MONTREAL, QC. — If you’re a fan of the Montreal Canadiens, you know all too well that the question “how many games should an NHL goaltender start in a regular season?” has come up quite often in recent years, much more so than I can remember as a child.
It’s been a popular topic in Montreal because Carey Price, who played 70 regular season games, combined with seven playoff games in 2010-11, played through 65 games this past season. If not for a late-season injury Price would have probably played close to last year’s numbers, with Peter Budaj playing five of the last seven games to close out the season.
What exactly is the ideal number of games that a goaltender should play in a season, if a team wishes to maximize it’s chances of going deep into the playoffs? I asked the question both on Twitter and Facebook, and from all the answers I received, the one I agreed with most came from @bretjennings who said, “Depends on the goalie.”
I agree because for example, you could argue that:
- Based on age alone, a younger goaltender would have more stamina, strength and energy to play a higher number of games within a season than an older counterpart.
- A goaltender with sound positioning and long fluid strides to move across their crease, would spend less energy during a game than for example, a goalie with shorter, quicker strides, who might find themselves lunging for pucks rather than being squarely in position to make the save.
- A goaltender who can play the puck well outside their crease, could limit the number of shots and scoring opportunities other teams obtain, by not allowing them to either dump the puck into the defensive end to setup, or by simply assisting his team in breaking out of their own zone.
“I’d play all of’em, if I could.”
- Carey Price when asked how many games he felt he could play in an NHL season / @KvanSteendelaar
That being said, most agree that a starting goaltender, shouldn’t play more than about 60-65 games per season. In that scenario, the backup would therefore be playing between 17-22 games. Although I agreed with Bret above, generally speaking, the 60-65 game range makes sense to me. That doesn’t mean that in certain scenarios, a goaltender could not play more games and be successful, and sometimes factors force teams into this position. Injury and unsatisfactory play from the backup goaltender would probably be the two most likely scenarios.
In the responses I received, some would argue that 70-75 games should not be an issue for starting goaltenders, while at the other pole, some argued that 50 should be the maximum. So whether you believe it’s 50, 65 or 75 games you probably would agree that it’s wise to look at how many games goaltenders who’ve had success in the past played in their respective seasons.
First of all, let’s take a look at the four starting goaltenders that remain in this season’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.
What I find interesting when you look at this table, is that both goalies from the Eastern Conference played approximately 60 regular season games each (Lundqvist 62, Brodeur 59), while both goalies from the Western Conference played above the 65-game marker (Quick 69, Smith 67). You could therefore argue that that the Eastern Conference goalies fall into the “preferred model” of games played while both goaltenders from the Western Conference fall into the category of “having possibly been slightly overplayed.”
Two playoff series that go all the way to seven games can however mix up the numbers, as we can see in Lundqvist’s case, because although he played seven games less than Quick in the regular season, he’s only two behind right now if you combine regular season games with playoff games.
All of this said, if you look at the numbers combined with the overall performances, you can’t argue that they are all having great playoffs so far. Brodeur is possibly a little behind the other three, but a goals against average (GAA) below two and a save percentage (Sv%) above .920 is very respectable.
Lundqvist on the other hand has a GAA of 1.64 which is second to only Jonathan Quick. His Sv% is one-thousandth percent short of .940 and his three shutouts have him co-leading all goaltenders in the playoffs.
Mike Smith is the one who he shares that lead with in shutouts. The Phoenix netminder also has a very respectable 1.90 GAA, and a Sv% of .946 which is second by only two-thousandths of a percent to Jonathan Quick.
And finally, we have Jonathan Quick, who’s lost only two games in these playoffs, and leads all goaltenders in both GAA (1.46) and Sv% (.948) and also has two shutouts on his record.
We don’t yet know who of the four here will go on to win the Stanley Cup (we know it won’t be Smith), but it’s safe to say that in the very small sample size we’ve just looked at, numbers of games played in the season did not appear to be a determining factor.
What if we were to expand our search to previous seasons? What if we were to look at the goaltenders who have won the Stanley Cup, and see how many games they had played in their regular seasons, and see if we can draw any conclusions from that information? I decided to take a look at all Stanley Cup winning goaltenders since the lockout:
|Season||Stanley Cup Winner||Goaltender||Season||Playoffs||Total|
|2010-11||Boston Bruins||Tim Thomas||57||25||82|
|2009-10||Chicago Blackhawks||Antti Niemi||39||22||61|
|2008-09||Pittsburgh Penguins||MA Fleury||62||24||86|
|2007-08||Detroit Red Wings||Chris Osgood||43||19||62|
|2006-07||Anaheim Ducks||JS Giguere||56||18||74|
|2005-06||Carolina Hurricanes||Cam Ward||28||23||51|
It’s not like I haven’t been watching hockey these past years but can I just say that I was a little mind blown by the results. With Marc-Andre Fleury being the only exception in 2008-09, all goalies played less than 60 games during their regular season, and in many cases, were not even projected to be the starter during the playoffs, not originally anyway.
