To a certain degree, 2017-18 has been the year of the backup goalie.
In Vegas, Malcolm Subban took on the top job when Marc-Andre Fleury was out and surprised everyone with a .918 save percentage. In St. Louis, Carter Hutton stands with the second-best save percentage in the league at .943, which is 35 points higher than starter Jake Allen. In Boston, Anton Khudobin has recovered from a miserable 2016-17 that was so bad it nearly kept the Bruins out of the playoffs before a second-half turnaround, and become a rock who stabilized the Bruins when Tuukka Rask got off to a slow start to the season. Tristan Jarry, with his .919 SV%, has been a more than capable fill-in for Matt Murray in Pittsburgh.
Jonathan Bernier in Colorado and Philipp Grubauer in Washington have save percentages that match or exceed those of the starter in front of them.
But how many of these backups are really threatening to take over full-time No. 1 duties? Rask is going nowhere in Boston. Fleury is the face of the Golden Knights. Murray has won two Stanley Cups. Even Allen is five years younger than his backup and signed for three seasons beyond this one — it would seem unlikely the Blues would pivot to 33-year-old Hutton while their Cup window is open.
The San Jose Sharks are another of these teams with a backup goalie who is outplaying the starter in front of him. Aaron Dell has been one of the league’s best No. 2 men the past two seasons, breaking into the league with a .931 save percentage in 20 games last season as a 27-year-old. He’s already played 18 times in 2017-18 and holds a .925 SV% — 15 points higher than starter Martin Jones. And the difference between the two has only been growing for the past month and a half.
So, after another bad start by Jones in a 5-3 loss to Colorado Thursday night, is there a goaltending controversy brewing here?
At the very least, you have to wonder about how the two goalies will be used the rest of the season as the Sharks push for the playoffs.
The busy schedule alone will ensure Dell gets a lot of opportunities. Between Jan. 20 and Feb. 15, the Sharks play 14 times and the only time they have more than one day off between games during that stretch is all-star weekend. There are three times San Jose will play on back-to-back days, which Dell and Jones will likely split.
There’s been no signal from coach Pete DeBoer that he’s moving toward making this even a tandem. Jones was given the last start before San Jose’s bye and though he allowed four goals on 30 shots, was put right back when the Sharks returned against Arizona. Jones allowed three goals on six shots that game and was quickly pulled for Dell. Two nights later, against a division rival Kings team that San Jose is directly competing against for a playoff spot, Jones returned to the net.
Dell, in fact, has not been pulled in any of his starts this season.
DeBoer doesn’t turn to his backup goalie unless it’s in a “by the book” situation. Dell has only started two straight games on two occasions this season — Nov. 8 and 11, and Nov. 28 and Dec. 1. In both cases the Sharks played the day after Dell’s second start, so those were split situations anyways. Eight of Dell’s 13 starts have come in either the first or second game of a back-to-back.
“(Jones) was our best player a night ago in L.A., so I wouldn’t call it a funk,” DeBoer said to the San Jose Mercury News.
“You guys like to grab little pictures of things that work for the story you’re writing. It’s (13) games. You can go back six games and write whatever you want. He’s having a great year for us.”
Jones allowed four goals or more in each of his first six December starts, an amount he’s allowed only twice in the eight games since. Still, while the goals against have recovered, the save percentage in his past eight is still only .902. Dell has allowed four goals or more three times all season and two of them came in December and January, over which time Dell still has a .926 save percentage.
But there is another factor here that could at least partially explain the difference in performance.
Only two of Dell’s 13 starts have come against teams currently in the playoffs, so he may be getting the benefit of softer matchups. It’s a trend that can be traced back to last season, as only two of Dell’s 17 starts in 2016-17 came against teams that ended up in the playoffs. Another factor in Jones’ favour is that, although he has the lower overall save percentage, his 5-on-5 high-danger save rate is actually higher (.810 vs. .790 per Corsica.Hockey).
But as the Sharks sit second in the Pacific Division, just one point ahead of Calgary and Los Angeles, the post-season is by no means a lock. What comes into focus now is who DeBoer gives the starts to. The back-to-backs should remain split, but watch closely at who starts the other games. For instance, the Sharks play Pittsburgh and Anaheim on consecutive nights this weekend, but then play Winnipeg and the New York Rangers on Tuesday and Thursday next week. Will Dell be given the nod in either of those?
We can call this a goaltending controversy in the sense that, right now, Dell appears to be the hotter hand who gives the Sharks a better chance to win in a tight playoff race. If this continues for another couple months and San Jose gets into the post-season, we will be wondering who starts Game 1 and how long that leash is. Dell is too important to this roster to trade before the deadline.
But in terms of the long-term outlook here, there’s no reason to believe the Sharks will try to re-sign Dell and move on from Jones. There may be value in attempting to keep Dell as this season has proven the importance of a steady backup option, but the Sharks also won’t want to invest too much money in multiple goalies, and have more important RFAs and UFAs to deal with this summer.
As Dell continues to hold one of the top save percentages in the NHL, and now that he’s done it in consecutive seasons, there may be a few teams interested in his services as a potential No. 1 when he becomes a UFA this summer. From Buffalo to Arizona, to the Islanders and Canucks, there are more than a few teams that could be looking to fill that role and hope Dell follows the likes of Cam Talbot and Antti Raanta, who transitioned well from solid backup to undisputed starter.
At the same time, though, Scott Darling is proving that transition isn’t always immediately successful which is why the Sharks, whose Stanley Cup window is still open even a smidge, will probably smartly stick with the more proven goaltender.