2008 Has Been Year of the “Backup”

Marc-Andre Fleury returned to the Pittsburgh net tonight for the first time since injuring his groin a month ago, just one of many highly-paid #1 goalies who have missed significant playing time this season therefore thrusting his respective backup into a starting (and sometimes “starring”) role.  What’s significant about that?  Well for starters, never before has there been such a huge disparity between the salaries of A-level goalies vs. everyone else.   Until this past week Danny Saborin has kept the Penguins in each of their games compiling a 6-6-1 record with a .911 SV%.  Are those the numbers of a number one?  Not really, but the Pens have remained within striking distance of the Rangers and Flyers which is exactly what teams should expect from backups, i.e. give them a chance to win when the number one is out.  For 1/10th the cost ($512k vs. $5M for Fleury) Saborin did his job.  Here’s a look at some of the other backups finding themselves with a chance to play in the limelight this seaon.

Tim Thomas shooting for the number one position.

Tim Thomas shooting for the number one position.

Is it fair to include Tim Thomas in a discussion about backups?  No, but veteran NHL reporters keep doing it.  Is it fair to include him in a discussion about best value?  Absolutely!  Thomas’ story is now well-known in the goalie world and even being recognized in the general hockey world.  Thomas was drafted by the Nordiques in 1994; his first NHL game came during a cup of coffe with the Bruins in 2003.   Since the lockout he has been the “backup” to Andrew Raycroft, Hannu Toivenen and Manny Fernandez.  Having finally established himself as a starter, he is at least a co-number-one with Fernandez at a bargain price of $1.1M (vs. $4.33M for Fernandez).

Brian Boucher celebrating ANOTHER shutout.

Brian Boucher celebrating ANOTHER shutout.

Brian Boucher is the symbol of persistence and hard work.  And shutouts.  After being a first-round pick of the Flyers where he led the team to the Conference Finals he was quickly shuffled off to Phoenix where he proceeded to set the modern day record of the longest shutout streak (322 minutes!).  For the past three seasons Boucher bounced around between a half dozen AHL and NHL teams before landing in San Jose at the end of last season where he has been Evgeni Nabokov’s reliable backup since day one.  After picking up one shutout in five games last year he started this season with two consecutive shutouts.  His record is 8-1-1, including going 5-2 in a stretch of seven consecutive starts when Nabokov was injured.  And if you don’t think Boucher of Mr. Shutout maybe this will change your thinking a little:  Patrick Roy recorded 66 regular season shutouts, 6.4% of his games played.  By comparison, Boucher’s 16 amount to just under 7% of games played!  All this on a salary of $650,000 (vs. $5.375M for Nabokov).  btw, Martin Brodeur pitches a shutout every 10th game.

Craig Anderson has his eye on the starter's job.

Craig Anderson has his eye on the starter's job.

Craig Anderson looks like he’s going to carry the Florida Panthers into the playoffs.  Anderson didn’t play his first game until a month into the season but since then he has run up a record of 8-3-3 on a team that is 14-13-4 overall.  Not only is he winning but he’s doing it in spectatular, carry-the-team-on-his-shoulder style as demonstrated in a 41-save shutout in Edmonton and a 45-save win against the Sabres.  All for the bargain-basement price of $550,000 (vs. $5.7M for Tomas Vokun)

Scott Clemmensen stands out in a crowd.

Scott Clemmensen stands out in a hostile crowd.

When Martin Brodeur went down with an elbow injury the question was whether or not the Devils could hang on to a playoff spot until his return.  Now the question is “why didn’t the Leafs hold on to Scott Clemmensen?”  The Leafs buried Clemmensen in the AHL with the Marlies, behind their goalie-of-the-future Justin Pogge.  Giving ice time to Pogge makes sense but abandoning Clemmensen in favor of bringing back Curtis Joseph is looking foolish and expensive now.  And when I say “abandon” that’s exactly what the Leafs did.  While suffering through Raycroft’s miserable season last year the Leafs turned to Clemmensen for two starts and immediately went looking elsewhere when his one-year contract expired.  Now he’s taken the reigns in New Jersey with a 9-3-1 record that has kept the Devils in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race even though they’ve played fewer games than any team ahead of them.  And what is thrifty GM Lou Lamerello paying for this stellar backup?  $500,000 (vs. $5.2M for Brodeur)  btw, the Leafs are paying Cujo $700,000 for an 0-3-1 record.

Brent Johnson has the Caps covered in a pinch.

Brent Johnson has the Caps covered.

Brent Johnson has flirted with the starters role in St. Louis but he has worn the “backup” label since he joined the NHL almost 10 years ago.  That label is being peeled off this season in Washington.  The Caps unceremoniously let go of Mr. Capital, Olaf Kolzig, this summer and landed high-priced free agend Jose Theodore.  After recovering his MVP form in Colorado last season Theodore was expected to lead a talented young Caps team to the top of the Eastern Conference.  The Caps are certainly sitting atop the Atlantic division but it’s behind the stellar play of Johnson, not Theodore.  The two goalies have split time in the Capitals’ net this season but it is Johnson who is sporting a Top 10 save percentage of .920, along with a record of 10-4-2 at a cost of $812,000 (vs. $4.5M for Theodore and $822,000 for rookie Simeon Varlamov who just played his first NHL game last week.

Sanford has stayed focused on his job.

Sanford has stayed focused on his job.

Ty Conklin and the Wings are staying hot.

Ty Conklin and the Wings are staying hot.

Joey MacDonald is stick-handling through the Islanders' mess.

Joey MacDonald is stick-handling through the Islanders' mess.

Elsewhere in the league Ty Conklin is doing his part to help the Wings keep pace with the Sharks in the Western Conference with and 8-4 record (at $750k vs $1.417M for Chris Osgood); Joey MacDonald is doing about as good a job as possible on Long Island (10-14-3 and $487k vs. $4.5M for Rick DiPietro); and the Vancouver Canucks are still in first place in the Northwest Division while Curtis Sanford (5-4) takes over for the injured Captain Luongo ($650k vs. $6.75M).

So all the GM’s should stop paying top dollar to free agent goalies and go with less expensive backups, right?  Of course not.  But just like any other position there are top performers who are earning their keep and top earners who are not performing.  Just as much thought process should go into who you sign as your backup as goes into signing a big name free agent.  Because if your backup can’t be a number one when called upon then you really don’t have a backup plan.


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