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Unmasked: Third-goalie option a must in NHL today

by Kevin Woodley
  • It's popular to rank the 30 goaltending tandems heading into a new NHL season. But the increasing reality is almost all teams need more than two capable goaltenders to make it through a season.

Last season 92 goalies appeared in at least one NHL game, down slightly from 97 in 2013-14, which was the highest total in six seasons. Five teams made it through last season without needing their third-stringer to play at least one game: the Carolina Hurricanes, Los Angeles Kings, Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets. Among the 25 teams that needed to go beyond their opening-day tandem, the goalies further down the depth chart averaged almost nine games played.

As for the impact, look no further than the Ottawa Senators, whose season and goaltending depth chart changed completely when third-string goalie Andrew Hammond was thrust into action because of injuries to starter Craig Anderson and backup Robin Lehner. Petr Mrazek helped the Detroit Red Wings through injuries and into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And Andrei Vasilevskiy and Philipp Grubauer each finished last season with important playoff wins for the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals, respectively, after starting 2014-15 in the minor leagues.

In 2013-14 three teams made it through the season without needing to use their third-string goaltender. This season is one day old and already three teams have gone past their top two: The Tampa Bay Lightning claimed Kevin Poulin on waivers from the New York Islanders to back up Ben Bishop while Vasilevskiy recovers from surgery to remove a blood clot from near his left collarbone; the Islanders claimed Jean-Francois Berube on waivers from the Los Angeles Kings amid uncertainty regarding the health of starter Jaroslav Halak; the Vancouver Canucks called up Richard Bachman to back up Ryan Miller in their season opener Wednesday against the Calgary Flames after Jacob Markstrom sustained a lower-body injury in practice; and Ottawa has big rookie Matt O'Connor on the roster while Hammond heals a groin injury.

While the increasing importance of having three NHL-capable goaltenders seems obvious, keeping three good goalies isn't always easy.

Just ask the Kings, whose well-earned reputation for developing goalies in the American Hockey League has allowed them to trade backups Jonathan Bernier, Ben Scrivens and Martin Jones, but they lost Berube for nothing to the Islanders.

The Minnesota Wild and the Flames will start the season with three goalies largely out of fear they'll lose a talent like Darcy Kuemper or Joni Ortio, respectively, if exposed to waivers.

The Montreal Canadiens took what some saw as a risk by doing just that with Dustin Tokarski, whose more active style can make it tougher to stay in rhythm through long gaps between starts. He passed through waivers unclaimed, however, and the reward to the Canadiens is a recall option more likely to be ready in case of injury to Carey Price as Tokarski should see significant playing time in the AHL. Last season his play appeared to suffer while watching Price play 66 games.

Keeping three goalies in the NHL rarely is ideal.

Season Number of goalies to appear in 1 game Number of teams to only use 2 goalies entire season
2008-09 89 10
2009-10 83 11
2010-11 87 8
2011-12 89 11
2012-13 82 11
2013-14 97 3
2014-15 92 5

You don't need advanced statistics to see that it's hard to fit three goalies into two practice nets on a daily basis, and the gap between game action increases if the team intends to ride a workhorse starter, as the Wild appear set to do again with Devan Dubnyk, who was a Vezina Trophy finalist last season.

The Flames may be able to mitigate this with a more balanced approach between opening-night starter Karri Ramo, veteran Jonas Hiller and Ortio, who went 4-2-0 last season.

As for Minnesota, keeping three goaltenders may not be ideal for veteran Niklas Backstrom or Kuemper, but it could be good for their No. 1.

Dubnyk has credited the three-goalie rotation for being able to start a franchise-record 38-straight games late last season. With two other goalies around, it allowed him to get on the ice early to work on position-specific drills with Wild goaltending coach Bob Mason without worrying about sticking around for the rest of practice. Given most practices are geared toward everyone but the goaltender, with shooters regularly given more time and space to make late passes and pick corners they might be lucky to see once all season in a game, it allowed Dubnyk to focus on his mechanics without getting worn out making hundreds of practice saves.

Most goalies don't have that luxury, and the extra work they have to do between games exacerbates the need to have a third option, as the Canucks learned when Markstrom was injured in practice this week.

Devan Dubnyk credits the Wild's three-goalie rotation for being able to start a franchise-record 38-straight games late last season. (Photo: Getty Images)

While a lot of teams like to mix an experienced pro into their minor-league rotation and call-up options, the ideal may be having a good, young puck-stopping prospect pushing and ready for NHL action. It's something to keep in mind before questioning recent decisions to send well-regarded goalies like Malcolm Subban of the Boston Bruins and John Gibson of the Anaheim Ducks to the AHL in favor of keeping more experienced goalies with lower ceilings in the NHL.

The Bruins and Ducks now have excellent recall options when needed, while ensuring their promising young goalies continue to play a lot rather than sit on the bench. Perhaps just as important, they won't risk having to expose Gibson and Subban to waivers sooner than necessary by playing them too much too soon in the NHL.

For an example of how that can become detrimental look no further than Steve Mason, whose early success with the Columbus Blue Jackets made it too risky to send him to the AHL for more seasoning when he struggled, arguably stunting his long-term development.

By keeping Subban and Gibson in the AHL now, the Bruins and Ducks are giving themselves a good third option in goal for this season, and possibly longer if needed. If the past two seasons are any indication, they're going to need that third goaltending option before this one is over.

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