Tag: backup goalies

Marc Andre Fleury, Brent Johnson

Marc-Andre Fleury gets a rare bit of rest


To be honest, it can be a challenge to figure out where, exactly, Marc-Andre Fleury ranks among the NHL’s best goalies.

To his strongest proponents, his consistent winning ways and Stanley Cup ring should be all that’s needed to prove that he’s among the cream of the crop. Others look at his solid-but-not-amazing stats* and occasional puckhandling gaffes and see a $5 million goalie propped up by a great system and timely scoring.

Fleury the workhorse

However you feel about “The Flower,” let there be no doubt that the Penguins lean on him heavily. The National Post’s Michael Traikos points out that Fleury appeared in 23 consecutive games coming into tonight. (Brent Johnson finally got the nod as the Penguins are on the tail-end of back-to-back games with the Toronto Maple Leafs.)

Johnson is the sort of veteran backup that can be an under-the-radar asset – as you may recall, he carried the load when Fleury had a slow start last season – but the Penguins seem fine with the fact that “MAF” is starting to approach the Miikka Kirpusoff neighborhood when it comes to his workload.

“I love to play,” Fleury said. “I love to be in there and play in the game. But it’s a long season if you make it to the playoffs and have a long playoff run.”

More Johnson

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma explained that the schedule was previously conducive to a lot of starts for Fleury but admitted that the stretch run is likely to be quite different. Pittsburgh has five back-to-back sets remaining on its schedule and Bylsma indicates that Johnson should see action in a big chunk (if not all) of them.

The subtle importance of rest and good backups

That’s a good big-picture view because the post-lockout NHL hasn’t been too friendly to teams who use their No. 1 guys like the New Jersey once used Martin Brodeur (and seem primed to do, for questionable reasons).

I must admit that I roll my eyes when people use championship teams as the supposed “template” for future squads, but it is telling that the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks gave their talented No. 2 guys plenty of reps last season despite employing expensive starters. Johnson might not be a sexy goalie-of-the-future like Tuukka Rask or Cory Schneider, but the Penguins would be wise to let him ease some of Fleury’s burden in the same way.

* – Fleury’s .913 save percentage is respectable, but oft-criticized Washington Capitals goalie Tomas Vokoun is ahead of him by a bit with a .915 mark, for example.

Taking a look at Tuukka Rask’s unclear future with the Boston Bruins

Boston Bruins v New Jersey Devils

Going into the 2010-11 season, it seemed like the Boston Bruins’ starting job was Tuukka Rask’s to lose. Of course, Tim Thomas started his record-breaking Vezina Trophy-winning campaign with a shutout and really never looked back from there, earning just about every honor (aside from a Hart Trophy) that a goalie can imagine in the process.

In an interesting way, it was the flip side of Rask’s 2009-10 upheaval. The eventual backups weren’t as bad as some believed (Thomas had a respectable .915 save percentage in 09-10 while Rask had a solid .918 mark in 10-11); instead, the No. 1 goalie was just standing on his head.

Of course, in a salary cap world, Thomas and Rask aren’t truly equals even if they’re both very skilled. Thomas’ contract boasts a $5 million annual salary cap hit that won’t run out until after the 2012-13 season while Rask’s contract ($1.25 million cap hit) runs out after this season. There’s also the issue of the two goalies’ ages; Thomas is getting up there in the years at 37 while Rask is entering his prime at 24.

The easiest thing to do would be to keep both of them around, but again, cap constraints and Rask’s urge to be a No. 1 starter – or at least a 1a or 1b goalie – might force the issue. ESPN Boston’s James Murphy addressed Rask’s situation in his mailbag today.

Q: Great coverage this past season, guys — looking forward to watching the B’s defend the title. What do you think about Tuukka? My view is that too much was asked too soon, given Thomas’ injury, and Rask’s struggles in the playoffs stayed in his head this past season. How do you see him getting his legs back underneath him to be the future for this team? Or, do you see him getting traded to make a ‘fresh start’ somewhere else? Thanks! — Joe (Hummelstown, Pa.)

A: Besides Brad Marchand’s contract status this has been one of the most commonly asked questions to me throughout the summer and as I’ve said before, I truly believe Tuukka Rask is still the future between the pipes for the Bruins and he will see more playing time this season. The only trade scenario I see involving Rask would be a knock your socks off type deal that the Bruins couldn’t refuse. Those types of deals usually happen in the offseason, which is essentially over, so I don’t see any chance of that until at least next summer. Thomas was amazing this season, but he is getting older and as you point out, Rask needs game action to stay sharp. I know from talking to Tuukka a lot during the season, his confidence improved drastically towards the end of the season and he didn’t mind riding the pine to get a Stanley Cup ring either. I wouldn’t worry about him just yet.

