Commentary

Remember Cam Ward? Now's the time to get to know your backups

Updated: March 13, 2008, 12:48 PM ET
By Damien Cox | Special to ESPN.com

In the past two years, Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Cam Ward have been elevated to the ranks of NHL goaltenders who are credited with backstopping their clubs to Stanley Cup championships.

That club is long and littered with the greatest names in the history of the game, so, needless to say, the professional lives of Giguere and Ward changed through the designation they received for their championship-quality play.

[+] EnlargeSteve Valiquette
Scott Levy/NHLI/Getty ImagesBacking up Henrik Lundqvist, Steve Valiquette has played just 12 games this season for the Rangers.

Being a Stanley Cup winner doesn't come with guarantees of future success, or even that the team that won it all won't find a masked man it likes better in a season or two. Or less.

But it's a label that sticks to a goalie and never, ever peels off.

What's interesting, of course, is neither Giguere nor Ward was in goal for his team at the beginning of its playoff run.

The Anaheim Ducks had to turn to Giguere's backup, Ilya Bryzgalov, at the start of the 2007 playoffs. Ward, meanwhile, was Carolina's backup at the beginning of the '06 tournament.

Giguere, you may recall, faced a personal challenge last spring when his son, Maxime Olivier, was born April 4 with a deformed right eye and related complications. When the playoffs began, Ducks coach Randy Carlyle opted to keep Giguere on the bench, starting Bryzgalov for the first four games against the Minnesota Wild.

In Game 4, the Wild's only win of the series, Giguere relieved Bryzgalov in the final period, and then assumed his starter's role again the rest of the way as the Ducks brought the Cup to California for the first time.

Ward's story, meanwhile, was more of a pure hockey tale. He played only once in the final two weeks of the 2005-06 season, posting relatively unimpressive numbers in 28 appearances while Martin Gerber stood out as the Hurricanes' No. 1 puck stopper.

When the playoffs began, however, the Canes lost Games 1 and 2 to the Montreal Canadiens, and coach Peter Laviolette, in desperation, turned to Ward for Game 3. He won that start, and in mid-June, was in goal when the Hurricanes outlasted the Edmonton Oilers in seven games to win the Cup.

Edmonton, meanwhile, provided its own cautionary tale on the unexpected use of backup goalies. In the finals against Carolina, the Oilers were forced to use three goalies -- Dwayne Roloson, Jussi Markkanen and Ty Conklin -- after Roloson was injured in the series opener.

If there's a moral to these stories, it may be only that while playoff-bound clubs may believe they have an undisputed No. 1 goalie heading down the stretch, that doesn't necessarily mean they'll have -- or want -- that netminder at their disposal during the joust for the Cup.

Right now, 15 of 18 teams that either own a playoff berth, or still have a serious shot at one, appear to have a designated starter, and seven of those teams have a starter who will play 65 or more games, leaving his understudy rusty and underused.

Of the other three teams, Detroit is sharing the job between Dominik Hasek and Chris Osgood, Ottawa is still sorting things out between Gerber and Ray Emery, and Pittsburgh might be hoping Marc-Andre Fleury will now take the ball and run with it but may still need to turn to midseason hero Conklin.

Otherwise, 15 playoff hopefuls have backups whom you may or may not know well, ranging from hardened veterans to retreads to fuzzy-cheeked kids.

Now's the time to get to know 'em. To quote John Milton, "They also serve who only stand and wait," and the wait could end quickly for any of them if circumstances arrive when the postseason begins in April.

So who are today's backups who could become tomorrow's go-to goalies?

They once were stars

Curtis Joseph, 40, Calgary Flames, five games played: Joseph was a late-season addition when the Flames realized it might be unwise to have Miikka Kiprusoff top the 5,000 minutes-played figure on the season. Joseph was once The Man for St. Louis, Edmonton, Toronto, Detroit and Phoenix and has 448 regular-season wins and 62 playoff triumphs on his résumé. He caught the eye of Calgary while playing for Team Canada at this year's Spengler Cup.

Jocelyn Thibault, 33, Buffalo Sabres, 10 games played: He was once the designated savior of the Quebec Nordiques, then later the successor to Patrick Roy in Montreal. Thibault also started 50 or more games five seasons in a row for Chicago, but is currently on pace to play the fewest minutes in a season in his NHL career. Ryan Miller is getting all the touches in Buffalo and is likely to top the 70 games played mark.

Kevin Weekes, 32, New Jersey Devils, six games played: At one time, coming out of Owen Sound in the Ontario Hockey League, Weekes was hailed as the most athletic goaltending prospect in the game. Drafted by Florida, he was awarded opportunities to be a No. 1 goalie with the Panthers, Canucks, Islanders, Lightning, Hurricanes and Rangers, and played more than 60 games in a season with Tampa Bay and Carolina. But as Scott Clemmensen and others can tell you, he who backs up Martin Brodeur in Jersey rarely gets to play, and Weekes has learned that lesson himself this season.

