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Should NHL Teams Re-Think Whether Or Not They Should Carry Three Goaltenders?

Most teams typically carry two goaltenders, but if you don’t have a superstar between the pipes, isn’t having more options better?

New Jersey Devils v Ottawa Senators
Nico Daws might be the guy, but should he be one of several guys?
Photo by André Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images

If you are a Star Wars fan, then you are likely familiar with the Sith and the Rule of Two.

The Rule of Two is a fairly simple concept in that there are only ever two Sith at a given time. There’s a master and an apprentice.

For as long as I can remember watching hockey, NHL teams have typically operated under the same thought process. Some teams may have a starter (the master) and a backup (the apprentice) while others manage it closer to a 1A/1B, 50/50 split, but the core philosophy is the same. There are only two goaltenders on the roster at any given time.

In 2023-24 though, we have seen a handful of teams carry three goaltenders for a stretch. Montreal has been doing it all season with the trio of Sam Montembeault, Jake Allen, and Cayden Primeau. Other teams like Detroit, Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles have dabbled with having three goaltenders on the roster at various points this season as well.

This isn’t unique as there have been teams who have carried three in the past. For the most part though, we see teams traditionally carry two goaltenders. Teams that typically have a franchise goaltender aren’t messing around with trying to find a competent third goaltender to squeeze onto the active NHL roster unless the franchise goaltender is injured. When you have an Ilya Sorokin and Seymon Varlamov like Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello does, you can be forgiven when your #3 option is Cory Schneider or even Ken Appleby. Different organizations are going to value the position differently, but ultimately when it comes down to roster management, nobody wants to lose a potentially good player for nothing. This is the main reason why we see some teams dabble with carrying three.

In a way, franchise goaltenders are like franchise quarterbacks, where if you have two, three or more, then you really don’t have one. In the NFL, you either have a quarterback, or you don’t and you’re looking to find a way to get one. In the NHL, you either have a goaltender, or you don’t and you have some sort of platoon where you’re hoping someone in that unit can play well enough for a stretch to be the guy. But even then, most teams only typically carry two goaltenders whether they have an Igor Shesterkin or not. A starter and a backup. A master and an apprentice. That’s the way it’s always been.

But has anyone stopped to think about why? Why has it always been that way?

We’ve all heard the reasons why teams don’t carry three goaltenders at some point or another. There’s only room on an NHL roster for 23 players. Only 20 can dress for a game, with two of them being goaltenders. Teams usually keep those reserve spots available for the extra skaters, or perhaps as a way to stash players who are injured enough to be day-to-day but may not necessarily require an IR stint. Either way, there is simply not enough room on an NHL roster for a third goaltender who may play sparingly.

Another reason, or excuse if you want to challenge the conventional way of thinking, that we’ve heard time and again is that it’s really difficult for coaches to manage three goaltenders. There’s only one net to go around per game, and there’s only two that can dress for any given game. There’s only two nets at opposite ends of the rink at practice. There’s only so many practice ‘reps’ to go around. The players need to do what they need to do to get their work in and prepare the best they can, so having a third goaltender in the mix complicates things. Add in other concerns such as the salary cap (a quality third goaltender is going to cost more money than a 14th forward) and player buy-in (players are competitive and don’t want to cede the crease to one player, let alone two), and its easy to see why most teams don’t bother and only call upon a third goaltender when they absolutely need one.

Is this the smart way to approach this though in 2023-24 given the importance of the goaltending position? Or does this fall under the umbrella of “this is how we’ve always done things” and indicative of hockey players. management, coaches, and executives being too stubborn and set in their ways to think outside the box when it comes to improving their teams?

Do the Potential Benefits Of Carrying Three Goaltenders Outweigh the Risks?

The simplest way teams may benefit for a three goaltender tandem would be their ability to better manage workloads.

