Red Light Review: Dueling net minders permeate NHL

Although it’s only four games into the young NHL season for most teams, already some interesting trends have begun to develop concerning the goaltending situation on several fronts.

Conventional wisdom would be to give the starting goaltending job to one guy–he’s your horse, your rock, your wall, and he’s going to carry you through the season, playing 60 to 70 games. But recently, there’s been an emergence of the two-goalie alternating starter method. The San Jose Sharks have both Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala, two goalies who could start on most NHL teams. The Montreal Canadiens have inexperienced Cristobal Huet and comparatively experienced David Aebischer, and the Florida Panthers have veteran Ed Belfour and Vancouver Canucks cast-out Alex Auld. All three teams have been switching the starters and have elected to pick the masked man with little notice, sometimes a literal game-time decision.

The situation is unique, though easily understood. It pays dividends early in the season and can be a life-saver later.

Both tenders are likely to be fighting for a job and know that unless they’re on the top of the game every time they get a chance to start, they are unlikely to continue getting play. Look at what happened in Buffalo last season, when they were carrying three goaltenders: Ryan Miller, Martin Biron and Mika Noronen. When Miller won the starting job for the Sabres, back-up goalie Biron was staring down a secondary role for the rest of the season. Luckily for Biron, Miller went down with a broken thumb and Biron went on to win 11 straight starts during a crucial stretch for the Sabres in November and December. Though Biron lost the starting job again to Miller by the end of the season, just having him as a back-up, despite being a capable starter himself, proved invaluable.

At the end of the season, having two relatively experienced starters, both capable of carrying the load, could save a team from a dissapointing shut-down in the playoffs. Last year’s rendition of the Nashville Predators proves this. When starter Tomas Vokoun went down late in the season, it cost the Predators a chance at winning their first-ever playoff series. Granted, they ended up facing the stellar San Jose Sharks in the first round, but Vokoun’s mere presence would’ve given the Preds a fighting chance. Instead the duty went to the inexperienced Chris Mason, who had started only 12 games the entire season when he was handed the job in April, and had only played 19 games in his entire career. Mason is currently looking for a job after the Preds lost the opening round series 4-1.

To bring the point close to home, how would Calgary fare without star netminder Miikka Kiprusoff? In April, the team could lose him due to an unforeseen injury, and would have to rely on career back-up Jamie McLennan to bring the team to the playoffs–a scary possibility.

The two-goaltender situation is an interesting change from conventional wisdom, but don’t expect it to spread far. With a salary cap in place and decent starting goalies expecting a salary of three to four million, it’s hard to dedicate seven to eight million (about 20 per cent of a team’s budget) to a single position–even if it’s the best insurance policy available. It’s impossible to keep both goaltenders for long. Eventually they’re going to demand the number one job, the playing time, and the money that goes along with it.

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