Load management has reached NHL creases: Who's doing it correctly?

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If you’re even casually following what’s going on in the sports world these days, you’re already quite familiar with the concept of load management. Everywhere you look, it’s changing the way sports are played, the way players are used and how we digest it all as viewers.

In the NBA, it’s a concept that has been not only adopted universally but also taken to the extreme in many cases. Last season, the Toronto Raptors played Kawhi Leonard in just 60 regular-season games, masterfully massaging his minutes to keep him as fresh as possible en route to winning the championship. In the NFL, teams have widely drifted away from the bell-cow running back, limiting touches in an attempt to elongate a frighteningly short shelf life at the position. In baseball, teams are treating the 100-pitch mark as a blinking hazard light, going to their bullpens more quickly than ever (and in some cases completely scrapping the starting pitcher and beginning games with relievers).

Regardless of the sport, the thinking is the same. Teams are treating their players as assets and the long-term contracts they’re signed to as investments. With the developments in sports science that have shown the links among fatigue, performance and injury, clubs are doing what they can to keep players productive and healthy for as long as possible.

While the NHL will never be mistaken for being at the cutting edge of progress, that isn’t to say that we haven’t seen this trend start to take root in hockey as well. The biggest advancements thus far have undoubtedly been made with the handling of goaltenders.


Proven results, increasing levels of adoption

The proof is in the pudding, and the results are hard to quibble with. Of the teams that won a playoff round last season, the Sharks (62) and Blue Jackets (61) were the only ones to start their No. 1 goalie more than 45 times over the course of the regular season. The Bruins made a concerted effort to play Tuukka Rask less than ever and were rewarded with a brilliant postseason performance from a goalie who was peaking at the right time.

If the NHL really is a copycat league and people are paying attention, the success of the early adopters of the 1A-1B, 50-50 workload split in net is going to lead to this trend not only continuing but also potentially going further until certain boundaries are established. While playing the same goalie in both legs of a back-to-back is essentially a no-fly zone already, teams are now trying to squeeze in even more mandated nights off for their starters.

At the moment, there are only seven goalies trending toward starting more than 60 games, based on their early-season usage, with the healthy majority of netminders (22 to be exact) sandwiched somewhere between 41 and 55 appearances:

Goalies in that ballpark are now the norm, with the ones in the middle-to-high 60s serving as the exceptions. Matt Murray and Carey Price are currently the only two who find themselves in the high 60s, but even that is likely at least partly a byproduct of uneven scheduling quirks in the early going. Both the Canadiens and Penguins have six remaining back-to-backs before the end of the 2019 calendar year, which means we’ll see those projected start totals dip in the coming weeks.

There’s no perfect formula for teams to follow when it comes to divvying up starts in net. Although the theory of alternating goalies is sound in nature, executing it in practice isn’t quite as simple. I’m sure that every coach would love to have their cake and eat it too by preserving the starter for the playoffs without ever having to sweat getting there, but there are many other factors to consider.

Depending on the given team’s situation, those factors can range from the age and durability of the starter to the confidence in and experience of the backup to the urgency to bank as many points as possible.

All of that makes the decision of whom to play a whole lot easier when you have a strong defensive system that’ll make any goalie playing behind it look great or two equally effective options who could be playing more on most other teams.

Let’s break down what each team is currently getting from its first and second options between the pipes. There’s still some early-season noise in the numbers, especially for the sparsely used backups who have seen only a couple of games of action thus far. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t useful takeaways to gather from both usage and performance.



Good tandems

The New York Islanders, Boston Bruins and Dallas Stars have this thing down to a science. Last season, no one more appropriately represented the modern timeshare in net and the potential benefits of it than these teams, and they appear to be doing it once again.

Not to discredit the work of Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov, but at this point, I’m beginning to suspect that you or I could be transformed into a functional NHL goaltender after a summer of training under the watchful eyes of Barry Trotz and Mitch Korn.