The days of Martin Brodeur starting between 70-78 games a season PLUS playoffs are long gone. The teams that do have a workhorse goaltender are only playing them 60-65 times a year, and there are presumably people far smarter than you or me in those front offices who would prefer they were playing less during the regular season to maintain peak performance throughout the regular season and playoffs. Load management hasn’t infiltrated the NHL like it has the NBA, and hopefully the NHL never gets to the point where you have no idea if a star player on a team is going to play on any given night. With that said, players are human. Fatigue, both physical and mental, is a thing. We’ve seen the Devils in recent years try to find ways to not overwork younger goaltenders like Mackenzie Blackwood and Akira Schmid if they can help it. Circumstances haven’t always allowed for that as the team has tried to win games at the NHL level.

Secondly, a team like the Devils that is conveniently located in the I-95 corridor is going to play more back-to-backs than the typical Western Conference team. Having a third goaltender in the mix can help avoid situations where a goaltender is playing both ends of a back-to-back because the starter was ineffective in one game and got pulled. Which in turn helps manage the workloads of everybody involved, keeps all of the players fresher, and in the case of Schmid, keeps the team from burning another game as he inches closer to requiring waivers.

Additionally, if one goaltender simply doesn’t ‘have it’ for a stretch, there’s little an NHL team can do if they don’t have the ability to send the player down to their AHL affiliate. Reducing playing time for a struggling player is an option, but with a traditional two-goaltender tandem, most backups are still playing once out of every three games or so. Rather than hoping a guy plays through their struggles and “figures it out”, teams carrying an additional goaltender can opt to pivot to a more traditional starter and backup, while the struggling netminder works through their issues outside of a game setting. Yes, a team could even opt to try to slip a struggling goaltender through waivers much like how the Leafs recently did with Ilya Samsonov, but most teams view placing a player on waivers as a last resort and they only do so when they’re confident the player won’t get claimed.

One last benefit comes from a simple case of supply and demand. Most teams don’t have extra goaltenders to spare via trade even if they wanted to, as we covered a few weeks ago when we took a look at the market. There will be years like this year where you have multiple teams desperate to upgrade at the position, as the Devils are among the Oilers and Maple Leafs in that group of teams. The teams that do have an extra goaltender to spare can set a ridiculously high price because there’s a decent chance somebody eventually folds and pays it.

Would I recommend the three goaltender strategy for every team? Of course not. There’s little reason for the Boston Bruins, for example, to add a third goaltender to the mix when they already have the best tandem in the league. Teams that have a reliable starter and even a reliable backup don’t need to try this.

Teams that don’t have any reliable goaltenders though might be smart to cast a wide net.

How Does Any of This Apply to the Devils?

The Devils are one of those teams that I think most people can agree fall into the “don’t have a goaltender” category, in part because Vitek Vanecek is a league average starter on his best days. Sure, they might eventually have one if Nico Daws and/or Akira Schmid ultimately develop into one, but Schmid took a step back this season and has ultimately been demoted to AHL Utica. Daws, as solid as he looked in one NHL start this season, only has that one NHL start this season to speak of. That’s not to say its not worth giving them a chance and seeing what you have. But as of this writing, they do not have a reliable option in net.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Vanecek regressed to one of the worst goaltenders in the NHL this season, nor should it be surprising that a young goaltender like Schmid struggled in his first full-season as an NHL goaltender. Goaltending is random, and that can be the case even if you do think you have your franchise guy. The Devils don’t, which is why some of us said the Devils needed to be in the goaltender business to take the next step as a franchise.

For the rest of the 2023-24 season, this point about carrying three goaltenders is probably moot. The Devils would be content at this point to simply find one goaltender who can consistently get a save. But that doesn’t change the fact that they’re likely going to be in a similar situation next season as well barring a franchise-defining trade like Juuse Saros or one of the Boston goaltenders. Vitek Vanecek might be under contract for another season, but it doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be on the roster next season if he continues playing this poorly. Schmid and Daws will presumably be in the mix as well, but there is certainly risk involved with both of them being relatively unproven.

If you don’t have a goaltender though, are you better off spending $2M to $2.5M on an additional goaltender, hedging your bets, and giving yourself another option?

Squeezing More Out of Your 23-Man Roster

Let’s use Casey DeSmith, a goaltender who was traded twice this offseason and theoretically very much available but the Devils passed on him, as an example for this exercise.

