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Is it time for Coyotes to abandon rotating-goalie approach?

Craig Morgan Avatar
November 20, 2023
Coyotes goaltender Karel Vejmelka has lost his past seven games.

A handful of games into the season, Coyotes coach André Tourigny offered a simple explanation for the coaching staff’s decision to rotate goalies on a game-by-game basis. Both he and goalie coach Corey Schwab view Karel Vejmelka and Connor Ingram as equals in ability.

The staff still believes that is the case, even if the early numbers suggest a different story. After falling 5-2 to Winnipeg on Saturday, Vejmelka has lost his past six starts, and his past seven games overall (0-5-2). As he prepares to take the net against the Los Angeles Kings on Monday at Mullett Arena, Ingram has won five straight games.

It’s not just the win-loss record that stands out, however. A look inside the numbers suggests that Ingram may be turning in better performances overall, despite facing a higher shot volume. What’s more, the team is producing more offense when he is in goal; almost two goals per game more support than they are giving Vejmelka. 

Reasonable rotation?

Karel VejmelkaConnor Ingram
Goals against per game3.182.75
Shots against30.434.75
#High danger shots against6249
#High-danger save %.806.878
Save %.901.918
*Goals saved above expected-0.455.16
Goal support per game2.504.38
# — Via naturalstattrick.com
* — Via evolving-hockey.com

All of this begs the question: Is it time for the Coyotes to abandon this rotating goalie approach that they have employed since the first game of the season? Is it time to let Ingram take the reins for a bit?

“It’s not simple math; it’s not one plus one,” Tourigny said after Monday’s morning skate, noting a variety of factors including quality of competition. “It’s more than that. We’re keeping our two guys energized and our two guys give us a chance to win.

“If you look at the performance of Veggie on that trip, what do you want me to say? It’s not like he did not play well or did not give us a chance to win. He gave us a really good chance to win in all the games he played. If you look at the game he played in Dallas, he gave us a chance to win. Without him, we’re not in the game at the end of the game. Same thing in St. Louis in a 2-1 loss. If we had given him the same offense we gave Ingy in Nashville, it would have been a walk in the park.”

Load management is an important component of modern goaltending. As sports science has provided staffs with a better understanding of the impact of all that unnatural movement on the hips, groin, knees and ankles — particularly the moves associated with the butterfly — the instances of goalies logging heavy workloads has dropped dramatically across the league.

In the 2011-12 season, 20 goaltenders played 55 or more games. Last season, only 12 goalies reached that number. Coaches are increasingly employing a 1A and 1B approach where the so-called backup plays more games than he may have in prior eras.

That said, rotating goalies on a game-by-game basis is uncommon in the NHL. Most teams and coaches eventually settle on a pecking order. No team has ever employed the rotating approach for a full season.

Since 2000, no team has even employed the approach for half a season.

Charts via NHL Stats

New York Rangers goalie Mike Richter was a part of the tandem that set the NHL record for rotating goalies on a game-by-game basis. Richter and John Vanbiesbrouck split the first 76 games of the 1990-91 season before Richter took over down the stretch and in the playoffs.

“Our team got off to a decent start,” Richter said of a Rangers team that went 11-4 in October. “There was no clear player that was going to take the reins. Sometimes, that’s not a good thing when neither player shows himself to be capable. In this case, it was the opposite. We both were playing quite well, the team was playing well, and we were having success.”

The Rangers example has a modern-day comparable in the Boston Bruins, who have been rotating between Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman on their way to a 13-1-2 start.

Richter said the approach had its benefits.

“Over the course of a long and grueling season, it was actually interesting knowing when I was going to be playing and when I wasn’t going to be playing,” he said. “For workouts, or for breaking in equipment, or for day-to-day preparation, it was actually really helpful. I knew I could work out harder one day because John was going to be playing tomorrow, or maybe there were two days between games so I could get a couple of really big workouts in. In that regard, it was tremendous.”

When there is disparity in performance between two goalies, Richter admitted that the picture can change, but he cautioned against the Coyotes making that determination too soon.

“In the end, it’s all about winning, but I’m not sure you can determine anything right now so I think they’re wise to make sure that they have the data to support whatever decision they make because, in the end, you’re trying to replicate that as much as possible,” he said. “If fundamentally, you make that decision on a really small data set and it kind of misrepresents what’s actually going on, you do that at your own peril.

“We’re not even 20 games into the season so I’m not sure we have enough data yet to make that decision. The people who have the finger on the pulse of this are the Coyotes coaching staff. They’re talking to the players. They are watching it. They are watching film and analyzing exactly what’s happening.”

Coyotes defenseman Michael Kesselring congratulates goalie Connor Ingram after defeating the Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Thursday in Columbus. (Getty Images)

At the same time, Richter said there is no denying that that the team in front of the goalie is fully aware of which one is winning and which one is not.

“In this situation, it’s interesting because you can make the argument that one goalie, just by how he plays, creates more confidence for the team,” Richter said. “The cause and effect is reversed. It may not be out of the blue that the team suddenly plays well in front of him and scores more for him. They may just have more confidence because they’ve watched how he goes about his business.

“If it comes to that point where it’s evident, you can always bail out of this approach, whether it’s game 76, game 56 or game 26. In the end, what you still gain is two fresh goalies. We all like to play every game but I think rest is valuable and there’s still enough games in the season to get into a rhythm.”

Former NHL goaltender Eddie Läck delved further into the challenges of rotating goalies on a game-by-game basis when he joined the PHNX Coyotes show on Saturday night (full show link here).

Tourigny confirmed that Ingram will start against the Kings on Monday at Mullett Arena, keeping this rotating approach intact. This is by no means an easy start. L.A. is 7-0 on the road this season and Ingram’s worst outing of the season came in a 6-3 loss in Los Angeles on Oct. 24 in which he was pulled after allowing three goals on nine shots.

What’s more, the banged up Coyotes just completed a five-game road trip, played in the Central and Eastern time zones. Coaches and players often note how the first game back from a long trip is a major challenge.

But if Ingram turns in another quality performance, will the Coyotes go back to Vejmelka on Wednesday when the St. Louis Blues come to town for a key Central Division game against a team that Arizona trails by one point, early in the Western Conference wild card race?

“I have said this from the beginning and it has not changed,” Tourigny said. “We’ll see how we ride the goalies in the future but for now, this is the way we’re riding it. I’m not saying we will not have a change. We know Ingy is winning and he’s on a good streak. But it’s not like he’s leading the league in save percentage. He’s finding a way to win the games.

“We really like his start, we liked his training camp, but with the schedule the way it is, especially in the last 10 days and in the next 10, we need everybody to be energized and ready to rock. Maybe at some point we’ll go with the guy who gives us a better chance to win, whether it’s Veg or Ingy, but for now we feel we need both of them.”

Top photo of Karel Vejmelka via Getty Images

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