The importance and role of a backup goalie in the NHL

Former NHL goaltender Corey Hirsch gets reaction from around the league about the importance of being a backup goalie in the NHL.

No young hockey player dreams about growing up to be a backup goalie on the end of an NHL bench. But not everyone can be a 60-game No. 1 either.

NHL teams need a quality netminder to serve in the No. 2 role in an era when playing 70 games at this position is risky for a number of reasons. One is obvious, that leaning so much on a player at a demanding position would wear him down or injure him by playoff time. But also, as the stats show, it’s in a team’s best interest to not play its starter on both ends of a back-to-back set, as the average save percentage drops below .900 in the second half of those situations.

It’s easy to gloss over the backup goalie position, since he likely won’t play much more than 20 games a season. And you may think it’s an easy job since you’re watching most of the time and then slipping in for spot duty, but it’s not for everyone. It’s a demanding position, in ways you may not realize.

“Being a backup goalie in the NHL comes with added pressure,” said Corey Hirsch in a Wednesday Night Hockey feature on Sportsnet (see above). “The demands can be daunting, psychologically more than physically. They may be forced into a game at a moment’s notice, with only one chance to show what they can do after sitting cold for two periods. Sometimes weeks can go by before they get another shot to play. That’s why it requires tremendous mental discipline for them to stay focused and be ready for when it’s time to play.”

Last season, Edmonton’s Cam Talbot played in 73 games to lead the league by a total of seven, and that was really pushing the envelope. Goalies will still top 70 games from time to time, but long gone are the days when someone will play 79 times, as Grant Fuhr did in 1995-96.

The backup goalie faces his own challenges, not the least of which is being in practice mode most of the time, and then jumping straight into a game where a loss (or too many of them) could cost you your job.

Vegas Golden Knights starter and longtime Penguins No. 1 Marc-Andre Fleury may not have been in danger of losing his job, but he experienced these pressures first hand, serving as the backup to Matt Murray for a period of time.

“It’s not an easy job that’s for sure when you practice for a week or two and then you have to jump in and have to win a game,” Fleury said. “So somebody that can be consistent in that role is not easy and when you find a good one I think you have to keep him around.”

Consider the Boston Bruins last season, who could have missed the playoffs when they had no reliable backup behind Tuukka Rask. Prior to February, Anton Khudobin and Zane McIntyre combined to earn just one win. Khudobin didn’t get going until mid-February, after which he only lost two more times in eight appearances. That’s not a lot of games, but they’re important ones nonetheless.

That serves as a reminder backup goalies struggle, too, which can conflict with another important part of their duties: being an upbeat and fun player to be around.

“When it comes to the relationship with their teammates, it’s important for backups to earn and maintain their respect,” Hirsch said. “It means being the first goalie on the ice every day at practice and the last guy off. It also helps being a good guy in the locker room.”

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Added Tanner Pearson: “Backup goalies are the ones that bring a positive energy pretty much all the time. They’re always in a good mood, always smiling. When guys are down, they’re picking them up.”

Because of the shortage of goalie jobs in the NHL and the number of players out there, you could say there is more pressure on the backup. Whereas a No. 1 has clear expectations that define his role and fit with the team and could fall into a backup job before slipping out of the league entirely, a backup has to be sharp in much less clear situations, while maintaining a positive vibe.

With their relatively cheap contracts and other options always available to a team at the AHL level or from other organizations, the backup goalie is one of the most replaceable pieces on a team. It’s a job that may be the most under-appreciated in the NHL.

It may also be one of the toughest.

“The fact of the matter is they’re an essential part to every hockey team,” Hirsch said. “Injuries can happen any time. There’s only one net, you have to set your ego aside as only one player can play.

“And in the end those two points that your backup goalie may play might be the difference between making the playoffs and not making them.”

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