The Importance of Number Two


Written on 10/12/2009 by Jim Cerny

Taking in yesterday's Rangers-Ducks contest from the press box at The Garden I got to thinking about the importance of back-up goaltenders as I watched New York's Steve Valiquette get the better of Anaheim's J.S. Giguere in a 3-0 Rangers victory.

Interestingly, Valiquette and Giguere are back-ups in distinctly different positions for their respective teams.

On Broadway, Henrik Lundqvist is the King. There is no disputing that Lundqvist is the Rangers' No. 1 goaltender and that Valiquette is No. 2. Yesterday's start was Valiquette's first of the season, and only his 23rd in the past three seasons. Even with John Tortorella's plan to spell Lundqvist more frequently than in the past, it would be hard to imagine the 32 year-old Valiquette starting more than 15 games this year.

And that works because Valiquette has accepted his role on the team, and thrives in it. Yesterday's shutout was his fourth over those 23 starts, a pretty impressive stat.

"He played very well," Tortorella said of Valiquette's performance last night, before adding, "If (we) want to get to where (we) want to be, he's going to have play well for us."

Valiquette is an easy guy to root for. I was there as team broadcaster when he was summoned by the Islanders as an extremely green 22 year-old---fourth or fifth on the organizational depth chart---pressed into NHL duty by a rash of injuries. He won both of his starts during that 1999-2000 call-up, posting a 1.87 goals against average and .949 save percentage over six appearances. His first NHL win in Ottawa that April saw him stop 45 of 46 shots.

It'd be another four years before he saw the NHL again, and not until 2007-08 that he established himself as an NHL goalie, albeit a backup to Lundqvist.

In between, there were thousands of miles on minor league buses, a standout season playing in Russia, and the career-saving tutelege from Rangers goaltending coach Benoit Allaire.

"I owe so much to Benny," Valiquette told me. "From the mental part of the game to on-ice drills and skills, he has been a God-send for my career."

Where Valiquette is today, in my opinion, is right at the top of the list of back-up goaltenders in the National Hockey League.

Surprising to many is that Anaheim's Giguere is on that list, too. Surprising because we are talking about a Stanley Cup-winning, Conn Smythe Trophy-winning goalie here.

But last spring Jonas Hiller emerged as the favored starting goalie in Anaheim, as Giguere's goals against rose to 3.10, a full goal higher than the previous season. And so far this season head coach Randy Carlyle has turned to Hiller as his No. 1, with the 32 year-old Giguere trying to make the most of his starts.

To his credit, Giguere---who likely would have been dealt this past off-season if not for his cumbersome contract---played extremely well last night, making 35 saves as the Ducks were thoroughly outplayed by their hosts. But unlike Valiquette, Giguere has not accepted his No. 2 status, and, in fact, he is more a No. 1a. It is hard to imagine that he would not start at least 30 games this season, if not more, in pushing Hiller constantly for more and more playing time.

As Carlyle told The Los Angeles Times last month, "Both players have been informed that it's not a given here. You have to go out and earn it."

Don't forget that Giguere had to deal with important off-ice issues last year with the death of his father. Perhaps with a more clear head this season, he could reclaim his No. 1 spot in Anaheim. But for now he ranks at the top of the NHL back-ups list with Valiquette.

Who else is on that list? Here's my Top Five of back-up goaltenders in the National Hockey League:

1. J.S. Giguere, Anaheim Ducks
2. Steve Valiquette, NY Rangers
3. Mathieu Garon, Columbus Blue Jackets
4. Ty Conklin, St. Louis Blues
5. Brian Boucher, Philadelphia Flyers

I didn't list any of the two (really three with Rick DiPietro included) Islanders goalies because really there is no clear back-up or starter between Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron. And until Washington clears up who is No. 1, I can't place either Jose Theodore or Semyon Varlamov on this list, either.

What do you think of the list? Let me know your thoughts.

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  1. Leon |

    I look at Alex Auld in Dallas. A former 30+ game winner (also played in 60+ games over the past two seasons) that can provide Marty Turco with the rest that Turco has not had in quite some time.

  2. Anonymous |


    Good call. I was considering Auld in my Top Five, and see him as very similar to Garon. Auld could easily be on this list, and, to be honest, I thought he was a great pick up by the Stars. Marty Turco needs to play less to be more effective at this stage of his career, and now Dallas has a goalie---Auld---who can take the heat off Turco, who is no longer what he was at his best.


  3. Jess Rubenstein |

    To me the bigger key for a back up is how well his teammates play in front of him when he is in.

    On Sunday you could see the support the Rangers gave Vally trying to make his life easier. The players like Vally so you can see them go the extra effort knowing how hard it is go so long without playing.

  4. Anonymous |


    A good and valid point. Sunday's blanking was clearly a team shutout, and Valli probably was forced to make only a few difficult saves---including that excellent one on Todd Marchant alone in the slot in the second period.

    But I am sure the Ducks players like Giguere, too, and he was forced to stand on his head on Sunday. So your points are good ones, but it doesn't always play out the way you suggested.



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