There’s only one No. 2.
Well, not really, but for most NHL teams, having a backup they can rely upon – if not a 1A, 1B situation – is a prerequisite for success in the modern day.
More and more, teams have trended away from the ‘workhorse’ No. 1 goalie. And though an on-time start to the 2021-22 regular season means a slightly less condensed schedule than last season, backups are still sure to be vital in the coming months.
So today, we’ll be taking a look at five of the top backup stoppers around the NHL whose contributions could make or break their teams’ seasons. For the purposes of this list, we’ll avoid guys in platoon splits who could have good shots to snag the 1A role at some point. So no Ilya Sorokin, Jack Campbell or Antti Raanta, though each is solid in his own right.
These five goalies won’t make the headlines, but they’ll keep their teams from the doldrums. Special shoutout to Spencer Knight in Florida, although it might not be long until he’s the No. 1:
Chris Driedger – Seattle Kraken
For a while, it looked like Chris Driedger may be ‘the guy’ in Seattle this season. Driedger signed a three-year, $10.5-million pact with the expansion Kraken during the club’s exclusive negotiating window with unrestricted free agents in mid-July. As such, he counted as the Kraken’s choice from the Florida Panthers in the expansion draft.
But when the regular free-agency period opened a week later, Kraken GM Ron Francis managed to ink 2020-21 Vezina finalist Philipp Grubauer to a six-year, bigger-dollar deal. So, for now, the German stopper appears to be the concrete No. 1 in the Emerald City.
Driedger will be a factor, though, regardless. The 27-year-old from Winnipeg, Man., was originally a third-round selection of the Ottawa Senators but found his footing the past season-and-a-half with the Panthers in Florida. Driedger was 14-6-3 with a .927 SP, 2.07 GAA and three shutouts in 23 starts for the Cats in 2020-21. He ranked fifth in GAA and tied for fourth in SP among qualified goalies last year. Driedger provided the Panthers with a steadying influence in the wake of Sergei Bobrovsky’s shaky play. If not for the Panthers having wunderkind Spencer Knight on the way, Driedger may well have never reached the free-agent market given his strong play in South Florida. But thankfully for the Kraken, Knight is Florida property, and Driedger was set free.
After the Vegas Golden Knights set a new standard for expansion teams in the big four pro sports with their miraculous run to the 2018 Cup final, both pressure and expectations are high in Seattle. The team doesn’t look – on paper – to be as primed for success as those Knights. But then again, neither did Vegas at the time. At the least, Seattle does have several talented D-men who could help shelter Driedger from being shelled too often. He should continue his strong run of form in a weak Pacific Division as a result.
Jake Allen – Montreal Canadiens
Jake Allen has come a long way since a period of poor play brought about by “mental lock-up” caused the St. Louis Blues to leave their then-starter at home for a January 2017 road trip. After a quick refresh, he would return to the team and finished the 2016-17 season brilliantly – he was fantastic during the playoffs that year. But inconsistency too often plagued his career in The Gateway to the West. He eventually ceded the net to current Blues starter Jordan Binnington in 2018-19.
The backup role suited him well, though, with Allen posting career-best numbers in save percentage (.927), goals-against average (2.15), goals saved above average (11.25) and quality start percentage (.667) in 24 games as the Blues backup in 2019-20. He was also the Blues’ better stopper in the Edmonton bubble, posting a .935 SP to Binnington’s .851 in the 2020 playoffs.
But Allen carried an expensive ticket –$4.35-million cap hit in 2020-21 – and St. Louis needed space, so he was traded to Montreal last September in exchange for two 2020 draft picks. In coming to Montreal, Allen returned to the city where he played a season-and-a-half of major junior between 2008-09 and ’09-10. His first season in bleu, blanc et rouge was fair, if unspectacular, with Allen posting an 11-12-5 record, .907 SP and 2.68 GAA in the firewagon North Division. He bested starter Carey Price in both SP and GSAA for the season. He was shaky at times when asked to carry the load after Price’s late-season injuries but performed better early in the season in the defined backup role.
Price’s supernatural 2021 playoff run cemented him as the starter – if there was ever any doubt – but Allen provides Montreal with a solid backup plan. Allen, now carrying a more reasonable $2.875-million AAV, will be important after an injury-marred off-season for Price and behind a defense that lost Shea Weber.
