Leave No Throne Unthreatened
When a throne is left unthreatened, and a backup is not allowed to challenge, don’t be surprised if the emperor eventually turns to stone.
Now more than ever before, I feel like “healthy competition” between two goalies is crucial for the long-term success of an NHL team. Every team needs two capable, reliable goalies to not only shoulder the increasingly difficult load of an 82-game season, but to push each other to play at their best on a nightly basis. The days of one goalie playing 70 games and still having the energy needed to succeed in the playoffs are numbered. There’s simply too much competition and pressure to win enough games to lift the Stanley Cup.
The 2010 Stanley Cup Finals featured two goalies that were clearly not the most talented or experienced netminders last year. They were, however, two of the more rested goalies during the regular season. Antti Niemi finished the season with a 26-7-4 record, a .912 save percentage and a 2.25 goals-against average. Michael Leighton played just seven games for Carolina before he was waived and claimed by Philadelphia. He would then play another 27 games for the Flyers and go 16-5-2 with a .918 save percentage and 2.48 goals-against average.
Aside from a similar workload and peripheral statistics, what else did Leighton and Niemi have in common as they clashed in the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals? They both essentially rode the pine for the first half of the season, then came on strong in the final two months. They had so much gas left in the tank when the playoffs arrived that their ability to stay focused, alert and aggressive acted as a significant edge when compared to the other playoff goalies that had a much heavier workload.
Photo Courtesy of Hockey Broad Photography
Just to give you a quick example, look at their workload during the regular season compared to the workhorses Martin Brodeur, Jonathan Quick, Craig Anderson, Roberto Luongo, Ilya Bryzgalov and Jimmy Howard. Brodeur played 77 games and lost in the first round to the Flyers. Quick played in 72 games and lost in the first round to Vancouver. Anderson played in 71 games and lost in the first round to San Jose. Bryzgalov played in 69 games and lost in the first round to Detroit. Luongo played in 68 games and lost in the second round to Chicago. Howard played in 63 games and lost in the second round to San Jose.
My point, therefore, is very simple. Utilizing a solid two-goalie system increases and improves the odds of individual and team success. It might not happen all the time, but generally speaking, less is more. Less games for a starting goalie equals more energy and focus late in the season. And that’s something every team wants heading into the playoffs. But like all other aspects of goaltending, there are always exceptions.
In 2009, Marc-Andre Fleury played 62 regular-season games and another 25 in the playoffs before winning Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. The year before that, Fleury played in just 35 reguar-season games due to injuries, plus another 20 in the playoffs, but ultimately lost to Detroit in Game 7. Last season, Fleury tied a career-high with 67 games played in the regular season, but lost in the second round of the playoffs to Montreal. In the 2006-07 season, Fleury lost in the first round of the playoffs, despite finishing with 40 wins in 67 games.
And just as you will find in all paradigms of goaltending, the importance of being rested for the playoffs (by employing a solid tandem) simply depends on the individual goalies, the team and the situation. There are many different examples in the past where a goalie played 60-plus games and won a Stanley Cup, and many examples where goalies have played 60-plus games and simply burned out in the playoffs. There are too many different elements and situations to consider, including mental toughness, experience, durability, matchups, strength of schedue, team play, defensive-zone coverage…the list is endless.
Photo Courtesy of Tom Turk – The Hockey Writers
So as you continue to read this piece, realize that carrying a heavy workload, and in turn being primed for a big playoff run, literally comes down to those many external and internal forces that make up a goalie’s season. It’s not all just about being rested, obviously.
With that being said, the purpose of this post is to present you with reasons why I feel teams should employ an effective tandem in a “healthy competition” manner during the regular season. But first, allow me to describe a goaltending metaphor to tie everything together.
Think of a goaltender as a battery-powered flashlight. When you first break open the package and turn it on, it operates at maximum level and the light emitted is very bright. But as the season goes along, the goalie’s battery slowly drains and the light it sheds is not as bright. It still works, just not as effectively as when you first started using it.
Toss in a backup flashlight for the arduous journey of an NHL season and you have a much better chance of making the main flashlight last through the dead of the night. But that only happens if you know when to use the backup, and for how long. That means the key for a head coach is to only use the main flashlight when it’s absolutely necessary, so as to have plenty of life left when it’s really needed - for the playoffs.
Furthermore, the team’s general manager must make sure to adequately prepare his tribe with two (possibly even three) reliable, working flashlights for the hunt. For if something were to happen to the first one, you have to be able to trust the backup. With all of this being said, below are five reasons why I feel tandems are more effective than a single workhorse.
—[ THE POWER OF THE TANDEM ]—
1. Healthy competition creates a rewards system.
When one goalie realizes he can lose many games in a row and still earn starts, he is prone to becoming complacent. He feels no pressure from his counterpart to elevate his game, and therefore might not work as hard to retain his role as the undisputed starter. In that regard, there should never be a situation where a team feels like they have an “undisputed” starter. Every start should be a reward or a token of gratitude from the head coach. Every start should be earned, and that’s where a healthy competition can really benefit a hockey team.
2. Healthy competition can improve work ethics.
When both goalies fight for those tokens, they push each other in both a direct and indirect manner. They know the coach has a decision to make, and that decision will often boil down to two things – previous performances and how hard they work in practice. That means each and every skate takes on a new level of importance. They’re not just regular practices anymore. They are internal battles between two allies to see who gets the chance to lead their team to another victory.
