by Deb Seymour
Some favorite heroes in NHL folklore are the Emergency Back-Up Goaltenders (EBUGs) who’ve been successful over the years, when both the starting and backup net minders in a game have become incapacitated. On February 22, 2020, “David Ayres” became a household name among NHL fans, as the 42-year-old was the EBUG for both the Carolina Hurricanes and the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena and played in net for the Canes for part of the second period and the entire third period. The Maple Leafs got two pucks past him, but he also managed a shot on goal; the Canes won the game 6-3; and the rest, as they say, is history. David Ayres was a Zamboni driver — an extra little detail that just adds color to the story. Disney is reportedly producing a movie about Ayres, as well.
That EBUGs are even present at NHL games raises the question of what the role is of an NHL backup goalie, as teams generally only dress one backup per game despite at times having more than one on their full roster. NHL teams also utilize their goalies in different ways. Some have a preferred goaltender, but the backup plays such a large proportion of the games in a season that it’s almost a platoon situation. Some have a clear starting goalie and only start the backup in a day game after night game — or similar situation in which the starting goaltender could really use a day off. Last season, NHL teams mostly carried three goaltenders on their active roster and some actually intentionally utilized all of them. The Toronto Maple Leafs, Anaheim Ducks, and New Jersey Devils each dressed their third goalie at least once as the backup goalie in the 2020-2021 season, giving their starting goaltender a full day off. This is rare, however; and says as much about the unusual circumstances surrounding the 2020-2021 season as it does about the teams’ strategy. One has to wonder, however, if the extra rest this affords the frontline net minder might not turn this into an actual strategy for teams, going forward.
One question that arises about starting goaltenders versus backup goaltenders is what are the defining characteristics of a starter versus a backup? How do you recognize a starting goalie from a backup? Last (Covid 19-truncated) season, as per NHL guidelines, the New York Rangers carried three goalies on their full roster: Igor Shestyorkin, Alexandar Georgiev, and Keith Kinkaid. Kinkaid has the longest NHL tenure of the three (despite just 166 NHL games played since 2011), but was considered backup to the backup, Georgiev. To further complicate matters, early in the season it wasn’t clear if the starting goalie (Shestyorkin) was actually playing better than the backup Georgiev. It seemed the Rangers were going to give each of their two young net minders a chance to become the starter. Over time, though, it became clearer that Shestyorkin was maturer as an NHL starter than Georgiev; and in this offseason he was awarded a 4-year contract with the Rangers sealing that decision. One could still argue this decision, but the overall save percentages don’t lie. Shestyorkin seems to have that “it” factor that many would argue Georgiev is still missing.
So now, do the Rangers keep Georgiev as their backup goalie, or do they trade him (potentially as part of a package deal) to obtain other player(s) strategically needed in other roles on the team? Keith Kinkaid is a perfectly serviceable backup goaltender, and the 25-year-old Georgiev could be a valuable commodity to a team looking to strengthen their goaltending capabilities. It is rumored that Georgiev would like to start in net in the NHL — or at least continue working toward that end — and if there is a team that would be willing to give him that chance, do the Rangers make a deal to let him try it?
Partly, it comes down to what trade deals are available to the Rangers that would include Georgiev. But partly, it also comes down to what his role is on the team. In previous years, Cam Talbot and Antti Raanta were important backup goaltenders to Henrik Lundqvist. Yet Cam Talbot is the starting goalie for the Minnesota Wild at this point, while Antti Raanta, in a career plagued with injury, recently signed as a backup goalie for the Carolina Hurricanes. Hence, does signing Shestyorkin mean that Georgiev is basically expendable, or does it mean he can still be developed to be “almost as good as Shestyorkin;” and what do the Rangers want in their backup goalie as they try to contend for a Stanley Cup over the next five years?
The 2020-2021 Las Vegas Golden Knights had Robin Lehner to play in net during the playoffs, when Marc-Andre Fleury seemed to need a day off. One could argue that was not the worst downgrade in the world, although Fleury is almost an incontestable future Hall of Famer. This harks back to our earlier point that some teams set up their goaltending as almost a platoon or platoon-able situation. Is this part of the Rangers’ strategy as they plan for a contending team? Should it be?
As I write this, Henrik Lundqvist has officially retired from playing in the NHL. Lundqvist represented all that was great about hockey goaltenders; and very little that was not. He was “the King,” despite never, in his 15-year NHL career, having won a Stanley Cup. We would all like to have seen him achieve that pinnacle of success; but, unfortunately, it was not meant to be. His number 30 will be retired by the Rangers this coming season, and odds are strong he will enter the Hall of Fame. He was what other goaltenders aspire to be, and he did it with grace, charm, and a never-ending love for the game. It is fortunate for both Shestyorkin and Georgiev that they got to see him play firsthand, and perhaps pick up some special little secrets about what goalies need to do to be successful in the NHL. No matter what, Lundqvist made a lasting impression on both the current Ranger team, and on all the others on which he played that preceded it.
*In tribute to one of the greatest ever to play the game, Henrik Lundqvist, #30, New York Rangers.