Starters have been playing more games over the past 20 years. Why can’t they go for 82? Martin Brodeur, for one, believes goalies can play every game, but coaches and GMs are just too risk averse.
File this under the Captain Obvious department: Martin Brodeur owns just about every major record for goaltenders: wins (691), shutouts (125), games played (1, 266), 30-win seasons (14), 40-win seasons (eight), minutes played (74,439)…you get the point. But one record eluded him his entire career. In fact, no goalie has ever done it, though a few, including Brodeur, have come close. He tried for it every season, and it wasn’t like he couldn’t have done it. The problem was trying to convince the killjoys who called the shots in New Jersey to let him try. “I always begged my goalie coach, ‘Come on! One year. Let’s do it. This could be a record. I’ll play all 82 games. You can pull me after seven minutes if you want. Just let me start 82 games,’” Brodeur said, laughing. “He never bit on it.”
As much as he wanted to run the table every season, Brodeur knew he’d never get to play all 82 games. And presumably neither did Cory Schneider nor Braden Holtby, two of the most durable goaltenders in the NHL. Before this season, both said they wanted to play the entire year. Were they joking? Maybe. But the best want to be in the net every game. Brodeur, for one, was unequivocal when asked how serious he was about playing a full season. “Every season that I started, I wanted to play 82 games,” he said. “There was no doubt in my mind I could do it. Don’t tell me physically and mentally my game is harder than Scott Stevens’ the way he played the game.” It’s an interesting point. Why does a No. 1 goalie need games off yet a No. 1 defenseman doesn’t? To use a current comparison, why is Jonathan Quick’s job more difficult than Drew Doughty’s? The Kings average around 55 percent possession, so they control the puck for about 32 minutes per game. That means Quick is only active for about 28 minutes, if that, which is exactly what Doughty averaged in ice time last season. Quick and his cohort do absorb plenty of physical punishment by stopping pucks, but how is that any different from the punishment Doughty and other elite defensemen dish out and take in the form of bodychecks and blocked shots? Simple: the risk of injury is greater for goaltenders than it is for players. Goalies themselves might be champing at the bit to play a full slate, but those behind the scenes caution against it. “Goalies, especially, they’re going to be the ones that are your heavy sweaters and the ones that drop, most likely, a significant amount of fluids throughout a game…so they’re more susceptible to cramping,” said Mark Nemish, strength and conditioning coach for the Washington Capitals. “When you’re losing all that water weight, you’re also losing a large amount of electrolytes as well. That keeps your body in balance and muscles firing in harmony. Once you start disrupting that and you start disrupting the concentration of electrolytes and the cells of the body, it becomes much tougher for the muscles to contract properly. As a result, you’re going to expend more effort in trying to do the same amount of work. If that’s happening repeatedly over and over without proper recovery, there’s no question there’s a higher rate of injury.” The prevailing wisdom in the NHL is that a bona fide No. 1 goalie should play 60 to 69 games. Between 70 and 75 would be considered risky. Any more would be regarded as a death wish. Over the past 20 years, however, and especially since the 2004-05 lockout, No. 1 goalies have been playing an increasing percentage of games (see sidebar below). Brodeur’s career spanned those two decades, and he played 70 or more games 12 times, including 10 seasons in a row from 1997-98 to 2007-08. His career high came at age 34 when he played 78 games in 2006-07. From 1995-96, his first full season as a No. 1 goalie, until 2010-11, when at 38 his playing time began to decline, he played 86 percent of games with the New Jersey Devils – 90 percent if you remove 2008-09, the only season he sustained a major injury.
Advancements in training and nutrition have made this bump possible. When Nemish began working in the league in 1998, the focus was on strength, not rest. Since then, teams have been taking recovery much more seriously, tracking metrics like sweat rates and energy expenditure. “The shift has been from my side of the profession to more of the recovery end,” Nemish said. “We have more of a team approach from medical professionals on board and are able to track and implement strategies to get (goalies) recovered. As a result, it ends up possibly having goalies play more and being hurt less frequently.” Grant Fuhr holds the record for most games played by a goalie. In 1995-96, at 33 years old and after logging just 17 games the season before, he played 79 games for the St. Louis Blues. He might’ve played them all had it not been for a late season knee injury. It was a remarkable run, especially given his new coach’s well-known reputation for having a short leash on his goalies – it was Fuhr’s first year in St. Louis and Mike Keenan’s as well. Fuhr had no idea what to expect, but ‘Iron Mike’ told him just keep playing until he told him not to. And so he did. “A lot of it is the way coaches think,” Fuhr said. “If players play every day, then goalies should be able to play every day. It’s the same mental preparation. The only difference is that you’re standing out there the whole game.” Fuhr and Brodeur both agree the reason why netminders get games off is simply because coaches and GMs are playing risk management. The more a goalie plays, the greater the chance there is he gets injured. That’s what will keep the 82-game record out of reach from durability demons like Schneider and Holtby. “I don’t think you’ll see it,” Brodeur said. “Teams will be afraid to do that for a goalie. But I would love to see more guys who wanted to do it.”