I have personally experienced both sides of this situation. When I was not guaranteed to start, I paid more attention to the little details that makes me a competitive goaltender. I didn’t pull up on those evil ladder skating drills. I executed full cross-overs when skating circles. I battled for loose pucks with more vigor and I made it a point to verbally communicate more during scrimmages. All of those little things that helps a goalie stand out during tryouts, I really stressed in practices when I was in a healthy competition.
And when I was the undisputed starter, I definitely didn’t do theose little things on a consistent basis. It didn’t affect my ability to play well in games, but had I been pushed by a more talented counterpart, I probably would have played with an even higher sense of urgency. A starting goalie should constantly feel a little adversity and pressure from their backup. No throne should be left unthreatened.
3. Healthy competition can increase attentiveness.
When both goalies know that they are fighting for every inch of space in the crease, there’s no room for mistakes. They’re not only working harder to win games, but they’re extremly focused on playing as much as possible. Very few times will they be caught unaware or unprepared for each and every shot they face and game they play.
4. Healthy competition develops and exposes prospects.
Even if the backup goalie has no NHL experience and is signed for the league minimum, giving him starts in the first half of the season will do one of two beneficial things. Either that prospect will prove he has what it takes to be a legit NHL goalie, or he will get the exposure needed to raise his trade value. But by not playing the backup enough, teams may never learn or see what kind of talent is hidden under their surface.
Although there are many examples of this, two instantly pop into my mind. Josh Harding in Minnesota is one. He sat on the bench on most nights behind Niklas Backstrom and rarely got an opportunity to carry a steady workload. Of course part of this was due to numerous injuries, but even when he was healthy and playing well, he received very few games. Because of this, other teams never had an ample opportunity to scout him or consider him a goalie worth acquiring. His value, especially as trade bait, has simply withered away.
The other example is Tyler Weiman. He was a member of the Colorado Avalanche organization for many years and never once played a full game. He made one relief effort against Nashville a few years ago, stopped all 13 shots he faced, and was promptly returned to Lake Erie. Colorado’s failure to give him the start in the next game, which would have been no risk to the team, turned out to be a major mistake.
Weiman went on to play a few more years in the AHL, even though he was clearly capable of graduating to a backup role in Colorado and possibly develop into their starting goalie. But their inability to give him even a single start led him to hit the free-agent market and then get gobbled up by their division rivals, the Vancouver Canucks.
Teams spend so much money to build a solid goalie depth chart, so it completely blows my mind when legitimate, hard-working, valuable prospects are not even given at least one opportunity over the course of an entire season. Waiver rules and salary situations might cause some teams to stand pat, but more often than not, prospects are not being given the opportunity they deserve to prove their worth.
5. Healthy competition creates opportunity.
A good goalie will never be a great goalie unless he experiences the ups and downs of winning and losing. If a capable prospect earns a spot on a team and is promptly benched for most of the season, they will never get the chance to prove what they’re made of. This is why so much quality talent is wasted in pro hockey. Goalies are forced to wait for opportunities that often never come.
The more that NHL coaches over-work a goalie by playing him in close to 70 games, the more we’ll see goalies like Harding and Weiman. It’s not to say that a workhorse shouldn’t be rewarded with numerous starts if they play extremely well, but on situations like back-to-back games or tough losses, there’s usually plenty of opportunities for a backup to play at least 20 games.
—[ LEAVE NO THRONE UNTHREATENED ]—
In conclusion, I firmly believe that starting a goalie - regardless of their talent level and role on the team - more than 65 games in a season is a mistake. Even if the starting goalie is the most amazing talent in the world, if they don’t face any adversity during the course of the season, they might be more likely to struggle when that adversity finally comes. No man wins a tough battle without a few scars. The more nights off they get in the first half of the season, the more likely they are to handle a heavy workload late in the season, when winning really matters.
When I relate this ideal to the current NHL landscape, I’m shocked at some of the flawed logic I see. The Toronto Maple Leafs worked James Reimer into the ground and never so much as gave another goalie a start in the last month. The Buffalo Sabres have passed up Patrick Lalime on more than a few occassions, and he hasn’t won a game all year long, rendering him completely useless. Miikka Kiprusoff has once again logged a hefty season and might not have enough fuel in the tank to put the Flames in the playoffs. Chicago might regret giving rookie Corey Crawford so many games, as Marty Turco’s role has withered away as well.
On the other hand, I’m really excited to see what the Washington Capitals get out of their goalies in the playoffs. I’m also excited to see how bright Roberto Luongo shines in the playoffs. Without the pressure from the captaincy and the incredible influence Cory Schneider has had on the Canucks, I expect really good things from Luongo over the next month. The same can be said for Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier in Los Angeles, as that has quietly been one of the best tandems in the second half of the season.
No throne should ever be left unthreatened. Utilizing two goalies in an effective manner does so many positive things that you can’t accomplish with just one goalie. But as it is with all things goaltending, anything is possible and every situation is totally unique. I just have to wonder how much longer until the dynamics of the two-goalie system changes, and the era of 70-plus starts a season becomes a thing of the past.