Sharks back-up goaltender Aaron Dell did not start his fourth game of the season last year until the middle of December.
He accomplished the same feat a month earlier this season, and in 13 fewer games, picking up his second career shutout in Saturday night’s 5-0 win over the Canucks. His 41 saves were a career-high, and the Sharks needed every single one of them. Vancouver outshot San Jose 31-17 over the game’s final 40 minutes, including 28-9 during five-on-five play, according to Natural Stat Trick.
Dell was up to the challenge, as he has been since debuting last year. His save percentage (.931) is the highest among goalies that have started at least 20 games since the beginning of 2016-17.
Most teams would take that from their starter, let alone their backup. Dell’s been consistently reliable, and reliability’s been in short supply among Sharks backups over the last decade.
In every full season from 2007-08, San Jose’s starting goaltender has started at least 60 games. Over the previous two regular seasons alone, no other goalie in the league has started more games than Martin Jones (130).
Currently, Dell is on pace to start approximately 22 games, which would be the most by a Sharks backup since Antero Niitymaki in 2010-11. Niitymaki began that season as the starter, and the last backup to hit that milestone before him was Brian Boucher in 2008-09. He largely saw extended time because of an injury to then-starter Evgeni Nabokov.
The Sharks have been able to rely on backups down the stretch, as they did with Aaron Dell last season and trade deadline acquisition the year prior. The extra rest kept Jones fresh before each of the last two postseasons, where he was able to improve upon his regular season save percentage by over 10 percentage points in both instances.
It’s hard to imagine Jones being even better in the postseason, but trusting Dell from the start of the season allows head coach Peter DeBoer to give his starter more rest than he would have otherwise. That could go a long way for one of the league’s most-worked goalies, especially considering Jones never started more than 56 regular season games in the minor leagues or juniors before coming to San Jose.
Most practically, DeBoer no longer has to start Jones on both nights of a back-to-backs. This ensures Jones starts the more difficult game, as he will Sunday night against the Pacific Division-leading Los Angeles Kings.
Aaron Dell’s played well enough during his short time in the NHL to ensure there’s little-to-no drop-off between him and Jones. As the Sharks saw on Saturday, both goalies are capable of carrying the team on a given night.
That hasn’t been true for much of last decade. Whether or not that makes a difference in the long run remains to be seen, but it’s a nice luxury to have in the meantime.