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Coaches Room

Backup goalies important with All-Star break approaching

Helping teams handle compressed schedule, give starters valuable rest

by David Marcoux / Special to

The Coaches Room is a regular feature throughout the 2019-20 season by one of four former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher. David Marcoux, Rob Zettler, Rob Cookson and Randy Carlyle will take turns providing insight. 

In this edition, Marcoux, former goaltending coach for the Carolina Hurricanes and the Calgary Flames, looks at why teams turn to backup goalies.

Tuesday was interesting for NHL goalies and goaltending coaches. 

Of the 12 games on the schedule, eight featured at least one backup goalie starting, including one making his NHL debut. 

Several factors play into a team starting the backup, including injuries and having back-to-back games. But this time of the season, a condensed schedule heading into the period when each team has a mandatory five-day break, either before or after the 2020 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend on Jan. 24 and 25, also could come into play. 

Chris Driedger played for the Florida Panthers in place of the struggling Sergei Bobrovsky against the Arizona Coyotes, who started Adin Hill with Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta injured. Charlie Lindgren gave Montreal Canadiens starter Carey Price a rare night off.

Video: NSH@FLA: Driedger blanks Preds in first career start

The Philadelphia Flyers went with backup Brian Elliott in the first of back-to-back games. 

The Washington Capitals and New York Rangers each started a goalie they hope will be a big part of their future. The Capitals, playing the first of a back-to-back, want to see what they have in Ilya Samsonov, especially with Braden Holtby eligible for free agency July 1. The Rangers are high on prospect Igor Shesterkin and gave him the start in his NHL debut.

Backups Aaron Dell (San Jose Sharks), Cam Talbot (Calgary Flames) and Elvis Merzlikins (Columbus Blue Jackets) also started Tuesday. 

Giving the No.1 goalie a night off is especially important when the starter is a veteran. A team needs to not only take into consideration a goalie's age, but also must understand how the workload affects him, both in games and at practice. 

A goalie might face an average of 30 shots per game and can face about 300 during practice. The workload takes its toll on the knees, abdomen and hips, and goalies can even get dinged in the head sometimes. This is why teams want to limit the wear and tear on them.

For teams like the Rangers and Capitals, starting backups provided a chance to see where their future lies. When teams start considering the age of a veteran -- Holtby is 30, and the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist is 37 -- there's always the long-term thought of searching for the next No. 1.

Video: COL@NYR: Shesterkin denies Bellemare with the pad

In Philadelphia, it was all about Hart when he came up last season. He's been through some highs and lows, but the Flyers see him as the long-term solution. 

The bottom line is at this point in the season, and when teams look at the schedule before and after the All-Star break, some workload decisions need to be made. Having an extra card or ace in the hole in goal can have a calming effect.

The Capitals are the ideal example. Samsonov is 12-2-1 with a 2.24 goals-against average and .921 save percentage. He's been the perfect complement to Holtby. Though Washington general manager Brian MacLellan said Wednesday that Holtby remains the No. 1 goalie, Samsonov gives the Capitals a legitimate chance to win every time he plays while allowing Holtby to rest for the stretch drive and Stanley Cup Playoffs.

What a team ultimately wants is a guy who is ready to step in over the grueling schedule before the breaks. 

It's all about trust. When you have two solid goalies, there is never a second thought about going to the other goalie at busy times like this. Or, for that matter, when one goalie is struggling.

The Capitals have that luxury. The Boston Bruins have that, too, with Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak. So do the New York Islanders, with Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov

Video: NYI@FLA: Greiss robs Connolly to preserve lead

Matt Murray helped the Pittsburgh Penguins win the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017. But he went through a rough patch earlier this season, and that gave Tristan Jarry the opportunity to make the most of his chance. The Penguins haven't missed a beat with Jarry, who is going to the All-Star Game. 

Some teams aren't as privileged to have that one-two punch in the crease. Price has played more than 2,000 minutes this season, as has Frederik Andersen with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Still, we've seen Lindgren and Maple Leafs backup Michael Hutchinson start in the past week.

Starting goalies love to gobble up minutes as the playoffs approach. They want to get into a groove for the postseason. 

There's no sense in burning them out in January.

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