Inside the NHL
Original Everett Silvertips general manager Doug Soetaert knows firsthand the value of backup goaltending, which seems to be making a comeback on the NHL appreciation scale after some high-profile flops.
That appreciation likely grew last Thursday, along with debates about goalie workloads, when former Boston Bruins standout Tim Thomas detailed how concussions derailed his career and left him with brain impairments.
Soetaert spent a decade as mostly a backup NHL netminder with the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens while starting a few seasons for the Winnipeg Jets. He went 11-7-2 with a 2.77 goals-against average as a backup on Montreal’s Stanley Cup winner in 1986 and looked so good coach Jean Perron wanted to start him over a stumbling Steve Penney ahead of that championship run.
“Perron came to me at the end of January and told me, ‘Get ready because you’re going to play most of the games through the end of the season,’’’ Soetaert said. “So, I started to play a lot more and I got hurt and basically only played the last two games of the season. Then, Patrick (Roy) took over and the rest is history.’’
No one expects today’s teams to have a No. 3 netminder that can step in and be a rookie playoff MVP as future Hall of Famer Roy did. But recent struggles by the Toronto Maple Leafs, which led to coach Mike Babcock’s firing, underscore the continued importance of backup goalies sometimes overlooked in today’s salary-cap era.
The cap-pressured Leafs disastrously waived backup Curtis McElhinney before 2018-19 and installed a cheaper Garret Sparks as their No. 2. When that imploded, the team this season went with backups Michael Hutchinson and Kasimir Kaskisuo, who entered the weekend a combined 0-6-0-1 with a 4.74 GAA and .870 save percentage.
Sparks’ flameout last season resulted in Toronto overworking starter Frederik Andersen and that likely cost the Leafs in a seven-game, first-round playoff defeat against Boston. They’d hoped to rest Andersen more this season, but seemingly can’t win without him and risk missing the playoffs entirely if he sits too much.
Soetaert sympathizes, knowing the business of hockey from having built the Silvertips from their 2002 debut and serving two separate GM stints with them until 2012. Most recently an Arizona Coyotes scout in 2015-16 and GM of their AHL farm team in 2016-17, Soetaert agreed the salary cap forces teams to cut corners and backup goaltending seems an easy place.
But not necessarily the right place.
“It’s changed, obviously, with regards to the salary cap and I think that’s had the biggest factor,’’ Soetaert said. “How much do you want to spend on a backup? Well, I guess it depends on whether you want to win or not.’’
Soetaert argued backups today are even more important than when he played during a late-1970s, early 1980s heyday for No. 2 goalies. From Cup winners Wayne Stephenson in Philadelphia, to Chico Resch with the New York Islanders, Bunny Larocque with the Canadiens and Andy Moog in Edmonton, legacy teams usually had starter-quality — even all-star caliber — backups behind their superstars.
Before starting for the Jets, Soetaert was John Davidson’s backup on a Rangers squad that lost the 1979 Cup final to Montreal and its Ken Dryden-Larocque netminding combo. Montreal that year barely won a seven-game semifinal over Boston and backup goalie Gilles Gilbert, who replaced Hall of Famer Gerry Cheevers after he’d lost the first two contests.
As mentioned, the salary cap imposed in 2005 prevents today’s teams from spending on the equivalent of a Gilbert, Moog, or Resch starter-type at No. 2 that can win a Cup if No. 1 goes down. But much like today’s NFL backup running backs, the modern No. 2 goalie is mostly expected to get the starter to the playoffs in one piece by absorbing a sizable workload without costing too many wins.
“I think today, you have to have two quality goaltenders — a No. 1 and a No. 1 (a), or maybe a No. 1 and a No. 2 (a),’’ Soetaert said. “Just with the travel and the amount of games. You don’t see many goalies playing back-to-back anymore, so it’s really important to have a guy that can play the next night and win.’’
Montreal last week got just its second win all season from a backup when newcomer Cayden Primeau — son of longtime NHL power forward Keith Primeau — stopped 33 of 35 shots against Ottawa in the second of back-to-back games for his team. Primeau replaced former No. 2 Keith Kinkaid, who’d gone 1-1-0-3 with an .875 save percentage and caused the Canadiens to overwork struggling starter Carey Price.
The Canadiens had lost eight straight and fallen out of a playoff spot when the switch occurred.
Soetaert points to the Dallas Stars’ tandem of Ben Bishop and backup Anton Khudobin as the ideal combination. Khudobin entered the weekend 6-5-0-1 in 12 starts — 38% of his team’s games — with a 2.39 GAA and .922 save percentage.
“Khudobin wins a lot of games for them and that’s the whole key to success,’’ Soetaert said. “The second guy can come in and carry the team if he has to. You’ve got to count on that goaltender to go in and win ‘X’ number of games because one guy can’t do it by himself nowadays.’’
And not every young, future starter makes a good backup. Finding the right guy can take work.
“You have to want to play and when you get that opportunity, you make it hard for the coach to put that other guy in,’’ Soetaert said.
Easier said than done. But less difficult, perhaps, than Maple Leafs brass explaining why a team billed as a Cup contender again can’t survive the opening playoff round — if they even make it that far.