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Making case for practice goalies

Hurricanes equipment manager Jorge Alves has pulled on pads; others around League taking notice

by Kevin Woodley / Correspondent

Carolina Hurricanes equipment manager Jorge Alves got to live the dream of every emergency goaltender on New Year's Eve, when filling in for Eddie Lack as a backup turned into his NHL debut for the final 7.6 seconds of a 3-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Alves' contributions to NHL goaltending go well beyond finally getting to say he played in the League, however. In fact, it might not be long before every NHL starter owes him a thank you, for the same reason Hurricanes coach Bill Peters felt Alves deserved a thank you by getting into the game. 

In addition to his job managing equipment with the Hurricanes, Alves is also the practice goalie, occasionally donning his equipment and spelling Cam Ward or Lack during practice.

It's a role some goalies think needs to be expanded in the NHL, and listening to Peters and Ward talk about the value Alves provides in Carolina, it's not hard to understand why.

Hearing the job description for "Little Wardo," as Peters affectionately refers to Alves, it might be harder to figure out who would really want to fill the role if it does expand.

Video: CAR@TBL: Equipment manager serves as backup goalie

"It's great because now your guys get to shoot on a goalie, you get to work on stuff," Peters said earlier this season. "We love Little Wardo, but you're not afraid to one-time one off his noggin, whereas the other guys, they need a break. You get to the halfway point or the dog days of the season and goaltenders want to get their work in and get off and guys don't want to shoot at an empty net, so it's huge to have somebody that can go out and take some shots. And we want to work on net-front presence and deflecting pucks so we can do that with Little Wardo in net and get our guys bombing away there, and it doesn't wear out your two primary goaltenders."

Ward recognizes the value Alves provides.

"It certainly helps," Ward said after retreating to the locker room with Alves finishing a practice earlier this season. "He is like the Rudy for me, a guy that just loves the position, loves to play and to give guys a bit of a breather towards the end of practice or a pre-game skate to save a little energy is beneficial in the long haul, because of how much of a grind the season is."

The reality is a lot of team practice time isn't necessarily good for goaltenders.

A large portion of practice is spent on line rushes that are only loosely defended, leaving wave after wave of shooters with more time and space to shoot from spots and in situations they might be lucky to get once or twice a season.

Too much can actually become a bad thing for goalies, who can be tempted to cheat. In many ways, practice resembles summer shinny, which many NHL goalies avoid because the only way to consistently make saves is to play differently than they would during the season. By the end of many practices, the goaltender is effectively serving as a target.

"I'd rather do quality than quantity," Ward said. "It's not about going out and bagging yourself. You want to put in the work, but you want to do it right to create the good habits."

Minnesota Wild No. 1 goalie Devan Dubnyk credited a three-goalie rotation for being able to start a franchise-record 38 straight games late in the 2014-15 season.

Video: NYI@MIN: Dubnyk stones Chimera on a breakaway

Having Niklas Backstrom and Darcy Kuemper around allowed Dubnyk to get on the ice early to work on position-specific drills with Wild goaltending coach Bob Mason, as well as taking part in a few team drills to feel rush chances without worrying about having to stick around for the rest of practice. It allowed Dubnyk to focus on his mechanics without getting worn out making hundreds of practice saves.

The Vancouver Canucks have used assistant athletic trainer Dave Zarn as a practice fill-in, even splitting drills with Ryan Miller as a third goalie early last season.

"When you are playing every other day and coming off a game," Miller said, "the next morning you just know if you put it all out there you might lose that little bit you have been trying to hold on to as an edge, so I think practice goalies could be an asset.

"I don't think you lean on them too much but you want to do focused, hard work to not create bad habits and you can't do that for 45 minutes when the team needs to do drills and the goalie is taking the brunt of it."

Some teams will put their goaltending coach in net to give the starter a rest, though some of those coaches would prefer not to lose the valuable teaching time with the backup. As for why practice goalies haven't caught on more, Miller, who remembers going "2-3 months" without a day off earlier in his career, thinks the concept is slowly becoming more accepted.

Arizona Coyotes starter Mike Smith, who played 13 of the past 14 games, said the idea was "definitely intriguing," and something Arizona goalie coach Jon Elkin has mentioned. 

Video: NYR@ARI: Smith snags Hayes' shot with quick glove

"After a while it just becomes counterproductive to have your starter out there," Elkin said. "If you had a third guy, the starter could get the work he needs and get out, and once in a while you might even want to just do 20 minutes with the starter before practice and focus on some real specific repetitions and then have another guy come in for practice. They say rest is a weapon, but you have to be able to give it to them."

That's exactly what Alves does in Carolina, and although his recent 7.6 seconds in the NHL provided the spotlight, it's his work late in practice, when few are watching, that may have a more lasting impact.

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