Across every league imaginable, every hockey coach will agree that the goaltender is the most important position the ice. Akin to a drummer in a rock group, it’s difficult to achieve success without a great one. They are the backbone. They make bad teams good and good teams great.
It’s a physically demanding position that requires more rest than an NHL schedule allows, which is why you don’t see goaltenders play all 82 games in a season. But how many games should a starting goaltender play? With so much on the line, can teams afford to allow their star goalies to sit out 20-25 games in a season?
More than ever, coaches are aware of the physical stress that goaltenders go through. Fatigue leads to injuries, and some teams simply cannot afford to lose their starting goaltender.
Like a pitcher in baseball on a pitch count, goalies are being protected from starting too many games in a season. In 2013-2014, starting goalies played an average of only 50.87 games – the lowest average since 48.24 in 1989-1990. It’s only the fourth time in the last two decades that the number has dipped below 55 games played – and it hasn’t been below 53 since 1995-1996.
With Kari Lehtonen leading the NHL in 2013-2014 with 65 games played, it marks the first time that not a single goalie reached the 70-game plateau since – you guessed it – 1989-1990. Just four seasons ago, six different goalies played in 70 games or more.
The Corsi Effect
There has been no bigger buzz word in the world of hockey over the last year than “Corsi.”
Named after former Buffalo Sabres and new St. Louis Blues goaltending coach Jim Corsi, the “possession proxy” metric was initially created to judge how much action a goaltender was seeing in a game.
Corsi understood that, as a former goaltender himself, a shot on goal does not need to be recorded in order for a goaltender to expend energy. Any time the puck is in the defensive zone, a goaltender has to be on guard – which causes fatigue.
Instead of looking at zone time, Corsi found it easier to just tally whenever a puck was thrown toward the net, regardless if it hit the target. By the end of the game, he had a better idea if his goaltender played in a challenging game, or an easier one. He would then use that information to decide whether or not to recommend giving his goaltender a game off.
The stat has since become more widely used to measure an individual player’s contribution to a team when he is on the ice, and has taken off over the past year along with Fenwick, which simply excludes shots that are blocked.
Since an NHL goaltending coach invented the stat to measure a goalie’s workload, clearly some teams are using it for exactly that purpose. Oddly enough, just as many teams may be choosing to ignore the stat – and it’s costing them.
Of the nine goalies with the highest Fenwick-against per 60 minutes, six of them missed time with an injury this season.
The three goalies that were able to handle the intense workload without sustaining an injury were Robin Lehner, Ben Scrivens and Braden Holtby.
All three of those goalies are 27 years old or younger. All three played less than 50 games. All three played for teams that missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Goalies are much better athletes than they were in the 80s and 90s, but it is unrealistic to ask a goaltender who is older than 30 to play 60 or more games under this type of work load without risking an injury.
Clearly, with the drop off in average games played, a lot of teams are noticing this. Still, more NHL teams need to realize it, or they are putting their goaltenders at risk.
The Ten Game Difference
If you are an NHL franchise that gives up a lot of scoring chances (Corsi/Fenwick or however you want to categorize it), be prepared to allot your goaltender more time to rest. Even ten more games off spread out throughout the season can help avoid an injury.
Unfortunately, if you are an NHL franchise that gives up a lot of scoring chances, you probably rely on your goaltender to win games. Sparing him for ten games may be a difficult decision, and could potentially be the difference between making or missing the playoffs.
Use the Tampa Bay Lightning as an example. If they gave Ben Bishop ten more games off and let Anders Lindback take over, they go from a .924 save percentage to .891.
With an average of 30 shots a game, that’s a trade of 300 more shots that Lindback would see instead of Bishop. Instead of allowing only 22.8 goals against in that span, they would have allowed 32.7.
Can teams that are fighting for a playoff spot afford ten more goals against in a season? Most likely not, but it’s an incredibly risky move if their goaltender gets injured like Ben Bishop did right before the playoffs began.
The Expansion Effect
It’s an interesting trend, but when the NHL expands the number of teams in the league, starting goaltenders see a spike in their average games played.
From 1991 to 1994, the NHL added five new franchises. In that time, the average starting goaltender saw his games played rise from 48.24 to 58.46. The average was consistently between 47-52 throughout the entire 80s, but spiked immediately after expansion.
The NHL added four more franchises from 1998 to 2001, and the average hit an all-time high of 61.4 in 2001-2002.
One theory is that as the NHL added more teams, more goaltenders came into the league that previously were not good enough. With the talent watered down and spread out across the league, teams may have become less willing to play their suddenly vastly inferior backup.
With the NHL looking to expand into Quebec City and Seattle in the next few years, it will be an interesting trend to keep an eye on to see if it continues.
The massive drop off in starting goaltender usage in 2013-2014, was it just a fluke, or has there been a revelation over the past year that teams are suddenly buying into? The fact that it coincided with the increased use of advanced statistics is probably not an accident.
Most teams are realizing that they need to protect their valuable assets in goal. It’s not a coincidence that Henrik Lundqvist has played less than 70 games in four straight seasons after playing at least 70 in the four years before that.
The days of Martin Brodeur and Evgeni Nabokov playing close to 80 games in a season are over. Call it babying them, but don’t expect many teams in the future to ride their starting goaltender for more than 60 games in a season.
Until next expansion, that is.