Net gains: NHL’s load management is top goalies playing less

Marc-Andre Fleury plays when he’s told.

How much he plays has changed.

A decade ago, Fleury started 61 out of 82 games before backstopping Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup. He started 58 and 34 times on the Penguins’ 2016 and 2017 Cup runs splitting time with Matt Murray, then made 46 starts for Vegas and led the expansion Golden Knights to the final.

“As a player, I love being in there. I love playing the game,” Fleury said. “It’s tough to find like the perfect amount of games. Nowadays, I feel like we’re hearing more than ever how we’re going to manage two goalies and stuff.”

Consider it hockey’s version of “load management” that’s gained popularity in basketball. Don’t expect NHL teams to handpick games throughout the season to rest star players – except top goaltenders who are getting more nights off while their backups share the net with an eye toward playoff success.

Each of the past five Cup-winning goalies started fewer than 60 games in the regular season, along with three of the past five runners up. The days of Martin Brodeur starting 78 games are gone – only three goalies have 70-plus starts over the past five seasons – and teams think year-round about how to best prepare to play deep into June.

“The trend is definitely going the way that you split the net more,” said Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask, who carried the Bruins to Game 7 of the final last year after starting 46 times in the regular season. “It’s a tough thing because if your starter makes $8-9 million, you want him to play. But then you want to win the Cup, so you’ve got to think of it like, well, if this guy plays 70 games, is he going to play 25 in the playoffs at the same level? Versus OK we’re playing him 45, 50 really good games and then we got the other guy and the A guy’s going to play 25 really good (playoff games).”

Rask and Jaroslav Halak, Washington’s Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer in 2018 and Pittsburgh’s Murray and Fleury the previous two years are prime examples. Jordan Binnington didn’t make his first NHL start until January, but 32 games of work made him fresh to help the St. Louis Blues win the Cup last season.

It’s a delicate balance of having enough salary cap space to employ two capable goalies with playing time, plotting out the schedule for maximum rest benefits and collecting enough points to make the playoffs.

“It’s a collaborative discussion that all teams have,” Vegas general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. “What we’re doing is trying to win hockey games during the regular season, trying to keep both of our goalies sharp and trying to have all our players at the top of their game come playoffs.”

The New York Islanders have alternated Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov for their first 24 games and allow the fourth-fewest goals in the league. Anaheim’s coaching staff pencils in both John Gibson or Ryan Miller for all 82 games and revisits incrementally to adjust for injuries and workloads.

“It has very little to do with games,” Ducks coach Dallas Eakins said. “It has more to do with how much work. We had a game earlier this year where we were overwhelmed in the game against Vegas. I think they put up 50 shots, and we were in our zone the whole time. That went down as one game for John, but he really played two, so that’s kind of how we look at it.”

Miller previously preferred to skip a game with a couple days off on each end for a mental break. He sees so many teams splitting back-to-backs and understands it but also thinks battling some old-school fatigue can be good for a goaltender.

“I don’t think there’s a strict recipe,” said Miller, whose career high was 74 starts in 2007-08 with Buffalo. “I think some adversity is good to keep your mentality in the right place. It’s not going to be a cake walk and then playoffs hit and it’s like (you’re) dialed in. You’ve got to go through some stuff and work through it and battle through the harder situations so that’s just your mindset every night.”

NHL goalies believe modern games are more difficult with higher shot totals than past decades. Teams are averaging 30 shots a game in 2019-20, while the schedule has more back-to-backs.

“Nowadays there’s a lot more work for a goalie: a lot less hooking and holding up for the D-men, so there’s a lot more chances or a lot more in-zone time that you’re actually working,” said Philadelphia’s Brian Elliott, who’s part of a successful tandem with Carter Hart. “Even if you’re maybe not getting shots, you’re looking through screens, you’re doing a lot of work.”

Vegas coach Gerard Gallant appreciates Fleury wants to play all 82 games, and he’s not alone in wanting to grab the net and not let go.

“I’ve felt a lot better every year I played a lot more games,” said Holtby, who led the league with 73 games played in 2014-15. “It’s a little more of a feel game instead of an analytics game just because of the speed of it. … It’s one of those things everyone’s probably different. It probably has a lot to do with how you practice and everything.”

Some goalies are going to play more than others; Florida’s $10 million man, Sergei Bobrovsky, or Montreal’s Carey Price, the highest-paid goalie in the league, could start 60 or more just because his team needs an elite level of play.

“We’d love to have (Price) in every game, but it’s not realistic,” Canadiens coach Claude Julien said. “We give him some days off of practices because that’s not quite as important as him in games.”

