At What Point in NHL History Did Backup Goaltenders Begin to Get Used?

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As you can see in the graph above, there are two key points in team we have to realize before asking these questions; those points involve NHL rule changes that had an obvious effect. In 1950-51, NHL teams were first required to have “emergency” goaltenders available to play* ; by 1965-66, teams had to dress two goaltenders for each game. The graph above suggests that the 1950-51 change didn’t have a major impact…and that might be true but for this graph:

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It seems that the 1950 rules change was reflective of a general interest among teams to reduce fatigue and wear on their goaltenders, as well as provide a ready contingency plan should their main goaltender go to seed. No more Sugar Jim Henrys, or Glenn Halls, goaltenders who had such extraordinary resiliency were no longer expected.

At a theoretical level, this shouldn’t necessarily result in better goaltending. Backup goaltenders, as a population, are expected to be league-average, but typically their error bar (low NHL sample) or their age regression will factor in and should push them down about 0.005 … in addition to the usually 0.005 lesser they are likely to be than their starters. On the other hand, we do know that goaltenders today (and likely back then) play worse in back-to-back games, so the difference there (minus 0.01) should be made negligible if the replacement was done on basis of fatigue. But they weren’t, so (at least theoretically) there should be a slight dip. There doesn’t appear to be, though, not until the 1980s. And notice in the top graph its relationship to replacing the goaltenders…the peak of replacement was reactive to the highest-scoring era. As goaltending settled into the low-scoring of the last two decades, so has the goaltender replacement rate similarly settled.

It deserves some more finite analysis, but it doesn’t particularly look like much changed due to switching goaltenders, league-wide.

* As reader @NHLDrafter points out, the emergency goaltender was rarely dressed, and provided by the home team. Incredibly, away teams did, on rare occasions, use these opposing goaltenders, and the results were very interesting. There were four players I could find that definitely played emergency goaltender for the opposing team:

  • Claude Pronovost – The Montreal Canadiens goaltender played 3 career games, one against his team. The Boston Bruins’ Terry Sawchuk was injured and the backup goaltender forgot his skates, so Pronovost stepped in and did nothing more than record a 31-save shutout against his teammates.
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3 comments

  1. I’m not surprised the emergency guys generally played well. With only six regular jobs available in the NHL, such a game might be your only chance to impress someone and earn a shot.

    What is also interesting is that teams worked tandems more often in the 70’s and 80’s, sometimes splitting games nearly evenly. The backups would play 25-35 games out of 74 (and eventually 80). From the first expansion through 1977-78 – ten seasons – there were only six goalies who played at least 70 games, with half of them doing it twice and the others once. And then there were nine straight seasons where nobody did it, and only Grant Fuhr did it between 78-79 and 89-90. That’s ten times in 22 seasons…

    …and then Belfour and Brodeur started playing all day every day and teams decided that backups were for chumps. Every non-lockout year since 93-94 has had at least two 70+ guys, and as many as six in some years. Part of that is that there are more teams, but that can’t be the only cause.

    1. Thanks for the comment…I’d counter your point about these emergency goalies by noting that the guys in-question above were mostly not what you’d call the “cream of the crop.” Wilson was mainly the team’s trainer, Broderick was junior A at the time, and Aiken…well, he got owned.

      Per your point about the 70s and 80s, that’s what I was kind-of getting at with the second graph…teams were definitely moving towards reducing workload, after decades of being almost sadistic in their day-in, day-out use of a guy who was getting worked over by pucks and wore out by lugging soaked leg pads around.

      As for who was playing 70 games…I mean, some of that was still influenced by length of season…once teams made the obvious move to use their backup more often, goaltenders simply weren’t going to see 70 games as often in 74-76 game, and even 78-game, seasons. I remember how Martin Brodeur’s many 70-game seasons kinda blew everyone away for a bit, as did that brutal season Marc Denis went through for the Blue Jackets.

      My guess is that, now with the cap, teams are getting less and less likely to fiddle with goaltenders too much, at least not in a way that’s going to bring in 5-6 goaltenders a season. And the only way you’re going to make that work is by using the backup more for fatigue, and pull the goalie for the backup only when it’s very obvious the game is out-of-hand.

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