The 56-game, intradivisional schedule doesn’t have much downtime, limiting the time for goalies to get off the ice and allow for physical and mental recovery.
Some teams have gotten creative.
For those with the flexibility to carry three goalies on the active roster, the use of the third-string goalie on game days has provided the opportunity for the starter to rest.
“It’s not a day off just because you’re backing up,” Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen said. “When you think about it, even when you are backing up you are still spending six hours at the rink. You still have to do all your pregame warmups. You still have to be somewhat ready. You still have to be on.”
The Maple Leafs, Anaheim Ducks and New Jersey Devils each have dressed their third goalie as the backup this season, giving their No. 1 a complete day off. In an already demanding season, it’s recognition that dressing as a backup goalie isn’t much of a break.
Toronto, which has had two or more days off between games three times so far this season, including their current stretch between a 2-1 overtime win at home against the Calgary Flames on Wednesday and a game at the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, CBC, SN, CITY, TVAS), was the first to do it. They let Andersen sit out the third game of the season, against the Ottawa Senators, which was the second game of a back-to-back and Toronto’s third game in four nights. Jack Campbell started and Aaron Dell, who since has been claimed on waivers by the New Jersey Devils, was the backup that night.
Andersen appreciated having a little extra rest; it allowed him to approach a position-specific practice with goaltending coach Steve Briere that morning to address some issues without having to worry about saving energy for the game that night.
Andersen had an .839 save percentage in his first two starts, allowing a combined nine goals on 56 shots against the Montreal Canadiens and Senators. In the game after his off day, he made 27 saves in a 3-1 win against the Winnipeg Jets.
“I knew that I could go really hard in practice and really work on some things and treat it as a normal practice day instead of a morning skate, so that was a plus,” Andersen said. “It worked out well. We were able to work on some things that I wanted to work on and that day was huge for me just to settle down and make sure I knew I could work on the stuff I wanted to and not have to worry about that game, so that’s the benefit.”
Andersen has not played since sustaining a lower-body injury Saturday, but he is one of five goalies tied for second in the NHL with 16 games this season, along with Darcy Kuemper of the Arizona Coyotes, Vitek Vanecek of the Washington Capitals, Jordan Binnington of the St. Louis Blues and John Gibson of the Anaheim Ducks. Matt Murray of the Ottawa Senators leads the NHL with 17 games.
Giving the No. 1 goalie a break from extra work going into a game was the motivation when the Devils did not dress Mackenzie Blackwood against the Washington Capitals on Sunday.
Blackwood had made 26 saves in a 3-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday.
The next day, Dell was given his first start with the Devils and made 37 saves in a 4-3 loss. Scott Wedgewood was the backup.
“It was to truly give [Blackwood] a rest, an extra day off,” New Jersey coach Lindy Ruff said. “I don’t think it’s much of a rest when you have to go out for warmups and you have to prepare. We’ve got three goaltenders, we might as well use them. If we’re going to get him rest because we want to use him more, that’s an easy opportunity for us.”
It’s an opportunity for any team with space on the roster and under the NHL salary cap to have a third goalie on its active roster. Teams must have three goalies available this season, but one can be placed on the taxi squad. The taxi squad goalie can be called up if he fits under the salary cap and within roster limits.
Anaheim did it Jan. 20. Ryan Miller made his first start this season, against the Minnesota Wild, and taxi squad goalie Anthony Stolarz served as the backup.
Gibson, who has played in 16 of the Ducks’ 20 games this season, was given a full day off.
“So much of this is dictated by roster spots, but when you have that opportunity to get your goalie a bit more rest it definitely can pay dividends,” Ducks goaltending coach Sudarshan Maharaj said. “[Gibson] was surprised by it, but he thanked us. There is so much in terms of preparation, physically getting ready in the event you have to go in.
“You’re in the morning skate, then driving home, then driving back to the rink, then doing your warmup and the pregame warmup, and then sitting on the bench with the potential of going into the game.”
The energy goalies save on these off days likely varies, but there are clear benefits.
Andersen said his approach to games in which he expects to be the backup isn’t as intense. He has to prepare his body for the possibility of playing and stay engaged mentally, but he says it’s not at the same level as when he is starting.
“There’s also something to be said for not sitting in full gear on a high chair or a barstool,” Andersen said of the usual seating arrangements for backup goalies. “I don’t think it’s the best for your posture and the next day you can end up feeling a little stiff after a full game sitting like that.”
With teams looking to exploit every advantage, the resting of starting goalies might become even more commonplace as the season progresses.