Goalie tandems

Back in my day, things were simple. You had a goalie who played every day. If he had a bad outing or was sick or something, you put the backup goalie in but the next game, the regular goalie was back. Bob Watson was the man and Anthony Cosmo was his backup. We Rock fans all knew Cosmo was more than capable of being a starter, but he was unquestionably Whipper’s backup at the time. Eliuk was the man in Philly. O’Toole was the man in Rochester. Chugger in Buffalo. Nash in Colorado.

That’s just how it worked, and we liked it.

And then the Minnesota Swarm came along and changed everything.

In 2012, the Swarm started the season with a 20-14 loss to the Mammoth. Longtime Swarm goalie Nick Patterson went the distance and gave up all 20 goals on 50 shots. He was immediately benched and rookie Tyler Carlson started the next game, winning 19-11 over the Bandits. They returned to Carlson for the next two, a 16-14 loss to the Knighthawks and then a 10-9 overtime win over the Rush. Two nights after the Rush victory, the Swarm kept the Knighthawks to only 6 goals with a sparkling debut performance from Evan Kirk. That was when Patterson was released.

Carlson (left) and Kirk

After that, the Swarm just kept going back and forth. Carlson, 11 goals against. Then Kirk, only 7 goals against. Carlson again, 11 goals. The Swarm finished the season at 9-7 and lost in the first round of the playoffs. But they had proved that their tandem of rookie goalies had worked: Kirk played all 60 minutes of six games, winning 4 and holding opponents to <10 goals in three of them. Carlson went the distance in seven, winning four. Both finished in the top 10  in GAA and if you remove the “true” backups, they were first and fifth.

Since then, the Swarm has gone with a tandem goalie plan pretty much every season. First Carlson and Kirk, then Carlson and Higgins, and now Higgins and MacDonald. But the idea seems to be catching on.

The Swarm still have Higgins and MacDonald, though MacDonald has played twice as many minutes as Higgins this year. Toronto has Rose and Miller, splitting time about evenly, just like last year. Calgary had Scigliano backing up Poulin a couple of years ago, then that was reversed last year. This year it’s more even. Cosmo is the main guy in Buffalo but they have a ton of confidence in Davide DiRuscio who filled in very well when Cosmo was recently hurt. At 38, Cosmo is the fourth-oldest player in the league, so a tandem going forward may be in the cards in Buffalo.

But not everyone has bought into it. New England has Evan Kirk, Colorado has Dillon Ward, and Rochester has Matt Vinc, and those guys are the unquestionable starters for their teams. Saskatchewan is having no part of this at all. Aaron Bold has more minutes than any other goalie and his backup, Tyler Carlson, has the fewest.

Vancouver is a weird case. They have said on more than one occasion that Eric Penney is their starter and Tyler Richards is the backup, but Richards has played almost 70% of the minutes in the four games since his return. A Richards/Penney tandem would not be surprising the rest of the way in 2016.

Now having said all that, the Minnesota Swarm didn’t invent this idea. It had been done before. In 2007 the Bandits had Steve Dietrich & Mike Thompson, and the next year they had Ken Montour & Thompson. In 2010, the Washington Stealth had Matt Roik & Tyler Richards. Even the Swarm themselves had Matt Disher & Nick Patterson in 2006 and Kevin Croswell & Patterson in 2009. But it really seemed to take off in 2012 once Kirk and Carlson became the two-headed monster for the Swarm.

In some of those older cases, it might have been “play one goalie until he has a crappy outing, then play the other until he blows it” but the tandems we’re seeing now don’t work that way, and maybe that is what the Swarm started. Kirk would allow 6 goals in a game and Carlson would start the next one. The idea of “ride the hot goalie” isn’t what they were doing.

Maybe in a few years, that will be the norm – every team has their pair of goalies and they each start half of the games. It certainly seems to make more sense than having one goalie play every minute of every game and then when he has an off night, the other goalie who’s played zero minutes for half a season is then expected to come in and be effective. But if we ever get to the point where every team is doing this, I suspect it won’t be until after Matt Vinc and Aaron Bold retire.

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