The goalie tandem has become a more popularized strategy in the post-lockout NHL and it seems to have a lot of coaches and fans confused. “Number One” goalies are harder to define and some of the best in the game (read: Luuuu) are seemingly mistrusted by their fans and bench bosses. Since the NHL’s work stoppage in 2004/05, the league has prioritized open-ice skating, clutch-free play, and goal scoring. No surprises here: goaltenders have suffered.
The William M. Jennings trophy is awarded to the goalie (or more commonly, goalies) who represent the best team defence by allowing the fewest goals. This distinction was once given by being the Vezina Trophy winner but the NHL must have decided that the team with the fewest goals against did not necessarily have the best goalie. The Jennings has been given out since 1982 and many goaltending tandems have since won the award. Goal scoring has gone up since the lockout, and the evidence is found in Jennings winners.
In the five years preceding the lockout, the average goals against total for Jennings winners was 169.6. Goal scoring was going down, shutout records were being broken, goaltenders had job security. Of those winners, there was one true tandem: Robert Esche and Roman Cechmanek of the Philadelphia Flyers. For the sake of illustrating my point on goaltending, I should really exclude the Flyers’ and their exasperating history with goalies but…I digress. Other winners included Martin Brodeur, Patrick Roy, and Dominik Hasek – indisputable Number One’s.
In the five years after the lockout (which doesn’t include the 2010/11 season), the average goals against total for Jennings winners is 192.4. Three of those five winners were tandems and in two cases (Dominik Hasek/Chris Osgood and Niklas Backstrom/Manny Fernandez) each goalie played at least 40 games. Goal scoring is up, Roberto Luongo’s ice time is down, and Jonathan Bernier is already more popular than Robin Gibb.
Most importantly, faith in number one goalies is down. Both coaches and fans have less patience with their starters and I believe this has led to an inconsistency in the position and potentially a psychological roadblock for younger netminders.
Case in point: Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings has performed admirably in his first two seasons as the starter (09/10: W-39, G.A.A. 2.54; 10/11: W-35, G.A.A. 2.24) (NHL.com). Yet fans of the Kings are clamouring to see his understudy, Jonathan Bernier, supplant him as soon as possible. Quick, figuratively, was Bernier two seasons ago: a young, rookie goaltender with tremendous upside. But now, since the Kings haven’t won the Stanley Cup yet, it’s apparently time for change. In some of these cases, it’s the coach who’s wishy-washy. In this case, it’s the fans.
An even more explicit example was seen this past season with Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider. While the Vancouver Canucks were sweeping through most of the league with convincing victories, superior special teams, and an impressive road record, there was talk in the playoffs about Schneider replacing Luongo and in fact, he did step in for Game 6 of their first round series with Chicago. I believe this shook Luongo to the core at the absolute worst time. It was a bad coaching decision. Luongo started out fantastically against the ‘Hawks but after that series was never really in the Conn Smythe Trophy debate for the playoff MVP.
Goaltenders are a sensitive breed. They’re in an isolated position on the ice and off of it. That’s most likely why Luongo was stripped of the team’s captaincy before the start of the 10/11 season. Time and time again, it’s been called the most psychological position in sports and it’s true. My humble experience with competitive hockey was spent in the net and having the confidence of the coach and my teammates meant the world to a young goalie. If an NHL team has bet the farm with their supposed “number one”, their poker face better be rock solid. Stick with your guy through the worst of times and watch him flourish. Tim Thomas. Enough said.
Yes, there are examples of success through having two netminders battle for the position. But this is also the business of managing people, not simply assets, and the Kings, Canucks, and others should be careful in how they handle their personalities in goal.