The most important thing, of course, is the playoffs. It’s tough for starters who want to play all the time and it takes an adjustment, but the proof is in the names on the Stanley Cup that splitting the net works.

“Everybody wants to play,” Rask said. “The older you get, I think it becomes a little easier to realize that it’s not about me. I’m resting for the team.”

And resting with the hope that shouldering less of a load now makes a goalie more likely to raise a trophy over his shoulders at the end of the season.

Seven hockey players suspended in Belarus match-fixing case

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ZURICH — Seven ice hockey players have been suspended during an investigation into match-fixing in the Belarus league.

The players — five from Belarus and two from Russia — told a domestic investigation they were paid to help arrange the outcome of a game in November, the International Ice Hockey Federation said on Friday.

“During the investigation, each of the players also admitted that they had agreed to exert an unlawful influence on the outcome of the game in exchange for illegal remuneration,” the governing body said in a statement.

The IIHF said its disciplinary board had taken over the case “for further review and sanctioning.”

The case involves Dynamo Molodechno’ losing to Mogilyov 6-5 in a Belarus Extraliga game.

The players have been suspended from taking part in any competition organized by the IIHF or its member federations.

PHT Morning Skate: NHL vs. viruses; Flat salary cap pain = Avs’ gain?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Lafreniere, COVID-19 hockey concerns, and how Avs may benefit from a flat salary cap

• Rank Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen among those expressing some misgivings about playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. [TSN]

• Breaking: Alexis Lafreniere is not a defenseman. In all seriousness, a look at some Maple Leafs possibilities … which might be complicated at No. 1 because of that positional point. Maybe? [Pension Plan Puppets]

• Speaking of those Maple Leafs, Buds fans are not pleased about the idea of a possible flat, $81.5M salary cap. There are teams who might take advantage of this situation, though. Here’s why the Avalanche could be one of those teams. [Mile High Hockey]

• A look back at the NHL’s “rivalries” with viruses. Does the history of the NHL’s dealing with such issues — even the Mumps — be a cause for concern amid COVID-19 outbreaks? [Arctic Ice Hockey]

• Earlier this week, PHT selected the best landing spots for Alexis Lafreniere. What about getting even more specific? Andrew Berkshire shared his picks for some of the lines that would benefit most from adding the consensus No. 1 pick to their left side. [Sportsnet]

Other hockey links

• Sean Gentille put together an oral history for the Jean Claude Van Damme masterpiece “Sudden Death.” If you haven’t heard of the candidate for “so-bad-it’s-good” designation, how about the elevator pitch: “Die Hard at a hockey game.” [The Athletic (sub required)]

• On face value, this article focuses most on Rudy Gobert and Novak Djokovic and athletes feeling invulnerable to COVID-19. But it’s a really good read for hockey fans, players, and executives as cautionary tales with a return-to-play picking up steam. [The Score]

• Joe Pelletier of Greatest Hockey Legends wonders why the bar is set so high for goalies to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Not an awful point when you consider that they play the most important position in the sport, and all. I wouldn’t mind Ron Hextall making a future cut, to name just one worthy goalie. [Greatest Hockey Legends]

• Five crossovers between hockey and Todd McFarlane. Yes, the “Spawn” guy. [PuckJunk]

• Taking a run at putting together the Sabres’ roster during the upcoming offseason. It gets elaborate, including potential trades. Yes, this scenario includes trading away Rasmus Ristolainen. Don’t they all? [Die by the Blade]

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Our Line Starts podcast: NHL, NHLPA nearing agreement; hub cities, Olympics, CBA

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Liam McHugh, Keith Jones, and Patrick Sharp react to the reports that the NHL and NHLPA are nearing the completion of a massive agreement that would not only cover this year’s Return to Play protocols, but also serve as an extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The guys discuss Edmonton and Toronto emerging as hub city favorites, as well as what it would mean for the NHL to return to the Olympics. Plus, a breakdown of the Qualifying Round series in both conferences.

Start-4:45 Edmonton, Toronto new hub city frontrunners
4:45-8:45 NHL, NHLPA nearing CBA extension, including Olympic participation
8:45-13:00 Other return to play details
14:00-23:00 Eastern Conference Qualifying Round preview
23:50-End Western Conference Qualifying Round preview

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

Mrazek vs. Reimer and other Hurricanes lineup questions readying for Rangers

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Beyond obvious outliers like the Penguins, the Hurricanes rank among the most legitimate of the NHL’s Qualifying Round teams. Yet as stable as the Hurricanes are compared to a field full of erratic teams, Carolina faces many of the same lineup questions as the Rangers, the team they’d face in a best-of-five series.

