AHL Free Agency: Who is the Right Backup for Jack Campbell?

(Credit: Christina Shapiro/Texas Stars)
Yesterday's news on the signing of Antti Niemi to a three-year deal unquestionably solidified the goalie position in Dallas. There will be no battle for the backup position as there has been in prior seasons (Raycroft v. Bachman; Rynnas v. Lindback). Niemi and Lehtonen will form a 1-2 punch in Dallas that Nill and Co. hope will put them back into the postseason.

The other bit of information that dribbled out on the signing conference call was the fact that Jack Campbell is expected to play 60 games this coming season for the Texas Stars.* That bring the question of who is the right player to push along and backup a young goalie with a heavy workload like that.

Luckily, Texas has some instructive blueprints that they can look at around the league. Very few goalies jump from juniors right into the NHL and many of the most successful goalies in the league today had a season exactly like the one Jack Campbell is facing this year in the AHL. Prove you can be the guy, and we'll give you a shot.

Analyzing other successful NHL goalies' AHL backups
So who were the guys behind those guys? What are we looking at for a prototypical 15-20 game backup?

First sample case is Corey Crawford. Despite what you might think about his comparison to Chris Osgood or his impact on the Blackhawks ability to win on a nightly basis, he has two Cups and you don't so that settles that.

Crawford had a few seasons where he played 50+ games in the AHL, four of them. Campbell may need another season or two after this one to really hit his stride before rolling up to the NHL, based on those numbers.

In his first season, Crawford played 60. Mike Brodeur and Sebastien Caron took most of the load behind him with 19 games total. He had alright numbers that season but got better in Rockford, which is where we'll concentrate.

In his first year there, he played 55 games with Wade Flaherty getting into 31 of his own. Flaherty, who is now the Jets' goalie coach, was a long-time league veteran. He won the Butterfield Trophy in 2004 with the Admirals and had several backup stints in the NHL, most notably with San Jose and the Islanders. We'll call this prototype 1: veteran with accolades and NHL experience.

The next year Flaherty retired and the Hawks brought in some scrub named Antti Niemi from Finland. Niemi vaulted Crawford on the depth chart and won a cup with the Hawks in 2009. This is a risky one, but we'll call it prototype 2: European goalie with possible NHL dreams.

The final year Crawford had a goalie named Joe Fallon as his backup. Stars fans know Fallon from his time in San Antonio. He was, at the time of his Rockford stint, a rookie. This is prototype 3: low-experience goalie just along for the ride.

Next, let's look at the most recent AHL season of Jake Allen. Allen shut down skaters all over the Western Conference en route to the 2014 Baz Bastien award (AHL top goalie). He had a familiar face as his backup, Matt Climie. This is prototype 4: AHL veteran journeyman.

 I also looked at Corey Schneider for comparison but his backups fit into one of these categories: Curtis Sanford (#1), Daren Machesney and Karl Goehring (#4).

What prototype is right for Jack Campbell?

First of all, let's list these out.
  1. Veteran with accolades and NHL experience
  2. European goalie with possible NHL dreams
  3. Low-experience goalie just along for the ride
  4. AHL veteran journeyman
Texas already tried #2 (Nilstorp and arguably Rynnas) without much success. Given that Campbell is still relatively young comparatively, I don't think you want #3 either. In each of those cases, the goalie in question is one year away from the NHL and had already played a 'full load' season of 50+ games. It's not clear Campbell is there yet.

So that leaves a veteran goalie with accolades and NHL experience or an AHL journeyman veteran. Either way, you need someone with experience who is probably on the downside of their career.

Possible goalies

With help from yesterday's AHL Top 100 Free Agent list, here are the top available goalies according to our combined efforts: Richard Bachman, Mike McKenna, Michael Leighton, Tom McCollum, Jeremy Smith, Yann Danis, Scott Clemmensen, Dan Ellis, Rob Zepp, John Muse, David Leggio, Scott Munroe.

I don't think the Stars would sign Richard Bachman or Dan Ellis based on past experiences.

The top candidates for a prototype 4 goalie are Mike McKenna and John Muse. Texas fans aren't familiar with McKenna as much anymore unless they follow him on Twitter. He moved out East after sometime with Peoria in the early going. He's a solid goalie in the #1 spot, so you wonder if he wouldn't prefer somewhere he can get that workload and the shot at the NHL.

John Muse is familiar for Texas fans from his time in Charlotte. Just under 30 games this year behind Drew MacIntyre. He could get a similar workload in Texas behind Campbell. Charlotte, if you'll remember, was not great this year. He was 10-12-2 with a .916 SV% despite that.

Prototype 1 is Michael Leighton. He went to the Stanley Cup Final and lost with the Flyers, so he has a lot of NHL experience. He took a lot of the load in Rockford this year as Scott Darling and Antti Raanta bounced back and forth to the NHL. He shut down Texas in the playoffs and had a .920 SV% in the regular season. Not bad. (Leighton was re-signed by Chicago two hours after this story was posted)

Scott Clemmensen is a good former NHL backup and now potential AHL veteran backup. He might be looking for a more expanded role or the shot at an NHL backup job somewhere. However, you can't argue with his .918 SV% with Albany. Just signed on to be the Devils goaltending development coach.

Another prototype 1 goalie that isn't on the top 100 list is Jason LaBarbera. he went 9-16-7 on a bad Norfolk Admirals team this year. He probably would be OK with the limited role that an assignment to Texas would provide. One note is that he is over 35, meaning he would have a 35+ NHL contract, if he was on an NHL deal.

Of course, you never know where a player might come from in free agency, but these are some top options to consider.

* - If Campbell was on one of the California teams, you'd have a backup playing eight games in a season under that scenario. Woof...


  1. i think your headline is misleading. it should read "Who is the right goalie for Jack Campbell to back up?"


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