Pittsburgh Penguins: Lack of Reliable Backup Goaltending Sets Pens Apart from Contenders


The 2014-15 NHL season has not been kind to Thomas Greiss.

Since joining the Pittsburgh Penguins in the offseason, Greiss has come in and done his best to keep the Pens afloat when starter Marc-Andre Fleury rested up on the pine, but with just a few games remaining in the regular season, it’s clear the experiment has not panned out as Greiss and the Pens’ management had hoped.

Greiss currently sports a 9-6-3 record with a goals-against-average of 2.59 and a save-percentage of .908.

The netminder has been particularly unlucky lately, losing three of his last four starts.

While Greiss’ numbers don’t inspire much confidence, the issue isn’t that Greiss is a terrible goaltender – because he’s not. He may not be excellent, but he remains a decent, solid option for Pittsburgh.

Unfortunately, the Pens need far more than decent for postseason success to be attained.

Such can be seen from a closer look at the top teams in the NHL at the moment. Let’s look at the top two clubs from each conference.

First up is the New York Rangers, ranking first in the Eastern conference and in the league as a whole.

The Rangers boast arguably one of the strongest goalie tandems in the league. Henrik Lundqvist leads between the crease, boasting a 29-12-3 record alongside a .923 save-percentage and a 2.26 goals-against-average. Lundqvist’s reliability is not in question here, as the Pens have a tender to match him in Fleury.

After the heralded Rangers tender went down with injury earlier this season, however, backup Cam Talbot stepped in and picked up right where his partner left off, racking up a 20-9-4 record, as well as a .926 save-percentage (fourth-best in the league) and a 2.21 goals-against-average (fifth-best in the league).

First among all Western conference clubs is the Anaheim Ducks who boast a talented young tandem in Frederik Andersen and Pittsburgh native John Gibson. Andersen remains the club’s starter, holding a record of 34-11-5, a goals-against-average of 2.37, and a save-percentage of .914.

Gibson’s numbers are similarly solid. He’s put together a 13-8-0 record alongside a goals-against-average of 2.60 and a save-percentage of .914.

Following New York in the East is Montreal. The Canadiens, however, are a different story. Backup Dustin Tokarski has put up numbers similar to Greiss’, but the team also boasts Carey Price – whose play has not only made up for the subpar backup netminding, but has launched him into the Hart Trophy conversation as the league’s MVP.

Montreal may have a similar backup situation as the Pens, but they have a much stronger starter to disguise the issue.

Mar 28, 2015; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price (31) looks at the scoreboard during the second period against Florida Panthers at Bell Centre. Mandatory Credit: Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

After Anaheim in the West comes the St. Louis Blues. Like the Ducks, the Blues boast a strong, evenly matched tandem in Brian Elliott and the young Jake Allen.

Both have had solid seasons. Elliott holds a record of 25-14-3 while posting a save-percentage of .916 and a goals-against-average of 2.27. Allen has a 21-6-4 record alongside a save-percentage of .910 and a goals-against-average of 2.36.

Such is the case with the league’s best clubs this season.

Of the top four NHL clubs, three boast elite tandems that give them all-around reliable goaltending, while the one that doesn’t have this backup reliability also doesn’t necessarily need it, as they house the tender who leads the league in every major statistical goaltending category.

Where does that leave the Penguins?

It’s been no secret around Pittsburgh over the last few seasons that the team is in dire need of a better backup netminder. The issue has been forced by Fleury’s propensity to falter come playoff time, and stopgaps such as Tomas Vokoun and Jeff Zatkoff were employed in the mean time.

But with the roster given a complete overhaul this summer, the best solution General Manager Jim Rutherford was able to put together was Greiss.

The deal was admittedly a favourable one as the Pens rolled the dice on Greiss for only $1 million over one season.

However, now with the team’s playoff hopes in question and wins needed any way they may come, Pittsburgh once again finds themselves with only one fully reliable option in net.

While the backup tender may not appear to be a crucial position, seasons like this one prove otherwise. Had the Pens received quality netminding outside of Fleury’s play and earned even a couple more wins, they would not currently be fighting to keep their playoff spot.

For now, the issue is not a grave one. If Pittsburgh is able to remain a playoff team this season, Fleury will lead them into the postseason grind, and will hopefully see his resurgent season continue into playoff time.

However, if Fleury does in fact stumble, or if the injury bug that has wreaked havoc on Pittsburgh’s roster reaches him too, then the team will have little to fall back on.

While Rutherford made some fine moves this summer and during the season to beef up the Pens’ forward corps and blue line, it’s become painfully clear that not enough attention was given to the goaltending situation.

Greiss has been a decent option for Pittsburgh, and will remain decent, but if the Pens hope to reach the level of the NHL’s top clubs, they’ll have to focus on revamping their goaltending personnel to build an elite tandem of their own.

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