So, you thought we were going to rank the starting goalies? That will come later this summer.
For now, we take a look around the NHL at the men who wear the backwards hats, those who spend most of the game thinking about their post-game meals but realistically dream of starting between the pipes.
The backup goaltender group is always an interesting mix of talent, ranging from the young player with potential to the over-the-hill veteran or the solid guy who can keep the team afloat.
If we had done this exercise list the past few seasons, Jonathan Bernier would’ve ranked atop the list. So when he doesn’t appear this year, it says how we feel about the future of the Toronto Maple Leafs goaltending position.
Nothing against James Reimer. He was outstanding last season. But based on Bernier’s potential along with his contract, and what the Leafs gave up to acquire him, we think Bernier will be the featured guy between the pipes.
With that mind, we break down all the backup goalies by tier and rank the top 30 backups in the NHL.
TIER 1: CAPABLE STARTER
Cory Schneider, New Jersey Devils – We think Cory Schneider will take over as the full-time goalie, but it appears the Devils may be looking at a 50/50 split with Martin Brodeur. Schneider is the better goalie at this point in his career, but Brodeur’s experience and history could allow him to start the year as the No. 1 goalie. You don’t often give up top-10 picks for backups.
James Reimer, Toronto Maple Leafs – Based on stats alone, Reimer ranked as a top-tier goalie last season. When healthy, he has performed at a fairly high level despite some glaring flaws in his game. Even with Bernier in Toronto, we expect Reimer to start a number of games next year.
Jaroslav Halak, St. Louis Blues – He hasn’t been the elite force we saw in that one playoff run with Montreal, but Halak has been a solid backstopper during his tenure in St. Louis. He’s lost playing time to Brian Elliott, but Halak could easily start for a half-dozen teams at this point.
Viktor Fasth, Anaheim Ducks – We think Jonas Hiller comes into camp as the starter, but the Ducks’ goaltending situation remains up in the air. Fasth proved he could play at the NHL level last season (2.18 goals-against average and .921 save percentage in 2013). Even at 30, it’s no surprise the Ducks gave him an extension.
Tomas Vokoun, Pittsburgh Penguins – Vokoun may not have the upside of some in this tier, but the Pittsburgh Penguins were noticeably better when he took over for Marc-Andre Fleury in the postseason. Even in the ugly series against Boston, Vokoun held his own and should see significant minutes for a team that will again be considered a Stanley Cup contender.
TIER 2: POTENTIAL TO START
Jhonas Enroth, Buffalo Sabres – With Ryan Miller in the last year of his contract, Jhonas Enroth could be starting sooner than later in Buffalo. Enroth has displayed potential when Miller has missed time with various injuries over the past two years and is considered one of the better young backups around the NHL.
Robin Lehner, Ottawa Senators –The Patrick Lalime days are long gone in Ottawa; the Sens are loaded with goaltending depth. In his 12 games last year, the Swedish netminder had a 2.20 goals-against average with a .936 save percentage At 21 years old, the ceiling remains high for the former Calder Cup MVP.
Anders Lindback, Tampa Bay Lightning – Steve Yzerman thought Lindback was ready to become a starter when he acquired him from Nashville last season, but that was far from the case. He displayed strong ability when he was backing up Pekka Rinne but as a starter was exposed a bit. He’ll need to play behind Ben Bishop for now.
Michal Neuvirth, Washington Capitals – Like Lindback, Neuvirth has been able to put it together when he’s had the opportunity. Washington has gotten better play from Braden Holtby lately, but Neuvirth hasn’t been able to repeat his strong performance from his rookie year. The talent is there, though.
TIER 3: SOLID SUPPORT
Josh Harding, Minnesota Wild – Even after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in November, Harding was able to have a solid season for the Wild. He was at his best when the Wild needed him to replace an injured Nicklas Backstrom in the playoffs. He’s exactly what you want out of a veteran backup.
Dan Ellis, Dallas Stars – Ellis is a proven backup who will be a nice complement for Kari Lethonen. The 33-year-old can start in a pinch and will be a good influence on the Stars’ young goalies. He’s appeared in more than 180 games for Dallas, Nashville, Tampa Bay, Anaheim and Carolina.
Jason Labarbera, Edmonton Oilers –The Oilers were smart to add the journeyman goalie to replace Nikolai Khabibulin. Labarbera may find it more difficult to play without Dave Tippett’s system in front of him, but he’ll be a cheap, solid fill-in for Devan Dubynk.
