this season.

13. Petr Mrazek, Philadelphia Flyers
Is he the starter? The backup? The third-stringer? All of the above? The Flyers brought in Mrazek before the trade deadline, with Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth battling injuries. Mrazek got off to a hot start in Philadelphia, then cooled off quickly. He was in the Vezina Trophy mix a couple years ago in Detroit, but it’s been a bumpy ride ever since. Still, he’s only 26 years old and he’s a restricted free agent this summer. If he performs in the playoffs, he might stick around.

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14. Cam Ward, Carolina Hurricanes
Well, this is awkward. Carolina brought in Scott Darling on a four-year deal to take over the No. 1 job from longtime starter Ward, but Darling struggled badly out of the gates and it just got worse from there. Both goalies have played 39 games and Ward has effectively been the Hurricanes’ starter since mid-December. His stats aren’t spectacular (2.84 GAA, .903 save percentage), but Darling’s numbers are bottom-of-the-barrel bad (3.19, .885).

15. Kari Lehtonen, Dallas Stars
The former No. 1 was making amends for the past couple of seasons with solid backup play behind new starter Ben Bishop, but he faltered badly when the Stars needed him to step up in the stretch drive. Lehtonen has gone 1-6-2 in March as Dallas’ playoff hopes have taken a huge hit.

16. James Reimer, Florida Panthers
He’s seen more action than oft-injured Roberto Luongo, and their win-loss records are similar – Reimer is 18-13-8 compared to Luongo’s 15-10-5 – but a GAA on the wrong side of 3.00 leaves a lot to be desired.

17. Antti Niemi, Montreal Canadiens
He was bad in Dallas last year and even worse in Pittsburgh and then Florida in the first month of this season. Yet for all that’s gone wrong in Montreal in 2017-18 – which is to say, a lot – Niemi has been pretty good for the Habs since landing with them as a waiver-wire pickup in mid-November. In 16 games with Montreal, Niemi has the best GAA (2.25) and save percentage (.936) of any Canadiens goalie, and it’s not even close. (Carey Price, by comparison: 3.03, .903.)

18. Alex Stalock, Minnesota Wild
Stalock isn’t going to challenge Devan Dubnyk for the starting role, but the veteran backup gives the Wild a stable secondary option if they need him.

19. David Rittich, Calgary Flames
The 25-year-old Czech rookie started the season no higher than No. 4 on Calgary’s goaltending depth chart, but he leapfrogged Eddie Lack and Jon Gillies the old-fashioned way – by playing better than they did when given a chance. He has a .908 save percentage in 20 appearances.

20. Ondrej Pavelec, New York Rangers
He hasn’t been bad, but not particularly good, either. Pavelec is a UFA this summer – will the 30-year-old get another NHL shot?

21. Louis Domingue, Tampa Bay Lightning
It’s never a good sign when you get waived by Arizona, but that’s what happened to Domingue after he started the season with six straight losses, a 4.33 GAA and .856 save percentage. Things sometimes have a funny way of working out, though. The Lightning acquired him in November and he’s gone 6-2-0 with a 2.84 GAA and .913 save percentage. He’s battling veteran Peter Budaj for the right to back up Andrei Vasilevskiy in the playoffs.

22. Anton Forsberg, Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks probably would’ve missed the playoffs anyway, but they were doomed when Corey Crawford went down with a season-ending injury in late December. Crawford was having perhaps his finest regular season to date and was in the early conversations for the Vezina Trophy. It would’ve been unfair to expect the 25-year-old rookie Forsberg to play up to Crawford’s lofty standards – and he hasn’t, going 9-16-3 with a 3.06 GAA and .905 save percentage.

23. Joonas Korpisalo, Columbus Blue Jackets
The 23-year-old is in his third season as Sergei Bobrovsky’s backup, but his numbers have been trending the wrong way. His GAA in his first three seasons: 2.60, 2.88 and 3.23. His save percentage in his first three seasons: .920, .905, .902.

24. Steve Mason, Winnipeg Jets
The Jets brought him in as a safety net in case Connor Hellebuyck struggled last season. Instead, Hellebuyck has been brilliant while Mason has suffered through injuries and inconsistency.

25. Al Montoya, Edmonton Oilers
With Laurent Brossoit struggling behind equally struggling starter Cam Talbot, Montoya was added as a stopgap in January. He’s gotten into eight games in Edmonton, going 2-2-2 with a 3.24 GAA and .900 save percentage.

26. Chad Johnson, Buffalo Sabres
The veteran backup is staring down his first losing season since he went 1-2-1 as a rookie with the New York Rangers in 2009-10. This time, he’s 8-12-3 with a 3.30 GAA and .896 save percentage.

27. Jack Campbell, Los Angeles Kings
He hasn’t lost in regulation all season and his save percentage is a sparkling .927. Then again, he’s only played four games since being called up from the minors after L.A. traded Kuemper to Arizona. Suffice to say, the Kings are praying for continued good health for Jonathan Quick.

28. Jared Coreau, Detroit Red Wings
The trade of Mrazek to Philadelphia opened up a spot for the undrafted 26-year-old, who’s 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds. Size isn’t everything, though – he’s 0-3-0 with a 4.48 GAA and .856 save percentage.

29. Mike Condon, Ottawa Senators
Five wins in 28 games, with a 3.23 GAA. It’s been a tough year in Ottawa.

30. Anders Nilsson, Vancouver Canucks
With 25 appearances, including 22 starts, there’s no getting around his bloated 3.52 GAA.

31. Thomas Greiss, New York Islanders
The Islanders need two new goalies. Maybe three.