Commentary

Coaches now more open to giving backups the starring role

Updated: December 10, 2008, 4:49 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

OK, all you junior accountants, take a look at NHL rosters in the coming days and see whether you can count up just how much high-priced goaltending help has been relegated to door-opening and supportive butt-slapping.

Got your abacuses out? On any given night, there might be upward of $30 million in annual salary sporting baseball caps on the bench, including Cristobal Huet ($5.625 million salary annually over four years), Pascal Leclaire ($11.4 million over three years), Chris Osgood ($1.7 million this season), Tomas Vokoun ($17.5 million and three years left on his deal), Dan Ellis ($1.75 million cap hit), Martin Gerber ($3.7 million), Ilya Bryzgalov (in the first year of a three-year deal worth $12.75 million) and Jose Theodore ($4.5 million salary annually for this year and next).

[+] EnlargeCraig Anderson
Eliot J. Schechter/Getty ImagesHeading into Wednesday's games, Craig Anderson leads the league with a .941 save percentage.

In what might be an unprecedented shift in NHL coaching strategy, coaches have gone from long leash to a short leash when it comes to their starting netminders, and they've gone in droves.

With points like gold and teams bunched together like sardines in a can, coaches and managers have moved away from the old-school thought that your No. 1 guy was your No. 1 guy even if he stunk the joint out every now and again. GMs had to justify paying big bucks to their starters, and that meant the coaches played them until they worked out the kinks in their game. The backup? He got paid a pittance and was on hand mostly for moral support and taking shots off the noggin in practice.

No more.

"We used to look at [the season] month to month; now it's week to week," Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock told ESPN.com in a recent interview.

The Blue Jackets entered the season with a remade blue line, desperate to make the playoffs for the first time. One of the reasons for optimism was the play of Leclaire, who had nine shutouts in 2007-08 and looked to have established himself as a top-flight netminder. Heck, people were talking about a possible place for him on the Canadian Olympic team in 2010. But after battling through injuries early in the season, the now-healthy Leclaire has struggled since his return with a 4-6-0 record, .876 save percentage and 3.74 goals-against average, numbers guaranteed to keep you out of the playoffs.

So, Hitchcock gave rookie Steve Mason a chance, and Mason has responded with a series of quality starts that has seen him go 6-4-1 with a .915 save percentage and a 2.17 GAA. He was named top rookie for the month of November.

"He's taken the job, and he's run with the ball," Hitchcock said.

The Blue Jackets are part of a clump of teams that have playoff hopes but know they need better goaltending to get there.

Bryzgalov was "the man" in Phoenix last season after the Coyotes picked him up off waivers from Anaheim, but he's been unable to find a groove this season. So, coach Wayne Gretzky has handed the ball to Mikael Tellqvist, who has kept the Coyotes close. Gretzky has gone to lengths to point out that Bryzgalov is still his guy -- although his voice might have been a bit muted after Bryzgalov gave up seven goals on 28 shots against Chicago on Sunday -- but has added that he has to go with the hot hand.

In Florida, rookie coach Pete DeBoer went in with a clean slate and gave all his players a chance through the first 10 games to prove themselves. Now, it's all on merit, and in the case of the Panthers' goaltenders, Vokoun has been sitting while journeyman backup Craig Anderson, who makes about one-tenth of what Vokoun takes home, has been the hot hand.

"The nice thing for me is that Tomas has been the consummate professional," DeBoer told ESPN.com.

As the team's highest-paid player, Vokoun understands he needs to deliver more than he has, the coach said. "I'm sure he's not happy sitting where he is," DeBoer added.

Hard to argue with results, though. Vokoun is 5-10-0 with a 3.04 GAA and .910 save percentage, while Anderson, who leads the NHL with a .941 save percentage and is third with a 2.09 GAA, has been a catalyst for the Panthers' dragging themselves out of the East basement and within shouting distance of the playoffs.

[+] EnlargePekka Rinne
John Russell/NHLI/Getty ImagesFor now, Pekka Rinne seems to be the go-to goalie in Nashville.

In the past, there would have been pressure, either subtle or overt, from management to keep the guy with the big ticket in the nets. Having a big salary and sitting on the bench while watching the Kiss Camera reflects poorly on management. It is a constant reminder of misplaced finances and judgment.

But coaches told ESPN.com that managers are more willing to acknowledge those mistakes if it means putting a few more points on the board.

"You can't wait a long time for goaltenders to re-establish themselves," Nashville coach Barry Trotz told ESPN.com. "It is a trade-off. You don't wait as long [to pull established starters who might be making more money]."

The incentive, of course, is to make the playoffs, where teams have a chance to make money regardless of who is playing net.

"I think you're seeing a lot more of that, where teams aren't staying with their top guy if he's not playing well," said Trotz, who has the second-longest tenure of any NHL coach behind Buffalo's Lindy Ruff.

Trotz has had a virtual carousel of netminders pass through in the past couple of years. GM David Poile was forced to unload Vokoun and his big, new contract at the 2006 draft. Vokoun's backup, the popular Chris Mason, was to be the starter last season with Ellis playing his way into the backup role. The plan, according to Trotz, was to play Mason through the early part of last season and then bring in prospect Pekka Rinne from the AHL.

But Mason struggled, and Ellis played out of his mind down the stretch and in the playoffs. This season? Mason is gone, battling Manny Legace for playing time in St. Louis, while new starter Ellis has gone 8-11-2 with an ordinary .894 save percentage and 3.01 GAA.

Trotz defended Ellis, saying a lot of the goals have been the result of too many penalties and a soft penalty kill. Goaltending coach Mitch Korn keeps a log of goals that should have been stopped, and Trotz said Ellis actually has been quite good despite his soft numbers. But Trotz has turned to Rinne on a regular basis, and Rinne has responded with a 6-1-0 record, .902 save percentage and 2.61 GAA.

There are dangers, of course, with yanking the big boys. Players have to adjust to different personalities and styles if there's a constant rotation of goaltenders. Then, there's the mental toll on netminders, whose state of mind is as important, maybe more so than their technical abilities. There also is the possibility the newcomer's magic will run out.

Hitchcock said it's important not to let your netminder get too far removed from the process, especially if it's a guy who might be expected to carry a big load.

"You don't want to make the break too long," Hitchcock said. "You want to make sure the other guy doesn't get too far from the competition."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.