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.

Day 1 of NHL training camps: Uncertainty about Blackhawks’ Crawford, and more

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Monday, July 13 represented a big day in the NHL return-to-play plan, as formal training camps began — naturally there was plenty of news.

To little surprise, such training camp news also brought uncertainty. This post won’t hit on all 24 NHL teams involved in the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers, but let’s take a look at some of the rumblings from around the league:

Blackhawks’ Crawford, other absences lead to speculation

At the moment, the NHL elects not to name players or teams while announcing positive COVID-19 tests.

The bright side of that is that players gain at least a modicum of privacy. The downside is that fans and others are left to speculate about the nature of absences. To some extent, this follows the NHL’s clear-as-mud transparency when it comes to injury updates already, only turned up to 11.

Rank Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford as one of the players people are speculating about during this first day of NHL training camps. If you’re looking for more from the Blackhawks on Crawford, you were largely out of luck.

“For now, he’s just unfit to play,” Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton said. “I think the NHL has been pretty clear that’s going to be the policy going forward as far as how we’ll announce all injuries. So, that’s all I have for you.”

Blackhawks fans are probably used to uncertainty regarding Crawford, being that his career was threatened by concussion issues. Such issues, and Chicago’s mediocre overall play, might have pushed Crawford’s strong work under the radar. During the last three months of the truncated season, Crawford’s save percentage didn’t sink below a splendid .927. For a team as porous defensively as the Blackhawks, they must hope that Crawford will eventually be fit to play — particularly after trading Robin Lehner.

It would be a sad way for Crawford to end his Blackhawks career, too, as he’s a pending UFA.

Now, other goalies sat out day one of NHL training camps, too. Marc-Andre Fleury joined Crawford with that distinction. But while the Blackhawks shared few Crawford details, the Golden Knights deemed MAF’s absence a maintenance day.

Though not a comprehensive list, here are a few other notable absences from day one of NHL training camps:

Noteworthy names attending NHL training camps on day one

Going over every single player who participated would be a fool’s errand. Consider a few names that stood out, though.

Assorted bits, including Gritty

Now, for some quick random bits.

Matt Niskanen said it right:

“The world is pretty bonkers right now,” Niskanen said, via Sam Carchidi of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Nothing is normal … But as hockey players, we just want that (Cup) chance.”

Actually, (Niskanen’s … Flyers’ colleague?) Gritty also got it right:

The first one to the rink? Well, the name Gritty makes sense then, I guess.

If you’re looking for the best gesture of them all, it’s probably the Oilers’ tribute to Colby Cave.

Although, the Maple Leafs also made quite a statement by wearing “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts as a group:

If news and other bits from day one of NHL training camps are any indication, there will be a lot of stories to sort through. At least some of them will involve Gritty, too, so that’s nice.

More on NHL return to play, CBA extension, COVID-19:

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.

NHL: 43 players tested positive for COVID-19 since Phase 2 (June 8)

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The NHL announced that 43 players tested positive for COVID-19 during Phase 2, which began on June 8. Phase 3 (formal training camps) began on Monday (July 13).

The NHL explained how those positive COVID-19 test results broke down since June 3.

  • 30 NHL players participating in Phase 2 (limited skating at team facilities with small groups of teammates) tested positive for COVID-19. The league noted that more than 600 NHL players participated in Phase 2 activities.
  • The NHL noted that they’re aware of 13 positive COVID-19 cases among players who stayed outside of Phase 2 protocol. (It’s unclear if that number could climb if more players still need to be tested.)

In sharing this announcement, the NHL allowed a look into its daunting process. The league conducted almost 5,000 COVID-19 tests, with the 600-plus players involved. (That’s certainly thorough. On the other hand, one can only speculate about the vast quantity of COVID-19 tests required for the entire NHL playoff process. Some will argue that it’s simply not worth it.)

Check out the full NHL release about 43 players testing positive for COVID-19 here:

Travis Hamonic, Mike Green, and Roman Polak rank among the players who’ve opted out of an NHL return to play for various reasons. Other NHL players face a Monday 5 p.m. ET deadline to opt out. (Although there could be special circumstances, such as the Canadiens and Max Domi waiting to make a decision.)

