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The Backup Bonanza

The Blues have seen a rash of backup goaltenders lately. Why? Does it matter?

NHL: St. Louis Blues at Detroit Red Wings Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Backup goaltenders can be difficult to manage. Staying alert and prepared to enter a game at a moment’s notice is only possible if your skills remain sharp, but many coaches are reluctant to “take away” the net from a goaltender whose psyche must be preserved in order for the starter to sufficiently carry the team.

And so, when your team plays a game against a backup goaltender, it can be a noteworthy occasion. A starting goaltender can expect to play in roughly 70% of his team’s game, and so you would expect a team to face an opposing starter with roughly the same frequency.

The Blues, however, have been the beneficiaries of an exceptionally long streak of backup goaltending from opponents that correlates interestingly with a few other trends. Over their last ten games, the Blues have faced an opponent’s backup (or at least the lesser half of a 1A/1B situation) 7 times, an exact inverse of what may be expected.

Why, then, is this happening so frequently? The schedule is partially to blame/credit. Those last ten games have featured nine matchups against Eastern Conference teams, with only last Thursday’s game against Vancouver as an exception. In those inter-conference matchups, many teams see an opportunity to grab a rest for their starter, as the games affect the playoff race less directly.

The Canadiens, for example, played the Blues at home on a Saturday night before playing in Boston the next night. When faced with that bump in the road, they chose to play backup Al Montoya against St. Louis and all-world Carey Price against the Bruins. Why? Because the Bruins are rivals and divisional opponents, and so they place a higher value on that game.

The other interesting correlation with this stretch is the dawn of the Yeo era. This ten game string is perfectly aligned with the elevation of the Blues new head coach, and so it raises questions about the viability of the team’s long term offensive success.

Not every goaltender, of course, will be Andrew Hammond. The Senators third string netminder was placed on waivers immediately after surrendering six goals to the Blues earlier this month. But goalies like Montoya or Vancouver’s Jacob Markstrom are still more volatile than their more senior counterparts.

And yet, for all of this relief, the Blues offense has mostly been a mirage. In that six game stretch, the team has only scored more than two goals six times. While that does feel like an improvement over the struggles from earlier in the season, it does raise the question of whether the energy from a coaching change and a highly publicized perfect road trip have obfuscated the continuing serious issues that the team faces.

Ultimately, any goaltender good enough to crack an NHL roster can stand tall and deliver a commanding performance on any given night. What separates the stars from their backups is the reliability and repeatability of those performances, and the Blues should be thankful that they’ve been spared some much tougher matchups.