The ex-starters

Peter Budaj, 25, Colorado Avalanche, 33 games played: Budaj appeared to have established himself as the Avs' top puck-stopper over Jose Theodore during the past two seasons. But over the past month, Theodore has jumped back into the starting role, winning eight of 10 and making Colorado feel better about paying him $6 million this season. It's close to being a goaltending tandem, but Budaj is expected to mostly watch down the stretch as the Avs try to hang on to a playoff spot.

Brian Boucher, 31, San Jose Sharks, one game played: Not even listed these days on the NHL Players' Association Web site, Boucher was signed by the Sharks just before the trade deadline and then became the first goalie in franchise history to record a shutout in his first appearance with the team. After bouncing around with C teams in recent years (Calgary, Chicago, Columbus), he had shoulder surgery last summer and then played most of this season with the AHL's Philadelphia Phantoms. Faced with entering the postseason with only untested Dmitri Patzold or Thomas Greiss as a backup to Evgeni Nabokov, the Sharks instead chose to sign Boucher, a first-round pick of Philadelphia's back in 1995.

Antero Niittymaki, 27, Philadelphia Flyers, 25 games played: It was just last season when Niittymaki appeared to have outlasted Robert Esche for the top goaltending job with the Flyers, albeit at that time the NHL's worst team. At the 2007 trade deadline, however, Philly acquired Martin Biron from Buffalo and gave him top billing. Biron has only a shaky hold on the top job, however, which could mean Niittymaki gets another serious chance to play in the postseason.

Alex Auld, 27, Boston Bruins, 30 games played: Auld wasn't even dressing with the AHL's San Antonio Rampage earlier this season when the Bruins plucked him off the waiver wire. Back in the 2005-06 season, he appeared to have established himself as the starter in Vancouver, but was then included in the Todd Bertuzzi trade to Florida. This season, the B's have also used Tim Thomas, Tuukka Rask and prize offseason acquisition Manny Fernandez, but right now, Auld looks to be a solid No. 2 heading toward the postseason.

John Grahame, 32, Carolina Hurricanes, 16 games played: When Nikolai Khabibulin left Tampa Bay after helping the Bolts win the 2004 Stanley Cup, Grahame was tabbed as his successor and played 57 games in the first season after the lockout. The son of a former NHL goalie, Grahame was also part of the 2006 U.S. Olympic team and played one game in Torino. But the Lightning were unconvinced he could be a bona fide starter and traded for Marc Denis, and Grahame has been Ward's backup the past two seasons in Carolina.

The kids

Jaroslav Halak, 22, Montreal Canadiens, three games played: When Montreal GM Bob Gainey surprised the hockey world by trading starter Cristobal Huet to Washington at the trade deadline, Carey Price became the Habs' new No. 1 goalie and Halak was promoted from the minors to be his backup. Montreal is high on his ability, and he actually played 16 NHL games in 2006-07 before being asked to carry the load in Hamilton this season.

Josh Harding, 23, Minnesota Wild, 26 games played: The left-hander from Regina is seen as Minny's goalie of the future, although Nicklas Backstrom isn't permitting any suggestions that future will be anytime soon. Harding was given a vote of confidence last summer when Fernandez was allowed to escape to Beantown in search of a starter's position. He has 10 AHL playoff appearances, but not a minute of Stanley Cup playoff experience.

The late arrivals

Johan Holmqvist, 29, Dallas Stars, 45 games played: Holmqvist went from being the default No. 1 man in Tampa at the trade deadline to Marty Turco's new backup in Dallas. Once briefly a Ranger, Holmqvist disappeared from the NHL from 2003 until 2006 before resurfacing with the Lightning last season. He's big and rangy, and gives Dallas better than decent crease insurance.

Dan Ellis, 27, Nashville Predators, 34 games played: Ellis, interestingly, once appeared as though he would get to be Turco's understudy, but Mike Smith won that job (before being dealt for Holmqvist) and Ellis ended up in Music City. Chris Mason was slated to be Tomas Vokoun's successor as the starter, but Ellis (who didn't turn pro until he was 23) has played more than many expected, winning 18 games with a sparkling .919 save percentage.

Jonas Hiller, 26, Anaheim Ducks, 17 games played: The Ducks felt confident enough in Hiller to let Bryzgalov go on waivers to Phoenix earlier this season. Hiller played five full seasons in the Swiss elite league before joining the Ducks and has played well, posting a .916 save percentage. Undrafted, he has no NHL playoff experience.

Curtis Sanford, 28, Vancouver Canucks, 12 games played: Sanford kicked around in the St. Louis system for eight years, getting 65 starts the past two seasons before taking over for Dany Sabourin as the No. 2 stopper in Vancouver in 2007-08. Like Weekes behind Brodeur, Sanford has found that being Roberto Luongo's backup means he isn't going to play very often. That probably holds true for the playoffs unless Luongo has another, ahem, equipment malfunction in overtime this season.

Steve Valiquette, 30, New York Rangers, 12 games played: The 6-foot-6 Valiquette, an L.A. draftee way back in 1996, has played for 13 pro teams, including a year with Yaroslavl in the Russian elite league in 2005-06. He has played as many games this season with the Rangers as he had in all of his previous seasons as a pro, giving Henrik Lundqvist the occasional breather.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular hockey contributor to ESPN.com. In this role, he writes numerous columns on the NHL.