One of the interesting things that I have been trying to keep an eye on this season is the viability of the different goalies. This is important because there are certainly some great keepers playing right now, but there are also definite tiers of ability. My concern right now is how exaggerated this NLL goalie gap may get as we start bringing more expansion teams into the fold.
Right now, we’re not even halfway through the season and there have been 20 different players seeing time between the pipes. Two of these extra keepers are due to injury while the other is due to Vancouver’s inability to lock into a main guy.
It needs to be noted that only Mike Poulin in Georgia is the only goalie to play every possible minute for his team as Warren Hill has not seen any minutes yet. Evan Kirk has more total minutes than Poulin and leads the league in that category, but still sat for nine seconds with Tyler Carlson on the floor for him.
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The league has the handful of starters that are absolutely locked into their spots. Vinc, Bold, Poulin, Kirk, Ward, and Rose are all there.
But, when you look at their ages and start mapping that to league expansion plans, things become a little shaky. Vinc is now 35, followed by Bold and Poulin at 32, Kirk is 30, Rose 29, and finally Ward 26. None of those really concern me too much until you start looking 3-4 years out.
The league is adding two more teams next year. That will be an additional four rostered goalies, plus some more replacements through the season. There could be another 2-4 additional teams the next year, and that may even repeat itself again in 2021. The problem this creates is that right as the league will be reaching its maximum size, the number of goalies with established starter experience will begin to shrink.
While that will be fantastic for guys like Ward, it means many teams will begin struggling. Let’s take a look at Buffalo and Vancouver right now since they may be a bellwether.
A Tale of Two Franchises
I picked these two teams for two specific reasons. One is their goalies are far from established. The other is they are the most wildly inconsistent teams this season, and goalies are definitely part of it.
Buffalo is not far removed from a Champions Cup finals run where they were right on the brink of winning it all. But right after that, Anthony Cosmo retired sending their goalie situation into a tailspin that they are still trying to recover from. They traded for Alex Buque who has been good, but not an every game star like that had hoped. Against Rochester, backup Davide DiRuscio stepped in for 31 seconds, let in the first shot fired at him and was injured in the process. 31 seconds is all it took for the Bandits to start scanning the free agent pool for another fill in. That backup, Zach Higgins, has already logged over 100 minutes, and he wasn’t even on a roster to start the year.
Vancouver has Brodie MacDonald and Tye Belanger who were both expected to be in an all-out battle for that starting spot. They were each established as quality backups that just needed the opportunity to prove their chops. After a disastrous game against Toronto, the Stealth pulled in Eric Penney, who has certainly been a big part of their improved play.
But even so, the Stealth have been splitting more time across these three than another other team. MacDonald is the only one to dress in all of their games, but still has the fewest number of minutes. Penney leads the trio with 180 in 3 games to Belanger’s 122 over 4.
The Great NLL Goalie Hunt
With two more teams being added next year, instead of two teams like Buffalo and Vancouver, we could have four. With more expansion after that? Six or seven. Landing a prime goalie and grooming a quality successor will become one of the most important jobs of a GM over the next few years.
While there is plenty of potential out there, the difficult part is shortening the learning curve and allowing the younger goalies to see more time in next against pro forwards. Figuring out who to do this quickly may turn into the difference between multiple championships and missing the playoffs for years to come.