Backup NHL Goaltenders Most Likely to Become Starters in 2016-17
NHL teams in the cap era spend most of the goalie dollars on the starter, with backup money being around $1 million for many clubs. The backups are expected to start fewer games—15 to 30 in a normal year—and fill in adequately for injury problems or slumps.
Hockey clubs are always morphing, and that includes depth charts at each position. Some of the highly paid veterans are fading due to age, injury or bad luck. Some backups are gaining the confidence of their coaches, and other teams have top prospects ripping up the minor leagues.
Backup goalies need openings to push their way past the trusted starters. A prolonged team slump or injury to the No. 1 man are the more traditional ways of getting it done, and there are rare times when the backup simply passes the starter on superior performance—we may be seeing that now with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Here are the backup goalies who could emerge as starting netminders if things break right in 2016-17.
Michal Neuvirth, Philadelphia Flyers
Career to date: Michal Neuvirth of the Philadelphia Flyers has had periods where he was the No. 1 goalie since arriving in the NHL at the beginning of the decade. Last year, he started 29 games in a backup role and then turned heads with a brilliant three-game run in the postseason.
Analysis: Neuvirth, 28, is still young enough to have several strong seasons as an NHL goalie. Steve Mason was the starter last year and has been No. 1 in Philadelphia since coming over in 2013. A lot of the decision-making process for general manager Ron Hextall will be based on the performance of each man this year.
Basis for promotion: Both men are free agents at the end of the season, and Neuvirth will probably be less expensive to sign to a new deal. The Flyers are in a good spot because the next 50 games or so can be used as an audition for each goalie, with one being signed and the other possibly being dealt at the trade deadline. Mason is more proven as a starter, but Neuvirth will likely get a full look based on cap hit and his playoff performance in the spring.
Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins
Career to date: Matt Murray of the Pittsburgh Penguins was an overnight sensation, starting 13 regular-season games before backstopping the team to the Stanley Cup. Although he burst onto the NHL scene last year, Murray did spent almost two years plying his trade in the AHL—and succeeding at a high level.
Analysis: Murray's save percentages since turning pro have been at elite levels, including a .941 total in his only full AHL season. In the 2015-16 playoffs, he stopped 92 percent of the shots and stood tall when Pittsburgh needed an answer. His emergence was timely, but it is important to remember his performance was fantastic.
Basis for promotion: The Penguins signed Murray to a new deal this week, and it makes sense to project him as the No. 1 goalie for years to come. The Penguins have veteran Marc-Andre Fleury, but that problem may be solved via trade during this season. Pittsburgh will probably look for cap relief in goal, and Fleury would be the obvious choice for trade.
Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning
Career to date: Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning might be the best non-starter in the NHL at this time. He arrived at age 20 and has been working to gain more playing time in the last two seasons.
Analysis: At 22, Vasilevskiy appears primed to take over more playing time, perhaps emerging later this year as a No. 1 goalie. His strong play in a secondary role suggests the Lightning should be able to count on him in the regular season—with the playoffs being a bigger concern. As an example, Murray's performance for the Penguins in the playoffs last year may give the Lightning some confidence that Vasilevskiy can do the same.
Basis for promotion: Tampa Bay is tight to the cap, and starter Ben Bishop is a free agent at the end of the season. The desire to deal him is probably a part of general manager Steve Yzerman's mindset, and a team such as the Los Angeles Kings may be a match at some point in the coming months.
Jacob Markstrom, Vancouver Canucks
Career to date: Jacob Markstrom of the Vancouver Canucks is a quality goaltender with No. 1 ability, but he was the backup to Ryan Miller last season. He started just 30 games, while Miller started 51.
Analysis: Markstrom was a second-round pick of the Florida Panthers in 2008 and quickly established himself as a bona fide prospect. He began his AHL audition in 2010 and, over the next four seasons, improved his save percentage and overall performance—getting NHL looks each season. In the spring of 2014, the Panthers sent him to Vancouver in the blockbuster Roberto Luongo trade, and he has continued to work toward a starting NHL role. His 32 NHL games in 2015-16 represent a career high and a natural stepping stone to the No. 1 job.
Basis for promotion: The Canucks have Miller under contract for just the 2016-17 season, and Markstrom may be the answer at No. 1 goalie beginning next season. He performed well last year in 30 starts, and there is every reason to give him more of the workload this year to see if he can handle it. Vancouver has given him the start in three of the first four games this year.
Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets
Career to date: Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets is an emerging goaltender who went the college route and enjoyed a lot of success. He followed it up with two strong AHL seasons and graduated to NHL duty in the 2015-16 season—where he performed well.
Analysis: Winnipeg has been bleeding in goal for some time, mostly due to a big contract attached to Ondrej Pavelec. In 2015-16, the Jets had a save percentage of .909, well below the league average of .915.
Basis for promotion: Pavelec is in the minors, and Hellebuyck is playing in the NHL and sharing duties with Michael Hutchinson. There is no clear path to the No. 1 job as there is with many of the names on this list, but Hellebuyck has a solid resume and a massive chance to take over a job that has no owner at this time. This is a major point in his career, and he could be the top goalie in Winnipeg by this time next season.