VANCOUVER -- The Florida Panthers started their morning skate in typical fashion on a recent visit to Vancouver, with a steady stream of rush drills at both ends of ice designed to get the players' feet moving and their hands warm. However, they ended in a shot at only one end of the ice.
While players teed off on backup Reto Berra from the hash marks or closer at one end, they had to pull up, peel off and get back in line at the other. Panthers No. 1 Roberto Luongo was too busy making lateral recovery pushes from his knees into controlled shots from goaltending coach Rob Tallas to deal with point-blank shots from oncoming teammates.
Amid a condensed NHL season with less practice time, Luongo believes it more important than ever to make sure he gets his position-specific practice done whenever possible, even if that means extending his game-day drills with Tallas deeper into Florida's morning skate.
"I think I've had one regular practice in like two or three weeks," Luongo said.
Luongo and Tallas aren't the only ones noticing how much harder it is to find the extra time usually reserved for technical tinkering this season. Many goalies and goaltending coaches agree it has become increasingly necessary to get position-specific work done during game day skates this season. Some believe it also plays a role in decreasing NHL save percentage, the struggles of some new No. 1 goalies and a few uncharacteristic slumps from proven veterans.
"It's been a weird season," Luongo said. "The condensed schedule has been very tough. There are three, four games every week, and with travel it has been a challenge. You are starting to see it more and more throughout the League where there is a little bit of fatigue setting in with certain teams and certain players, and it is important to be able to manage that."
Managing rest sometimes comes at the expense of spending extra time on the ice managing the fine details of a goaltender's game. It's a balance they often have to find for themselves, especially when they make the transition from backup to being No. 1. Some get a chance to experience it in spurts as an injury fill-in before taking over the top job, but there's often still a transition period once they become a full-time starter.
All that extra time a backup usually spends with a goalie coach after the morning skate disappears, as does a lot of the position-specific work before practice. Add in a schedule that has reduced practice days for everyone this season, and one NHL goalie coach said "when things slide it has a feel like you're in a NASCAR race and only have a 12-second pit stop to tune things up," especially for a "major minute guy."
That may help explain some of the struggles for first-year No. 1 goalies, such as Jake Allen of the St. Louis Blues or Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets. Allen, who recently was left home from a road trip to reset, had stints as the starter during the previous two seasons; however, this is the first full season for Hellebuyck as a No. 1 in the NHL. Edmonton Oilers starter Cam Talbot went through similar struggles early last season, his first as the No. 1, and so did then-Oilers backup Anders Nilsson, now with the Buffalo Sabres, when he took over the starting role for six weeks through mid-December last year.
"That's probably the biggest challenge for every goalie in this league when you are playing a lot is to get the good quality of practice," Nilsson said then. "You have to think about resting your body physically, but also mentally. … You need to save yourself for a game, so you can't drain yourself in practice and then have nothing left. It's something you have to learn."
Finding the time for both is even harder this season.
Jets coach Paul Maurice spoke about a need for goalie-specific practice time when asked about the logistics of keeping three goalies after calling up Ondrej Pavelec from the American Hockey League and keeping Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson. Rather than cramming three goalies into two nets at team practices, the Jets had Hellebuyck and Hutchinson alternate spending time working alone with goalie coach Wade Flaherty.
"It's difficult to keep three goaltenders game-ready, but we have something a little unusual here because we just lacked so much practice time," Maurice said. "We can take a goaltender out of [our] main practice and get 45 minutes of really specific technical work, something that is difficult to do because we need goalies to practice. So we have been able to take a guy out of the normal practice rotation and [get] him back to feeling good, feeling sharp."
There are few absolutes when it comes to goaltending, so it's not surprising a decrease in goalie-specific practice time hasn't affected all goalies similarly. After a slow start, Frederik Andersen is excelling in his first full season as a workhorse No. 1 with the Toronto Maple Leafs, as is his former playing partner with the Anaheim Ducks, John Gibson. A decline in practice time also isn't completely to blame for the save percentage dropping to .913, its lowest level since the shortened 2012-13 season, or for uncharacteristic recent slumps from established starters like Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens and Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers.
The World Cup of Hockey 2016 may be a factor for goalies who had to ramp up their season a lot earlier than usual, as well as for those who took part but didn't get to play or practice much. Also, the influx of more young, fast forwards who have grown up with composite sticks and skill coaches of their own has made it "harder than ever to play goal," one goalie coach said.
For goalies who rely on technical detail work, however, a lack of practice time has made it even harder. Luongo credits Florida's signing of James Reimer for helping him through it.
"I think you will see more and more teams transition to two-goalie tandems as the League evolves here," Luongo said, "Just because it is very demanding physically now."