As of this writing, DeSmith has played well as the backup goaltender in Vancouver, posting a .914 save percentage and 3.6 goals saved above expected. Obviously, circumstances are different and there’s no guarantee DeSmith would have replicated those numbers here were he on the Devils instead of the Canucks. I can only go by his body of work, but with nearly 150 games of NHL experience as a backup goaltender, his body of work has been solid overall. He’d probably be the best and/or most accomplished goaltender on the Devils if they acquired him tomorrow.

The Devils roster might not even be the best example since they had the option of sending Schmid down without him going through waivers, but bear with me and let’s assume the Devils were to go with a DeSmith/Vanecek/Schmid trio in net through 35 games. Even if DeSmith was victimized by the Devils defense to the point where his save percentage is somewhere in the .905-.910 range instead of .914, how many more points might the Devils have in the standings if they’re getting a dozen games from DeSmith, a guy who might be the epitome of a league average goaltender, instead of Vanecek and/or Schmid?

It’s not exactly linear or an exact science to say Schmid has cost the Devils 5 standings points and Vanecek has cost the Devils 3, nor is it one to suggest DeSmith has actually given Vancouver 2 more points than expected. But even if we’re talking about a 4-5 point swing because the Devils have given away two or three fewer games because of poor goaltending, that’s the difference between being in the playoffs and not at the moment.

Isn’t that inherently far more valuable than anything Chris Tierney has provided in his 15 games as a Devil to this point?

Obviously, this is a cherry-picked example, but if other teams can take chances on guys like Adin Hill, Charlie Lindgren, Cam Talbot, Connor Ingram, Alex Nedeljkovic, Anthony Stolarz, and Sam Ersson and find success, why can’t the Devils find someone off of the proverbial scrap heap and get competent goaltending out of them? Almost all of these players have been available at some point over the last 18 months or so, and the Devils passed on all of them. Even with the Devils spending the better part of the summer saying they’d prefer Akira Schmid was in Utica, a situation they clearly had control over, they didn’t make a goaltending move this summer (other than non-factors like Erik Kallgren and Keith Kinkaid).

Obviously, there’s no guarantee that if the Devils did carry a third goaltender, whoever that would be would be good. It’s fair to question if Dave Rogalski has any clue what he’s doing or if Lindy Ruff’s system sets up the goaltenders to fail. The Devils are two years removed from assembling the worst group of goaltenders in franchise history. But if you throw enough stuff at the wall, eventually, something is going to stick.

Final Thoughts

The best way for the Devils to solve their goaltending issue once and for all is drafting and developing a high-end starter. Unfortunately, that is also the most time-consuming and with the Devils becoming a win now team, they don’t have the luxury of sitting around and waiting. That’s not to say that they should stop drafting and developing guys, but their previous failures combined with the team’s ascension has only added to the level of urgency of how the Devils need to solve this problem sooner rather than later.

Given the flexibility the Devils have in the short and long-term, combined with the personnel they have and expected increases in the salary cap ceiling, the team should probably consider unconventional means when it comes to finding someone who can man the net for them now. We know that there’s a lot of smart people who work in the Devils organization, and we know that they’re capable of getting creative to squeeze more value out of their roster. Until the Devils find their Shesterkin, their Hellebuyck, or their Oettinger, it might make more sense for them (and teams like them) to grab an extra dart to throw at the dartboard than your prototypical 14th forward who brings ENERGY but not much else to the table.

Is it a viable strategy in the short-term, or even over the course of a season? I’m not sure. I’m taking the proverbial 200 Hockey Men at their word when they insist carrying three goaltenders on the roster won’t work and it’s too much of a headache to try. Whether that’s more of a headache than watching a talented hockey team hemorrhage points and lose position in the standings because nobody can get a save.....who’s to say? Is it more of a headache to pick up the phone and recall a forward from the AHL when you need a depth forward than it is to watch your starting goaltender give up 5 goals and be non-competitive? It’s tough to say. But as long as you don’t have a long-term option in net, an NHL GM owes it to the organization, fanbase, and players to explore all options and leave no stone unturned trying to find the guy. Or any guy, for that matter.

Until the Devils find a way to get it right with one goaltender, they should consider bucking the trend and leave the Rule of Two in the past.