Several teams have backup goalie out-performing their established starters, but does that mean those teams have “goaltending controversies”?

The opening weeks of any NHL season is always going to generate some surprises, and this one is no different.

Among the early surprises this season – which (as of November 12th )saw the Toronto Maple Leafs jockeying with the Pittsburgh Penguins for first overall in the Eastern Conference, the Dallas Stars and Edmonton Oilers perched second and third overall in the Western Conference, Toronto’s Phil Kessel leading the league in goals and points, the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins sitting 11th overall in the Eastern standings, the Anaheim Ducks 13th in the West, and Sheldon Souray tied for the plus-minus lead – were several teams whose backup goalies were out-performing their established starters.

The Vancouver Canucks – Cup Finalists last season – are struggling early, and one of the reasons is starting goalie Roberto Luongo (6-5-1, 3.14 GAA, .890 SP, 0 SO) is off to his usual slow start.

Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be much of a big deal, except a large number of Canucks fans still blamed Luongo for their team’s inability to win the Cup last spring, and openly pined for Luongo to be dealt, or at least for backup Cory Schneider (2-3-0, 2.38 GAA, .920 SP, 0 SO) to receive more playing time.

Enroth creating a "goalie controversy" in Buffalo?

Ryan Miller has been the de facto starter for several years for the Buffalo Sabres, but Miller (5-5-0, 2.74 GAA, .910 SP, 1 SO) had been out-played by backup Jhonas Enroth – (5-0-0, 1.34 GAA, .960 SP, 0 SO).

Enroth’s performance was so strong, in fact, it had some Sabres fans musing about what management might do if he took over the starter’s role this season from Miller, suggesting the latter could make quality trade bait at some point in the season.

Like Miller, Niklas Backstrom of the Minnesota Wild had been the established starter for his club, but this season, Backstrom ((4-4-2, 2.15 GAA, .920 SP, 1 SO) found himself pressured by the strong performance of backup Josh Harding (4-0-1, 1.18 GAA, .960 SP, 1 SO), who appears to have finally put years of injury woes behind him.

In St. Louis, Jaroslav Halak struggled last season with the Blues. It was his first full season as an NHL starter, and he was expected to have a better effort in 2011-12.

Instead, Halak (2-6-1, 2.78, .880 SP, 1 SO) was outplayed by backup (and former Ottawa Senators starter) Brian Elliott (5-1-0, 1.72 GAA, .940, 1 SO). The disparity between their won-loss records hadn’t gone unnoticed, as it’s been suggested the Blues feel more comfortable playing in front of Elliott than Halak.

Finally, in New Jersey, long-time Devils starter Martin Brodeur is coming to the end of his stellar career, but entering this season was still considered their top goaltender over backup Johan Hedberg.

Brodeur, hampered in part by a shoulder injury, had a slow start (2-3-0, 3.02 GAA, .880 SP, 0 SO), while Hedberg’s posted up solid numbers (5-3-1, 2.34 GAA, .920 SP, 1 SO).

But does this mean those teams have full-fledged “goaltender controversies”? Does it mean most or all those clubs could consider moving one of their goalies in the near future?

Not so fast.

For one thing, three of these goalies – Luongo, Miller and Backstrom – are carrying expensive contracts, which would prove very difficult to shed, especially during the season. Luongo also has a full “no-movement” clause, while Miller has a limited one whereby he lists eight teams he won’t accept getting dealt to.

For another, the Devils won’t trade Brodeur, even if he were to end up taking a back seat to Hedberg for most of this season, nor would he demand to be dealt if he were to see less playing time. In all likelihood, Brodeur will be shifting seamlessly into a front office position with the Devils, likely among GM Lou Lamoriello’s brain trust, once his playing career ends.

Most importantly, it’s far too early in this season to reach the point where any of these teams would give serious consideration to turning those backups into full time starter roles.

Sure, it’s possible one of those clubs could shock the hockey world by promoting their backup over their established starter full time, perhaps leading to an eventual trade of the veteran.

If that were to happen, however, it wouldn’t occur until nearer the trade deadline, so the team can be certain the former backup won’t falter down the stretch, as well as maximizing the potential return for their former starter if they hit the trade block.

That, however, is not a certainty. Two seasons ago, Tuukka Rask out-performed veteran Tim Thomas, to the point where Rask got the bulk of the starts, while Thomas, nursing a hip ailment which would require off-season surgery, was relegated to the backup role, generating speculation he would be traded in the off-season.

The Bruins however retained Thomas, who bounced back in 2010-11 to not only win back his starter’s job, but also secured his second Vezina trophy in three years, plus the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP carrying the Bruins to their first Stanley Cup championship in 39 years.

No disrespect to Rask, but had the Bruins traded Thomas, their Cup drought would be approaching its 40th anniversary.

You’d better believe the general managers of the aforementioned teams know that only too well, and would be leery of pulling the trigger on their established starter.

More often than not, “goaltending controversies” tend to resolve themselves as the season progresses, with the starter regaining the form which won him the role in the first place, while the backup ultimately finds themselves riding the pine.

It would be best to revisit these scenarios around January to determine if the “controversies” still exist, and if it could force the respective teams into considering trade options.