Pulling the goalie earlier in the game seems to be a growing trend in both the NHL and the AHL. There are still a good amount of coaches who are extremely conservative when it comes to pulling the netminder, but we’re seeing more of them each year begin to take a more aggressive approach.
The more aggressive side includes Flyers’ head coach Dave Hakstol, who on multiple occasions pulled the goaltender with over five minutes remaining in the game, and once with 7:20 left on the clock when the Flyers were down by three and about to go on a power play. However, the data presented by Clifford Asness and Aaron Brown suggests that even Hakstol is being conservative with his timing and that NHL teams should pull the goaltender even earlier, based on how many goals they are losing by.
In the study, it is proposed that teams should pull the goaltender with 5:40 left in the game when down by one, 11:40 when down by two, 17:40 when down by three, 35:50 when down by four, and if you’re down by five? Pull the goaltender as soon as possible. Does it seem crazy at first? Absolutely. Will we ever see a NHL head coach pull the goaltender in the second period? Nope, probably not. However the first few aren’t all that outlandish, and with how “going for it” pays off in huge ways in football for example, why can’t “going for it” have the same result in hockey?
I get it, that’s not a perfect analogy. If you fail to convert on fourth down your defense still has a chance to get the ball back and give you another shot at tying up the game. In hockey it’d just take one lucky clear winding up in the back of your net and you’re down another goal. But does that really matter? What’s the difference if you lose by four goals or by five? Besides goal differential being a possible standings tiebreaker if two teams are tied in points, regulation plus overtime wins, and in their head-to-head record, all it does is give the players on the ice another minus. And that’s exactly why some NHL players are totally against the idea.
Craig Custance of The Athletic went to some of the league’s biggest stars to get their opinion on the study and, unsurprisingly, many were opposed to the idea. Islanders’ forward Anders Lee was strongly against it, stating that it was all but guaranteeing a minus for the players on the ice. The resounding conclusion was that the team should be given the opportunity to score at 5-on-5 rather than going 6-on-5 so early, however, Auston Matthews was a bit more receptive towards it than others:
“If you think about it, it’s not bad. Let’s say you’re down by one and typically you’re pulling it around two. A lot of times you end up still in their zone trying to score — imagine if you add two more minutes to that,” Matthews told The Athletic. “It kind of makes sense.”
It’s no surprise that one of the youngest superstars in the league was fond of the idea, at least mostly. He still wasn’t convinced that the goaltender should be pulled with seventeen minutes left in the game, no, just one player seemed to be all for the idea; Flyers’ captain Claude Giroux.
Giroux told The Athletic that he’d love to see the idea implemented and that it’s “definitely smart,” although he’d need too see some kind of strategy involved behind it. Think about it, let’s say the Flyers are losing 4-1 and the opposing team ices the puck with 15:32 left on the game clock. Theoretically the Flyers could pull the goaltender, have their best faceoff-taker in Giroux on the ice, capitalize on the opposing team’s tired players, and suddenly it’s a two-goal game. Okay, that’s great, but let’s say they fail to score, and for whatever reason the whistle blows after over a minute has passed. You could then put your goaltender back in the net now that your team’s top players are fatigued and the opposing team is once again allowed to make a line change. You increased your chances to score for over a minute, and there’s no harm done. Of course, the risk, as stated earlier, would be the fact that the opposition would be one lucky clearing attempt away from making it a four goal game. A risk that, under that specific scenario, seems worth it to make - at least to me, and seemingly to Giroux.
The study concludes that a team that pulls their goaltender under their suggested times would on average add 1.76 standings points over the course of the regular season, a number that would have put the Florida Panthers into the playoffs just last year. With how risk-adverse NHL coaches are, it’ll be a long while before we see anything like this attempted, but who knows, maybe down the road Giroux gets into coaching and he’ll be the first to try it. You just never know.