Sports could easily compile an endangered species list.
In baseball, it’s the complete game pitcher.
In football, where have all the 300-carry running backs gone?
And in hockey, it’s the eradication of the 70-start workhorse goaltender.
Ten years ago, you knew exactly where to find one: New Jersey, New York, Calgary, Vancouver. But today, they’re almost nowhere to be found.
Looking back at the 2007-08 season, amazingly, there were six goaltenders that racked up 70 or more starts that season — Martin Brodeur, Evgeni Nabokov, Miikka Kiprusoff, Ryan Miller, Roberto Luongo and Henrik Lundqvist. You could expect to see those same names year after year. Luongo and Lundqvist had four straight seasons of 70-plus starts. Kiprusoff ripped off seven in a row and Brodeur was on a whole other level reaching 70 starts an astonishing 12 times in his career.
By comparison, only six goaltenders have reached that mark in the past seven years, with Edmonton’s Cam Talbot being the last in 2016-17. Just like baseball general managers closely monitoring pitch counts of their starters, NHL GMs are working in the backup netminders much more in today’s game.
And who better to understand this shift in the crease than goalie-turned-GM Ron Hextall, whose personal high in games played was 66 in the 1986-87 season.
“Fifteen, 20 years ago, there’d be 18 to 20 games where you said, ‘We’re going to win all those games,’ and you’d win 90 percent of them,” Hextall said. “Nowadays, there’s not one game where you go in saying we’re going to win tonight. That’s a change in terms of workload on a goaltender. There’s close games, no 7-2 games.
“For the most part, there are one- and two-goal games and you need to be at the top of your game every night, whereas back then, you didn’t have to be at the top of your game and still win.”
This may explain, in part, why Hextall feels it’s vital to have a surplus of goaltending entering training camp next month. It may also be why the organization has closely monitored the rehab of Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth, who both elected to stay in Voorhees, New Jersey, this summer instead of recovering back in their home countries.
The Flyers need two highly capable goaltenders this season to have sustained success.
“Every game is demanding physically and mentally. You need two guys,” Hextall said. “You saw what happened to Montreal when (Carey) Price went down, and you need two guys. It’s a load and it’s a partnership.”
As a whole, the numbers suggest goaltending has incrementally improved as the workhorse has been gradually phased out. Prior to the 2017-18 season, the league-wide save percentage was .910 or higher for four straight seasons, which had not happened since the days of the Original Six. Call it good goaltending or just the way the game has evolved over the past decade.
“Checking is very good these days. Players don’t have a lot of time and space,” Hextall said. “They don’t have time to pick the corner. Goaltending is good. Checking is very good.”
In over 50 years, only one Flyer has hit that 70 mark in appearances, and of course, it was Bernie Parent in 1973-74, when the Flyers became the first expansion team to win the Stanley Cup.
The 2018-19 season may be the final one before the Flyers' cage belongs to Carter Hart, who many expect to be the franchise savior in net for the next 10-15 years. The previous franchise goaltender won’t expect Hart to carry that heavy workload either.
“If you play a guy 70 games and he gets hurt, and now all of a sudden you’re picking a guy that you got pinned to the bench the whole year. ‘By the way, you’re our guy. Go get ‘em.’ That’s not fair,” Hextall said. “There’s a team element involved in this that people don’t talk about. To me, philosophically, that’s important.”