While losing the starting job had to be disappointing for the Finnish goalie, he played in 29 games in 2010-11, so it’s not like he dealt with the kind of inactivity one might face while backing up a perennial 70+ starts guy like Miikka Kiprusoff. Having a strong backup – particularly one who might have a bright future as a starter – is a rare luxury for an NHL team. Like Murphy said, the Bruins should do their best to keep Rask in the fold, then.

Blues backup battle will come down to Ben Bishop vs. Brian Elliott

Calgary Flames v St. Louis Blues

For better or worse, former Montreal Canadiens one-time playoff hero Jaroslav Halak represents at least the short-term future of goaltending for the St. Louis Blues. The Blues’ hopes for a return to credibility rest largely on the Slovakian netminder’s shoulders.

Even with Halak firmly planted in the No. 1 role, it’s likely that the Blues will lean on its backup quite a bit too. Halak only played in 57 games in 2010-11, which represented a career-high. He struggled with injuries and inconsistency at times so maybe he can flirt with the 65 GP mark next season, but chances are that the No. 2 job will get some play in St. Louis.

With that in mind, the question is: who will it be? The Blues allowed former backup Ty Conklin to leave via free agency after his play flat-lined during an abysmal 2010-11 season. St. Louis is then left with a choice: over-sized prospect Ben Bishop or flawed but more experienced free agent addition Brian Elliott.

One of the most interesting things about this situation is that their goalie competition is on an even playing field, as Jeremy Rutherford discussed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The Blues signed Elliott to a two-way contract that will pay him $600,000 in the NHL and $105,000 in the AHL. Four days later, the team re-signed Bishop, then a restricted free-agent, to an identical contract. That sets up a situation that couldn’t be any more even heading into training camp in September.

“Two guys, both making the same amount of money, looking for the same job,” Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said recently.

Rutherford points out an interesting fact: this won’t be the first time the two goalies have battled eahc other. Elliott (then a junior at the University of Wisconsin) faced off against Bishop (then a freshman at Maine) in the 2006 Frozen Four, with Elliott’s Badgers earning a 5-2 win and then eventually a national championship.

Elliott had the experience edge then and he’ll have it now. He’s played in 142 NHL regular season games, going 61-53-16 with a .901 save percentage and 2.90 GAA. Elliott made one playoff appearance in which the Pittsburgh Penguins dismantled him in four games, forcing the Senators to turn to Pascal Leclaire.

Bishop’s NHL resume is scarce, with 13 games played during the last two seasons. He went 4-5-1 with an even more mediocre .896 and 2.83 GAA, although Rutherford makes a case for why he might have shown glimpses of promise.

In seven games with the Blues last season, when Halak had an injured hand, Bishop was 3-4 with a 2.76 goals-against average and an .899 save-percentage. But not told in those numbers is that after playing in Peoria until mid-February, Bishop joined the Blues and didn’t allow a goal in nine of his first 10 periods, including a 39-save shutout Feb. 5 against Edmonton. Of the 17 goals he permitted, nine were scored in two periods.

Considering Halak’s lack of a track record in carrying a big starting goalie workload, it’s likely that the Blues will need some solid play from their backup next season. The Elliott vs. Bishop training camp battle should be interesting to watch, although with both goalies under two-way contracts, that battle might extend far beyond September.

The Blues wouldn’t mind if it was still a question being asked beyond mid-April, either.

Looking for a free agent goalie this summer? Go for a backup

New Jersey Devils v Dallas Stars

While the Ilya Kovalchuk Saga dominated the biggest headlines during last summer’s free agent months, the most surprising storyline involved NHL teams closing up their pocketbooks when it came to free agent goalies. Really, the only netminders who signed good deals that summer were restricted free agents such as Carey Price, Steve Mason and Jaroslav Halak. Halak was the only one of the three to sign with a different team to boot.

Judging by Craig Custance’s top five UFA goalies list, there won’t be many options for hockey teams searching for a No. 1 goalie. Especially when you consider the fact that the Coyotes would fall apart without Ilya Bryzgalov and Breezy actually might not find a better fit than Dave Tippett’s stingy defensive system, either.

