It’s 2:19. Do you know where your goalie is?
Down two goals, he could have suddenly noticed the top power-play guys are on the ice in front of him. He’s sneaking glances toward the bench, waiting for that wave from the coach. Off he lumbers, quickly as possible in all those pads, so an extra forward can hop on the ice while his net remains eerily, and invitingly, empty.
He also could have settled in on the bench some time ago, reflective of a relatively new shift in the NHL. Teams that are trailing late in games are pulling their goalies earlier than in previous years, hoping to increase the chance that the extra skater can help erase a deficit.
In the pursuit of standings points, a lopsided final score can be defensible. A point in either direction could mean the difference between home-ice advantage in Game 7 of a playoff series and a hostile environment. Or even worse, a noon tee time instead of a pregame skate.
“I think the general rule of pulling the goalies is coaches and teams want to take their chances,” Colorado Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. “If they lose by three, they might as well lose by four.”
A heavier reliance on analytics played a role in this change. Kraken coach Dave Hakstol said he noticed the trend tilt forward the past two to four years.
“I believe everybody takes those numbers and applies it to not only their own philosophies, but also their own personnel,” Hakstol said. “All of those things are in play whenever you pull the goaltender.”
In his sixth season behind the bench for the Avalanche, Bednar hardly had to consider when to summon goaltenders Darcy Kuemper and Pavel Francouz on the way to the Stanley Cup Final. The team dropped just two games along the way, the fewest since 2012.
He points to his predecessor, Patrick Roy, the legendary former goaltender who coached the Avalanche from 2013-16. Indeed, “Strategies for Pulling the Goalie in Hockey,” a study by professors David Beaudoin and Tim B. Swartz, broke down an aggressive pull by Roy in 2009.
“I think it started to get more attention when Patty Roy was here and he was pulling them with lots of time left,” Bednar said. “I think he’s one of the first guys to really start pulling them early and going for it with sort of that ‘nothing to lose’ attitude.”
The first NHL goalie pull came in 1931 according to Eric Zweig’s book, “Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built the Bruins.” It had occurred in other levels of the sport before Ross pulled Boston goaltender Tiny Thompson in a playoff game the Bruins trailed 1-0.
When Bednar began his coaching career in 2002, he said pulling the goalie with a minute and a half left in the game was “kind of the norm.”
“It’s probably doubled over the time that I’ve been coaching,” Bednar said.
He’s read studies, seen the in-house stats. He’s made note of other teams that have found success, such as the 2021-22 Minnesota Wild. Tied with the Kraken for the most opportunities (42) in the league this season, Minnesota scored just as many extra-attacker goals as they allowed into their empty net — 18, per morehockeystats.com. The Kraken, meanwhile, scored five.
From the 2013-14 season through March 18, 2021, data analyst Meghan Hall found the average pull time moved from 1:13 to 1:37, reaching a high of 1:46 in 2019-20. One-goal deficits were successfully erased 18.1% of the time with the goalie pulled in 2021, Hall showed, up from 13.5% in 2013-14.
In an oft-cited 2018 study by New York University math professor Aaron Brown and hedge-fund manager Clifford Asness titled “Pulling the Goalie: Hockey and Investment Implications,” they suggested 6:10 to play offered the maximum advantage when down by a goal. When trailing by two, “it pays” to pull the goaltender with 13 minutes left in the 20-minute period. If a goal results, Brown and Asness advised replacing the goalie until the 6:10 mark, then trying again.
That sounds pretty eccentric for the time being, but occasionally it happens.
“Lots of coaches feel comfortable now at the three-minute mark,” Bednar said. “Obviously if we’re down goals — we’re seeing teams pull their goalie with an offensive zone faceoff at the seven-minute mark, just going all for it.
“It’s a hope and a prayer, I think, when you’re down three. If you need the points, you’ve got to get aggressive and you’ve got to do what you can do to try and give your team a chance a win.”
There are other desirable outcomes besides an immediate goal. Beaudoin and Swartz, citing the results of the 2007-08 season, determined the team holding the lead was almost twice as likely to head to the penalty box than the team that pulled its goalie.
Which players are rested, where the faceoff is on the ice, whether you have a timeout available — many variables play in.
“There’s a lot of different kind of feels for it, but it’s definitely gone to being way more aggressive, pulling him a lot earlier,” Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said, referring to his own “gut feeling.”
The other two NHL coaches echoed the “feel” idea — a shifting sense of when they have a real chance, when maybe they can use a minute or two to try their luck, and when it’s time to fade quietly into the night.
“You have to sort of gauge the rhythm of your team’s play,” Bednar said. “For us, if we’re down three goals on most nights, it’s because we’re just not going to get it done.
“If you feel like your team is producing some chances and feeling good about your attack — you’re getting a lot of opportunities, you just haven’t been able to bang one in — then you maybe give your team an opportunity to stick with it.”
Both the Avalanche and their Stanley Cup Final opponent, the Tampa Bay Lightning, were among the top six in success rate with the net empty this season.
When the last-ditch efforts aren’t working, the formula can certainly be tweaked. In their many chances with an empty cage this season, the Kraken rarely made up ground but allowed 26 empty-netters.
During a 4-12-1 start and particularly a six-game losing streak in November, the newly assembled Kraken went for it early, spending nearly 20 minutes with an empty net and allowing seven goals on nine attempts — including two in one game, and one with 5:06 left in regulation.
“There were times early in the year when we were down by two and we went really early,” Hakstol said. “Those were not successful with the group this year. You take all of that information and evaluate it as you go through a year to try and find your most successful formula.”
Part of the equation, Hakstol pointed out, is personnel. Shifts are generally around a minute. If you pull a goalie with three to four minutes left, another group is going to be called into action.
“The earlier you pull, the stronger your second group has to be,” Hakstol said.