In the NHL, teams need reliable goaltending to see success and good goaltenders are pivotal to a strong regular season and playoff run. However, how goaltenders are used and how often they start games are just as important to a team’s success. A lot of teams have talent in the net, but the decision to go with an unquestioned number one starter and a backup or two players that split starts can be the difference between a first-place roster and a non-playoff one.
Related: Ranking the NHL’s 32 Starting Goalies – 2022-23 Season
Furthermore, front offices have to decide how much of their salary cap they want to commit to the goaltending position. If a team has a Vezina-caliber goaltender, how much should the backup be paid? Likewise, if a team has two reliable goaltenders, how much should each one be paid, and how many games should each one start? Around the NHL, teams are trying to find the perfect formula, so we looked at multiple teams that are trying to answer this question. Here’s a look at which strategies are paying off and which ones are hurting their roster.
Jets Are (Finally) Not Overworking Hellebuyck
Connor Hellebuyck is one of the best goaltenders in the NHL. He won the Vezina Trophy in 2020 and has been an integral part of the Winning Jets roster in each of the past eight seasons. However, he’s the prime example of an overworked goalie. He led the league in shots faced in each of the past four seasons and has started 229 games in that span. While he managed to handle the workload, last season, it backfired on him and the Jets as he had a .910 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.97 goals-against average (GAA) on a career-high 2155 shots.
Declan Schroeder, who covers the Jets for The Hockey Writers, echoed this notion. “This was terribly apparent last season when (head coach) Paul Maurice did not trust Eric Comrie and rode Hellebuyck into the ground. He was clearly dead-tired by March and floundered when the Jets were still in the playoff hunt and needed him to be great.” They didn’t have a backup plan outside of Hellebuyck and ultimately could only start him, despite the evidence late in the season that the workload was getting to him. The team went 39-32-11 and finished the season in sixth place in the Central Division, leading Maurice to step down as the head coach.
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When asked what the best approach for Hellebuyck would be, Schroeder responded that it was to provide a balance between being a reliable starter and not overworking him. “Sure, you want your asset to shine, but you also want to put him in a position to succeed. You have to keep the law of diminishing returns in mind even when it comes to Hellebuyck because although he’s great and a workhorse, he’s a person like everyone else.”
The Jets’ backup this season is David Rittich, who has only started six games and has struggled, allowing 16 goals. However, the hope is that they can start Rittich in enough games to keep their starting goaltender fresh and well-rested for the end of the season and a playoff run, which is likely as the team boasts an 18-9-1 record.
Rangers Run into Goaltending Trouble
The New York Rangers reached the Eastern Conference Final last season on the backs of great defense and remarkable goaltending. However, when the offseason rolled around, they chose to trade goaltender Alexandar Georgiev as the net understandably belonged to Igor Shesterkin, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner. Georgiev can split starts or even be a starter in a different organization, and the Rangers, who were pressed against the salary cap, found a cheaper alternative in a true backup.
The problem this season is that Shesterkin is being overworked. He’s started 23 of the team’s 31 games, and while he remains one of the league’s elite goaltenders with a .916 SV% and a 2.52 GAA on 666 shots, his production has declined from last season when he had a .935 SV% and a 2.07 GGA and 1,622 shots. Moreover, backup goaltender Jaroslav Halak has struggled and, despite a limited role, has become a liability for the Rangers. A team with Stanley Cup aspirations is receiving a .888 SV% 3.04 GAA on only 214 shots from Halak, and his struggles could derail an otherwise promising season.
The Rangers choosing to make Shesterkin the unquestionable number-one goaltender has been a risk and one that will be interesting to watch as the rest of the season unfolds. The Rangers are fighting for playoff position in the Metropolitan Division with a 16-10-5 record, in contrast to the second-place finish in the division last season.
Are the Wild Better with Fleury?
