Before ranking the 30 starters, we decided to break down the backups by dividing them into six different tiers based on their current performance and future potential. Just as we did last year, the starting goalie rankings will be released later this summer.
A lot of fans (mostly of the Toronto Maple Leafs variety) were upset last July when James Reimer was listed as a backup on our list, but that proved to be true and he’s back near the top of our list once again. Nothing against Reimer but he’s still behind Jonathan Bernier on the depth chart, despite a belief that he got shortchanged by head coach Randy Carlyle last season.
This year, an additional tier was added to better reflect the rankings of the goaltenders. Save the hate mail. The rankings wasn’t made using a highly scientific formula, but a few of my respected colleagues were polled for feedback during the creation of our list.
With that in mind, here are all 30 backup goalies ranked by seven different tiers:
TIER 1: CAPABLE STARTER
James Reimer, Toronto Maple Leafs: Considering he requested a trade, it’s a bit surprising Reimer remains in Toronto. There are certainly situations (Winnipeg for example) where he’d be an upgrade as a starter, but for now Reimer is still the primary backup for the Maple Leafs. Reimer didn’t adjust well after Jonathan Bernier was brought in. His play was a recurring problem late last season while playing in front of an horrendous possession team with a flawed defensive system. Overall, Reimer has some holes in his game, but he’s been very productive when given a fair opportunity (especially in 2013).
Frederik Andersen, Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks’ goalie situation is incredibly difficult to predict at this juncture. There has yet to be an indication on how the Ducks will divide playing time between Andersen and highly-touted prospect John Gibson, who shone in brief appearances last season. So for now, we put Andersen as the backup, but it’s highly possible he sees a ton of playing time considering his strong statistics last season. At 24 years old, Andersen offers loads of potential.
Anton Khudobin, Carolina Hurricanes: Last year we wondered whether Khudobin’s success was a product of the Bruins’ system, but his numbers managed to improve despite playing on a far less talented team. In 36 games, the Kazak-born Russian had a 2.30 goals-against average with a .926 save percentage. Considering how Cam Ward has played in recent years, some believe Khudobin should be the starter at this point.
TIER 2: POTENTIAL TO START
Jake Allen, St. Louis Blues: When polling Sportsnet staffers for this list, Allen was the one name who routinely drew rave reviews. With the Blues moving on from Ryan Miller, there’s a belief that Allen could become the fulltime goalie by the end of the calendar year. He’ll just need to prove it at the NHL level where he’s only played in 15 career games. Allen excelled with the Blues’ AHL affiliate in Chicago last season (.928 save percentage and 2.03 GAA) and he’ll be thrilled to play in Ken Hitchcock’s goalie-friendly system. It’s a cliché but the sky is the limit for Allen.
Martin Jones, Los Angeles Kings: Bill Ranford seems to turn every goalie he works with into gold. First, he fixed Ben Scrivens’ positioning before Martin Jones came in and posted monster numbers for the Kings. The 24-year-old Jones had a 1.81 GAA with a .934 save percentage in his 19 appearances last season. His numbers were just as impressive during 22 games with Manchester in the AHL. If he keeps up the pace, the Kings may be forced to deal him — as they did with Jon Bernier and Scrivens – in the next few years. For now, Jones will only realistically have a chance to consistently start unless Quick gets hurt.
Robin Lehner, Ottawa Senators: With Craig Anderson’s numbers regressing in 2013-14, Lehner could be in line to start sooner rather than later. The 22-year-old has displayed extreme upside throughout his brief NHL career and his statistics remained fairly solid in 36 appearances last season. The 2011 Calder Cup MVP is currently an RFA, but is eventually expected to get a new contract done with Ottawa.
Viktor Fasth, Edmonton Oilers: At 31, the Swede is much older than everyone else in this tier but he still fits the bill. The Ducks had no need for Fasth considering the team’s incredible depth at the position so he was dealt to the Oilers last season. He only played seven games with Edmonton but had a .914 save percentage with a goals-against average of 2.73.
Darcy Kuemper, Minnesota Wild: The status of Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom remains completely unclear at this point in the off-season. So for now, we’re going to list Kuemper here, but he may in fact end up starting a ton of games for Minnesota next season – and for good reason. The 24-year-old had a 2.43 goals-against average and .915 save percentage in 26 games in 2013-14.
