Why NHL teams are finding two goalies are better than one

    Ryan S. Clark is an NHL reporter for ESPN.

None of this was planned. It just sort of happened, as bromances often do. Boston Bruins goaltenders Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark would celebrate winning mini-games in practice by hugging it out. They never really talked about it because it just felt natural.

So imagine Swayman’s surprise when he won last season’s Bruins opener. He jokes how Ullmark “came in hot” and just hugged him. They viewed it as a special moment and had no idea it would take on a life of its own.

Watching Swayman and Ullmark in their exaggerated hug has become an extremely familiar sight this season. The Bruins have emerged as one of the NHL’s best teams, and with each win comes that hallmark moment.

It doesn’t matter who gets the win. Whoever was on the bench for the game rushes over for what’s coming next. As the goalies get near each other, Ullmark and Swayman throw their arms into the air and embrace in the most emphatic of ways. Almost like they are long separated family members meeting at an airport.

“I love teamwork, having brothers, wearing the same jersey and having one of your best friends be one of your closest teammates as a goalie,” Swayman said. “It’s hard to beat that.”

Having two goalies working together as a tandem has become the norm, as the days of one player seeing the vast majority of time in net seem to be slipping away.

Consider the circumstances of the Carolina Hurricanes’ first road trip of the season. Five games in 10 days played over two time zones, starting in the United States and ending in Canada.

A number of factors played a part in the Canes going 3-1-1 before flying back to Raleigh, North Carolina. Having two reliable goaltenders was a big one. Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta shared the five games, with Andersen playing three. It’s the type of flexibility that more and more teams are seeking.

“I think over the last five-plus years, that has been the case,” Raanta said about the rise in tandems. “You don’t really see any more of the guys playing 60 or 70 games and the other guy plays 10. You have to have two good goalies in this league. You’re playing all the time. You’re traveling all the time. There’s going to be injuries. I feel like it’s a huge thing to have that.”

Still, utilizing a goalie tandem is more involved than meets the eye.

Moving to tandems has led to front offices reexamining how they use salary cap space. Tandems have created more better paying jobs, but they have also made the goalie market extremely fluid. That, in turn, has forced agents to become more creative in terms of marketing their clients to prospective teams in the offseason.

Naturally, goalies have a part to play beyond stopping pucks and winning games. They must be prepared to adapt to a situation that can change at any time — even if that means the best thing for the team is for them to sit on the bench. Coaches are thinking about those same details in addition to determining if they have a goalie who is ready for a greater workload — or would accept a lighter one.

Those are items to consider at the NHL level. Other factors must be weighed: Do tandems shape a team’s decisions about drafting a goaltender? How does a team know if it has a goalie who is capable of playing more than 60 games or is better suited to be part of a tandem? And for the prospects themselves, how early in their development arc do they start playing in a tandem?

“A lot of people focus on the stars like [Andrei] Vasilevskiy or [Carey] Price who play a lot of games,” Buffalo Sabres goalie Craig Anderson said. “But the main one that pops out is when [Ken] Hitchcock was in St. Louis when he had Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott [in 2012-13 and 2013-14]. They had the best stats in the league. I think that kind of opened the door for more opportunities. There’s only 64 of us playing at this level, but the dropoff from the No. 10 goalie to the No. 40 isn’t there.”

Anderson, 41, is the oldest player in the league. He became a full-time NHL goalie during the 2007-08 season. That season, 22 goalies in the league started at least 50 games. Thirteen started more than 60, while six started more than 70. There were 89 goalies who played at least one game.

Fast forward to the 2021-22 season. There were 16 goalies who started at least 50 games, but only four who started more than 60. No goalie had more than 70 starts. There were 119 goalies who played at least one game last season.

When discussing the reasons more teams are opting to use tandems, Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill put travel at the top of the list, especially considering those demanding stretches of four games in six days.

Nill also said the game has evolved, citing the speed along with rule changes that have made it harder for players to defend. That has led to goaltenders facing more pressure.

Scoring numbers continue to increase in the NHL. Through the first 300 games this season, the average team scored 3.18 goals per contest. If that holds, it will be the fourth time in five seasons the league average is more than three goals per contest.

The last time that happened was the 1991-92 season through the 1995-96 season.

“The volume of shots is much higher than it was 10 years ago,” Nill said. “The neat thing about our game is we talk about parity. Our league has never been more competitive. There is a risk in putting in a guy that is tired from a performance or how an injury is a major concern. You want to make sure you are not overtaxing a goalie. Those two points are important. … I tell our team that the difference between making or missing the playoffs really is one win a month.”

Finding the right mix

Front offices must weigh a variety of factors when putting together a tandem, including the players’ ages and contracts, but finding the right personalities is among the most important. Anderson said a tandem with two 20-year-olds might not be harmonious because each player likely would be eager to prove why they should be the outright No. 1.

