Tuukka Rask

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.

The Buzzer: More astounding numbers from McDavid, Draisaitl, Pastrnak

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Three Stars from three games

1. Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

Sunday night was quite the night for players putting up the sort of numbers you’d expect halfway through the 2019-20 season, not reaching such totals by the first night of December.

First up: the duo of Draisaitl and Connor McDavid.

The two scored two points apiece, with Draisaitl scoring two goals and McDavid providing two assists. With that, McDavid (51 points) and Draisaitl (50) became the first players to hit the 50+ point mark this season. Draisaitl scored the Oilers’ second and third goals of a 3-2 win against the Canucks, both on the power play (so, in case it escaped you, Draisaitl nabbed the GWG).

Draisaitl now has five game-winners so far this season, which would also translate into a lofty half-season total, and really not a bad mark over 82 games, either, for that matter. In fact, five GWGs matches Draisaitl’s career-high.

2. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins

It was David Pastrnak, not Rask, who best fits into the storyline of reaching the sort of numbers you’d expect from a league leader at the halfway mark. Pastrnak’s swaggery goal marked his 25th goal of 2019-20, which is pretty absurd since he’s only played 27 games.

[MORE: Can anyone catch Pastrnak for the Maurice Richard?]

When you zoom in and focus on Sunday’s specific stories, Rask played a big role in the Bruins winning their seventh straight game, thus handing the Canadiens a painful eighth consecutive loss.

Rask made 28 out of 29 saves against the Canadiens, only allowing a Joel Armia goal off of an odd bounce about two minutes into the game. The veteran goalie is now on a personal six-game winning streak, and he’s putting together some of the best work of his impressive career with a sparkling .933 save percentage in 2019-20.

3. Kevin Fiala, Minnesota Wild

Through the first eight games of the season, Fiala only had a single assist.

Maybe Fiala just needed to work his way through horror movie season, because he’s been lights-out since November, generating 13 points in his last 14 games.

Sunday marked one of the speedy sniper’s better performances during that span. Fiala scored a goal, grabbed a primary assist, and nabbed a shootout tally as Minnesota narrowly beat Dallas. Fiala was busy overall, with a robust eight shots on goal.

Highlight of the Night

Again, ouch, harsh. The celebration from Pastrnak really dug the knife deeper:

Factoids

  • If you want to be sentimental and give Mikko Koivu the third star after he scored a goal and the shootout-winner during his 1,000th NHL game, that’s fair. Also, Koivu probably deserves to have a Selke on his resume, so maybe a nudge toward the third star is in order?

(The Wild note that Koivu hit point 700. By using my unparalleled math abilities, I estimate that Koivu’s scored points in 70 percent of his NHL regular-season games.)

  • McDavid and Draisaitl tower over contemporaries, so you have to roll things back and channel Wayne Gretzky to keep them humble at 50 points before everyone else. Gretzky hit 50 before anyone else for seven straight seasons, according to NHL PR. There’s a lot of Gretzky, Gretzky + Mario Lemieux, and some Jaromir Jagr/Peter Forsberg sprinkled into the various milestones McDavid and/or Draisaitl have managed.
  • Speaking of Lemieux, Pastrnak is the first player to hit 25+ goals by Dec. 1 since Mario did it in 1992-93, according to NHL PR. Pastrnak is one of 11 players to manage this feat … and yes, Gretzky is also on that list. Sportsnet specifies in games played rather than by a date: Pastrnak’s 25 goals in 27 games is the best start since Jaromir Jagr in 1996-97.
  • Also via Sportsnet: this eight-game losing streak is the third-worst in Canadiens’ history, and their worst since losing nine in a row 1940. The worst mark was 12 in a row, set in 1926.

Scores

MIN 3 – DAL 2 (SO)
BOS 3 – MTL 1
EDM 3 – VAN 2

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Kerfoot to have hearing; elite Vrana

CapsPup / Twitter

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

• Captain the dog meets Jay Beagle. [CapsPup – Twitter]

• Mike Babcock’s gone so that means it’s time for all the dirty laundry to be aired. “Babcock was alleged to have asked one of the Leafs’ rookies to list the players on the team from hardest-working to those who, in the eyes of the rookie, didn’t have a strong work ethic. The rookie did so, not wanting to upset his coach, but was taken aback when Babcock told the players who had been listed at the bottom.” [Toronto Sun]

• It’s early days but things are going pretty smoothly for the Maple Leafs under Sheldon Keefe. [Toronto Star]

Alex Kerfoot of the Maple Leafs will have a Monday hearing with the NHL Department of Player Safety for boarding Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson Saturday night. [NHL.com]

Quinn Hughes has been impressive early on in his rookie season with the Canucks. [Sporting News]

• Why it’s time for Jakub Vrana to be included in the elite winger discussion. [Japers’ Rink]

• The Bruins have released their third jerseys for this season and they’re not bad. They’ll debut them Friday against the Rangers (1 p.m. ET; NBC) during the Thanksgiving Showdown. [NBC Sports Boston]

• The youth movement continues in Detroit as the Red Wings have recalled Filip Zadina from the AHL. [MLive]

• Great read on legendary Getty Images photographer Bruce Bennett. [Sportsnet]

• Grading Artemi Panarin’s first quarter as a New York Ranger. [Blueshirt Banter]

• Blackhawks goalie Robin Lehner is looking for advice in the shootout. [NBC Sports Chicago]

Tuukka Rask and Jordan Binnington lead the goalie crop in the fantasy hockey world this week. [RotoWorld]

• Finally, spin-o-rama to the moonwalk. Solid, kid:

————

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.