TIER 3: SOLID SUPPORT
Thomas Greiss, Pittsburgh Penguins: It has become a consistent theme that goalies tend to play well in Dave Tippett’s system in Arizona and Greiss was highly effective in his 25 games with the Coyotes last year — posting a .920 save percentage and a 2.29 goals-against average. Now he is serving as insurance for Marc-Andre Fleury, who has gone through some tough stretches in his career. Greiss should get ample opportunity to play in 2014-15.
Eddie Lack, Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks were a hot mess last year. Even through all the Roberto Luongo and John Tortorella drama, Lack played fairly well in his first full NHL season. He appeared in 41 games with a save percentage of .912. Lack may not have the upside to be a fulltime starter so it wasn’t much of a surprise that the new regime brought in Ryan Miller early in free agency.
Ray Emery, Philadelphia Flyers: We listed Emery on the starter rankings last year, but Steve Mason quickly usurped him. Emery isn’t anything special but he has proven to be a reliable backup that you can get by with. He played 28 games for the Flyers last season.
Anders Lindback, Dallas Stars: Steve Yzerman thought Lindback was capable of starting a few years ago when the Lightning acquired from Nashville, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. As a starter, he wasn’t nearly as productive as he was when he was Pekka Rinne’s backup with the Predators. The Stars didn’t retain Tim Thomas and moved quickly to land Lindback on the first day of free agency. He’ll be the new backup to Kari Lehtonen.
Michal Neuvirth, Buffalo Sabres: Neuvirth’s numbers were fairly consistent during his tenure in Washington, but the Capitals dealt him last year. In Buffalo, he is expected to compete with Jhonas Enroth for the starting gig. Neuvirth, 26, still offers plenty of upside but he’s tough to evaluate considering he only played two games with Buffalo last year.
TIER 4: SERVICEABLE VETERAN
Evgeni Nabokov, Tampa Bay Lightning: The 38-year-old wasn’t great as a starter with the Islanders in the past few years. He’s far better suited to be a No. 2 goalie at this stage of his career. That’s exactly the role he will be filling in Tampa Bay where he replaces Lindback as the primary backup to Ben Bishop. Nabokov has played in at least 40 games in each of the last three seasons since returning to the NHL following a brief stint in the KHL.
Peter Budaj, Montreal Canadiens: Although the Canadiens started Dustin Tokarski when Carey Price was injured during the Eastern Conference final, Budaj is projected to the backup in Montreal next season. The 31-year-old is entering the final year of his contract and he’ll need to improve on his .909 save percentage to garner consideration for an extension.
Jonas Gustavsson, Detroit Red Wings: Detroit was determined to bring back Gustavsson in order to give Petr Mrazek another year to develop in the minors. The 29-year-old Swede has never quite lived up to the hype he generated coming into the NHL, but he impressed Mike Babcock last season. Red Wings fans would like to see Gustavsson improve on his .907 save percentage though.
TIER 5: UNPROVEN WITH UPSIDE
Alex Stalock, San Jose Sharks: The 26-year-old wasn’t a known commodity heading into last season. He had just three games of NHL experience before a solid showing in his first season as the steady No. 2 netminder behind Antti Niemi. Stalock finished the regular season with a .932 save percentage and even got a few starts during the highly contested first-round series with the Kings. The Sharks remain high on Stalock, who received a two-year extension a month ago.
Cam Talbot, New York Rangers: Talbot doesn’t have much experience at the top level — only 21 career NHL games — but his numbers have been outstanding. He finished 2013-14 with a 1.64 GAA mixed in with a .941 save percentage. The sample size remains small, but the Rangers are comfortable using Talbot in the fulltime backup role again next season. As long as Henrik Lundqvist remains healthy, the Swede will receive the vast majority of the starts.
Antti Raanta, Chicago Blackhawks: Like Stalock, Raanta inked a two-year extension in June. Despite just a .898 save percentage in 25 games last year, the Blackhawks felt Raanta played relatively well in spot duty. With Nikolai Khabibulin out of the picture, the team has yet to pursue another veteran so Raanta will be the fulltime backup behind Corey Crawford.
