October 15, 2010
Many teams in the NHL have tried to use the "two-headed monster theory" with their goaltenders, alternating games between two equally talented keepers. But as far as the players are concerned, a team is far better off with a clear number one and a back-up guy.
The reality is, no team wants to have two starters, including the teams that do. They're hoping one of the two guys will take the reins and make it impossible to start the other one. This the currents state of affairs in a number of places around the league right now, but most notably with the Tampa Bay Lightning in Mike Smith(notes) and Dan Ellis(notes), and the San Jose Sharks with Antero Nittymaki and Antti Niemi(notes).
Aside from the obvious reasons -- you want to have a goalie who's clearly good enough to be a No.1 big game guy, and you want to avoid drama -- a true back-up goalie helps his teammates improve.
In practice, your starting goaltender gets treated like a starting quarterback. The majority of these guys rarely go all out on off-days, and the team is super-cautious not to hurt their precious ace. Coach doesn't want to over-work them, and they don't want to be over-worked.
Half the time in practice your lead guy will stay in his stance and avoid going down to make a save until about 20 minutes in. They're protected (read: coddled).
That's okay, because everyone understands the value of a game-changing goalie, and there's another guy there to step up to the plate.
It's rare for any goalie to want to face extra shots, but it's understood that the back-up goalie has the obligation to do so - it's a part of the job description. There's the expectation that if a player wants to go on the ice 20 minutes early and work on something, the back-up will be out there to help. And the same goes for after practice. You can't exactly work on breakaways on an empty net.
Some of the greatest skill-building/fun games are entirely dependent on that guy not just doing his job, but taking it semi-seriously. Juice Boy, Three Puck, Rebound - all the standard post-practice games logically don't appeal to the starter. Nobody expects a guy who plays 60-plus games a year to be flopping around after the fourth rebound of a meaningless game on his day off, so it's great to have a teammate who will.
During practice and pre-game warm-up, you're allowed to go shelf on the back-up. (Watch the difference in the height of player's shots in warm-up - it's comical. The second the back-up steps in all you hear are crossbar pings and pucks off the glass.) Of course, you don't want to fire any off your back-up's collar bone, but since you always go high in today's NHL, you need a guy that you're allowed to practice on.
The problem is, when you have the two starters, you have two guys who think they deserve starter treatment. And since they probably do deserve that, you can almost never go cheese.
People tend to assume when it's a two-headed monster that both guys work harder and push each other, and to a certain extent, they're right. It does create an atmosphere where the goalies put more effort into practice. But that extra effort is limited to practice time (when coach is out there); they're angling for the next start.
Unfortunately, it doesn't change either goalie's mentality when you ask to get some extra work in, and it doesn't change the indignant attitude you get if you try to tuck one under the crossbar beside either "starter's" ear.
(Of course, the diva starter is a generalization, but I dare you to shoot a puck near any starter's neck and see how it affects your relationship with him.)
A true back-up is a blessing. He's a rink rat, he helps your team develop over the course of the season, and takes the heat off your number one. Think Alex Auld(notes) in Montreal. It simplifies teams.
So sure, it's fine when a coach says to the media "having two excellent goaltenders to choose between is a nice problem to have," and he may even mean it.
And, given an injury, it actually is a good thing.
But all things equal on a healthy team, most players would pick a true starter with a true back-up every time.