Jaroslav Halak – Vancouver Canucks
The Braden Holtby experiment didn’t work out in Vancouver. After signing a two-year, $8.6-million contract with the Canucks in October 2020, Holtby had a disastrous season on Canada’s West Coast, with career-worst marks in SP (.889) and GAA (3.67) in 2020-21. Vancouver subsequently bought out his contract on July 27. That left the Canucks with a void behind incumbent starter Thatcher Demko. Though Demko, who turns 26 in December, looks well on his way to establishing himself as a top NHL starter, the Canucks nonetheless could do with some veteran savvy in the crease alongside the American netminder.
To that end, they brought in 36-year-old Slovak stopper Jaroslav Halak on a one-year worth up to $3 million (depending on Halak’s performance this season). Halak spent the past three seasons in Boston, where he posted a combined .918 SP in 83 starts. He shared the Jennings Trophy with Tuukka Rask in 2019-20, as the tandem with the fewest goals against in the NHL that season. He’d previously taken home the plaudit as a member of the Blues in 2011-12 as the 1A to Brian Elliott’s 1B. As recently as 2018-19, Halak managed a .922 SP with five shutouts in 37 starts for the Bruins. Even that workload is probably past ideal at his ‘advanced’ age, but Halak is a good bet to provide Vancouver with more dependable play in Demko’s stead this season. Though the Canucks are coming off a dreadful year, the Pacific Division is wide open for a surprise team to emerge as a playoff contender. The ability to rely on their backup will be a prerequisite for Vancouver to take up that mantle.
A word of caution, though: it would be difficult to find more two more contrasting environments to play in than Boston and Vancouver. The Bruins have played shutdown ‘D’ for a while now, while no team in the entire NHL had a worse expected goals against than Vancouver (118.4) at 5-on-5 last season. Halak may have to reprise his 2009-10 Montreal Canadiens’ playoff form if he’s going to maintain his heady numbers this season.
Pavel Francouz – Colorado Avalanche
Write off Pavel Francouz at your own risk. The 31-year-old Czech goalie missed the entire 2020-21 season with a hip injury that would eventually require off-season surgery. Francouz has just one full NHL season under his belt – 2019-20, when he spent significant time in the Avs’ crease filling in for the injured Philipp Grubauer – but he has plenty of pro experience outside North America. His decorated European pro career included back-to-back SP crowns in the KHL (2016-17 and ’17-18), a KHL goaltender-of-the-year award (’17-18) and a Czech Extraliga playoff MVP (’14-15).
Francouz has also thrived in his limited North American exposure, posting a .923 SP and 2.40 GAA in 36 career NHL games for Colorado and earning an All-Star Game nod in his one AHL season.
The Avs brought in Darcy Kuemper to take the starting reins from the departing Philipp Grubauer, but Kuemper has struggled with injuries in the past couple of seasons, missing 22 games in 2020-21 and 28 games in 2019-20, both with lower-body injuries. In the event Kuemper’s injury issues persist – or if he struggles in the wake of his previous injuries – Francouz will be vital for a club with championship aspirations. Of course, coming off his own injuries will be a difficult situation, but Colorado’s stalwart defense will aid Francouz. The Avs gave up by far the fewest expected goals against at 5-on-5 last season and led the league in both high-danger Corsi against and scoring chances against. Losing Ryan Graves hurts, but Francouz should be eased into action behind this sublime unit.
Jeremy Swayman – Boston Bruins
The sample size is tiny for Bruins rookie goalie Jeremy Swayman, but it’s hard to find any quarrels with how he performed as an injury replacement last season. With both Rask and Halak on the shelf late in the season, the University of Maine alum took the ball and ran with it, posting video-game numbers in his 10 starts as a member of the B’s. The first-year pro had a 7-3-0 record while putting up a .945 SP, 1.50 GAA and two shutouts in 10 games. And while Boston is unquestionably a stalwart defensive unit, it wasn’t as though Swayman could sleepwalk through his contests. Per moneypuck.com, Swayman was second to only Petr Mrazek in goals saved above expected per 60 minutes (min. 10 games). He didn’t face a ton of high-danger opportunities, but when he did, he turned them away.
With Halak gone to Vancouver and Rask a UFA – and out until at least 2022 after off-season hip surgery – Swayman is sure to play a crucial role for the Black and Gold this season. Though the Bruins brought in erstwhile Sabres goalie Linus Ullmark to be the starter, Swayman will nonetheless see his share of the action. The Bruins return mostly the same ‘D’ corps as last season, which should help Swayman avoid the sophomore, er, second rookie-season slump (Swayman is still a rookie per NHL rules). The Atlantic Division is sure to be a buzzsaw this season, so Swayman will have to step up when called upon.