Goalies will have a new weapon in the battle against fatigue this season: an NHL-caliber practice goalie on every roster.
NHL teams are playing a 56-game schedule this season made up solely of intradivisional play that will feature consecutive games against the same opponent to cut down on travel.
Each team will have the use of a taxi squad to help deal with injuries and other issues. A taxi squad can have 4-6 players and must include at least one goalie. Players on the taxi squad will practice and travel with the team and can be inserted into the lineup at any time.
The presence of a third goalie is a boon for the other two goalies on the roster, especially in situations where a team has a clear-cut No. 1 who makes a majority of the starts.
Now there’s an extra qualified goalie who can stand in for the No. 1 during practice when needed to prevent excessive wear and tear on him.
“It’s definitely an advantage,” Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price said. “It might not necessarily mean that I am not going to practice at all. I think practice is important for success. But I think it’s going to change the way we practice. It’s going to allow me to do the work that I feel is necessary on the ice and not be tied into doing drills that aren’t necessarily great for me.”
Most practices include drills that are designed to improve shooters and serve little benefit to goalies, and often can lead to goalies developing bad habits.
Devan Dubnyk became the best example of the benefits of having three goalies on the roster to avoid fatigue when he played a started 38 consecutive games, a Minnesota Wild record, after being acquired in a trade from the Arizona Coyotes during the 2014-15 season.
At the time the Wild were carrying two other goalies, Niklas Backstrom and Darcy Kuemper. That allowed Dubnyk to get on the ice before practices to do position-specific drills with the goaltending coach to stay on top of his technical game. He often would skip practice, leaving that to Backstrom and Kuemper.
“Guys need to work on skills and high-percentage plays, and that’s fine, but when they’re undefended and not giving you a chance to actually read off a play that would normally happen in front of you, sometimes you can build bad habits, especially when you’re just hammering reps out over and over and over,” said Dubnyk, who was traded by the Wild to the San Jose Sharks on Oct. 5. “It’s hard on the body, let’s be honest, and guys shoot the puck hard now. So you can avoid bumps and bruises from practice shots that aren’t really necessary if you’re playing every other day.
“I was able to use that time [before practices] to kind of sharpen up, make sure I stayed on top of what I needed to do.”
A few NHL teams followed that path in ensuing seasons.
The Carolina Hurricanes have used equipment manager Jorge Alves, who played at the minor pro level from 2004-07, to give their regular goalies a break. The Vancouver Canucks inserted assistant athletic trainer Dave Zarn as a practice goalie at times.
Other teams have brought in local college goalies for short periods to give their regular goalies time off from practice or to allow them to spend extra time working with the goaltending coach.
The concept never gained full traction across the NHL for a number of reasons.
In the past it was hard for many teams to justify having a prospect or experienced pro spending that much time practicing without the chance to play games, and few teams wanted to spend an NHL salary on a practice goalie. Also, shooters want to face NHL-caliber goalies during practice. So the amateur goalie route was a stopgap measure at best.
None of that will be an issue this season because of the presence of a taxi squad goalie. It could mark a turning point, especially with time to rest and reset technique so valuable in a schedule that will have very few extended breaks.
“From a goalie standpoint the idea has been talked about forever, and for the first time you’ll get to play with that model a little,” Edmonton Oilers goaltending coach Dustin Schwartz said.
During the Stanley Cup Playoffs, teams call up extra players from the American Hockey League to fill out practices and give regulars extra rest. Schwartz and others said they believe the taxi squad can serve a similar purpose for goalies throughout this season.
“You’ll have a lot more options this season, and the ability to be a little bit creative for rest, not only physically but mentally,” Schwartz said. “That’s where this can be a real benefit and a good trial or a test run.”
Oilers coach Dave Tippett already is a convert.
“That third guy will come in handy,” he said. “For years I thought teams should be able to carry three goalies because you need him for a practice now and then. Now you have it. It’ll be a nice luxury.”