VANCOUVER — The Philadelphia Flyers are testing the importance of goaltending depth in a record-matching manner this season, with Mike McKenna claimed off waivers to become the seventh goalie to play in their first 43 games on Tuesday.
With McKenna’s start, the Flyers joined the 1989-90 Quebec Nordiques, the 2002-03 St. Louis Blues and the 2007-08 Los Angeles Kings as the only four NHL teams to use seven different goalies in a season. The Ottawa Senators have already used five goalies, including McKenna, and the Kings and Arizona Coyotes have each used four, but for all the attention McKenna and the injury-riddled Flyers garnered, the overall numbers this season aren’t excessive.
Overall, 83 different goalies have appeared in an NHL game this season, which is well below the 95 used each of the past two seasons, or the 20-year high of 97 in 2013-14. The number this season could climb into record territory with late season call-ups, but the most important measure of goaltending depth probably won’t be measured until the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin.
No goalie has won the Stanley Cup after playing more than 60 games in the regular season since Marc-Andre Fleury played 62 with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009.
The average number of regular-season games for Cup-winning goalies since then is 44, though that includes Matt Murray playing 13 NHL games in 2016 and not the 31 games he played in the American Hockey League before winning the Cup for the first time as a late-season call up in Pittsburgh.
Washington Capitals No. 1 Braden Holtby played 54 games last season and won the Cup after averaging 67 starts the previous three seasons and failing to get past the second round.
All of which begs the question: what is the ideal workload for a playoff-bound goalie?
“It’s hard to say what’s that magic number,” said Nashville Predators No. 1 Pekka Rinne, who played 61 games before making the 2016 Cup Final, 59 games when he won the Vezina Trophy last season and is on pace to play 58 this season. “Today’s game, it’s very demanding and fast. It goes with goalies, too. So, I think if you have the opportunity to get some rest, that’s a great thing in the long term. Nowadays, if a team wants to be successful, they need two good goalies and they have to be able to share the load. And we have that here.”
There may not be a perfect number. Minnesota Wild No. 1 Devan Dubnyk played 60 games last season after playing 65 and 67 in the two previous seasons and still seemed uncertain.
“It’s probably good for the body and mind to be at that 60-game mark,” he said. “I don’t think I’m going to sit here and tell you that I felt way better in one scenario than I did the other.”
Whatever the perfect number, it has clearly decreased over the past 15 years, especially in the playoffs, and with it the importance of a backup that can play regularly has gone up.
Although the number of goalies to play 70 games or more has decreased over the past five regular seasons (four) compared to the previous five full seasons (22), the link between a rested goaltender and winning the Cup goes back further. Since Brodeur won the 2003 Stanley Cup after playing 73 games for the New Jersey Devils, the average number of regular season starts for the Cup-winning goalie is 46.
After Fleury’s 62 games in 2009, the next highest total is 57, shared by Tim Thomas with the Boston Bruins in 2011 and Corey Crawford with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015. And Crawford was replaced by Scott Darling to help Chicago get past Nashville in the Western Conference First Round, part of another trend of using two goalies in the playoffs that also includes Murray and Fleury each starting during the Penguins Cup runs in 2016 and 2017, and Philipp Grubauer starting the first two playoff games ahead of Holtby last season.
Whether it’s in the playoffs or leading up to them, having a capable backup is important to give the No. 1 enough time to rest his body and mind, and perhaps work on his game, something Holtby did during a 10-day stretch in March while Grubauer started four straight.
That type of reset probably isn’t possible while playing more than 60 games.
“I just don’t think it’s sustainable nowadays,” said Carter Hutton, who is in his first year as a No. 1 with the Buffalo Sabres after being one of the League’s best backups with St. Louis Blues. “The way that the game is, it’s so much faster, there’s so much more wear and tear on goalies. It’s hard to play more than 60 games and then have enough for a playoff run, in my opinion.”
The numbers back him up; a good backup is important.