Marc Denis can proudly say that he etched his name into the hockey history book somewhere.
He’s earned a spot on this list of most games played by a goalie in one NHL season. As research and skepticism seems to grow on the topic of goalie fatigue, it sure seems like many of the names on this list won’t be bumped off anytime soon.
This season [story written during the 2017-18 season], some of the best goalies in the league are getting hit with the fatigue bug. Andrei Vasilevskiy was the front-runner for the Vezina for most of the season, until his numbers started to dip recently. He attributed that to fatigue.
It’s been a similar story in Washington, where Braden Holtby has given up more starts to backup Philip Grubauer as the season has gone on.
Teams are leaning towards playing their backup goaltender more regularly throughout the season. Goalies who play more games tend to fade down the stretch. Frederik Andersen in Toronto has seen his game slip over the past two months, while backup Curtis McElhinney has one of the league’s best save percentage in limited action.
Despite the mounting evidence, some of these goaltenders seemed to find success in being the team’s starter every night. Although, perhaps the first guy on our list wasn’t as lucky.
Marc Denis (2002-03, 77 GP)
Although his name might seem a little out of place compared to the rest of the names on this list, Denis can proudly say he had one of the busiest seasons in NHL history. In the Columbus Blue Jackets third season of existence, they rode Denis like a burned out Toyota Corolla that never seems to die.
Denis went on to record a 27-41-8 record during his busiest season as an NHL netminder. He played 66 games the season before, but never eclipsed the 50 game mark in ten other NHL seasons.
Despite riding Denis like he was the second-coming of Martin Brodeur, the Blue Jackets gave up the second-most goals in the NHL that season. Backup Jean-Francois Labbe had subpar numbers in his 11 appearances and six starts, which is probably why coaches Dave King and Doug MacLean rode Denis into the ground.
One odd stat here? Denis is the only goalie in NHL history to play more than 75 games in a season without recording a single point.
Bill Ranford (1995-96, 77 GP)
No matter which team he played for, coaches seemed to love Bill Ranford.
He’s the only player to crack this list while playing for two teams in the same season. Ranford suited up in 37 games for the Edmonton Oilers, before they traded him back to the team who drafted him, the Boston Bruins. He ended up playing 40 more games in Beantown.
Despite being towards the end of his career, both Ron Low and Steve Kasper played Ranford like he was still the Conn Smythe winner from 1990. Statistics from Hockey Reference show that riding Ranford wasn’t the best choice, as he posted below-average numbers in net.
Between both teams, he finished with a 34-30-9 record overall. His numbers were better on a superior Bruins team, but the reunion was short-lived. Ranford was traded the following year to the Washington Capitals, and changed teams three more times before retiring in 2000.
Arturs Irbe (2000-01, 77 GP)
Arguably the best Latvian hockey player of all-time (is it really an argument?), Arturs Irbe was still a stud towards the end of his NHL career.
That was highlighted by the 77 games he played for the Carolina Hurricanes in 2000-01, just one season after he played in 75 games the season before. Backups Eric Fichaud, Mark Fitzpatrick and Tyler Moss started a combined 18 games in two years behind Irbe, posting a 4-13-1 mark.
I guess we can see why Paul Maurice rode Irbe so much, although he seemed to learn his lesson after the 2000-01 season.
After playing 77 games, Irbe posted subpar numbers in the playoffs. The next season, he only started 51 games, and that paid off for the Hurricanes in the playoffs.
Irbe almost single-handedly propelled the Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup win with a sparkling 1.67 GAA and a .938 save percentage in 18 playoff games. His Cup run in 2001-02 and games played mark from 2000-01 will be remembered, along with his classic cage and acrobatic goaltending technique.
Evgeni Nabokov (2007-08, 77 GP)
Although 70-plus games seasons from goaltenders are dissipating, we aren’t far removed from netminders playing nearly every single game. One of those goalies that played constantly was Evgeni Nabokov, who was a star in net for the San Jose Sharks for nearly a decade.
Nabokov was relied upon heavily as the Sharks starter, and he served the team well. They only missed the playoffs once while he was the starter, and they made it to the Conference Finals three times.
Despite being the team’s starter for ten years, Nabokov never played more than he did in the 2007-08 season. His performance had him end up as the runner-up for the Vezina, although he was beat out by another goaltender who ended up on this list…
Martin Brodeur (1995-96, 2007-08, 2009-10, 77 GP)
It’s a testament to Martin Brodeur’s play to see that he topped 77 games in a season more than 12 years apart. After watching most goaltenders seem to fatigue or falter after playing so many games, Brodeur seemed invincible.
There’s no doubt that he’s one of the greatest – if not the greatest – goaltender in NHL history. He played his first 77-game season as a 23-year-old in 1995-96, and had his next 77-game appearance in 2007-08 as a 35-year-old. Amazingly, he started all 77 games that he played in during the 2007-08 season.
It was only after the 2009-10 season where the Devils finally started to limit Brodeur’s starts. It almost paid off, as he took them to another Cup final two years later in 2011-12.
Martin Brodeur (2006-07, 78 GP)
For his 78-game performance in 2006-07, Brodeur sits alone in second place all time. Of the nine seasons where goalies played 77 games or more, Brodeur’s name shows up four times. Not only was he one of the best goalies of all time, but he was incredibly durable throughout his career.
Although all the signs point to the NHL being a two-goalie league, Brodeur played 78 games in 2006-07, along with two rounds of playoff hockey where he still posted a .916 save percentage in two rounds. He would go on to play 77 games the next season, where he beat out Nabokov for the Vezina.
Maybe today’s logic about goaltenders playing too much is misguided. What’s more likely, is that Brodeur was a one-of-a-kind netminder.
Grant Fuhr (1995-96, 79 GP)
Well, Ranford wasn’t the only veteran goalie to suit up in nearly every game during the 1995-96 season. In fact, Ranford’s season was bested by Grant Fuhr, who holds the NHL record for most games played by a goalie in a season.
In 1995-96, Fuhr started his first season with the St. Louis Blues under coach Mike Keenan. Iron Mike was obviously a fan of Fuhr, playing him in a whopping 79 games throughout the season. Unfortunately, the mileage caught up to Fuhr, who was injured for the bulk of the Blues playoff run.
At 33-years-old, Fuhr gave the Blues everything they could ask for. All numbers from that season point to Fuhr being an above-average goaltender. He received votes for the Hart, Vezina, and even the Lady Byng for his efforts.
Although remembered for his four Stanley Cups, it sure looks like Fuhr set a record in 1995-96 that will never be broken.