One of the biggest obstacles in a backup goalie’s career is playing consistently in very limited chances. For Josh Harding, this is the one thing that has plagued both he and his fantasy owners for years. He has only played in 60 games in just over four seasons (started only 45), due in large part to the strong play of Niklas Backstrom. As a result of Harding’s sporadic play, his fantasy value remains virtually non-existent until he’s traded or Backstrom gets injured.
Although Josh displays plenty of talent, has good big-save ability and takes advantage of a right-handed glove side, when he does play, his timing is almost always off, making him more prone to losing focus and confidence. One reason for this is because working hard in practice simply doesn't cut it. Every goalie at every level has to play in regular-season games (that mean something) in order to truly develop into a more valuable and effective performer.
Another reason for this is because there just haven’t been enough chances for him to get into a rhythm, nor have there been enough chances for him to gain any real momentum. As you will soon see through my extraction of Harding’s last two seasons, he’s pretty much stuck playing for a team that could be regarded as rhythm killers.
Last season, Harding played in 19 games and only started 11. His first minute of action didn’t come until Oct. 29 when he stopped 19-20 shots in relief for Backstrom. His performance was rightfully rewarded with his first start, which came the following night in a 2-1 loss to Montreal. Although Harding played strong in the loss, instead of getting into a third straight game, he was placed back on the bench. He didn’t start again until Nov. 29 in Nashville.
Harding was solid in Nashville, making 25 shots in a 6-2 win. But once again he wasn’t rewarded with another start in the next game. Instead it was Backstrom in net (Dec. 1) against Colorado. Disaster struck that night, as Backstrom was pulled after allowing six goals on 26 shots and Harding played the third period, making five straight saves. So in what should have been an obvious decision to go with Harding, the one who had played well in the previous two games and was gaining confidence, the Wild instead negatively reinforced his solid play by benching him again.
As a result of these circumstances, Harding seemed to struggle mightily for the rest of the season. He lost his only three starts in December and then went 0-1-1 in the first half of January. His next two games, however, were both relief performances in which he stopped every shot he faced – a combined 23 saves coming on Jan. 20 and Jan. 30.
Once again, two solid games were negatively reinforced, as Backstrom would start the next five games. Harding wouldn’t make his eighth start of the year until the second game of a back-to-back on Feb. 12 against the Red Wings. It turned out to be one of the best games of his career, as he made 39 saves on 43 shots in a 4-2 loss at the Joe.
And then it happened AGAIN. Instead of getting the next start after playing so well, the coaching staff decided to bench Harding for the next game (Feb. 14) against Ottawa. And once again, Backstrom ended up getting pulled and Harding played in relief. Sure enough, the trend continued, as the next game Harding started wasn’t until three games later (Feb. 22). And sure enough, it was another beauty - he made 44 saves in a huge 2-1 win in Chicago.
And then it happened AGAIN. For the third or fourth time (I’ve lost count now) Harding would not get the next start. Instead, two games passed before he would suffer a 3-2 loss in Edmonton. He didn’t start a single game in March but did relieve Backstrom three times, and in their final game of the season on Apr. 11, Harding won handily by a score of 6-3 over the Blue Jackets.
What makes this whole thing so frustrating is that in the 2007-08 season, Harding actually started, and won, a career high four straight games (Dec. 14-20)!! Although he got lit up for eight goals against by Detroit a few games later (Dec. 26), he bounced back nicely with three straight wins in just four nights (Jan. 10-13). After that, however, he only started two games in February and two in March and he lost them all. Simply put, the Wild coaches look like rhythm killers to a capable goalie prospect. When he played consistently, he performed well. When he rarely played, he struggled. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.
So what’s the moral of this story? A lot of goalies struggle when they can’t get into a rhythm. But obtaining it is a process that happens over time and then sooner or later, it SNAPS into place with one big save. Some goalies take longer than others to achieve that rhythm, but the more they play, the quicker they get there. Then BAM, finally, out of nowhere, they will make one big glove save or one acrobatic reflex save that has perfect timing…and they catch fire.
It looks to me like Harding has rarely received that well-deserved opportunity in Minnesota to play well. He would have two very good performances, but was never positively reinforced with another start. So to be brutally honest, the coaching staff needs to realize that he either has to play more, or be traded for a more suitable backup. You can’t relegate a raw rhythm goalie to starting only in a back-to-back game, otherwise he’s more prone to posting bad numbers. He needs confidence boosters every once in a while in order to help him develop a strong mental game.