The Minnesota Wild have made a drastic pivot in net. They reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2021 and pushed the Vegas Golden Knights to a seven-game series behind a strong goaltending duo of Cam Talbot and Kappo Kahkonen. However, since then, the team acquired Marc-Andre Fleury, traded Kahkonen to the San Jose Sharks, and traded Talbot to the Ottawa Senators. While the Wild also acquired Filip Gustavsson, Fleury is the unquestioned starter and is expected to lead the team in a playoff run as a potential future Hall of Fame-caliber player.
The question is whether the Wild are better without a duo, one that was successful in the 2020-21 season. THW’s Mariah Stark (Holland), who covers the team, thought otherwise. “I don’t think it’s better now. Ultimately the best situation would have been if they could’ve kept Talbot and done an even 50/50 split. While Fleury is a Hall of Fame-worthy goaltender, he is 37 years old and can’t keep doing what they’re expecting. Gustavsson is still figuring out the team with his limited starts, and it’s hard to get a good comfort zone when they’re on the bench 90 percent of the time. So, while they’re goaltending is improving, it’s not better than what they had last season.”
Fleury’s age has been a big factor in their regular-season strategy. Granted, he’s one of the best in NHL history, but at this point in his career, he can’t be relied on as a number-one starter and needs a reliable backup to take some pressure off of him and keep him fresh.
The other question about the Wild is whether the team is thinking with the Stanley Cup Playoffs in mind. They have a great roster, but without elite goaltending, can they make a playoff run? The problem is that Fleury, who struggled against the St. Louis Blues in the First-Round exit last season, doesn’t seem like the goaltender they can rely on unless he has the hot hand. It leaves the Wild in a unique goaltending situation this season, one that isn’t a duo but might become one out of necessity, even in the playoffs.
Maple Leafs Trio
After relying on Jack Campbell as a primary starter, and Petr Mrazek as the backup goaltender last season, the Toronto Maple Leafs moved on from both goaltenders in the offseason and replaced them with Ilya Samsonov and Matt Murray. The decision to rely on Samsonov and Murray has paid off, along with third-string Erik Kallgren giving the team a .923 SV% and a 2.27 GAA to start the season.
What stands out is that the Maple Leafs haven’t turned to anyone as the starter but, instead, have split starts between their three goaltenders. Murray and Samsonov have both started 11 games, while Kallgren has started nine, giving the team a trio. Injuries played a significant role in this strategy as all three have missed time, forcing head coach Seldon Keefe to adapt.
Kevin Armstrong, Maple Leafs’ writer at THW, provided a unique outlook on their goaltending. “Toronto has been a mixed bag due to injury. But since Murray and Samsonov returned, Keefe is going to them every other game. It’s hard to say if there’s a true trend yet.”
The question is if their strategy is going to be sustainable and, more importantly, can a goaltending duo or trio lead the Maple Leafs to a Stanley Cup title, something the franchise hasn’t done since 1967. In recent years, the team has reached the playoffs but failed to advance past the first round and often has seen their goaltenders outdueled by Tuukka Rask, Carey Price, and Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Islanders Duo Has Led to Strong Start to Season
The New York Islanders had the option to trade Semyon Varlamov in the offseason. He would be a starter on other teams but is a backup to Ilya Sorokin, who took over as the primary starter last season and is putting together a Vezina Trophy-caliber season this year. Instead, general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello was steadfast in keeping Varlamov and giving him a decent number of starts.
Through 30 games, Sorokin has taken on the starting role with 19 starts compared to Varlamov’s 11, and the results have paid off for the Islanders. The goaltending duo has been one of the best in the NHL, with a combined .922 SV% and a 2.48 GAA, as the two goaltenders have carried the Islanders to a 17-12-1 record. Moreover, they’ve proven the value of having two great goaltenders, as both have been sharp throughout the season and not overworked.