Anyone who expected the Islanders to regress after last season’s dream campaign have been proven wrong in the early going. The Isles have come back and posted a league-best save percentage and goals-against clip as a team. They clearly have a brilliant game plan when it comes to what they’re willing to concede defensively, and they stick to it without fail. But even acknowledging that, it’s remarkable how effective they’ve been with the personnel they have. They’re coming off a recent 10-game winning streak in which they gave up 17 goals total, and until something fundamentally changes, I won’t be the one to bet against Trotz and Korn’s wizardry.

As mentioned previously, Tuukka Rask started just 45 games over the course of the previous regular season, which was the lowest figure for him since Tim Thomas left town and Rask became the starter. It’s no coincidence that he wound up benefiting from the lighter workload, posting a .934 save percentage and saving +13.04 goals above average in his 24 playoff games.

Based on early usage, it looks like the Bruins are trending toward a similar split, which is smart considering their playoff aspirations. It helps having Jaroslav Halak to eat up the rest of the games because he’s an overqualified backup who could surely handle more work elsewhere. But it’s a win-win situation for both parties because he gets to play behind a great team without overextending himself as he enters his mid-30s.

The Stars similarly make life easy for their goalies. Although I’ve quibbled with Jim Montgomery‘s approach when it comes to how methodically the Stars play — and whether they’d be better suited by opening things up to get more out of their best offensive weapons — it’s hard to argue with the defensive results. They’re first in chances against, first in expected goals against, sixth in save percentage and third in goals against. While Ben Bishop‘s individual numbers continue to be absurdly good, Dallas is smart not to fall into the trap of riding him into the ground. He has started 37, 51 and 45 games the past three seasons while battling a laundry list of injuries, and with three years left on his deal, the Stars are incentivized to keep him healthy.

Even by unpredictable goaltending standards, Darcy Kuemper‘s rise from someone seemingly destined to be a career backup to a total world-beater in net has been a surprising development. Check out Kuemper’s splits:

  • 2013-18: 131 games, .912 save percentage, -5.3 goals saved

  • Since start of 2018-19 season: 68 games, .926 save percentage, +33.7 goals saved

There’s no doubt that playing behind this Coyotes system has been a big factor in Kuemper’s meteoric rise. Although Arizona is only middle of the pack on a shot-quantity-conceded basis, the Coyotes do an excellent job of pushing teams further out and keeping everything on the perimeter. They’re currently surrendering the fifth-fewest high-danger chances against and the eighth-fewest expected goals against, which makes for a lethal combination with Kuemper’s size and athleticism.

Kuemper’s emergence puts the Coyotes in a great spot moving forward. At this point, Antti Raanta will likely never put it all together and soak up a large number of starts over the course of a full season, but he doesn’t have to. This team can afford to manage his usage carefully in an attempt to keep him healthy because it has two similarly priced, effective options in net who can alternate without any real drop-off.

The Rangers are an exceedingly young team that is still waiting for some pieces to fall into place on the blue line, and as such, they’re quite porous defensively. In the most notable defensive metrics, they’re currently:

  • 31st in shot attempts against

  • 30th in shots on goal against

  • 30th in high-danger chances against

  • 31st in expected goals against

That has led to some games that seem eerily familiar to past seasons, in which Henrik Lundqvist has had to stand on his head under a barrage of shots, including three 40-plus-save games in his first nine appearances. While he clearly isn’t what he used to be, it’s no surprise that he’s fighting Father Time as gracefully as can be humanly expected, given the circumstances. He was in vintage form in a recent back-to-back slate in which he stopped 80 of 83 shots faced in a 24-hour span.

Although it’s easy to get lost in Lundqvist’s feats and forget about everything else, it’s worth noting that Alexandr Georgiev‘s numbers thus far are nearly a carbon copy of the veteran’s. It’s an encouraging sign that the Rangers will be able to continue to effectively split the starts down the middle between the two of them, hopefully getting the most out of Lundqvist at this point of his career while continuing to progress in their succession plan in net.