Some might argue that the Hurricanes face tougher questions than the Rangers. (Though, the Rangers aren’t off the hook in that regard.)

In particular, the Hurricanes may need training camp to find answers in net and on defense. For all we know, Hurricanes lineup questions could even persist beyond “Phase 3.”

Let’s glance at both the goalie and defense questions for the Hurricanes.

Who should start in Hurricanes playoff lineup: Mrazek or Reimer?

Reimer, Mrazek, Hurricanes Rangers lineup questions NHL playoffs
(Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With Henrik Lundqvist jousting with two young upstarts, some might wonder if the Rangers have too much of a good thing in net. The Hurricanes don’t enjoy quite the abundance of options.

Even so, coach Rod Brind’Amour faces a decision, as they lack a clear No. 1. Should the Hurricanes go with Petr Mrazek — who helped them during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs — or James Reimer (who boasts superior numbers this season)?

If Brind’Amour knows, he’s putting on a poker face.

“It’s easy to say right now, ‘OK, I’m going to go with Petr,’ but I don’t know,” Brind’Amour said in a recent interview, via NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. “He may be in rough shape. I don’t know until I get to see them and see what they’re like.”

It’s unclear if that last playoff run explains why Mrazek would be the “easy” choice, or if that came down to Reimer entering the pandemic pause with injury issues. (The Hurricanes may also be concerned about Reimer’s rather lengthy run of injury hiccups, too.)

Because, again, Reimer performed at a higher level than Mrazek in 2019-20. Reimer boasts a better save percentage than Mrazek this season (.914 to Mrazek’s .905) and over their careers (.914 to Mrazek’s .910). Reimer takes most/all goalie “advanced stats” between the two this season, as well. Generally speaking, we’ve seen more from Reimer over the past few seasons than Mrazek, whose career was teetering on the edge here and there.

(But, to be fair, Reimer’s had his issues, too.)

Regardless, just about every team should take a long look at how their goalies are performing during training camps. Even teams with clearer No. 1 options.

Honestly, with the NHL not expected to limit the number of goalies at training camps, maybe the Hurricanes should even look at options like Anton Forsberg or Alex Nedeljkovic?

An unexpectedly crowded defense

Dougie Hamilton Hurricanes Rangers lineup decisions playoffs
(Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

During the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline, the Hurricanes acquired Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen. As you may remember, those moves hinged at least partially on injuries to Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce. After the twists of those bad-luck injuries, the pandemic threw off Carolina’s rhythm once more.

The best news is that it sounds like Hamilton will be available. Don’t let the museum talk fool you. If Hamilton maintained his hot pace and didn’t get injured, he would have been a go-to choice for those making arguments against John Carlson‘s Norris credentials. Either way, Hamilton provides an enormous boost to the Hurricanes lineup — one they weren’t expecting during the deadline.

On the other hand, Brind’Amour told NHL.com’s Rosen that Pesce remains unlikely to return. However …

“It’s going to be a long shot, but the longer this goes the shot gets a little shorter,” Brind’Amour said.

(Anyone else visualizing that after that rather literal description from Brind’Amour? No? OK.)

So, Hamilton stands as probable while Pesce looks unlikely. Beyond that, the Hurricanes have two still-new faces in Skjei (just seven not particularly impressive games played) and Vatanen (who was injured and didn’t even get to suit up). Let’s say that represents three defensemen for the Hurricanes. Here are the other contenders for spots in the Hurricanes defensive lineup:

  • Jaccob Slavin, a lock.
  • Jake Gardiner, who dealt with a tough season, averaging only 16:40 TOI. Still, Gardiner is experienced, played in 68 games this season, and may have benefited from the break.
  • Joel Edmundson (68 GP like Slavin and Gardiner, averaged more TOI than Gardiner with 18:27 per contest).
  • Trevor van Riemsdyk (49 GP, less than 15 minutes per night; still, Hurricanes are very familiar with TVR).
  • Haydn Fleury (45 GP, averaged fewer than 15 minutes per game).

Realistically, Brind’Amour could have eight options on defense, and possibly nine if Pesce makes unexpectedly rapid progress. Being that some of those options are quite good, there are worse problems to have.

But it still adds to the notion that training camp could be quite important for Hurricanes lineup decisions. With both goalies and defense, Brind’Amour emphasized a wait-and-see approach. So … we’ll see?

More on the Hurricanes, Rangers, return to play, and similar subjects:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.