The Art of the Backup Goalie

Senators goalie Robin Lehner is having to learn an entirely new skill in Ottawa this season – playing the supporting role.

After stints as the number 1 in Binghamton, and Sault Ste. Marie during his junior career, the 22-year old admitted in a recent interview that playing second fiddle to Craig Anderson was something “pretty new” to him.

As strange as it sounds, the role of the backup goaltender isn’t all that easy.

It seems likely that, at some point, Lehner will get a legitimate shot as the Sens first choice netminder. But for now, the young Swede is ‘stuck’ behind Craig Anderson and the challenges of his new role haven’t been lost on him.

Talking to the Ottawa Citizen’s Wayne Scanlan, Lehner admitted he felt a little rusty when called on to face Minnesota

“You can do certain stuff in practice but…when I went into Minnesota I kind of felt like I started from scratch, a little bit,”

“I tried to keep it simple. I felt like the first 10, 15 shots, it was kind of hard to control rebounds, I just didn’t feel as comfortable as I wanted. But I played it simple and it kind of came back to me.”

Lehner hadn’t seen action in over a week before his showdown with the Wild, and the transition in to a more ‘passive’ position within the team seems to have caught Lehner by surprise.

“It’s not as easy as I thought, but I’m doing my best and trying to learn from it” he told Scanlan, adding “Just trying to play the best I can when I get a chance. That’s pretty much what I can do.”

The role of the backup goalie, and the skills required to be a good one, is unique within the sport.

At the very top level, a good backup goaltender can be the difference between success and failure. But it isn’t something all goalies take to – ice time is fleeting, sometimes playing as few as 15 games per season, whilst still requiring elite level performance when an opportunity does come along.

Finding someone capable of playing in the NHL, but in small doses, proved troublesome for the New York Rangers prior to Marin Biron (and Cam Talbot) coming on the scene; and the club were often criticised for over using Henrik Lundqvist during the regular season, leaving little in the superstars tank come play-off time.

Montreal on the other hand are seeing the benefits of having Peter Budaj as their #2.

Peter Budaj and Carey Price

Budaj, now 31, was never quite able to fully grasp the Avs starting job during his 6 seasons in Denver. Whilst the Avalanche gave the Slovak stopper every opportunity, erratic form meant he was never truly able to claim the job and the resurgence of Jose Theodore, followed by Craig Anderson’s arrival, saw him back on the bench.

His difficult run as the Avs starter sometimes disguise his strengths though – the very things which now make him such as asset to the Canadiens.

For a Coach to be able to rest his #1, he needs to have the confidence he’ll still get at the very least league average goaltending; regardless of how long someone has been on the bench. As Lehner found, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

Budaj, on the other hand, has always been capable of sitting for long stretches, then playing to a high standard – perhaps the most under valued skill among ‘second string’ NHL goaltenders.

It requires tremendous mental toughness; to be able to sit through the good times, and mores importantly, the bad and keep on working hard – believe me, it is not a fun feeling seeing your team lose and to feel you have contributed nothing. By the same token, winning holds a different value.

High levels of concentration and conditioning are also needed – to ensure you have the ability to be ready to step in at any time; whether that be mid game or in relief of the starter for a full game (or two).

Budaj is also a perfect example of one other strong trait you find in the best backup goaltenders – he is likeable team mate. Again, it sounds odd; but no one wants to sit on a bench with a complete jerk who rocks the boat all the time. Budaj is never hitting the headlines moaning about his lack of ice time. Jamie McLennan was almost as famous for his jovial personality as he was his on ice escapades.

Perhaps most importantly, to his fellow Canadiens at least, Budaj is also a man who’ll stay on the ice after practise to help out with additional drills. He’ll go the extra mile for his team mates.

Again, it all sounds very simple. But over the course of an 82-game, 7 month (or more if you include the play-offs) season, not playing can be as tiring as playing. Or worse, it can be frustrating – that’s when performance levels slip, and ‘comments’ can be made.

Hopefully the experience will help Lehner develop as a goaltender, and help him to develop the mental skills to compliment his natural talent. But the next time your team signs a Budaj or McLennan, don’t frown and ask why they’ve signed a veteran to warm the bench – because there is more to their job than meets the eye.

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About Rob

Software engineer by day, Elite League Media man by night, Rob also blogs about cricket for One Stump Short, hockey for In Goal Magazine and video games for Outpost Delta as well as hosting the One Stump Short Podcast.

Posted on January 21, 2014, in Hockey, Montreal Canadiens, NHL, Ottawa Senators and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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