Bruins’ Rask gives Fleury competition for save of the week/year

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When Marc-Andre Fleury flashed the glove for a ridiculous save, PHT’s Adam Gretz was right in wondering if calling it a save of the year candidate was an understatement. And then Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask came along and gave Fleury competition for save of the week.

Buffalo Sabres forward Evan Rodrigues had so much net to aim for, but also needed to get his shot off quickly. As much as the Bruins swarmed the situation — making for an even better visual — Rask ended up having to save the day, and that he did.

This would have been an amazing glove save, but Rask managing the feat with his blocker hand is just … wow. Watch in awe in the video above.

It sounds like even Rask was impressed.

Again, wow. Let’s take a paragraph break to just mutter wow a few times.

Now, let’s compare and contrast: was it more or less amazing than Fleury’s save? Don’t say it was a tie, cheaters.

Now, what do I think is the better save? Uh …

(Tries to throw a smoke bomb and run away, but Rask and Fleury keep batting it around between each other.)

The save ended up being important, as the Bruins narrowly beat the Sabres 3-2 on Thursday.

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 Power Rankings: The 10 most impressive players through October

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a break from the team level and dig into some individual performances, specifically the most impressive individual performances through the first month of the 2019-20 season.

This is not to be taken as a ranking of the best overall players in the league right now, but simply a look at whose performance has impressed the most to this point.

Who makes the cut? To the rankings!

1. David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins. If the Bruins score a goal right now it is a good bet that Pastrnak has a direct hand in it. He is just the fourth player since 2006 to score at least 13 goals through his team’s first 13 games (Alex Ovechkin in 2010, Alex Steen in 2014, Nikita Kucherov in 2018 are the others) and enters the week tied for the league lead in goals (with Leon Draisaitl) and owns the lead in total points. He has played two fewer games than every other player in the top-five in scoring.

2. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers. A year ago he became just the eighth different player in 20 years to top both the 50-goal and 100-point marks in the same season. If you were expecting some kind of a regression, you are not yet getting it. All he has done so far this season is open up with 13 goals and 26 points in the Oilers’ first 15 games to help carry the team to top of the Pacific Division standings.

3. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins. The Bruins have some depth questions but they are great where it matters most — on the top line and in net. Entering play on Monday Rask has appeared in eight games and has yet to have a save percentage lower than .912 in any of them. He has been over .930 in six of them. He has been the single most dominant goalie in the league so far this year.

4. John Carlson, Washington Capitals. After finishing in the top-five of the Norris Trophy voting the past two years he might actually crack the top-three this year if this scoring continues. And while he may cool down a bit there is no reason to believe it will be a huge drop (he did finish with 70 points a year ago). Are we putting him here strictly based on offense? Yeah … sort of. But when you’re a defenseman and are contributing an historically high amount offense to a team that is 11-2-3 that is pretty darn impressive.

5. Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks might actually be really good this year, and Pettersson is one of the players driving the bus for them. After winning the Calder Trophy a year ago he has started his sophomore season looking like one of the league’s most valuable players. He has scored at an elite rate and the Canucks have a 60 percent shot attempt share when he is on the ice. That is MVP level stuff.

Correction: We initially wrote that Pettersson started the majority of his shifts in the defensive zone, which was a mistake. He has, however, started more shifts in the defensive zone recently than he did earlier in the year.

6. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers. I still wouldn’t bet against him when it comes to winning the scoring title this season. He and Draisaitl form the league’s most dominant scoring duo and it is probably going to be up to them to carry the team to the playoffs.

7. Sidney Crosby Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins were crushed by injuries early in the season and Crosby’s line was one of the biggest reasons they were able to keep pace with the other playoff teams in the Eastern Conference. He is still one of the five best offensive players in the league and is an outstanding defensive player.

8. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals. He just turned 34 years old and is still playing like he did when he was 24. Or at least close to it. He has 12 more shots on goal than any other player in the NHL and is on a pace to score 55 goals this season. The best goal scorer of all time continuing to do what he does best.

9. Dougie Hamilton, Carolina Hurricanes. There is an argument to be made he might be the most underrated player in the league. He is currently leading the Hurricanes in scoring, is their top possession player on defense, and plays huge minutes. A No. 1 defender in every way and he counts just $5.75 million against the cap, an absolute steal of a rate.

10. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes. Don’t let their current spot in the standings fool you, it is mostly due to having only played 13 games. Their points percentage is fourth best in the Western Conference entering Monday, and the play of their goalies is one of the biggest reasons why. Kuemper has been the best of the two, owning a .942 save percentage (second only to Rask in the entire NHL) through his first nine starts.

Deserving mentions: Brad Marchand (Boston Bruins), James Neal (Edmonton Oilers), Brock Boeser (Vancouver Canucks), Nathan MacKinnon (Colorado Avalanche), Mark Stone (Vegas Golden Knights), Jonathan Huberdeau (Florida Panthers), Jack Eichel (Buffalo Sabres), John Gibson (Anaheim Ducks)

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.