Good starters, and then …

It’s almost impossible to envision a bigger change in surroundings than what Robin Lehner has undergone this season, transitioning from Barry Trotz’s defensive structure to Chicago’s matador scheme. He has already faced 50-plus shots twice in his first 10 games with the Blackhawks, something he didn’t do all of the previous season. In fact, his regular-season high with the Islanders was 41 shots against, and he had 40-plus shots thrown his way five times all season.

The difference hasn’t just been in quantity, however, because the quality of the looks Chicago is surrendering is also significantly higher. Here’s the comparison between the two shot profiles he has faced on a per-hour basis:

  • 2018-19 (with Islanders): 30.4 shots against, 8.6 high-danger chances, 35.24 feet average shot distance

  • 2019-20 (with Blackhawks): 38.1 shots against, 10.1 high-danger chances, 32.99 feet average shot distance

What’s most impressive about Lehner’s performance thus far is that you wouldn’t know how bad the Blackhawks have been in front of him by looking at his sparkling numbers. His .934 save percentage exceeds the .930 mark he posted last season with the Islanders, and his +9.08 goals saved above average rate is behind only that of Connor Hellebuyck and former teammate Thomas Greiss for tops in the league.

It’s still early, but Lehner is doing wonders to alleviate concerns about how much of his excellence last season was a one-hit wonder or the doing of his coaches. He’s once again thriving, and he should earn himself the big payday he’s looking for this summer if he can keep up anything resembling this.

There are a lot of concerns about the Maple Leafs’ play of late, but their one nagging bugaboo is their inability to find a reliable backup goalie who affords them the ability to spell Frederik Andersen without immediately conceding defeat.

Michael Hutchinson is the latest name to falter in the role, though it’s not entirely his fault, considering the list of opponents he was thrown against on the second leg of back-to-back situations. That said, he surrendered at least four goals against and stopped less than 90% of the shots he faced in each of his five starts, so it isn’t surprising that the team is looking elsewhere for help.

Perhaps it’s also a testament to how consistently excellent Andersen is at stopping pucks because everyone else the Leafs have tried struggled mightily behind the same group of players. But Toronto can’t continue to rely on Andersen to the degree that it has in the past if it hopes to finally change its future outlook. Andersen has started at least 60 games in each of his four campaigns with the Leafs, and no goalie has appeared in more games than his 206 since the start of 2016.

There’s a lot we don’t know about the goaltending position, but one thing that has become abundantly clear is that the Vegas Golden Knights will go as far as Marc-Andre Fleury takes them.

On the one hand, they’re in good hands because he has proven to be remarkably good at stopping the puck, once again warranting having his name in the early Vezina Trophy discussion. His .921 save percentage and +5.5 goals saved above average this season are both firmly in the top 10, as he continues to be rock-solid in net for the Knights. Similar to Frederik Andersen, his performance becomes even more impressive when you factor in how much the other goalies the team has used since joining the league have struggled:

  • Fleury: 121 starts, .919 save percentage, +28.8 goals saved

  • Fleury’s backups: 62 starts, .897 save percentage, -28.8 goals saved

If there’s a concern, it’s that Fleury is about to turn 35 years old, will hit the 1,000 career NHL games played mark at some point this season and has dealt with a variety of injuries in the past. Given that age and mileage, the Knights need to be careful with how they use him moving forward, but this is easier said than done considering the gap in performance between Fleury and the alternatives.

The list of positives from the first month of the season in Winnipeg begins and ends with Connor Hellebuyck. His .928 save percentage is behind just that of Darcy Kuemper and Ben Bishop among goalies who have started the predominant majority of their team’s games, and his +9.6 goals saved above average are a league best. Those are awfully impressive numbers for a goalie who is playing behind a patchwork defense.

The blue-line depth chart looked so bleak heading into the season that many pundits fairly predicted that the Jets would be among the worst goal-suppression teams in the league. It’s actually remarkable that they’re in the middle of the pack in goals against, considering the players who have been logging heavy minutes on defense and that they’ve given up the ninth-most shots and fifth-most high-danger chances.