More on positive COVID-19 results, and the process the NHL is undergoing

The NHL states that players who tested positive are following CDC and Health Canada protocols, such as self-isolating. It also noted that the league will not identify players or teams involving positive COVID-19 tests.

Of course, that won’t stop speculation, whether players or teams are named officially or not.

Earlier on Monday, word surfaced that the Penguins “voluntarily sidelined” nine players who may have had “secondary exposure” to a person who tested positive for COVID-19. As of this writing, players haven’t been named, leaving people to speculate.

Meanwhile, Auston Matthews confirmed that he contracted COVID-19, backing up a June report by the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons. Matthews noted that he was still able to train despite the positive COVID-19 test.

“Obviously wasn’t able to leave or anything,” Matthews said. “I think that’s really the only thing that kind of took a hit for me. I was skating beforehand and having to take two and a half, three weeks off obviously kind of catches up to you.”

Most importantly, Matthews said he’s feeling good and healthy after self-isolating.

Either way, Matthews’ name surfacing caused controversy. It remains to be seen if reporters and others unearth other names as the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers approach, and you can bet people will try to guess if the league and its teams decide not to be particularly forthcoming.

Plenty of challenges ahead for the NHL

Read the full list of critical dates here, but consider these points of interest as the NHL aims to award the 2020 Stanley Cup amid the COVID-19 pandemic:

July 13: Training camps open (Phase 3) and 5 p.m. ET deadline for players to opt out.
July 26: Teams report to their hub city. Eastern Conference teams go to Toronto, while West teams head to Edmonton.
July 28-30: Exhibition games.
Aug 1: 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers begin (Phase 4).
Aug 11: First Round begins.
Aug 25: Second Round begins.
Sept. 8: Conference Finals begin.
Sept. 22: Stanley Cup Final begins.
Oct 4: Last possible date for Stanley Cup to be awarded.

The NHL set expectations for regular updates regarding positive COVID-19 tests. Can the league navigate all of those bumps in the road to October, mid-November training camps, and a 2020-21 season that may start as early as Dec. 1?

We’ll have to wait and see.

More on NHL return to play, CBA extension, COVID-19:

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.

Wild sign Kaprizov, Canadiens ink Romanov; Both can’t play in NHL until 2020-21

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The NHL opened a window for teams to sign certain prospects from Monday to Wednesday (at 5 p.m. ET), and some teams wasted little time in making signings official. The Wild finally signing Kirill Kaprizov ranks as the biggest headliner, while the  Canadiens also finalizing terms with defenseman Alexander Romanov is big, too. Those aren’t the only signings, though, and other news should trickle in early in the week.

It’s crucial to note that Kaprizov and Romanov won’t be able to appear in games for the Wild or Canadiens respectively in 2019-20. The same goes for other prospects signing in similar situations.

It does, however, appear that Kaprizov can participate in Wild training camp, and the Canadiens confirmed that Romanov will be doing the same.

Via the Habs, here is the process for Romanov:

  • Romanov is not eligible to participate in the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
  • He can, however, get acquainted with teammates. Not only can Romanov take part in training camp, but he’ll also be permitted to travel with the team to Toronto (the Eastern Conference hub city).
  • Of course, this assumes that all is clear. The Canadiens announced that Romanov will undergo a seven-day quarantine before he can participate in training camp.

Again, expect more news to trickle in between Monday and Wednesday (at 5 p.m. ET).

For instance, the Blues signed Alex Perunovich to a two-year contract as well on Monday.

Update: The Islanders signed goalie Ilya Sorokin. Interestingly, it’s really just a formality, as it would only cover 2019-20 (which he can’t compete in).

Some details on contracts for Kaprizov (Wild) and Romanov (Canadiens)

As a reminder, these signings burn the 2019-20 season off of these prospects’ contracts, even though they aren’t suiting up during actual 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers.

In the case of Perunovich and Kaprizov, two-year contracts are really one-year auditions before second, presumably much richer contracts. Romanov’s is a three-year deal, thus covering him through 2021-22 (instead of just 2020-21 for Kaprizov).