TIER 6: MIDDLE OF THE ROAD
Al Montoya, Florida Panthers: Despite a .920 save percentage last season, Montoya is projected to compete with veteran Dan Ellis for the backup job behind Roberto Luongo. Panthers GM Dale Tallon said Montoya likely has the edge at this point. The 2004 sixth-overall pick has bounced around the league since 2009.
Scott Clemmensen, New Jersey Devils: It doesn’t look like Martin Brodeur is returning to New Jersey, so the Devils signed the experienced backup for the No. 2 role behind Cory Schneider. The 36-year-old has appeared in just 36 games over the past two seasons with Florida where his numbers declined. His save percentage dipped below .900 during that span, but in fairness those were some poor Panthers teams. Despite poor stats, Devils GM Lou Lamoriello is comfortable with Clemmensen, who played 65 career games with the Devils from 2001-2009.
Karri Ramo, Calgary Flames: The Flames brought back Ramo from the KHL as a spot starter last season. He played close to half of the games, in which his numbers were relatively average. Playing behind a mostly uninspiring roster, Ramo won just 17 of his 40 games last year. He’s much more suited for a backup role and that’s exactly where Calgary will slot him in behind new starter Jonas Hiller.
TIER 7: QUESTION MARKS
Justin Peters, Washington Capitals: Peters has spent the past three seasons bouncing between the AHL and NHL in the Hurricanes organization. The Capitals saw enough out of the 27-year-old to sign him early on the first day of free agency. Peters played in just 21 NHL games last season in which he posted a stellar .919 save percentage on a pretty lousy Hurricanes team. He’s expected to have a full-time NHL role in 2014-15.
Chad Johnson, New York Islanders: Johnson will be an interesting test case. He was a fringe NHL player for most of his career before shining in a backup role (just 27 games last season) in Boston. It’s hard to tell whether his strong numbers (2.10 GAA and .925 save percentage) was an indicator of the Bruins’ strong defensive play or whether the 28-year-old is turning a corner. He’ll be playing behind a far less talented defensive corps in Long Island.
Devan Dubnyk, Arizona Coyotes: Dubyk has taken a steep tumble in the Sportsnet goalie rankings. Last summer, he was considered a surefire starter — albeit near the bottom of our rankings — and now his stock has drastically dropped. Most of that is due to a really tough season where he posted abysmal numbers in Edmonton before he was shipped to Nashville and later Montreal. Now he’s a fringe backup for Mike Smith in Arizona after signing a cheap, one-year deal. If playing under Dave Tippet’s can’t help Dubynk, nothing can.
Niklas Svedberg, Boston Bruins: The 24-year-old Swede was featured in the “Who is this guy category?” last year. He only appeared one NHL game in 2013-14, but after signing a one-way deal in June, it’s clear that Svedberg will back up Tuukka Rask in 2014-15. Svedberg had a 2.63 goals-against average and modest .910 save percentage in 45 AHL games last season.
Michael Hutchinson, Winnipeg Jets: Hutchinson, a former Bruins pick, is still relatively unknown at the NHL level. He played just three games with the Jets last year, but primarily split time between St. John’s (AHL) and Ontario (ECHL). Because of Ondrej Pavelec’s mostly shoddy play, Hutchinson may see the net more often this season — especially if they’re chasing Connor McDavid.
Curtis McElhinney, Columbus Blue Jackets: Realistically, the 31-year-old McElhinney is a fringe guy (.909 save percentage and 2.70 GAA in 28 games last year) at this point in his career. But with Sergei Bobrovsky handling the majority of the playing time, the Blue Jackets prefer to have a veteran who’s comfortable in the system. That’s why McElhinney was given a one-year contract extension just before the start of free agency.
Carter Hutton, Nashville Predators: Due to an injury to Rinne, the unheralded Hutton ended up playing 40 games for the Predators in 2013-14. That’s far more than Nashville would’ve anticipated going into the year, considering the 28-year-old had appeared in just one career NHL game prior to last season.
Reto Berra, Colorado Avalanche: After being acquired form the Flames, Barra played only two games for Colorado last year where he posted an horrific 5.83 GAA and .781 save percentage. Obviously, that’s an extremely small sample size, but his numbers weren’t great during his 29 games with Calgary either. The Avs better hope Semyon Varlamov stays healthy.
Still unsigned: Martin Brodeur, Ilya Bryzgalov, Nikolai Khabibulin, Tim Thomas, Tomas Vokoun