In Boston’s case, the plan was originally to move Tuukka Rask into the role of starting goaltender, but some struggles early on in the season, combined with stellar play by Tim Thomas pushed the latter into the starting role.
In Chicago’s case, they had acquired Cristobal Huet and signed him to a huge four-year deal worth over 22 million dollars. Huet played more games than Niemi during the season (Huet 48, Niemi 39) but struggles late in the season by Huet earned him a spot on the bench during the playoffs. What’s interesting here is that the following season, both Huet and Niemi were gone from Chicago.
We will skip Fleury as he was the projected starter all along, and played 62 games which falls into our “preferred model.”
In Detroit’s case, we remember that Hasek started the playoffs for the Detroit Wings, won his first two games, lost his next two, and that was all she wrote. Osgood would replace him, and play every subsequent game eventually winning his third Stanley Cup.
For Anaheim, in the playoffs prior to their Cup win, none other than Ilya Bryzgalov had stolen the number one position from Jean-Sebastien Giguere, going three consecutive shutout games tying an NHL record and breaking Giguere’s team record. It could have therefore been considered a surprise at the time for Giguere to reclaim that number one position. The Ducks resigned him to a multi-year deal.
Finally, we have the Carolina Hurricanes, who had high hopes on Martin Gerber at the time. Gerber had played the majority of games in the regular season, and had started off the playoffs for the Hurricanes. With a two loss deficit to the Canadiens, they turned to Cam Ward who lead a series comeback, and would eventually go on to be the first rookie goaltender to lead his team to conquer the Stanley Cup, since Patrick Roy in 1986.
Can we really draw any conclusions from this? Do goaltenders who come into the playoffs “fresh” really stand a better chance over others?
I decided to go a little farther back with the numbers:
|Season||Stanley Cup Winner||Goaltender||Season||Playoffs||Total|
|2003-04||Tampa Bay Lightning||Nikolai Khabibulin||55||23||78|
|2002-03||New Jersey Devils||Martin Brodeur||73||24||97|
|2001-02||Detroit Red Wings||Dominik Hasek||65||23||88|
|2000-01||Colorado Avalanche||Patrick Roy||62||23||85|
|1999-00||New Jersey Devils||Martin Brodeur||72||23||95|
|1998-99||Dallas Stars||Ed Belfour||61||23||84|
|1997-98||Detroit Red Wings||Chris Osgood||64||22||86|
|1996-97||Detroit Red Wings||Chris Osgood||64||22||86|
|1995-96||Colorado Avalanche||Patrick Roy||39||22||61|
|1994-95||New Jersey Devils||Martin Brodeur||40||20||60|
|1993-94||New York Rangers||Mike Richter||68||23||91|
|1992-93||Montreal Canadiens||Patrick Roy||62||20||82|
|1991-92||Pittsburgh Penguins||Tom Barrasso||57||21||78|
|1990-91||Pittsburgh Penguins||Tom Barrasso||48||20||68|
|1989-90||Edmonton Oilers||Bill Ranford||56||22||78|
|1988-89||Calgary Flames||Mike Vernon||52||22||74|
|1987-88||Edmonton Oilers||Grant Fuhr||75||19||94|
|1986-87||Edmonton Oilers||Grant Fuhr||44||19||63|
|1985-86||Montreal Canadiens||Patrick Roy||47||20||67|
|1984-95||Edmonton Oilers||Grant Fuhr||46||18||64|
If we split up the regular season games played by each Stanley Cup winning goaltender into three categories, being less than 60 games played, between 60 and 65 games played, and over 65 games played, we get the following results over the course of the last 26 NHL seasons:
|< 60||60 – 65||> 65|
Although Brodeur, Grant Fuhr, and Mike Richter proved you can win the cup by playing a loaded regular season calendar, I myself was surprised to find out that the numbers were heavily in the favor of goaltenders having played less than 60 games. Goaltenders playing less than 60 games combine for 58 per cent of the result, more than half of the other two categories combined. A couple of other little stats:
- The last twenty-six Stanley Cup winning goaltenders averaged 55 regular season games each.
- Of the 15 goaltenders who played less than 60 regular season games, they themselves averaged 47 regular season games each.
Do these numbers really prove anything?
In my opinion, yes they do. For the last couple of years I have been saying that Carey Price’s playing time is not something that people should be concerned with — he’s young, strong, and plays in a manner that allows him to conserve a lot of his energy. Although this may still be true, what the numbers suggest, is that a goaltender certainly doesn’t need to play 85 per cent of the regular season calendar to have success in the playoffs.