Monday, November 9, 2009

Best of the Backup Goalies




Last week, on the way to hockey, my pal Geoff (he did the great painting above of Bunny Larocque years ago in art school) and I were discussing great backup goalies of all time. I figured I’d try to dig up some numbers on some of the all-time best second string goalies. I determined a back-up as a goalie playing less than 30 games behind a legitimate number one goalie that played the remainder of the time. In other words, if a team has an even split between two or even three goalies, none of them are considered a backup.

1950’s and 60’s
The practice of periodically giving the starting goaltender a rest didn’t really come into fashion until the middle 1960’s. There were instances in which a team would simply split the games between two goalie’s only because neither was quite ready or talented enough for the solo role. The 5th place Boston Bruins of 1959/60 would be an example of this with Harry Lumley playing 42 games to Don Simmons’ 28. As well that year, the last place Rangers used Gump Worsley in 39 games, Marcel Paille in 17, Al Rollins in 10 and two others in 5 more simply because nobody could quite get the job done. In ‘58/59 the Maple Leafs basically rotated a young (for him) Johnny Bower and Ed Chadwick in 39 and 31 games respectively.
If anyone from this era could be considered the first real backup goalie, perhaps it was Hank Bassen who would yo-yo between the minors and the NHL for a decade and a half, mainly with the Red Wings. He was the backup to Al Rollins on Chicago in the mid-50’s , Terry Sawchuk in the 60’s and finally to Les Binkley for the expansion Pittsburgh Penguins on 67/68.
Roger Crozier would backup Sawchuk in 63/64 as one of the other first true second stringers, before taking over as lone starter the following season. Ten years later, he would have one of the greatest seasons ever for a backup going 17-2-1 for the Sabres in helping them to the Stanley Cup Finals. Perhaps we can even consider Jacques Plante as one of the first backups as he played 17 games behind Gerry McNeil for the 53/54 Habs. He would record five shutouts in those 17 games and sport a dazzling 1.59 average, proving he was ready to take the ball by himself.

1970’s
The first name we came up with in discussing backups was Michel “Bunny” Larocque who had a great run in the 70’s behind Ken Dryden. Larocque had five consecutive seasons from 1973/73 to 77/78 in which he played between 22 and 30 games. Over those last three years his record was 16-1-3, 19-2-4 and 22-3-4 for a truely remarkable total of 47-6-11. This .820 winning percentage was often padded against the weaker teams in the league and by the fact that he had one of the greatest teams in history in front of him.
Another terrific second-stringer of that era was Philadelphia’s Wayne Stephenson who also filled in admirably in 1975/76, playing 66 games when Bernie Parent was felled by a back injury in training camp. As a backup, (and a starter that one year) Stephenson’s GAA never rose above 2.75.
The Bruins of the mid-70’s may have had the best and truest second-string goalie in NHL history. Ross Brooks was signed as a free-agent by Boston in 1971 after more than a decade of toiling in the Eastern and American hockey leagues. In truth he had a below .500 record throughout his minor league career with a goals against of over 4.00. This of course all changed playing behind one of the highest scoring teams of all-time. Starting in 1972/73 at the age of 35, Brooks posted consecutive years of 11-1-3, 16-3-0 and 10-3-3 with GAA’s between 2.36 and 2.98. He, like Larocque was often used against the weaker teams in the circuit.
In fact, Ross Brooks has a career winning percentage of .800, the highest career percentage in NHL history among goalies with more than fifty games played. He is well ahead of Ken Dryden’s .758 (of course done over 397 games), Martin Prusek (!?) at .702 in 57 games and Gerry Cheevers at .658 as the only four ‘tenders over .650 for their careers. Martin Brodeur has only a .632 percentage in 9th place, Bill Durnan .626 in 12th, Andy Moog .622 in 16th and Patrick Roy .618 in 19th position. Did you know that Vesa Toskala and George Hainsworth have the same career winning percentage of .609? Neither did I…But I digress. Back to the back-ups.
Ernie Wakely, Gerry Desjardins, Gary Edwards, Michel Plasse and Chico Resch all performed admirably as backups in the 70’s, but none as consistent or brilliant over a three year period as Ross Brooks or Michel Larocque.



