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How Many Games Should a Goalie Play?

Oct 17, 2023; Buffalo, New York, USA; Buffalo Sabres goaltender Devon Levi (27) during a stoppage in play against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the first period at KeyBank Center. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

How many games should an NHL goalie play in a season?

The answer is… well, there is no right answer.

My interest in this topic was piqued around the Devon Levi conversation among Sabres fans. The Sabres started this season with three goalies: Levi, a rookie; Eric Comrie, and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. Levi got much of the workload early this season, playing four of the first five games before he sustained a lower-body injury that kept him out for just over two weeks. He’d also previously played three of the Sabres’ preseason games.

As we all know, NHL teams play 82 games in a regular season. For the sake of simplicity, let’s consider only the regular season – not preseason, nor playoffs. Each team, and each goaltender, is in a unique position. Try as you might, I don’t think there can be a perfect mathematical or analytical formula for how many games a goalie should play, though I’m sure someone smarter than me could put together some sort of grading system or curve that would come close. There are so many factors to consider, from the goalie’s age and level of experience to health and conditioning, what the team’s schedule looks like (back-to-backs, road trips, etc.) and how the team performs over the course of the season.

Grant Fuhr set the NHL record in the 1995-96 season when he played a whopping 79 games. (This was also when the NHL settled on its 82-game schedule.) Martin Brodeur played 78 (2006-07) and 77 games (2007-08), while others like Evgeni Nabokov, Marc Denis and Arturs Irbe also played 77 in a single season at one point in their careers.

Whereas back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and even to the ‘90s and early ‘00s, it wasn’t too uncommon to see goalies playing 70+ games, it’s something that’s definitely changed over the years. Most recently, Cam Talbot played 73 games in the 2016-17 season, and Braden Holtby played 73 in the 2014-15 season. Those are the most any goalie has played in a single season in the last ten years.

Largely, teams seem to have realized over the years that a) overworking their starting goaltender helps absolutely no one and b) having a serviceable backup goaltender is a good thing! This results in a much more manageable workload for the starter, a more balanced tandem, and generally, stronger performances all around.

In the 2022-23 season, Nashville’s Juuse Saros and Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck each played 64 games for their respective teams. Alexandar Georgiev, Jake Oettinger and Ilya Sorokin each played 62. The majority of goaltenders in the league played between 40-50 games.

Saros and Hellebuyck also led the league in the previous season, with 67 and 66 games played each, respectively. In fact, Hellebuyck has been at or near the top in each of the last five seasons, and he’s right up there again this season so far. Saros and Sergei Bobrovsky have each played 12 of their team’s 14 games, while Jonas Johansson has played 12 of 15. (To be fair, Johansson’s situation in Tampa began out of necessity due to the injury to Andrei Vasilevskiy.)

All this to say – the way NHL teams use their goaltenders has changed quite a bit over the years. Starting goaltenders really aren’t playing 70+ games anymore, and realistically, that’s probably a good thing. The days of seeing a single goalie play that many games in a season are likely over, and we’re all better for it.