You can’t trust one man to do the job.
Never has goaltending depth been such a prized commodity across the National Hockey League, and the lack of it so apparent so early.
Crowding your crease with a few good men was a theme that underscored 2015-16, one underscored by Pittsburgh backup Matt Murray hoisting the Stanley Cup and Montreal falling from first place to a lottery club when Carey Price went down. For the first time since 1980, all eight goalies appeared in the conference finals, Murray out-duelling Tampa backup Andrei Vasilevskiy for the Prince of Wales Trophy.
In the past three seasons, no goalie reached the 70-start plateau. Last season, seven teams used four different goalies. St. Louis and Montreal used five apiece.
Net relief has become just as critical in this young campaign.
Injuries to their top two goaltenders have a pair of playoff hopefuls, Los Angeles and Boston, looking at trade possibilities and crossing their fingers when the noontime waiver wire alights.
The Ottawa Senators (Craig Anderson, personal reasons), Arizona Coyotes (Mike Smith, lower body), Buffalo Sabres (Robin Lehner, illness), and Anaheim Ducks (Jonathan Bernier, upper body) have also had their depth tested two weeks into an especially truncated schedule.
A smart colleague of mine also points to San Jose: What if Martin Jones stumbles? Can the Cup-dreaming Sharks really trust 27-year-old rookie Aaron Dell (career record: 1-0-0) to take the ball and run with it?
In order to accommodate September’s World Cup of Hockey and each club’s bye week — a concession by the league to the Players’ Association in return for agreeing to a three-on-three All-Star Game — teams will play more back-to-backs and three-in-four sets. Hence, a greater need to spread out starts and plan for fatigue and injury prevention.
“It just seems we play every other day,” Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford told Hockey Central at Noon Friday. “Having two or three NHL goalies is important this season. One, it’s nice to have that depth in case of injuries. But two, it’s nice to have that competition, where guys can push each other.”
Yep. Both the Penguins and Islanders are carrying a trio of goalies at the NHL level, waiting for either injury or the right trade. Winnipeg (Ondrej Pavelec) and Florida (Reto Berra) each have a capable NHL 1B currently staying warm in the minors.
Pittsburgh’s situation is particularly compelling. Rutherford scooped up Mike Condon from Montreal when Murray was sidelined, but now that Murray’s healthy and Marc-Andre Fleury is in the zone, Condon is sitting in the press box while the vultures circle. Meanwhile, 21-year-old prospect Tristan Jarry is having himself a time in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, going 3-1 with a .950 save percentage. Give him a year or two, and he should grow into Murray’s permanent backup.
So, what’s the plan for Condon, a Michigan native surely eyed by Boston?
“Not to put him on waivers, for that exact reason — but not just for that reason. We like him,” said Rutherford, who is open to moving Condon in a deal that makes sense.
“The only way Mike will be put on waivers is if we get in roster trouble, but right now we’re just going with the three goalies.”
Ditto the Islanders.
With Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss ahead of him on the depth chart, Jean-Francois Berube has essentially become Frank Corrado in bigger pads. Like Condon, Berube can’t pass waivers without getting claimed. He’s young (25) and has been a winner in limited professional action. All three Isles goalies will become free agents within two years; GM Garth Snow can’t let one get snatched up for nothing.
The Kings have been lucky that AHL call-up Peter Budaj has bucked assumptions, winning four consecutive games, but their decision to sign frequent castoff Anders Lindback (career record: 45-58-8) to a PTO suggests the franchises flush with goalie depth are reluctant to part with it.
Despite off-season trade rumours, the Red Wings held on to both Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek; the Lightning hung on to Ben Bishop and Vasilevskiy; and the Stars stood by their two No. 1s. All three of those teams sit nicely in the standings, making it difficult to criticize their approach.
Florida lost reliable backup Al Montoya to free agency (merci, says Montreal) and replaced him with two decent Plan B options: James Reimer and Berra.
The latter is buried in AHL Springfield, where he’s 2-0 with a .976 save percentage.
We asked Panthers hockey president Dale Tallon about Berra’s situation this week.
“He had a solid camp and a great attitude,” Tallon said. “You can’t have enough depth. We have depth in goal and D—that’s the most important position with the rules of the games and the number of defencemen and goalies getting hurt in the last few years. I don’t know why that is. We realize depth is important to go deep [in the playoffs], and we have that now.”
So, are you willing to trade Berra to one of your injury-stricken opponents?
“That’s something I wouldn’t divulge,” Tallon said, “but when you have depth at one position, there’s always a need.”
Especially this season.