League’s load man­age­ment is top goalies play­ing less

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - SPORTS - AP Hockey Writer

By STEPHEN WHYNO

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 Cup­win­ning 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 fourth­fewest 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 high­est­paid 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.”

GENE J. PUSKAR -THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

FILE - In this Wed­nes­day, June 14, 2017, file photo, Pitts­burgh Pen­guins goalies Marc-An­dre Fleury, left, and Matt Mur­ray hold the Stanley Cup on stage af­ter rid­ing in the Stanley Cup vic­tory pa­rade in Pitts­burgh. Man­ag­ing top goal­tenders’ sched­ules is the NHL’s ver­sion of load man­age­ment. Each of the past five Stanley Cup-win­ning goalies started fewer than 60 games in the reg­u­lar sea­son, along with three of the past five run­ners up.

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