1980’s
Some of the great backups of the 80’s were Bob Froese, Rick St.Croix, Doug Keans, Doug Soetart, Richard Sevigny, Steve Baker and Steve Weeks. One backup of the 1980’s however managed to lead the entire league in Save Percentage for a season. Chicago’s Warren Skorodenski posted a .903 pct in 84/85 besting the likes of Pelle Lindbergh, Andy Moog, Mike Liut and his team’s number one goalie Murray Bannerman. Of course he played only 27 games, but that was enough to officially qualify for the title and earn yourself an O-Pee-Chee Leaders card the following season.
He would play in only 8 other games in his whole NHL career over 4 different seasons, talk about catching lightning in a bottle.

1990’s to current
One of the most consistent second stringers of the 1990s was Craig Billington who performed the role behind the likes of Bill Ranford, Patrick Roy and Olaf Kolzig. He had eleven different years in which he played between 12 and 27 games, the most of these so-called "backup seasons" of all time.
Jamie McLennan proved to be a solid backup for six different teams posting a 2.68 GAA over 254 career games. He never played more than 38 games in a season, and that was in the Minnesota Wild’s inaugural season when he went 5-23-9. He split time that season with Manny Fernandez who managed to have an over .500 record. McLennan would revert to a straight backup role for the final four years of his career.
Perhaps one of the truest backups ever was Jeff Reese who never started more than 30 games in a year. He milked 174 games out of his career and in 92/93 with Calgary went 14-4-1 and also set the record for points by a goalie in one game with three assists. Not a bad season.

In 2002/03 Corey Schwab posted the lowest goals against average of any goalie playing at least ten games since the late 1920’s. Backing up Martin Brodeur on the way to a Stanley Cup win he had a 1.47 goals against average. He even got into two playoff games, allowing no goals in 28 minutes. His career wrapped up the following year with three games for Toronto in which he had a 0.64 GAA. Overall in his last two seasons Schwab would play 801 minutes in the backup role and allow a mere 17 goals for a 1.27 average, talk about finishing strong.

The aforementioned Martin Prusek had two stellar years for Ottawa in 02/03 and 03/04. Backing up Patrick Lalime he went a combined 28-8-4 with a 2.22 average. David Aebischer had three nice years in Colorado before Patrick Roy retired leaving the job to him. His 13-6-0 with a 1.88 GAA in 01/02 is one of the better recent backup years.

The likes of Prusek, Aebischer, Schwab, Billington, Bob Froese and Roger Crozier et al had some nice seasons as backups but cannot compete with the numbers put forward by Ross Brooks of the Bruins and 'Bunny' Larocque. I feel the nod would have to go to 'Bunny' simply for length and quality of his backup tenure as well as the Cup wins he contributed to. Here are my top five backup goalies of all-time.


1. Michel Larocque

2. Ross Brooks

3. Jamie McLennan

4. Craig Billington

5. Jeff Reese


3 comments:

Geoff_9 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Geoff_9 said...

Warren Skorodenski ... that is a great trivia name from the past.

On a side note, Chico Resch was only a back-up in his rookie season and later ended up playing 12 games in the playoffs that year. For the rest of the 70's, Chico never played less than 43 games.

Andy Moog with the 80's Oilers was more of a back-up than Chico was with the 70's Islanders.

It's interesting how some back-ups could never make the transition to being a #1 goalie ( Ex. Larocque , Snow).

Also interesting ... within the last decade, Cam Ward would win the Stanley Cup with Carolina (initially the back-up) ... and Chris Osgood would win the Stanley Cup (as a back-up to Hasek).

Geoff_9 said...

Now that I think of it ... Isn't Chris Osgood really just a "solid" back-up on a really good team ... Maybe he should be "Best of the Backups" ???

Whenever he started for mediocre teams, he was always less than spectacular.

The only role he truly excelled in was "the back up" for the Red Wings

Great blog Nitzy ... keep it going !!!

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