Avalanche: New Goaltender, No Problem
An interesting reoccurring theme with the Colorado Avalanche is their willingness to part ways with their goaltenders with a lot of confidence in the rest of the roster. In the 2020-21 season, Philipp Grubauer was a Vezina Trophy finalist with a .922 SV% and a 1.95 GAA on 993 shots, but in the offseason, he signed a six-year deal with the Seattle Kraken. The Avalanche replaced him with Darcy Kuemper, who had a strong regular season but, more importantly, had a .902 SV% and a 2.57 GAA on 386 shots in the playoffs to help the team win the Stanley Cup. Like Grubauer, Kuemper left the team in free agency, joining the Washington Capitals in the offseason.
The Avalanche acquired Georgiev this offseason, who is their third starting goaltender in as many years. While the team is 15-11-2 and hasn’t looked like the same Western Conference juggernaut as in previous seasons, the goaltending hasn’t been an issue. Georgiev has a .920 SV% and a 2.65 GAA on 601 shots, while backup Pavel Francouz has a .913 SV% and a 2.80 GAA on 286 shots.
To understand why they seem to move on from goaltenders easily, Craig Jones, who covers the team for the THW, weighed in on their mindset. “The number of big contracts on the Avalanche means they can’t afford a top-end netminder, so they bring someone in cheap. Grubauer first, then Kuemper, and now Georgiev, but when they get to a position where they can command big bucks, the team lets them go and starts again. It’s a risky strategy because if someone comes in and is a bust, it’s potentially cost the team a Stanley Cup run. But, in many ways, we have to do it because of the money spent elsewhere. When it works, it looks great. If you compare them to others in the NHL, I doubt many have better value-for-money goaltending over the past three seasons.”
With Cale Makar, Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and many other star players on the roster, there isn’t room for a star goaltender, and they’ve shown they don’t need one to succeed.
The strategy is also helped by Francouz being a reliable backup. He’s proven he can split starts if needed and play a significant role. The Avalanche aren’t a blueprint for how teams can use their goaltenders but might be the prime example of the exception. With a good team, they don’t feel the need to invest in the position, and until it starts to hurt them, they won’t address the position differently. This brings us to our final team, another model franchise, but not one that provides a formula for goaltending.
Lightning Continue to Heavily Rely on Vasilevskiy
The Tampa Bay Lightning are the modern NHL dynasty, winning back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 2020 and 2021 and appearing in the Final last year. The production they have received from Vasilevskiy speaks to his greatness as one of the best goaltenders of all time. He’s started 50 or more games in five of the last six seasons; the exception was the 56-game season in 2020-21 when he started 42 games. Moreover, he has remained one of the elite goaltenders in the regular season and in the playoffs, helping fuel the Stanley Cup runs, most notably, the 2020-21 run when he won the Conn Smythe Trophy.
The Lightning have a world-class goaltender and have taken advantage by starting him in as many games as they can. Fortunately for them, he hasn’t worn down despite the workload. THWs’ Lydia Szyjka, who covers the team, echoed this sentiment but noted that they finally have a reliable backup. “In my opinion, Coach Cooper plays him because he gives them the best chance to win. However, (Brian) Elliott has been the most reliable backup that Vasilevskiy has had. So with all the regular season and postseason games he’s played in the last three years, it’s a relief to know that Elliott can pull out some wins. Lots of other teams are going with a goalie tandem. I don’t think the Lightning are considering anything like that, but that could be the norm in the NHL going forward.” She also noted that the team isn’t a model franchise in this regard but benefits from having the league’s best goaltender.
The Lightning have relied on Vasilevskiy as a true number-one goaltender, but even this season, they have been cognizant of the number of starts he receives. Elliott has started seven of the first 28 games, putting him on pace to start 20 games this season. The Lightning are fortunate that Vasilevskiy has been great and showing no signs of slowing down, but they also don’t want to push him to his limit.
Final Notes on NHL Goaltending
Around the NHL, we are seeing different teams take different approaches to their goaltending. There isn’t an exact science to handling the position, and every situation is different, making it a unique part of the game. However, good coaching staffs and front offices understand their goaltenders best and know their limits. Additionally, they know how to manage them and not only balance their starts but their salaries to fit with the rest of the roster. Good goaltenders are essential in hockey and how they are optimized is crucial to long-term success.