Thursday, May 13, 2010

Regading Goaltending and the 70-Game Myth

I have come to a conclusion about goalies, they can win one of two things, a Vezina or a Stanley Cup.

Stay with me on this, outside of Martin Brodeur who thrived in a trap system with Hall-of-Fame or future Hall of Famer defencemen as well as fantastic coaching, no goaltender has won a Stanley Cup while playing 70 games or over in over 20 years. The closet to that was Mike Richter with the 1994 New York Rangers when he played 68 in the regular season. The best playoff goalie in recent NHL history or perhaps even All-Time, the magnificent Patrick Roy always kept to the low 60s in his career, this ensured he had work, but had rest for a deep playoff run.

But it takes at least 65, usually 70 or so games with 40 wins or close to that to contend for a Vezina. That's how it is, the most wins and great stats over a very long time. Vezina has to go the goalie who accomplished the most over a long season in the eyes of the General Managers of the NHL. A 60-game goalie can win it, but he'd better have 35 wins and astounding stats. The cap era makes it hard to explain why a goalie you're paying 5-7 million a year is sitting on the bench for 20 of your 82 games in a season and you're losing a number of those games he doesn't play. So he gets played and you have an unreliable backup for a million dollars or less who can't be trusted to win half the games you play him in so he's on the bench for all but 7-10 games a season.

Why am I mentioning this? Because it's killing the careers of Mikka Kiprusoff, Ryan Miller, Roberto Luongo and Henrik Lundqvist and it is threatening the promising careers of Jonathan Quick, Craig Anderson, Ilya Bryzgalov, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jimmy Howard and potentially Montreal's very own Jaroslav Halak.

I don't know if Luongo and Lundqvist are big-stage chokers. Lundqvist has International Honours including a Gold Medal with Sweden, but has played about 300 games in his last 4 years as a goaltender, that's just a ton of mental pressure and I think it has been grinding him down. Luongo has a similar story to his starts, over 450 in his last 6 years. Kiprusoff's best year with the Flames in the post-season was the first year he arrived and only played half of the regular season. Since then, over 400 games in his last 5 NHL seasons. Anyone else think that playing under 65 games a year might have just given them that little bit extra in the tank to get things done when it really mattered, or not put the pressure and burden of the captaincy on a goaltender who already has a ton on his plate in Vancouver?

Many people felt Ryan Miller should have earned an MVP nod for his performance this year, but that performance ended his ability to compete in the post-season. Ryan Miller's turned in 295 games in his last 4 NHL years as well, by his final game of the year? That was his 81st game he'd played on April 26th, 2010 when his season began on October 1st when he'd also played in the incredible, already legendary Olympic Men's Hockey Tournament, so he had basically not rested since day 1 of the NHL season.

Notable Comparison: Patrick Roy played his 82nd game of the year in the 1992-1993 season when he won his 2nd Stanley Cup and 2nd Conn Smythe trophy, but he played his final game on June 9th and his season had begun on October 13th. He had 41 extra days to complete his accomplishment and had no compressed schedule or Olympic competititon to deal with.

Jonathan Quick, Craig Anderson, Ilya Brzgalov, Jimmy Howard are coming into their own as netminders, Marc-Andre Fleury already has won a Stanley Cup. However, Quick and Anderson turned in over 70 games this year for reasons that escape me, Bryzgalov went to 69 on a team he had to lift on his back for much of the year. Jimmy Howard enjoyed a lot of seasoning in the AHL, but NHL competition is a whole other story and playing over 60 games including starting just about every game since the Olympic break I think took it's toll on the breakout goaltending star of Detroit. Marc-Andre Fleury has played 186 games since the playoffs of 2007-2008, he's a young guy and yes he should be able to take that, but that's a ton of high-pressure hockey that can wear on a goalie mentally, going for a 3rd trip to the Cup Final may have been a bit too much on the young man, especially on a team that battled their own slogan of "Defy Ordinary" for much of the year and lost key playoff performers.

All these goalies? They're at the golf course right now save Evgeni Nabokov and I don't think he'll be the guy to break what I term the 70-game rule for seeing the Stanley Cup Finals, over 70 in the regular season, you're not touching the Cup. I suspect Chicago will blast Nabokov out of nets in the Western Conference Finals.

Best goalie remaining in the playoffs? Jaroslav Halak, a .933 Save % and a 2.42 GAA, best among all active netminders remaining in the playoffs. He played 52 games before the playoffs this year including the Olympic Tournament. Next year, I pray he stays under 65 starts, nothing against him but I don't see Montreal in another deep playoff run if he does. He's never had to start as often as he has now and I don't see why he'll suddenly buck the trend and win a Cup with 70 games played in the regular season, even as he is now I don't think he would be if he was just finished playing his 91st game of the year instead of his 66th, which it would be if he was a 70-game man this year.

Jaroslav Halak is due a very hefty raise on his RFA status come the summer and I hope General Manager Pierre Gauthier makes an adept, cap-friendly deal that keeps Jaroslav Halak locked down for the next 5-6 years. I also hope he sees the need for a capable backup so his star netminder can be rested for post-season success. Despite cap concerns, a more expensive backup who can win a few games can mean Halak is rested enough to help the team win when they really need it above all else. If Price is retained so the Habs can build up his value next season by getting him some wins early in the year and then deal him at the trade deadline, all well and good. If he is dealt this summer, I Hope a good backup who can play 20 games and win half of them with decent support is signed. Either way, Jaroslav Halak's career could be defined by whether he plays under 65 games a year like the magnificent Patrick Roy did when he won his 4 Stanley Cups and 3 Conn Smythe trophies or over 65 games like some of the wonderful goalies above who have been frustrated by a lack of rest and success in the post-season.

We all want our goalies to succeed no matter what team we back, but we should acknowledge these are human beings with limits. The NHL has never been faster than it is now, the skill needed to score is higher than ever because of the evolution of goaltending and that demands even better goaltending as the shooters get better and more innovative to defeat the latest goaltending techniques. A goalie who starts 72 games will spend the equivalent of three whole days in nets before the post-season starts. That is a lot of mental stress and hard physical punishment. To expect this goalie to then play up to 28 more games in higher-stakes, more competitive hockey and be better during all of that just seems maddening.

It's no surprise to me the best goalie in the playoffs is one that has played under 60 games this year, I just hope I'm not unsurprised if he plays 70 next year and he falls early in the playoffs.

Jaroslav Halak could win a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe Trophy this year. The Vezina winners? They can enjoy their Golf.

1 comment:

  1. Great article and a sound perspective on this goalie issue.


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