Goalies traditionally aren’t a huge component of the NHL Trade Deadline.
This season could be one of the exceptions to the rule, much in the same manner last season was.
Injuries to goalies, an added emphasis on depth and a number of experienced NHL goalies on expiring contracts could combine to change the dynamic of the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline, which is 3 p.m. ET on April 12.
It could look more like the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline than any of the five that preceded it, when five goalies were traded within a month of the deadline and four have made a positive impact since.
That’s more goalies traded than at any of the five previous deadlines, and a bigger impact than those five deadlines combined.
Robin Lehner was traded from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Toronto Maple Leafs and then to the Vegas Golden Knights on Feb. 24, 2020. He helped the Golden Knights reach the Western Conference Final and signed a five-year contract with Vegas on Oct. 3, 2020.
Goalie Malcolm Subban, who was traded to the Blackhawks as part of the deal, is the backup for Chicago this season.
The Colorado Avalanche acquired Michael Hutchinson from the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 24, 2020. The Avalanche wanted Hutchinson for depth entering the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but he became the starter against the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference Second Round because of injuries to Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz. Hutchinson helped twice stave off elimination before the Avalanche lost in Game 7.
Hutchinson was available because the Maple Leafs had acquired goalie Jack Campbell as part of a trade with the Los Angeles Kings on Feb. 5, 2020. This season Campbell has been invaluable for the Maple Leafs, setting a Toronto Maple Leafs record with a 10-game winning streak and playing the No. 1 role while Frederik Andersen is out with a lower-body injury.
Those success stories could help create more trades involving goalies this season, perhaps helping to dispel some of the very real concerns about goalies switching teams during the season.
Eddie Lack played for four teams during his five-season NHL career before he retired last season because of a hip injury. In his final NHL season, 2017-18, he was traded from the Calgary Flames to the New Jersey Devils on Dec. 30, 2017.
“The hardest part for a goalie coming in the middle of a season is you have to get used to a new system, a new goalie coach, a new everything,” Lack said. “It’s a little easier as a [skater] when you’re coming in as a rental to have success. But as a goalie it takes a while to create that bond with your defense and teammates, and I feel like 1-2 months before the playoffs is not enough time to really settle in.”
The impact of a goalie with a new team after the deadline could be impacted by several factors.
Systems, style matter
Goalies aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Each goaltending style has its strengths and weaknesses. Each fits some defensive systems and preferences better than others. Goalies can adjust, but matching a goalie’s style to the attributes and tendencies of the team in front of him can make the adjustment period shorter and less painful.
Who is a defenseman asked to take away first on an odd-man rush? Does a team stress shot blocking or front-screening in the defensive zone? Does a team play zone or man-to-man defense? The answer to each of these can accentuate or detract from a goalie’s preferred style.
James Reimer, now with the Carolina Hurricanes, had to adjust his positioning after being traded from Toronto to the San Jose Sharks before the 2016 NHL Trade Deadline. He played deeper in San Jose and went 6-2-0 with a .938 save percentage and three shutouts in eight games with the Sharks to finish the regular season.
“There is not always a good fit,” Reimer said in 2018. “If you’re a good goalie you can probably have success in any scenario. But just like any player, there is a perfect scenario for you. There is a sweet spot.”
Lehner changed his game twice last season, when he went from a stingy defensive system deployed by the New York Islanders in 2018-19 to a more wide-open system with the Blackhawks to start 2019-20 after signing with Chicago as a free agent. He subtly changed again after the trade to the Golden Knights.
Rush or in-zone chances?
Every goalie can defend rush chances as well as those created from attacking-zone possession time. But some prefer to play with more flow or backward skating and may adjust more readily to increased rush chances. Others aren’t as comfortable with extra movement and play a more passive style better suited to in-zone play.
Less is not always more
In theory, fewer shots should make life easier for a goalie. However, some struggle when they aren’t busy. Goalies with more movement and backward flow tend to rely a little more on rhythm and timing and traditionally are better suited to regular starts and more shots.
Familiarity with change
Sharks goalie Devan Dubnyk has been traded four times in his NHL career and has played for five teams.
He was flummoxed by his first trade, from the Edmonton Oilers to the Nashville Predators near the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline.
“It was the first time I had been traded or played for a different team, and I put a crazy amount of pressure on myself, to the point it was impossible to succeed,” Dubnyk said. “I learned from that.”
It was much easier the next season when he was traded from the Arizona Coyotes to the Minnesota Wild and went 27-9-2 with a .936 save percentage in 39 games.
Dubnyk says he learned “to just play and not think I have to come in and be Superman.”
The question now is whether NHL general managers have learned their lessons when it comes to trading for goalies.