The Athletic’s Michael Russo went into quite a bit of detail on the structure of Kaprizov’s contract (sub required). CBA quirks limit Kaprizov’s ability to earn typical signing bonuses; ultimately, Kaprizov’s cap hit is expected to be $925K. Russo reports that Kaprizov would not be able to receive offer sheets during the 2021 NHL Free Agency summer, either.

For Kaprizov, the upside is clear. He can race through one season at a low rate, then cash in on his second contract. Even with less leverage than other potential RFAs, the 23-year-old could still rake it in if he lives up to the hype. Russo notes that Kaprizov is eligible to become a UFA as early as the summer of 2024, so while the Wild earn short-term gains, Kaprizov could set himself up for a lucrative stretch in the not-too-distant future.

(Maybe most importantly for the Wild, they lock down Kaprizov, rather than risking him staying in the KHL for 2020-21, and possibly even beyond that.)

The Canadiens spelled out the contract for Romanov, 20, in their release. His cap hit will be just under $900K through 2021-22, with an AAV of $1.17M. You can bet he won’t want to fall to the AHL, as his salary plummets to $70K at that level.

A quick look at what Kaprizov, Romanov may bring to their teams

Kaprizov signing with the Wild ranks as the biggest news. It might be a bigger deal that the team removing the “interim” tag for head coach Dean Evason.

The glowing reports on Kaprizov can flirt with hyperbole — or maybe he’s just that good. Scouts raved to The Hockey News’ Ryan Kennedy that Kaprizov has Artemi Panarin‘s “mind” and the sturdy body of a Vladimir Tarasenko.

Patrick Kane says this all the time: ‘Yes, the game is faster, but you still have to be able to slow it down,’” TSN’s Craig Button told Kennedy. “The only way you can slow it down is by having a fast brain. It sounds counterintuitive, but that’s what Kaprizov does. He’s got a magnificent, magnificent hockey mind.”

While Romanov produces more mixed reviews about his true potential — some see him as top pairing, others in more of a supporting role — teams like the Wild and Canadiens would love to have these prospects in the lineup now, not later. It made sense for the NHL to worry about a bumpy process regarding getting these players overseas (or north of the border), but with Kaprizov allowed to practice with the Wild and Romanov the same with the Canadiens, it seems a bit baffling that they can’t take that extra step. But oh well.

To reiterate, there are likely to be other signings, both on Monday and through Wednesday. Sorokin could very well have a big impact on the Islanders once he’s actually allowed to play, for example.

Even so, these are already big steps. The Wild and their fans have been waiting for this moment for years. Sure, it would be better if Kaprizov could jump right in — as he would during normal years — but it’s better than wondering if things would fall apart.

More on NHL return to play, CBA extension:

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.

Auston Matthews confirms he had COVID-19

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Auston Matthews confirmed Monday that he had previously tested positive for COVID-19 during the NHL pause, but now feels healthy. As the Maple Leafs opened training camp, the forward said that he was asymptomatic and felt good during his two weeks of quarantine.

“I think everybody’s experience will probably be different than my own as far as COVID goes, with [various] symptoms and stuff like that,” Matthews said on a Zoom call with reporters. “And sometimes it’s hard to kind of pinpoint a norm because it’s different for everybody.”

A Toronto Sun report in June said that Matthews contracted the virus, but his representatives and the team did not comment. The NHL announced Monday that 43 players had tested positive for COVID-19 during Phase 2 (beginning June 8) of the Return to Play plan.

Matthews, who spent most of the pause at home in Arizona, said he was still able to train at home without issue. The positive test forced him to delay returning to Canada and miss the Phase 2 voluntary workouts.

“Obviously wasn’t able to leave or anything,” he said. “I think that’s really the only thing that kind of took a hit for me. I was skating beforehand and having to take two and a half, three weeks off obviously kind of catches up to you.”

Having gone through the experience, Matthews got a first-hand look at how the league is trying to make the Return to Play as safe as possible for all involved.

“To be honest, I don’t know where I got it,” he said. “I think the NHL and everyone has tried their best with the information they have to make it as safe of an environment as possible.”

The Maple Leafs take on the Blue Jackets in their best-of-five Stanley Cup Qualifier beginning Aug. 2.

MORE:
Full schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers

Hockey is back: NHL, NHLPA ratify CBA, return to play agreement
Salary cap to stay flat at $81.5 million

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.