Goalie health, workload to be scrutinized in shorter NHL season

There's an expectation that backup goalies will be crucial with coaches worried about injuries in a compresssed NHL schedule, but once the puck drops the intense pressure could mean that the hot hand prevails.
Carey Price stretched during this Montreal practice session, but it didn't stop a nagging injury from occurring two days before the puck dropped on the season. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff is at least talking a good game with respect to his goaltending tandem ahead of the shortened NHL season.

"Both guys are going to have to win us games," he told reporters this week.

Ruff has enjoyed the luxury of calling on top goalie Ryan Miller for several seasons. But he's been burned by poor play from backups in his long tenure, and on other occasions, missed opportunities to give the second netminder confidence while spelling his main charge.

Patrick Lalime and Jocelyn Thibault accounted for just 12 wins in 45 starts over a total of four seasons in Buffalo.

Things have been better in the last two seasons with the emergence of young Jhonas Enroth (17 wins), but even in 2011-12, it was a "tastes great, less backup" Miller Time diet in the second half  as the Sabres desperately, futilely pushed for a playoff spot.

There is an expectation that backup goalies will be crucial in a compresssed schedule where there figures to be a logjam in the standings. Getting 15 points instead of 10, the thinking goes, could make the difference with respect to a playoff berth.

Looks good on paper, but coaches' jobs are on the line, too.

"I think you'll see a lot of teams go with the hot hand, but find moments when they can rest the hot hand," Sharks coach Todd McLellan told local reporters this week. "I think you'll also see team, if that hot hand doesn't exist quickly, try and find it elsewhere if you can."

Habs' Price dealing with injury

For what it's worth, in the shortened season nearly 20 years ago, 16 goaltenders appeared in at least three-quarters of their team's games. In last year's full season, 11 netminders reached that percentage.

Any other comparisons with the 1994-95 season are foolhardy. There was no shootout testing the flexibility of a goalie on his second start in as many nights, no three-point games and far fewer players went overseas during the lockout.

Fans figure to be holding their breath this season when their team's top man contorts for a big save. Already the Canadiens' faithful are in that boat after Carey Price tweaked his groin on the eve of the season in, natch, a team shootout session.

Backup value

The following table looks at the bottom 10 teams in terms of percentage of games won in 2011-12 by backups, which is very loosely defined as all goalies other than the one who drew the majority of starts.

In some instances, the number admittedly isn't a bad thing. Los Angeles, for example, received stellar play from Jonathan Quick and didn't need to call on the capable Jonathan Bernier as much as probably would have been predicted heading into the season.

But teams like Calgary, Carolina and Pittsburgh clearly had issues with backup performance. As of this writing, at least two have decided as a result to go with a different second man on the depth chart.


Boston Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli, as training camp began, trumpeted the fact that both of his guys (Tuukka Rask, Anton Khudobin) played during the lockout. San Jose is also one of the small umber of teams that can claim the same.

It will bear watching whether those select few yield better results, and health, in net.

Senators have options

Nearly all of the established North American-born NHL starters have stayed in shape without game action, as spots overseas are scarce and usually went to Europeans.

On that note, Ottawa Senators coach Paul MacLean told reporters he wasn't concerned that Craig Anderson fell into that category. All the same, MacLean might have the best idea by starting the season with three healthy bodies in the NHL. Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop are with Ottawa, having each manned the crease this season in several AHL games.

Coaches will have to decide how distribute starts. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock had the luxury of two sharp puckstoppers last season, and with six games in nine nights to open the season, both Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott will be featured.

Calgary has been the antithesis of that equitable approach, with Miikka Kiprusoff sitting out, on average, just nine assignments over the last seven full seasons. So it will be interesting to watch as the Flames have a span to start February of nine games in 17 days. They placed both Henrik Karlsson and Leland Irving on waivers ahead of the season, but that could have been as much a calculated gamble that other teams are too focused on their own clubs to care to make a claim as much as a statement of their faith in the pair.

Indeed, there appears to be a "devil you know" consensus. While injuries will arise, a glance at the rosters overwhelmingly results in a list of familiar names as insurance: Dan Ellis, Johan Hedberg, Michael Leighton, Mathieu Garon, Jason LaBarbera, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Ray Emery, and on.

So one reasonable prediction is that for the second season in a row we'll see a dearth of fresh-faced breakout goalie stars. Last season, Thomas Greiss of San Jose led all rookie goalies with nine wins, a total that pales to what was earned in recent years by the likes of Rask, Corey Crawford and Jimmy Howard in their first full seasons.

Christopher Nihlstrop of Dallas and Viktor Fasth of Anaheim are possible exceptions, with Khudobin and Toronto's Ben Scrivens among the very small group that have had a brief taste of the NHL.


Chris Iorfida

Senior Writer

Chris Iorfida, based in Toronto, has been with CBC since 2002 and written on subjects as diverse as politics, business, health, sports, arts and entertainment, science and technology.