|Goaltending and the Condensed Schedule||Tweet|
|Written by Rick Roos|
|Thursday, 10 January 2013 11:15|
For my first ever non-lockout column, I take a look at goalies, which as we all know can make or break a team in fantasy hockey just as often – if not more so - than in “real life” hockey.
One key question on everyone’s mind is how much the condensed schedule will affect the percentage of games that #1 goalies will play. Will proven workhorses rest more often in this shortened and condensed season, or will we actually see more goalies than usual play in a bigger chunk of their team’s games?
To put things in perspective, last season saw nine goalies play in more than 80% of their team’s games (80% of 82 is 65.6, so I’m talking about goalies who played in 66 or more games), and with that in mind the debate this week is whether there will be more or less than nine goalies who play in over 80% of their teams’ games in this shortened 2012-13 season.
There will be more – Fatigue and travel won’t be a major issue, each game will matter too much, and the 1994-95 season saw lots of workhorses
In debates like this, it’s always best to start with past numbers that occurred under similar circumstances. Looking back at the lockout shortened 1994-95 season, there were a total of 48 games for each team, so a goalie would have needed to play in 39 or more games to reach the 80% mark. And as it turned out, there were nine goalies who played in 39 or more games, which is very interesting because if you compare that number to what happened in the seasons immediately before and after 1994-95, you’ll see that nine was a big jump:
What this shows is that the nine goalies who played in 80% or more of their teams’ games in 1994-95 not only was an almost 30% jump from the highest total in any of the ten surrounding seasons, but it was nearly twice as much as the 4.7 average from those other seasons! Since as I’m writing this the consensus is the 2012-13 season either will have 48 games (the same as the 1994-95 season) or at most 50 games, this data is strong evidence that just like in 1994-95 we should expect a big jump this season in the number of goalies who play in 80% or more of their team’s games.
But beyond just these clear-cut numbers, several other factors also support this conclusion. For one, although there will be more games per week versus a normal NHL season, the demands placed on goalies are not likely to be so bad. This is because although actual revised NHL schedules have not been announced as I’m writing this, the consensus is that just like in 1994-95 teams this year will not have to play any regular season games outside of their conferences - Eastern Conference teams will only play other Eastern Conference teams, and Western Conference teams will only play other Western Conference teams (perhaps even with Winnipeg and Columbus switching conferences – another rumor making the rounds).
Plus, a lot of back to back games will likely be “home and home” series or with other geographically nearby teams. All this will cut down on travel immensely, and make back-to-back games easier to handle. Gone will be the long cross country road trips and all the pains (less sleep, less practice time, less time with trainers, more time zone differences) that came with them. So even though there will be more games in less time, the associated demands might well be easier to handle for #1 goalies, which means they won’t have issues logging an even higher percentage of playing time than normal.
Let’s also not ignore the fact that elite goalies want to play every day, whether out of a sense of pride or due to contractual performance bonuses. At the end of the season there still will be league leaders and the Vezina Trophy will still be awarded, so all the top netminders will want to give themselves the greatest shot of being the best of the best in the league. There’s also the issue of fan expectations. With all due respect to guys like Martin Biron and Chris Mason, fans who have waited so long for hockey to return won’t be happy to go to one of only 24 home games and end up not seeing Henrik Lundqvist or Pekka Rinne take the ice. The #1 goalies know this, and so do the teams which will be eager to repair their public image.
But even beyond the burdens and expectations placed on goalies by fans and themselves, coaches and GMs will be called upon by ownership to play their #1 goalies in every game they can handle for the simple reason that each game will matter far more than ever. Every team will be under even greater pressure to make the playoffs because in a 48 game season, each team will have only 24 home games to make money on tickets and concessions, and getting into the playoffs will mean at minimum a couple of more precious home games to increase their revenue. Think of it this way – even a team that loses a seven game first round series will have played three or four home games, which is an additional 10-15% above and beyond the 24 regular season games. Every regular season game will literally be considered a must win game to secure a crucial playoff spot, and that will mean more #1 goalies than usual will be put in the net night after night.
