When the New York Islanders signed Chad Johnson to a free agent contract last summer, it was met with both optimism and reservation.
Optimism, because -- combined with the more significant Jaroslav Halak acquisition and signing -- the Isles had firmly addressed their chronic goaltending issues, and Johnson was coming off a very good statistical season with the Boston Bruins.
Reservation, because outside of Johnson's 2013-14 numbers, his limited sample of data in the NHL and AHL hinted at a likely fall back to something worse, possibly much worse.
Worse than the .925 save percentage in 27 games he put up behind Tuukka Rask is acceptable, especially for an NHL backup -- and better than Anton Khudobin's numbers behind Rask the season before. How much worse, however, was the wild card, one the Isles were committing to for two seasons.
Except, things change.
With Johnson's trade to the Buffalo Sabres (plus a 2016 3rd-round pick) for pending unrestricted free agent Michal Neuvirth, the Isles signaled they'd seen enough and found a way to get out of that commitment. Where they go from here depends on the rest of 2014-15, Neuvirth's aspirations in the league's annual goalie musical chairs, and what kind of budget the Isles want for the position. (Johnson was reportedly signed for two years at $1.3 million per.)
Johnson's numbers started off poorly this season, and though he had played better recently -- or at least produced better numbers, depending on your view of brief moments in goaltender time -- the reservations were still there. He finishes his brief Islanders career with an 8-8 record on a 41-21-2 team, slogging his save percentage back up to just .889 over an admittedly limited 1,053 minutes in goal.
That's the cruel and maddening thing with backup goalies: They usually haven't even gotten enough opportunities to show what their real performance level is, so judgments are swift, harsh, and often not fully informed.
A New Direction, A Probable Upgrade for the Playoff Run
The Isles, and Neuvirth, hope this one was informed though:
"I always knew I could play at this level and I can be consistent," he said today.
The Isles not only got out of a commitment they ended up regretting, they also improved their backup situation as they head toward the playoffs in an intensely competitive Metropolitan Division.
Neuvirth has more experience to review in the NHL as well as guardedly better numbers in his limited AHL stints, but he was stuck behind better-regarded goalies in Washington -- first Semyon Varlamov, then Braden Holtby, and ultimately traded for Halak, who he'll now back up.
If you are into the "quality start" metric developed by Rob Vollman -- essentially, adjusting for workload to note when goalies do well -- then you'll be pleased to know Neuvirth has been in the company of a bunch of NHL starters over the previous three seasons. This season in particular, his 16 quality starts in 27 games for the lowly Sabres puts him in good company.
(Johnson's seven quality starts in 17 starts this season is worse...but again here we are talking about just 17 starts. Poor backups, man. He had an impressive 15 in 23 starts last year.)
That's not to say the Islanders just got a challenger for Halak as starter, though crazier things have happened. It is to say for their backup position the Isles have gone from just "Hope we get by in a pinch" to "We just might be okay if something happened to Halak."
Knock on wood.