Friday, January 16, 2009

Spoiling the goalie

There was an article in the Globe & Mail yesterday, detailing how young butterfly goaltenders are having more problems with the infamous "lower body" injury now than at any time in NHL history. We're seeing number-one goaltenders go down for long periods with knee, hip, groin and ankle problems, largely because of the stress the butterfly style takes on the joints. The experts in the article, including butterfly-style guru Francois Allaire and former goalie Darren Pang, cite the increasing speed of the game, requiring goalies to make more and harder saves, as a primary reason for the rash of goaltender injuries. Overwork of a team's number one goalie is another reason.

Rick Dipietro and Roberto Luongo are both required to play seventy-plus games for their teams, and both have missed extended periods with knee and groin injuries this season. There are other goalies missing time this year too...about a dozen of them...whose teams can ill-afford their absence. Of concern to Habs' fans though, is Carey Price's situation. At twenty-one, Price is still developing both physically and mentally. In his first full NHL season as the Canadiens' number-one goalie, Price was on pace to play sixty-plus of the team's eighty-two games until he suffered a quadriceps/knee injury and missed four games before Christmas. He came back for a few games, then went down again...this time with an ankle injury that's caused him to miss another seven games and counting. The injuries might just be fluky, or unlucky. Or they might be the temporary result of putting stress on joints that are still developing. But they might not.

An interesting stat in the Globe article says that no Stanley Cup-winning goaltender since 2002 has played more than 56 games a year. It supports two beliefs I've always held. One, that a team needs a strong, capable backup goalie...not just in case of injury, but to carry his share of the load. And, two, that a goalie who plays ninety-percent of his team's regular season games, doesn't just risk injury, but risks being too exhausted come playoff time to be at the top of his game.

Ken Dryden, in "The Game," talks about balancing his workload with backup Bunny Larocque. At the beginning of the year, Dryden, a stand-up style goalie, would plan to start most of the team's games, with Laroque pushed into the background. In the end, Dryden would play fifty-five to sixty of the team's eighty games. He admitted Laroque's role was more than just that of a spare part. The backup pushed Dryden to be better and keep sharp, and he was able to step in seamlessly when the team needed him. However, if a team had a goaltender like Dryden today, he'd be playing seventy-five games. And he'd be doing it on his knees in the butterfly. A goalie's workload is a lot more physically stressful than it was in Dryden's day, but it's also increased to the point where injuries are almost inevitable.

I think it's time for smart teams to go back to better management of their goaltenders. The goalies might not like it...especially the ambitious guys like Price who can only hope to break records if they play seventy-five games a year like Martin Brodeur does. But for their own good and longevity, coaches need to make sure goalies aren't overworked. Physical therapists need to work specialized strengthening exercises into goaltenders' routines. And practice time needs to be reduced for the number one goalie. Most importantly, teams need to carry two goaltenders who are able to shoulder the load when needed. Too often, teams keep one expensive goalie and one throwaway guy who gets a bare minimum of games, possibly for cap reasons. But a balanced system of sharing net duties will not only help keep both backstops fresh and challenged, but also help prevent injuries.

People talk about trading Jaro Halak because he won't be happy if he's only getting fifteen or twenty starts a year in Montreal. I agree, that's not enough work to keep him happy. But I think he should be getting a bigger share of the games than that. He's proven he can bring home the wins when called upon, and if having him play more means Price stays healthy, it's a good thing. I'd rather have Price play fifty games in the regular season, then be sharp and well-rested enough to play twenty more in the playoffs, than I would have him play seventy games in the regular season and flame out in the first round.

Carey Price is the franchise player the Canadiens haven't had since Patrick Roy. There's no question about that. But his position and style of play puts him at a higher risk of injury than his fellow goalies from past eras. It would be tragic if the Canadiens have found the right player to bring the team back to the Cup finals, only to lose him to a wonky knee or ankle because they overused him in the regular season. To avoid that, the team needs to take special care of Price. And it needs to start now.

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