Lastly, keep in mind that the nine teams which had a goalie play in 80% or more games in 1994-95 represented about 35% of the 26 teams that were in the NHL at that time. There are now 30 NHL teams, so even if the shortened season percentage holds steady again at 35%, that would mean 10 or 11 this time around, which be more than the nine who played in 80% or more of their team’s games last season.
There will be less – The key is success in the playoffs, there are more capable back-ups now than in 1994-95, and injuries will happen
It’s true – as was said above - that the stakes literally have never been higher in this shortened season. But those stakes involve much more than just making the playoffs – it’s about ensuring success once you get there. After all, what good is it to a team if they play their #1 goalie in nearly all their regular season games, only to see him get injured or succumb to fatigue during the playoff games that really matter?
If having your starting goalie appear in 80% or more of your games during a shortened season was crucial to making the playoffs, then wouldn’t it stand to reason that pretty much all of the teams who were fighting for their playoff lives n 1994-95 would’ve leaned on their starters in nearly every game? But guess what – most didn’t! We know from above that 35% of teams in 1994-95 had goalies which appeared in 80% or more of their games. But we also know that in 1994-95, it took 47 points to make the playoffs in the East and 42 points to make it in the West (two teams ended up with 42). If you look at these three teams who just squeaked into the playoffs, plus the three teams which came closest to making the playoffs in the East (finishing with 46, 43 and 43 points) and the three teams which came closest in the West (finishing with 41, 39, and 38 points), it turns out that only three of those nine teams had goalies who appeared in 80% or more of their games. That’s a 33% rate, which was basically the same as the 35% rate for the league overall – so there goes that argument!
Let’s also not overlook the differences in the depth of NHL goalie talent in 1994-95 versus now. Back in 1994-95, many teams had very poor back-up goalies, so it’s not surprising that in a shortened season they couldn’t risk sitting their starters very often. Fast forward to now - over the nearly 20 years that have passed, more and more talent has found its way into the league, and as a result many teams have the luxury of a back-up goalie who is probably good enough to have been a starter back in 1994-95 (if not now too!). After all, would someone like Thomas Vokoun have been a back-up in 1994-95? I certainly don’t think so. But the fact that teams are now able to rely upon capable back-ups means that teams can – and will – give their starters the rest they need to stay fresh for the playoffs.
Also, during the lockout of 1994-95 you didn’t have players heading overseas to play pro hockey, as that simply was not a viable option back then. As a result, starting goalies in 1994-95 were well rested and didn’t have any wear and tear by the time the season actually started. But during this season’s lockout, many #1 goalies (Pekka Rinne, Tuukka Rask, Semyon Varlamov, Ondrej Pavelec, Niklas Backstrom, and Antii Niemi to name just some) ended up playing overseas for at least a good chunk of the past few months, so although there’s some benefit in that they’ll be entering this season in “game shape”, it also means playing in 80% of their NHL team’s games would take more of a toll than it did on goalies back in 1994-95, which might cause many teams to rethink that as an option.
Lastly, beyond just risk of injury, we all know there will be actual injuries and illnesses to at least some top netminders. The fact is that every year goalies get hurt and sick, and that’s when they’ve had the benefit of a full training camp and preseason which they won’t be able to enjoy this year. There might very well end up being more injuries this season amid the rush to start playing games, or over the course of the wear and tear of the season. And if a workhorse like Jonas Hiller or Mikka Kiprusoff misses just a week or two with a minor injury or gets a bad flu, that could easily make it so they couldn’t play the necessary 39 games even if they (or ownership) wanted them to do so.
The data from 1994-95 was eye opening for me, as even though I knew there were workhorses back in those days too I would not have expected so many goalies to play so many games in a shortened season, especially compared to other full seasons. On the other hand, the points about better back-ups and about even minor injuries or illnesses costing goalies large numbers of games are compelling too. But in the end, I think there is so much at stake for ownership and players alike that we’ll see the usual workhorses play their 80%, plus probably a few more goalies as well, leading to a number that is higher than the nine we saw last season.
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|Last Updated on Friday, 11 January 2013 11:10|