Thomas Greiss may have been the NHL’s top backup goalie last year– if you can even call him that. Greiss played in 43 games last season, marking the third time he’s hit the 40-game mark in the last four seasons. His .927 save percentage was among the league’s best and with Semyon Varlamov coming to New York as a bit of an unpredictable starter, Greiss could be relied upon again this season. Assuming he is the backup to Varlamov for the year, he stacks up pretty well against the rest of the league’s other backups.
Let’s take a look.
Right off the bat, three teams are heading into the year with an unproven backup: Florida with Samuel Montembault, Colorado with Pavel Francouz and Columbus with Elvis Merzlikins. Then there’s the crop of backup goalies who have performed poorly: Linus Ullmark (BUF), Alex Stalock (MIN), Keith Kinkaid (MTL), Aaron Dell (SJS), Michael Hutchinson (TOR), Malcolm Subban (VGK) and Pheonix Copley (WSH). None of these goalies posted higher than a .905 save percentage last year and none have posted above a .909 save percentage totaled over the last three seasons. Anders Nilsson (OTT) is on his own as a career backup that’s been alright, with a .908 save percentage last season and a .911 across the last three years.
There are also the former starters who have fallen into a backup role: Cam Talbot (CGY), Jonathan Bernier (DET), Mike Smith (EDM), James Reimer (FLA), Brian Elliott (PHI) and Jake Allen (STL). Each one of these goalies had a .907 save percentage or lower last season, which pale in comparison to Greiss’ .927 and none of the netminders have carried a save percentage higher than Greiss’ .912 across the last three seasons.
Within the group of backup goalies around the league, there’s also a crop of five newer goalies who have played 50 or less NHL games but have performed well thus far. Included here is Jack Campbell (LAK), Mackenzie Blackwood (NJD), Alexander Georgiev (NYR), Casey DeSmith (PIT) and Laurent Brossoit (WPG). All of these goalies had at least a .914 save percentage last season and a .913 or higher over in the last three seasons combined. Though all of these goalies performed well, we have a limited sample size as to how they’re going to perform in the coming years. Both Blackwood and Brossoit were great last season but each got into 23 games or less. Greiss about doubled their game count and had better stats while doing it. DeSmith and Georgiev both hovered close to the .915 range last season but haven’t had much other NHL experience apart from last season. Maybe the most interesting goalie here is Jack Campbell.
Campbell played 31 games last year and carried a .928 save percentage on a very weak LA Kings squad. Campbell was a former first-round pick and now that he’s broken on to the NHL scene, he may be able to find the game that scouts saw when he was taken 11th overall in 2010. That said, Campbell’s AHL stats don’t necessarily project him to flourish as an NHL goaltender and while you can’t be certain Greiss will be the better backup this season, it’s the better bet to take based on his track record.
You can maybe add Thatcher Demko (VAN) to this list as well, despite the fact he's only played 10 NHL games. He projects as a top-tier starter in the league down the road but obviously hasn’t reached that status yet. Even if Demko replaces Jacob Markstrom as a starter this year though, Greiss would likely project as a better backup than Markstrom, who holds just a .909 career save percentage.
With that, we know Greiss likely provides more reliable backup goaltending than 23 goalies across the league and is within the top-eight backup goaltenders. It gets a bit more interesting here.
Among the league’s other top backups are: Ryan Miller (ANA), Darcy Kuemper (ARI), Jaroslav Halak (BOS) Anton Khudobin (DAL), Juuse Saros (NSH), Curtis McElhinney (TBL) and whoever becomes the backup in Chicago between Corey Crawford and Robin Lehner.
Greiss has the edge over Miller based on the age factor. Though Miller has been great since coming to Anaheim (.921 save percentage), he hasn’t been able to get into more than 30 games in either of the last two seasons and only played 20 last year. While Anaheim doesn’t necessarily need a ton of games out of Miller based on having John Gibson as a starter, Greiss played more than double the games that Miller did last year and had the better stats as well. This situation is similar to McElhinney as well, where despite playing well, McElhinney has never played more than the 33 games he played last season and only averaged a .912 save percentage.
On the other hand though, you’d have a tough time arguing that Greiss is a better backup than Corey Crawford (or Robin Lehner) and Darcy Kuemper. Crawford getting into limited games could provide the Blackhawks with stellar backup goaltending, while Kuemper almost dragged the Coyotes to the playoffs last year, playing 55 games and finishing the year with a .925 save percentage. Even if Kuemper keeps the starting job over Antti Raanta, Raanta would likely become the league’s top backup.
Between Halak, Khudobin and Saros, it’s difficult to say where Greiss would slot in. Halak and Khudobin are in similar situations to Greiss, as older goaltenders who have solidified themselves as some of the league’s best backup goalies. Saros has only played 79 games but projects as a future starter and carries a .920 career save percentage.
Essentially, Thomas Greiss is one of the league’s top backup goaltenders heading into the year, probably landing somewhere from third-best to sixth-best. Despite a shaky year in 2017-18, he’s shown since coming to New York that he’s able to not only get into 40+ games per year but that he can do it effectively as well.