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Want to Win a Stanley Cup? Don't Platoon Goalies in the Playoffs

Teams rely on 1A/1B tandems more than ever, and it works in the regular season, but history suggests flip-flopping starters in the playoffs is a bad idea.
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Andrei Vasilevskiy is a unicorn. When he raised the Stanley Cup above his head last June, er, September, he did so as the first goalie to win 18 games during a single post-season. Shining in the Tampa Bay Lightning’s crease, Vasilevskiy started 25 playoff games in less than two months. Including the regular season, he started 77 of Tampa’s 95 games, good for an 81-percent piece of the puck-stopping pie – all while the league-wide trend of burning goalies to the wick had actually been dissipating.

Looking at the past 20 full 82-game seasons, from 1997-98 to 2018-19, reveals a gradual shift toward spreading out workloads. From 1997-98 to 2011-12, an average of 3.4 goalies per season started more than 70 games. From 2013-14 through 2018-19, only three goalies in total did so. The 2018-19 season also produced the fewest goalies ever to start at least 60 games or even just 50 games. On the flip side, 2018-19 yielded the most goalies in NHL history with 20-plus and 30-plus starts in a season. In 1997-98, the peak of the workhorse era, teams’ goalie-usage trees were narrow, with 38 goalies starting 20 or more games. In 2018-19: 56 did – almost two goalies per team.

The reason for the shift is obvious: the demands of the position have changed. The crackdowns on obstruction in 2005-06 and, more recently, slashing in 2017-18 have allowed for more east-west puck movement, meaning goaltenders move laterally far more often in games. Shots on goal per game league-wide also were the highest in almost 50 years from 2017-18 through 2019-20. Goalies have never had to work harder during games, so the position takes a great toll on their bodies. That’s why the rise of the 1B platoon partner has become so important. Gone are the days of Scott Clemmensen showing up for half a dozen games a year while Martin Brodeur started 75-plus for the New Jersey Devils.

According to Steve Valiquette, a former NHL goalie who now works as a goaltending consultant and runs a hockey analytics company, a modern goaltender may get up and down from a butterfly position 300 times during a typical workday, putting tremendous stress on the groin muscles during each recovery to a standing position. Valiquette sees regular rest as paramount and believes the Lightning would not have won the Stanley Cup last year had Vasilevskiy not gotten the unexpected four-month rest during the COVID-19 pause, as he was on track to play too many games.

“We’re trying to always manufacture adrenaline, euphoria, energy, emotion, that’s what we’re trying to do as goalies with our game-day routines,” Valiquette said. “You do that 70 times, all your tricks are gone. And now you’ve got to do it all over again in the post-season. It’s too much to ask. It’s as much a physical burden as it is a mental burden, and that’s why teams aren’t doing it anymore. Plus, goalie coaches have gotten through to upper management that if they want to keep their cars aligned during the year, they’ve got to allow time for the tuneup.”

The trend intensified this season while the COVID-19 pandemic took a wrecking ball to rosters and forced the league into a condensed schedule often requiring back-to-backs or patches of three games in four nights. In 2020-21, 66 goaltenders started at least 10 games.

So the recent goalie data overwhelmingly tells us the workhorse goalie who starts almost every game is extinct…in the regular season. In the playoffs, the past two decades of Stanley Cup-winning goaltenders are pretty much a list of every-game ironmen. Of the past 25 Cup-winning teams, 19, or 76 percent, had a single goaltender record all 16 victories en route to the championship – and it’s 80 percent if you count Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who won 13 games in the 2007 Cup run because he missed time due to a family emergency but was the unquestioned starter when he was able to play.

We’ve reached an era in which more teams than ever regularly start two goalies, yet it’s still rare to see a true tandem win a Cup. It happened in 2017, when Marc-Andre Fleury backstopped Pittsburgh for two rounds before ceding the crease to Matt Murray for the last two, but they qualify as an extreme exception. Why?

There’s no better person to answer that question than the busiest No. 1 goalie who’s ever lived: Brodeur, the NHL’s all-time leader in games, wins and shutouts. He played more than 70-plus games in 12 seasons and won all 48 games across the Devils’ Cup runs in 1995, 2000 and 2003. In his mind, sticking with one starter in the post-season is all about rhythm.

“Personally, I love to have a guy that is going to be there and run the table,” Brodeur said. “It’s just a matter of habits for a goalie. Because two goalies are not the same, they don’t play the same, so your players are reacting to how the goalie plays. Let’s say you have a guy who plays the puck a lot, and the other guy doesn’t play the puck a lot. If you start switching goalies, it makes a difference in how you recover pucks or make plays defensively. It’s a huge asset to be able to rely on one and live and die with it.”

Therein lies the paradox. It’s proven that one workhorse goalie wins in the playoffs, yet one workhorse goalie isn’t realistic in the regular season anymore. Even the legendary workhorse Brodeur admits the position is far more gruelling now than it used to be and that he would have a harder time handling it today. It seems the best formula is a hybrid: rolling with a 1A/1B battery in the regular season, managing the No. 1 goalie’s load, but committing to the No. 1 for the duration of the playoffs. While the correlation between trusting one starter and winning a Cup is strong, the correlation between regular-season load management and winning a Cup is just as strong. Of the past 12 championship goalies, 11 started fewer than 60 games in the regular season.

Once the regular season ends and the playoff grind begins, teams are best off tapping the same masked man to tend goal every night. So don’t expect a trend of playoff platoons winning eight games apiece en route to championships anytime soon.

“I think the trend is going to stay the same,” Brodeur said. “I don’t see 1As and 1Bs. It’s just too hard for a guy to get in a rhythm when he doesn’t play a lot. In the regular season, you need your breaks, and there’s no doubt about that. That’s why you see those 70/30 breakups of goaltending. When you get in the playoffs, the guy that played 70 percent of the games, he should be your guy.”

Semyon Varlamov or Ilya Sorokin? Sergei Bobrovsky, Chris Driedger or Spencer Knight? Playoff history tell us current flip-flopper teams like New York Islanders and Florida Panthers should commit to one starter apiece and stick with him.

This is an updated version of a story that appeared in the 2020-21 Playoff Preview edition of The Hockey News.

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