Anderson said teams usually take one of two routes. They either pair a veteran with a younger goalie or they pair two veterans who are close to the same stage of their careers.

The Bruins used the first option last season by going with Swayman and Ullmark. Swayman was a prospect who starred at the University of Maine, while Ullmark had played three full seasons with the Sabres before signing with Boston as a free agent.

But the foundation of their partnership may have started years before they met. Swayman shared the net growing up in Alaska, where he had a good relationship with most of his goalie partners. That experience from the minors and youth hockey made him prioritize having a good relationship with every single teammate.

His time at Maine reinforced the importance of having goaltenders who got along. He said it was one of the reasons he had such a strong junior season in 2019-20, when he won the Hockey East Player of the Year, the Mike Richter Award as the best goalie in college hockey and finished second for the Hobey Baker Award, which goes to the nation’s top collegiate player.

Swayman and Ullmark started building their relationship several weeks prior to their first training camp together. They shared ideas about wanting to learn from each other, the need to build a sense of camaraderie and to figure out what they could do to help the Bruins win.

Their relationship turned out to be something much greater than that. Swayman and Ullmark have become extremely close. Swayman said he goes to Ullmark’s house every day and plays with his kids while openly declaring Ullmark’s wife, Moa, might be one of the best bakers he has ever met.

“I’m trying my hardest to not eat as many buns because if I do, I’ll be 300 pounds,” Swayman said. “She is the rock star in the relationship.

“It comes down to who we are as people. We are both outgoing, happy and excited to meet new people. He gets along with everyone the same way I do and it’s awesome we have that mindset. It has heightened the way we get along and have become friends.”

Last season, they both played 41 games in the regular season, with Swayman getting five games in the playoffs while Ullmark had two. This season has seen Ullmark emerge as a Vezina hopeful while Swayman has endured a more challenging campaign.

Swayman said the fact he can turn to Ullmark, who has also gone through some tough times in his career, is extremely valuable. It allows him to keep a good attitude while also having someone he considers “a mentor and a brother” help him.

“It’s pretty amazing how goalies can learn from each other and from watching each other,” Swayman said. “That’s why we get so animated in our postgame celebrations. You understand as a goalie how hard it is to win in this league and that is what is most exciting about when you do win.”

Creating a strong environment has a lasting impact. Just ask Anderson. He recalled when he was with the Colorado Avalanche and had a partner who was similar in age. Anderson was 28 with 109 games of NHL experience and was paired with Peter Budaj, then 27 and with 182 games with the Avs by that point.

“Peter Budaj was my backup that year and I played 71 games,” Anderson said. “He was the best guy you could ever imagine. Because of the way he handles himself in that role, he had a job in the league for another 10 years.

“You might be fighting for a position on your team, but if you go in and have a bad attitude, it’s going to resonate throughout the league and you’re not going to get another job.”

Anderson’s story reinforces another aspect about tandems: The landscape always has the potential to change.

Juuse Saros became a regular NHL goaltender with the Nashville Predators at age 21. He went from backing up Pekka Rinne in 2016-17 to receiving more starts than Rinne during the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season. The Preds made it to the qualifying round of the playoffs and Saros started every game before they were eliminated.

The following season saw Saros receive 21 more starts than Rinne, who retired at the end of the year. A year later, Saros led the league with 67 starts.

“You have to physically be in good shape,” Saros said. “But mentally, you have to not think too much ahead because there are so many games. I felt like last year it kind of went by fast because we were in the playoff race the whole year. It was kind of easy to focus because I knew every game was important. Looking back, it’s a lot of games but it went by so fast.”

Predators coach John Hynes said Saros ended up with the bulk of the starts because he was comfortable playing in stretches of multiple games, remaining confident and consistent in a way that helped the team win.

The Preds went through a transition process of managing Saros’ playing and practice time while he was starting roughly every other game. Hynes said seeing a goalie handle that change proves they have the mentality to be a starter who carries a heavier workload.

Hynes said that is another reason why tandems are important. Playing in a tandem gave Saros the runway to eventually transition into becoming a No. 1 goalie. But even as a No. 1, every goalie is going to need rest, which is built into their schedules more now than in years past.

“What does the starter need too? Does he need mental and/or physical recovery? Are there some holes in his game when you play so much you don’t get a chance to practice,” Hynes said. “I also think how you structure practice is important for the goalies. Everything is so high tempo and practices, there is less bored time. There’s more go, go, go in practice. With the intensity of the game schedule, those are things you have to take into account when managing today’s game.”

Money matters

Front offices are always looking for ways to maximize their salary cap dollars while having a flexible roster. The advent and continued use of tandems has presented executives with a valuable option in that regard.

