The Vegas Golden Knights are one of many teams considering what the goaltending position will look like next season. For many teams and general managers, the trend in the league is towards having two capable goalies, ie. the “1A/1B” setup. For the playoffs this year the VGK had Robin Lehner starting with Marc-Andre Fleury rotating in for spot starts. With Fleury’s possible departure and Lehner’s contract extension looming, VHN ponders what having a solid tandem would mean for the Golden Knights next season.
It’s interesting how the game has evolved from starters who played every single game no matter what to a system where a preferred split for a 1A/1B ranges from 70/30 to 55/45 depending on your talent. Glenn Hall played 502 straight games (551 if you count playoffs). Without a mask. That is a record you will never see broken, especially with today’s mindset.
The 1A/1B Split
Since all teams did not play an equal number of games this season, I’ll look at the 2018-19 season. Eight teams out of 31 had a starting goaltender start 60 or more games (VGK, Minnesota Wild, Montreal Canadiens, San Jose Sharks, Winnipeg Jets, Columbus Blue Jackets, Vancouver Canucks, Toronto Maple Leafs). Marc-Andre Fleury started 61 games for the Golden Knights that season.
Braden Holtby started 58 games for the Washington Capitals, or 70.7% of his club’s games. After that every other team had a 1A/1B split of at least 70/30 or better in terms of starting goaltenders. In case you’re wondering Devan Dubnyk started the most games with 66 for the Minnesota Wild.
Given the Jennings Trophy level of success the Boston Bruins have managed with Tuuka Rask and Jaroslav Halak in the regular season, it has become in vogue to have a 1A/1B setup. Some teams will hold to the one true starter model like the Tampa Bay Lightning with Andrei Vasilevskiy but he is an extreme talent most teams do not possess. The trend is going towards a solid tandem with no sign of slowing.
What It Means For Vegas
Speaking of the Golden Knights, before they acquired Lehner from Chicago via trade it was his play that kept the team near the playoff cut line when Corey Crawford was unavailable. It was a major reason why Vegas made the trade to bring him in, knowing that Malcolm Subban wasn’t going to provide the quality starts needed in this modern era. To that point Fleury had been shouldering the majority of the starts but there were concerns about his slowing down, needing more rest or simply seeing a decline in his game as he reaches his mid-30s.
When Vegas made the coaching change to Pete DeBoer, he came with no allegiances and no ties to Fleury as face of the franchise. When Lehner was brought in right before the pause, it was clebaar DeBoer was going to give him every opportunity to earn the starting job down the stretch had there been one. Instead, Lehner ended up as the starter in the return to play as Vegas made it to the Western Conference Final.
Right now as Vegas considers whether to trade Fleury, buy him out or somehow find the room to keep him (unlikely), they face the uncertainty of who fills the 1B to Lehner’s 1A if Fleury goes. In 2020-21, that role will never have greater importance.
Why It Matters
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said repeatedly that the league wants to play all 82 games next season. While I don’t know if this is the hill they’re willing to die on, it seems pretty set in stone that they will play a full regular season slate. With the season projected to start anywhere between mid-December and early January, playing 82 games and wrapping up the playoffs in a reasonable amount of time means a compressed schedule. It means more back-to-backs. Less rest. No bye week as negotiated in the CBA. Three-games-in-four-nights stretches (for you minor league aficionados three-in-threes are not permitted in the NHL).
I’ve been a part of NHL schedules that are jammed to the point of something like nine games in 15 days, but those were rare. Even then, the players do get tired and require rest days. Also, in the NHL many road teams are able to fly back post-game and sleep in their own beds for short range trips. That’s a little harder for some teams (San Jose’s travel schedule is actually worse than you’d think because of airport curfews).
In the 20-21 season teams had better prepare for cases like that to be the norm. Practices will be few and far between as coaches choose to rest teams in difficult stretches. Will it be detrimental? Depends who you ask I suppose. But it will have an effect on player fatigue and energy level. It might even increase the risk of injury. It will definitely make a 1A/1B setup even more important for your club.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine those 1A/1B starter splits trending closer to 50/50 in many cases for the upcoming season. Any contending team is going to want the ability to go to a solid, reliable 1B on any given night against any team in the league. For Vegas, that means finding a goaltender at a reasonable price who also can handle the potential at least 20 starts in a compacted regular season if not more in case of injury or slump.
Further complicating the issue for teams this year is the flat salary cap and the upcoming Seattle Kraken expansion draft. Teams know that any 1B is one they’ll have to leave unprotected for the Kraken to pluck unless they make a deal to avoid that. Then-Golden Knights GM George McPhee was very successful in leveraging those types of deals, ending up with several quality players and draft picks after making shrewd deals with teams attempting to protect assets. Seattle will look to do the same.
As this will easily be the most unusual off-season in NHL history, there may be opportunity in the chaos for Vegas. With several high-dollar veteran goaltenders either being bought out or not having contracts renewed, the ability to nab a proven starter for cheap may be available for several teams. The only caveat is would that goalie want to go after winning, or chase one last payday. The Golden Knights can definitely offer the former. They will almost certainly not be able to offer the latter.
Who do you think the Golden Knights should seek as their potential 1B? Let us know in the comments.