Ben Scrivens, Los Angeles Kings – Scrivens shined in the AHL but was never able to surpass James Reimer on the depth chart. He essentially reached his ceiling in Toronto as the team wanted a more competitive situation between the pipes. He’s an NHL-capable backup, though, and will fit in perfectly behind Jonathan Quick.
TIER 4: SERVICEABLE VETERANS
Peter Budaj, Montreal Canadiens – As we saw in the playoffs, it’s best when Budaj isn’t a full-time starter. He isn’t good enough for that, but he can certainly fill the role as Carey Price’s backup. The Habs need the 30-year-old to just play 20 to 25 games a season.
Martin Biron, New York Rangers – Biron has one of the best jobs in hockey, sitting behind the elite Henrik Lundqvist. The Rangers don’t ask much from Biron, who can still play a bit – even at the age of 35. He can still be counted on in his minimal role.
Joey MacDonald, Calgary Flames – In the sad state of the Flames, MacDonald may be the most effective goaltender on their roster. The Nova Scotia native has bounced around several backup jobs over the past few years, but he’s capable enough to get the job done.
Scott Clemmensen, Florida Panthers – Jose Theodore remains unsigned so the Panthers appear to be moving forward with Clemmensen as the primary backup next season. With Jacob Markstrom still developing, the 35-year-old could see a lot of playing time in 2013-14.
TIER 5: OVER THE HILL
Nikolai Khabibulin, Chicago Blackhawks – The veteran Russian is taking over Ray Emery’s old gig and should see even less time now than Corey Crawford is becoming a bona fide No. 1. Khabilbulin was fairly solid behind a weak defence during the last few years, but we’re unsure how much left in the tank.
Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Colorado Avalanche – He may not be going on any Las Vegas trips with his teammates but he should be Patrick Roy’s main option behind Semyon Varlamov this year. Giguere is in the final year of what could be the last season of his impressive NHL career.
TIER 6: NEED TO SEE MORE
Anton Khudobin, Carolina Hurricanes – It’s tough to evaluate Khudobin after playing behind Tuukka Rask on one of the league’s most sound defensive teams. The 27-year-old Kazak could have a much tougher time in Carolina – especially with that defensive group.
Jonas Gustavsson, Detroit Red Wings — In Toronto, former GM Brian Burke once compared signing Gustavsson to getting a free first-round pick. Well, that one didn’t work out. The big Swede struggled with consistency and health concerns before leaving for Detroit as a free agent last year.
Steve Mason, Philadelphia Flyers – Some thought the Flyers would give Mason a shot as their top goalie after buying out Ilya Bryzgalov. Since his rookie year in Columbus, he’s drastically faded and has barely been an functional goaltender. This may be his last chance to stick.
Al Montoya, Winnipeg Jets – The once prized possession of USA Hockey hasn’t exactly developed well at the pro level. He played just seven games in Winnipeg last year, but he’s expected to be the primary backup behind Ondrej Pavelec in 2013-14. Another strange decision by that front office.
Thomas Greiss, Phoenix Coyotes – The former San Jose Sharks backup is set to play behind Mike Smith, who was given a big extension with Phoenix. All sorts of goalies (even Ilya Bryzgalov!) have had success with Dave Tippett, so he made a nice career move heading to the desert.
TIER 7: WHO ARE THESE GUYS?
Eddie Lack, Vancouver Canucks – Lack is expected to become the primary backup to Roberto Luongo in Vancouver this season. He’s a headline-maker’s dream come true.
Niklas Svedberg, Boston Bruins – Before compiling this list, I had no idea who this guy was. They better hope Tuukka Rask stays healthy.
Kevin Poulin, New York Islanders – Well, he’s a lot cheaper than Rick DiPietro. The Islanders brought back Evgeni Nabokov, who is expected to handle most of the work. Poulin has seven career NHL wins.
Alex Stalock, San Jose Sharks – Even sportsnet.ca’s stats guru wasn’t aware of this guy.
Curtis McElhinney, Columbus Blue Jackets – He may be better served as an NHL netminder at this point, but with Sergei Bobrovsky going to handle most of the playing time, they needed someone with minor experience to fill the No. 2 job.
Carter Hutton, Nashville Predators – This is Pekka Rinne’s team, and Hutton and his one NHL game played (he allowed three goals in a rare loss for the Blackhawks last season) won’t change that.