At the time, Lehner’s acquisition was seen as a safety net if something happened to then-starter Marc-Andre Fleury. With no reliable or proven backup, goaltending depth had been a concern for Vegas for two seasons. They addressed it by adding the best available netminder on the market.
It has turned out to be far more than a simple safety net as Lehner, for the time being, has emerged as the Golden Knights’ new starter in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. It has been a decision that has sparked a discussion on loyalty (did Fleury, the face of the franchise, deserve to be sent to the bench like that?) and some agent-inspired mayhem (a sword through the back!).
What it’s done, though, is given the Golden Knights a massive luxury in net and is helping drive what could be a deep postseason run. It’s also shown how important it can be to have two quality goalies on your NHL roster, something that has become a bit of a storyline across the league during these playoffs.
In previous years the only reason you might see a new starting goalie in the middle of a series is because of an injury to the starter, or the starter being lit up so badly on the scoreboard that a team just needs to try something different for a spark. You don’t usually (emphasis on usually) see any kind of a rotation or switch just to keep the starter fresh. Even if there is a back-to-back situation.
Last year there were only 17 different goalies to start a game during the playoffs.
The year before that, it was 20.
The year before that? Only 18.
Before this season in the salary cap era there had only been one postseason where more than 22 different goalies started a game, with the number usually falling in the 18-20 range.
Since the start of the First Round this season (we are NOT including the Round-Robin and Qualifying Round here when it was 24 teams playing) there have been 25 different starting goalies among the 16 teams. Out of that group, 22 of the goalies have already started at least two games, including the Golden Knights’ duo.
Injury has played a role in some of that increase (Colorado needing to use three different goalies), as has the condensed schedule in the bubbles that has seen an increase in back-to-back situations.
While back-to-backs in the playoffs are not totally unheard of, this year’s unique set of circumstances has definitely increased the number and having a second goalie that you can count on to start one of those games has definitely proven to be an advantage for teams like Vegas and the Islanders (also playing for a spot in the conference finals on Tuesday night after backup Thomas Greiss also dazzled on Sunday).
There’s already been a shift in thinking across the NHL when it comes to goalie workload over the past decade. Goalies rarely start both ends of a back-to-back during the regular season, and the days of Martin Brodeur and Miikka Kiprusoff starting 70-plus games are well in the past. Now, there’s already been an increased focus on having two capable starting goalies on your roster. But it’s been rare to see teams willingly use multiple goalies the way Vegas has, and it’s worth wondering if it might lead to teams being more willing to try it in the future if they have the players to do it.
We’ve already seen the value in having two quality goalies across the league in these playoffs. Dallas has not missed a beat with Anton Khudobin playing for Ben Bishop, while Boston had Jaroslav Halak step in when Tuukka Rask left the bubble. In Vegas, Lehner has earned the opportunity to get the bulk of the starts while the Golden Knights still having a starting caliber goalie that can keep him fresh.
There’s an old cliche that says if you have two goalies it just means you don’t have a goalie, which is a very antiquated line of thinking that goes back to the Brodeur/Kiprusoff era of lineup decisions.
Really, though, having two goods goalies just simply means that you have a pretty big advantage over the teams that don’t. And it is one that is worth exploiting.