Some NHL teams are blessed – they have a legitimate No.1 goaltender. They have a star netminder between the pipes that they can consistently rely on, season after season, to perform at the elite level for 60-plus games each season. Teams such as the New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes, and the Montreal Canadiens don’t tend to put up, day after day, with media representatives asking which goalie will start that night’s game; it’s simply assumed that Henrik Lundqvist, Cam Ward, or Carey Price will be there to tend the mesh.
But, in general, the franchise goalie is disappearing. The pressure put on NHL goalies, specifically noticeable over the last few seasons, is immense: perform or ride the pine – no second chances. There is no stability for non-franchise goalies to feel when they know each game they play could be their last for a long, long time. For a majority of NHL clubs, the problems are the same each season: they lack goaltending.
But are the goalies to blame? Hardly. The coaching staffs and general managers are expecting too much and constant criticism isn’t easy on any athlete. Over the last few seasons, it seems that goalies are the least confident players on their respective teams. For example, how could Jonas Gustavsson of the Toronto Maple Leafs build any self-esteem when a loss, even if only a 1-0 loss, means he doesn’t get to play the next game? The same goes for Chicago’s Corey Crawford – a young goalie who had a great first-year. Instead of properly coaching and developing Crawford, the Blackhawks just threw him in as their starter at the beginning of the season. When things starting to go downhill, Ray Emery took his place as starter. But then Emery started failing.
Would failing be the right word, though? Goalies aren’t allowed to have a bad season anymore. They aren’t even allowed to have a bad game. They are put under the microscope constantly and never get the chance to relax. What’s hard to understand, using Chicago once again as an example, is why goaltenders receive most of the flak for a losing team. An opposing player has to get past three forwards and two defenseman before even getting a chance to score on a goalie. I’m not saying other players get no blame at all, but if opposing players are easily skating past five players and scoring, who is really more at fault?
NHL goaltenders need consistency to develop confidence and, in turn, improve their play. The mindset held here at the Hockey Dekely to improve these goaltending issues is the St. Louis Blues strategy (shared by the Minnesota Wild and, to an extent, the Boston Bruins) meaning, regardless of a win or loss, both goalies on the team will split the amount of games played right down the middle.
There is no starting goalie in St. Louis, and therefore no back-up (which is a term that can also affect the confidence of a goalie) and that alleviates a lot of pressure. Look what effect this strategy has had on the Blues. Brian Elliott has played 35 games so far this season and holds a winning record of 22-9-3. He leads the NHL with a 1.52 GAA and .941 save percentage. His counterpart, Jaroslav Halak, is second in the NHL with a 1.90 GAA. He also holds a winning record of 25-11-6 in 43 games. Combined, the goalies lead the league with 15 shutouts.
This strategy of equality appears to be working. Who’d have thought? The idea of a team having an official starting goalie and back-up goalie is stale. Several of this year’s successful teams have proven that. Teams can expect better play from their goalies when their goalies know what to expect.