(I’d also strongly advise the Senators to re-sign Craig Anderson. Like, now.)

Then again, there really aren’t that many teams looking for a top goalie at this point. If the Blackhawks manage to keep Corey Crawford and the Maple Leafs decide that James Reimer is their goalie of the present as well a the future, the list of teams looking for a starter probably boils down to: the Lightning, Avalanche, Islanders and Panthers.

Yet there’s one other goalie-related trend developing in the league: it seems like there’s a bit of a Renaissance in the backup position. From sturdy veterans such as Brian Boucher and Brent Johnson to surprise starters such as Crawford to surprisingly successful reclamation projects like Jose Theodore and Andrew Raycroft, No. 2 guys have been saving the day for many NHL teams. Just look at how well the Devils are doing with Johan Hedberg – and conversely, how over-worked Ryan Miller is since the Sabres don’t trust Patrick Lalime – and it’s clear that a dependable backup is one of the most underrated assets in the league.

Sure, these guys aren’t the netminders you want leading your team during Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, but they might give your starter crucial rest to get there. Here’s a quick list of some of the best backup goalies (or should-be backups) who will be available this summer:

  • Hedberg
  • Theodore
  • Boucher
  • Chris Osgood
  • Mike Smith
  • Ty Conklin
  • Josh Harding
  • Alex Auld

There are also three wild card options if teams want to roll the dice: Marty Turco, Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Ray Emery. Even Peter Budaj and Martin Gerber might have a shot at being halfway competent.

Looking over that list of goalies, let’s put this simply. Barring injuries, your team’s GM won’t have any excuse for riding a workhorse starter for 31 straight games next season. Maybe you can’t find a home run in the goalie market (unless you’re lucky enough to land Tomas Vokoun or Bryzgalov), but it’s better to hit for average rather than power in free agency in general.

Long story short, no team should be without backup in the 2011-12 season.

Where do third-string NHL goalies go when they’re not needed? Europe

Erik Ersberg

The life of a backup goalie is sometimes an inglorious one since you’re playing sparingly and sometimes having to deal with mop-up duty. What’s it like to be an NHL-caliber goalie that lost their backup job though? If you asked Thomas Greiss or Erik Ersberg, you might find out that the answer is “infuriating” mixed with “planning to move to Europe.”

Recently, Greiss landed a transfer out of Worcester after being sent there by the Sharks when they signed Antti Niemi to split time with Antero Niittymaki in goal. The catch with going to Worcester for Greiss is that he went there and didn’t start a single game. Instead, Greiss is now headed to Sweden to play for Brynas of the Swedish Elite League. The official explanation from the Sharks puts a nice gloss on things.

“We’ve always had a commitment to goaltender development and we feel that Thomas has a great chance to play a lot of games and continue his improvement with Brynas,” stated Wayne Thomas, the assistant general manager of the San Jose Sharks who also works with the team’s goalies.

That’s putting things nicely and it’s good that the Sharks have this sort of friendly arrangement to deal with, but you can’t help but wonder how skunked out Thomas Greiss feels. After all, he started the off-season thinking he’d be backing up and challenging Antero Niittymaki for work and now he’s out of the NHL completely.

If this sort of situation sounds familiar to L.A. Kings fans, it’s because incumbent backup goalie Erik Ersberg landed in the same spot. Ersberg lost his job backing up start Jon Quick to up-and-coming rookie Jonathan Bernier. Ersberg was sent down through waivers and appears to be headed to the KHL according to Rich Hammond of Kings Insider. If that sounds like a massive violation of his agreement with the Kings, that’s because it is.

Technically, in NHL terms Ersberg has violated his contract, and after he clears waivers, the Kings will be able to terminate his contract and cut ties with him.

Remember, the NHL isn’t exactly on friendly terms as far as transfer agreements go with the KHL. Sometimes players can go to Russia and have it be kosher contract-wise with their NHL teams. Nikita Filatov of Columbus and Victor Tikhonov of Phoenix both landed there last year with their team’s blessing, but it appears that the same cannot be said of Ersberg.

This makes Ersberg’s situation similar to that of one-time Hurricanes forward Matt Murley who spurned riding the NHL-AHL shuttle to play for Amur Khabarovsk in the KHL for guaranteed money. Murley hasn’t returned to the NHL since sticking it to Carolina at the last minute. With the glut of available goaltending in North America, it’s possible that Ersberg may be saying his last good-bye to the NHL.