I want you think about this real quickly. Does it hurt Backstrom’s confidence or momentum if he were to sit for two or three games in a row? NOPE. But does it hurt Harding if he plays one or two strong games and then goes right back to the bench? YEP. Straight up, if the Minnesota Wild really wanted to improve their backup goaltending, they would start Harding for at least three games in a row so he can finally get into a RHYTHM.
Speaking of rhythm, many situations are taking place right now that reveal something I’ve stressed for years; when goalies see the puck and get the blood flowing early in a game, it usually becomes a major key to their success and to their overall momentum and confidence.
One goalie that has struggled to start the season (besides Harding) is Martin Brodeur. Obviously there have been many things written about his rough start, but did anyone notice that most of it probably stems from the type of games the Devils have played so far? One thing that can help you make better goalie decisions is to look at the team, then the opponent and try to figure out what kind of flow and pace the game will have. Many different types of games can impact a goalie’s performance either negatively or positively over the course of a week, a month or a whole season.
This quote is from Brodeur after his 2-0 revenge shutout win over the Hurricanes on Saturday, one in which he faced a lot of good scoring chances early in the game and finally seemed to find his rhythm:
"I felt good," Brodeur said. "I felt strong and sort of made myself be active and it's fun. At least I got some shots early on. Against Atlanta [on Friday], I didn't get many shots  and it's hard to get going even though I should be used to it playing under Jacques for so many years. But it was nice to get the work and I felt good."
And that brings me to the scapegoat goalie of the week, Cristobal Huet. I could have supported everything I wrote above about Harding by showing how Huet is also a “rhythm” goalie, and how he’ll eventually round into form as more games take place, but I already did that right here in the School of Block forums. I suggest reading it.
THE OTHER RHYTHM KILLERS
Fact - goalies have been run into a ton to start the season. It was an aspect of the game that gained strength in the second half of last season along with more shots going wide on purpose. Both have come to fruition so far this year, as three of the best goalies so far this year have seen it the most - Henrik Lundqvist, Craig Anderson and Ryan Miller.
Here’s a great read on how a veteran like Miller is handling these situations. Instead of having a negative reaction, he respects the ability for players to crowd his crease and embraces it as a part of the game. He’s an NHL goalie, he can handle the physical play, as can all pro goalies. It’s a part of the game – but the diving and embellishment is not.
How a goalie handles traffic in front of him will definitely weigh into their overall confidence, focus and poise. The ones that react by not reacting at all are the ones focused on stopping the puck. The other ones allow their minds to get cluttered with vengeance or frustration. Either way, it reveals a lot of how a goalie is currently playing. I can also always tell if a goalie is confident in himself and his teammates if he constantly works at establishing his positioning at the top or above his crease. Anderson does this extremely well, as do some other confident goalies.
On a personal note, I hope the game continues favoring more traffic in front. I’m a big fan of Tomas Holmstrom’s style of play - it’s a challenge for goalies and it doesn’t include shrinking equipment!
PERSONAL RECORDS AGAINST OPPOSING TEAMS
There’s a real advantage to be had from knowing a goalie’s personal record against opposing teams. It’s probably one of the most overlooked goalie statistic out there. Simply put, many goalies have a high comfort level in certain buildings, and although it doesn’t always translate to an awesome outing, (Nabokov was burned by Ovechkin in Washington for his first career loss to the Capitals in nine games), the odds are that the strong play will continue.
We all know about Chris Osgood’s career record against the Lightning and Antero Niittymaki’s record against the Thrashers, but not many people knew that Johan Hedberg has been a dominant force against the Sabres over his career. The Moose made 40 saves against the Sabres on Saturday, improving to 11-2-1 lifetime against Buffalo while also handing them their first regulation loss of the year.
This dynamic is one to research if you have trouble making a decision on who to start. Let’s all keep an eye out for more of these personal records and make an effort to post them somewhere in the forums, and I’ll do the same.
Finally, if you’ve made it this far, congratulations - you’ve just read one of, if not the longest School of Block article I’ve ever written. I truly appreciate you taking the time to read my diatribe and I hope it has helped your understanding of the goaltending position from a fantasy, mental and technical standpoint.