NEW YORK — One of the top preseason storylines for the 2023-24 season with the Colorado Avalanche was how coach Jared Bednar and the club would manage the workload for Alexandar Georgiev after leaning on him heavily a year ago.
It turns out Bednar and the Avs had a different plan — either by necessity or not — than everyone outside the organization expected. Less is not more for Georgiev, at least not through the first 60% of the season.
Georgiev has started 41 of the Avs’ 51 games so far, which leads the NHL. He’s on pace for 65 or 66 in his second season, which is even more than the career-high 62 starts from a year ago, his first as the no-doubt No. 1 guy.
“I’ve been getting a couple of questions (at the 2024 NHL All-Star weekend) about it, but I feel good,” Georgiev said this past weekend in Toronto. “There’s no reason why that can’t be happening. If you look at maybe six years ago, 10 years ago there was a bunch of guys playing like 70 games per season. There is no reason why guys can’t do that now.”
It’s one thing for a goalie to say he can play that many games. Most of them do feel that way.
It’s quite another for an NHL team to embrace the workhorse model in 2023-24. For the past decade or so, the trend has been toward giving two goalies a more equal share of playing time.
“I don’t buy into the whole … like there were goalies playing 60, 70, 75 games for decades, and now all of a sudden they can’t?” Bednar said Monday in Manhattan. “The travel is easier. The meals are better. They take care of themselves better than they ever did before. All of our other guys try to play 82 games a year. I don’t buy the fact that a goalie can’t play more.”
Sports franchises have been scrambling to collect as much data as possible on optimal rest and recovery strategies. The rationale for playing a No. 1 goalie less in the NHL is pretty simple: Giving him more rest will help him perform better, both now and hopefully later in the postseason when games matter the most.
That said, there has also been pushback in other sports about the less is more strategy. The NBA recently released a study saying that “load management” — the popular buzzword for this strategy — isn’t as effective as previously thought.
MLB teams are grappling with workload issues for pitchers as well, which is maybe the most comparable position to goalies in another sport. Pitchers are throwing less than ever before, but are still getting injured. Some evaluators have posited that having young pitchers throw too little stunts their development, and the reward of injury prevention isn’t what people thought it would be.
A general guideline for the NHL recently has been 55-57 starts for the No. 1 guy and 25-ish for the backup. Some teams have tried to collect two guys of similar ability and make it a full timeshare.
The Avs aren’t the only team with a goalie who looks like he’s going to push into the 60s this year. Nashville’s Jusse Saros is one start and two games played behind Georgiev, so pacing towards the mid-60s. Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck is on pace for 61 or 62 as well.
Recent Stanley Cup champions haven’t played a goalie 60-plus games in the regular season, but two of those years (Tampa Bay in 2020 and 2021) Andrei Vasilevskiy played at an 82-game pace of 60-plus in a shortened season. He also played 63 in 2021-22, despite the two previous long playoff runs, and still helped the Lighting reach the Cup Final before losing to the Avs.
“The teams that have had success in the recent past are going to split the net 60-40 and away they go, except for a few specific guys,” Bednar said. “I feel like (Georgiev) is a guy who can play a lot. So he is.”
Part of why the Avs are playing Georgiev so much is necessity. Pavel Francouz was injured last season, which led to Georgiev getting 28 of the final 33 starts to help the team secure a Central Division title. Francouz has been unavailable for the entire season, so Colorado has turned to waiver-wire addition Ivan Prosvetov and prospect Justus Annunen when Georgiev needs a break.
Georgiev did play a lot last year, but he has not played as much as others in his position relative to his age. He was the backup with the New York Rangers and played between 19 and 47 games each of the previous five seasons before arriving in Denver.
“It’s a learning process for me to kind of play more and more games, but at the same time it’s super fun,” Georgiev said. “Playing every second day, you get a new team, new system, new challenges. I just love helping my team win.”
Prosvetov started this year great despite limited action. Through his first nine appearances, including six starts, he had a .919 save percentage. He replaced a scuffling Georgiev on Dec. 11 and helped the Avs rally back against Calgary, then played well as the starter the next game Dec. 13.
He got back-to-back starts for the first time but stopped 19 of 24 shots in a loss to Winnipeg. Then he didn’t play 20 days and was pulled in the first period from his next start. The Avs put him on waivers during the All-Star break with the intention of sending him to the AHL to get more reps with the Eagles.
“(Prosvetov) was only playing once a month,” Bednar said. “He gives us our best chance if he’s fresh, playing in a rhythm. He’s seeing pucks regularly in game situations. It’s the same thing why we wouldn’t have Annunen sitting around here the whole time. The flexibility that we’ve gained with him clearing waivers is that we can keep one of those guys playing.”
Annunen made his second start of the season Tuesday in New Jersey. He was solid. The traditional stats — four goals allowed, an .867 save percentage — suggest a subpar performance, but the Avalanche allowed 4.6 expected goals, according to Money Puck.
Bednar mentioned goals saved above expected as a metric he monitors when evaluating goaltenders. While Georgiev’s play has been up and down this season, he’s allowed fewer goals than expected in each of his past three starts.
The Avs could acquire another goaltender between now and the trade deadline, if they find someone Bednar might trust. Colorado has also very limited salary cap flexibility and other potential needs.
“For me, it is what it is,” Bednar said. “If I feel like (Georgiev) is fatigued, he’s going to get a rest regardless.
“I don’t know who is going to win the backup job. I really don’t. But we’re going to experiment with both guys. (Prosvetov) has had a good look. He’s been good in some games, not so good in others. And now we’ve got to get him playing a little bit to get his game back in order. It’s the same thing with Annunen. He’s played really well down there, but he’s in the rhythm of his game right now. He’s going to see some starts for us here.”
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