Hellebuyck’s return to form after struggles last season couldn’t have come at a better time for the Jets because he has helped cover up the fact that the team in front of him is dramatically worse than it was in the past — especially with backup Laurent Brossoit crashing back down to earth, putting an end to any goalie controversy rumblings that might have lingered in Winnipeg after last season.

It seems strange to say of a goalie who is coming off a season in which he backstopped his team to a Stanley Cup victory and finished as the runner-up for the Calder Trophy, but Jordan Binnington entered the season with something to prove. It’s one thing to put together a hot stretch of games like he did upon joining the team and resurrecting them in the second half of last season. It’s another thing to follow it up over the course of a full campaign with a more substantial workload than he has ever had to shoulder and do so with the league having had a full summer to dissect his strengths and weaknesses.

Binnington has more than passed the test early, starting the lion’s share of the Blues’ games, stopping 92.1% of the shots he has faced and saving a stellar +5.9 goals above average already. The Blues will need him to keep it up because the team’s margin for error shrunk following the loss of Vladimir Tarasenko and his goal scoring, and Jake Allen has definitively proven that he can’t be relied upon.

It has similarly been an encouraging start to the season for David Rittich in a prove-it season, albeit under different circumstances. Although he had strong moments in 2018-19, he finished the season by posting a save percentage south of .900 after the All-Star break before losing his job to Mike Smith in the postseason. The Flames showed him a vote of confidence this summer by not actively pursuing anything resembling a real threat to his starting gig, and he has rewarded them thus far.


Questions remain

Despite their recent winning streak, the Sharks find themselves 29th in team save percentage and 28th in goals against this season. It can’t be entirely surprising that they’re once again struggling in both areas, considering that they didn’t tangibly change anything about the group that couldn’t keep the puck out of its net last season.

Although it’s difficult to argue that either Martin Jones or Aaron Dell is good enough at this point to warrant the regular playing time both are receiving out of necessity, their flaws are only exacerbated by playing behind a system that does them no favors. Because of the combination of personnel and aggressive approach, San Jose leaves itself highly vulnerable to a flurry of dangerous odd-man rushes coming back the other way.

Last season, the Sharks were good enough offensively and in possessing the puck that they could afford to pinch their noses on the occasions when their goalies were tested. They knew they’d be able to bail them out more often than not. That’s the main difference this season; now the quantity of looks the goalies are conceding is just as alarmingly high as the quality of the opportunities.

The complicating factor is that a quick fix is easier said than done. Whether it’s because of how financially committed they are to Jones or the lack of cap space or draft capital with which to improve their roster, the Sharks don’t have many palatable options. But they need to do something because we have a large enough sample with this team as currently constructed to know that things won’t get any better unless they change the goalies or change the way they’re playing in front of them.

It’s tough to say whether this is a good or bad thing, considering the long-term ramifications of the decision to sign Sergei Bobrovsky, but unlike the Sharks, the Panthers at least went above and beyond to fix their goaltending issues this summer. The troublesome part is that despite the $70 million they invested in Bobrovsky, the results haven’t been all that much better.

Last season, they were 30th in overall save percentage and 27th in goals against as a team. This season, they’re 27th and 26th in those respective metrics, which technically represents improvement — but not nearly enough for the money paid. Bobrovsky’s struggles have been immense in the early going. His .881 save percentage is ahead of just that of Cory Schneider, Jonathan Quick and Michael Hutchinson this season, and his -10.9 goals saved above average is 62nd out of 63 qualified goalies.

If there’s a saving grace, it’s that Bobrovsky struggled similarly out of the gate last season before turning his season around. Although it’s unlikely that he suddenly forgot how to stop the puck over the summer, concerns about the contract are popping up much sooner than even the biggest skeptics believed they would.

The Capitals are approaching a crossroads with their goalies. There’s no doubt that their starter, despite the early results, is Braden Holtby, but Ilya Samsonov‘s early performance makes things more interesting. Aside from the one stinker against the Canucks (which the Capitals actually came back to win), Samsonov has been the superior goalie, giving Washington a strong chance to win each time he has been given an opportunity.



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