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Coaches Room

Pulling goalies earlier getting trendier in NHL

MacLean discusses case for giving extra attacker more time on ice

by Paul MacLean / Special to

The Coaches Room is a weekly column 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.

In this edition, Paul MacLean, former coach of the Ottawa Senators, explores the thought process of when a coach should pull his goalie for an extra skater during a game.


The process of if and when a coach should pull a goalie certainly has changed dramatically over the years.

For a long time a coach only would pull his goalie if his team was down by one goal, and he usually wouldn't do it until the final minute of the game.

But that thinking has changed, and Thursday we saw two more examples of coaches making their moves earlier and earlier.

Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock pulled Frederik Andersen with 3:00 remaining in the third period and his team down 1-0 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, who scored an empty-net goal with 2:07 left and added another with 1:08 to play for a 3-0 victory.

Video: Malkin, Murray lead Penguins past Maple Leafs, 3-0

It didn't work, but at least Babcock was trying to give his team a chance.

Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville was thinking along similar lines. With the Arizona Coyotes ahead 3-1, Quenneville pulled Corey Crawford with about five minutes left in the third. The Coyotes scored an empty-net goal with 2:20 remaining and won 4-1, but you can understand Quenneville's logic.

During my time coaching in the minors, serving as an assistant in the NHL, then coaching the Ottawa Senators in 2011-12, you never considered pulling your goalie for the most part unless you were down by one. If you were down by two or three, you'd say, "We have to get within one before we do it because we're not going to just give them a freebie." You want to keep it as close as you can as long as you can.

Another point: Back in those days, when I first started, if you were within a goal you'd consider pulling your goalie with around a minute left. Maybe. If the face-off was in their end, maybe with 1:30.

We didn't really pull goalies when I played in the NHL (1980-91) because the scores were usually 7-2, 7-4, 8-2. But I think it was the same philosophy; if you were down by three there's no way you were pulling the goalie. The only time you did would be if you were down by one and it was going to the last minute.

It's become more prevalent in the past decade though.

Video: TOR@CHI: Kane ties it late with the goalie pulled

I remember having a conversation about this with my assistants in Ottawa, Dave Cameron and the late Mark Reeds. Mark would come up to me if we were, say, down by three with seven minutes left and say: "Hey, what do you want to do? How do you want to do this? Do you want to pull the goalie and give ourselves a chance?"

Mark thought this gave our players a chance to get the game back and instill confidence in them. He really believed in it. And he sold me on it.

That's the way it started for me.

I remember being an assistant with the Red Wings with Babcock for nine years and we would never consider pulling our goalie in situations like that early if we were down by two or three. Maybe if you were down by two and there was three minutes left and a face-off in their end, but other than that …

I just think it has evolved. Winning has always been important, sure, but now with so much parity in the League and one point potentially being the difference between playoffs and non-playoffs for so many teams, you have to do whatever it takes to win. The ability to get that point with overtime is so big. By pulling your goalie early I think you are sending the message to your players that you'll do anything to win. I mean, if the other team gets an empty-netter what's the difference if you lose by one, two or three? It's still a loss.

Video: DET@TBL: Killorn buries empty-net goal to extend lead

I guess Patrick Roy is credited with regularly starting to pull his goalie with four or five minutes left and down by a couple when he was the coach of the Colorado Avalanche. Maybe he was down by a couple a lot. He probably started it in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League when he coached there. Whatever the case, he did it a lot.

Most of the time it doesn't work out. But in those times where it does, it is an exceptional team builder. It's a great way to build confidence in the group. And those extra points are huge. So why wouldn't you?

Of course, a lot of planning goes into it once you have the extra attacker out there. From an X's and O's standpoint, the focus of practice is: "Where does that sixth guy go?" He can't just be out there and be a decoration. He has to be busy. He has to be active. He has to know where the puck is when he comes on the ice. Is it off a face-off? Is it during the flow of play? What are his responsibilities?

I remember once in the International Hockey League, I changed a goalie on the fly. He was on the bench, the other team got possession, so we called a defensemen over and put our goalie back on. Once we got the puck back, the goalie came off again. In 30 seconds he came off, went back on, then came back off again.

Hey, we coaches will do whatever it takes to win. And that includes being willing to roll the dice more, and earlier, when it comes to pulling goalies.

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