CapFriendly’s data shows the average NHL team for the 2022-23 season has committed around 8% of its cap space — $6.6 million — toward goaltending. Eight individual goalies currently are under contract at more than $6 million annually.

ESPN interviewed two agents on the condition of anonymity so they could speak more freely about how tandems have shaped the economic conditions for goaltenders. One of the agents said the reason the goalie market has remained constantly active goes back to teams looking for the right goalie at the right time.

“There are not many Carey Prices, right?” the agent said. “But the secondary market is still a really healthy market. I would like to think we normally do well. But the market dictates the range and our job as agents is to get the best deal. In our business, you are keeping an eye on dollars or opportunity. Sometimes it’s both. It’s like [Alexandar] Georgiev. He got a really good deal on a really good team.”

A number of factors eventually led Georgiev needing a new home. He was coming through at a time when the New York Rangers were transitioning from one Vezina Trophy winner in Henrik Lundqvist to another Vezina recipient in Igor Shesterkin. The emergence of Shesterkin, the lack of consistent playing time and the notion his $2.65 million qualifying offer was a nonstarter for the Rangers given their cap restraints all led to Georgiev ultimately departing.

He was traded to the Avalanche, who signed him to a three-year deal carrying a $3.4 million cap hit. Between Georgiev and Pavel Francouz, the Avs have two goalies who cost them only a combined $5.4 million. Georgiev never started more than 32 games and the most wins he had in a season with the Rangers was 17. As of Dec. 8, he was projected to receive 58 starts and win 38 games.

In turn, the Rangers replaced Georgiev by signing Halak to a one-year contract worth $1.5 million. Pairing Halak with Shesterkin gives the Rangers a tandem that costs a combined $7.16 million this season.

Halak signing a one-year pact illustrates why the goalie market is expected to be fluid again this offseason. There are 24 teams with at least one goalie who is a pending free agent (restricted or unrestricted), with 15 of those teams having at least one unrestricted.

That means nearly half of the NHL could be looking for a new goaltender come July.

“The flat cap has changed a lot of these decisions,” Nill said. “Pre-pandemic times, we’re sitting down and planning for next year with two- or three-year projections or five- to eight-year projections down the road. Three years with COVID-19 and the flat cap, those projections all change. You are now trying to fit guys in the right situation and guys want to get paid a certain amount. That is where the game has changed and teams have to make tough decisions.”

The second agent admitted some creativity is required in trying to land his goalie clients the best deals possible. He said he and his team will send spreadsheets to GMs detailing what their goalies do in terms of offseason workouts and how they are more durable than the average goalkeeper.

Advanced metrics also are playing an increased role. The agent said he was marketing one of his clients to a team that allowed a significant amount of high danger scoring chances, so he presented the team with data showing his client was particularly effective in those situations. It led to a deal, the agent said.

“We try to find something to make it more enticing to show why my client can help you in this way,” the agent said. “My client might be worth three more wins compared to the competition and those six points might be the difference between you making the playoffs and missing the playoffs.”

Starting young

It’s possible there will come a time when Jesper Wallstedt is part of an NHL tandem. For now, the 20-year-old goalie, who was selected by Minnesota Wild in the first round of the 2021 draft, is playing for the team’s AHL affiliate, the Iowa Wild.

Wallstedt is no stranger to being part of a tandem as it was something that was ever-present throughout his development. He said growing up in Sweden, everyone got a chance to play every position — including goalie — until they were 14, although he said most players stopped experimenting with positions before they became teenagers.

He spent three seasons playing in the J20 Nationell, which is the highest level of junior hockey in Sweden. Wallstedt then played two seasons in the SHL, the highest level of professional hockey in Sweden, before coming to North America. He played more than 20 games in each of those five seasons and was always part of a tandem.

“I don’t think you go into a season knowing you’re the backup. If you are 16 and think that, you are on the wrong team,” Wallstedt said. “You are there to develop. As much as people think you are getting better in practice, playing games is the best possible practice.”

Wallstedt enhanced his development by doing more work after practice with the aim of making it harder on himself. In Sweden, the hockey season is shorter than in North America, which means there is more rest time between games. Wallstedt knew that to have even a chance at going to the NHL meant he had to prepare himself to handle the physical demands.

Wallstedt said he already has seen a difference between the AHL and SHL. In Sweden, he played two or three games a week with days off in between. In the AHL, he’s typically playing three or four games a week over the course of a 72-game regular-season schedule.

“The most important thing is we are here to win every single game and try to win the league,” Wallstedt said. “We are doing that together as a team. Maybe sometimes, it is better for me to sit down on the bench and let the other goalie play and he gives the team a better chance of winning. That might be the reality you have to tell yourself.”

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