Blashill Uses Harry Sinden Model (for now) Between Red Wings’ Pipes

It’s an old line, first mined in the world of football.

“If you have two quarterbacks, then you don’t have one.”

It’s derisive and dismissive.

How can a football coach have two quarterbacks, when only one can play at a time?

Must mean that said coach has no quarterback at all—because he can’t rely on a designated starter.

Some would have you believe the same is true in hockey.

“If you have two goalies, then you don’t have one.”

Horsepucky!

Tell that to the Boston Bruins powerhouse teams of the late-1960s, early-1970s.

Starting in 1968-69 and extending for four seasons, the Bruins divvied up the goaltending duties in a virtual 50/50 fashion.

Eddie Johnston and Gerry Cheevers took turns in net for Boston, literally.

It didn’t matter if one of them posted a shutout; the next game, the other guy would be between the pipes.

The 50/50 model was the brainchild of coach Harry Sinden, who worked that system for two seasons before successor Tom Johnson carried on the tradition after Sinden moved into the general manager’s chair prior to the 1970-71 campaign.

Cheevers Johnston masks

The goalie masks of Boston’s Eddie Johnston (top) and Gerry Cheevers.

During those four seasons of goalie equality, Cheevers appeared in 174 games, Johnston in 137. Not exactly 50/50, but neither netminder played more than a few games in a row while Sinden and Johnson rotated the tandem.

The Bruins’ goalie duo was somewhat innovative in those days.

The Bruins, an Original Six team, were like any other team from practically the inception of the NHL, in that one goalie played virtually all the games while the second—they were called “spares” in those days—only appeared when the first-string guy was knocked senseless.

Goalies would get traded, but they were traded for each other, often times, to keep everything neat and proper.

I’ll give you my number one guy if you give me yours!

The Red Wings, in the 1950s, had, at various times in the decade, Terry Sawchuk, Harry Lumley and Glenn Hall. All were firmly established number one guys. It would take an act of God for spares such as Hank Bassen to find themselves in net.

But along came Sinden and his system wasn’t so much genius as it was born out of necessity and logic.

The Bruins were an awful team for much of the 1950s and that tradition of futility carried over into the 1960s as well. And the Bruins lost with just one goalie, because that was the norm in the NHL.

Johnston, for example, played in all 70 of the Bruins’ games in 1963-64—and he won just 18 of those.

But then the Bruins claimed Cheevers from Toronto in the intra-league draft in 1965, and Sinden found that he had two quality goalies.

What to do?

Play both of them! Not at the same time, of course—though the Bruins could have done so and still not won too many games.

Cheevers, a few years younger than Johnston, arrived in Boston in ’65 and soon Coach Sinden had the two of them rotating in net.

No doubt that Boston’s two-headed goaltending monster was derided by league fans and observers.

But something funny happened on the way to ignominy.

The Bruins, thanks to a dynamic, pioneering defenseman they drafted named Bobby Orr, and a terrific trade that netted them Phil Esposito, started to win hockey games.

The Bruins became a league power by the end of the 1960s, and they did so with goalies Gerry Cheevers and Eddie Johnston each playing pretty much every other night.

The 50/50 model even carried over into the playoffs, though not right away.

In 1970, Cheevers appeared in 13 playoff games, going 12-1. Johnston only played once. The Bruins won the Stanley Cup.

But in 1972, Johnson restored the 50/50 model for the post-season, and again the Bruins won the Cup—with Johnston going 6-1 and Cheevers, 6-2. They literally were rotated by Johnson on a nightly basis.

The Dynamic Goalie Duo split in the summer of 1972 when Cheevers fled the Bruins for the fool’s gold of the World Hockey Association (Cleveland Crusaders). Cheevers returned to the Bruins in 1976, but by then Johnston had also moved on, to St. Louis.

I invoke Boston’s trailblazing goalie strategy because, early on, it appears that the Red Wings of today are taking a page from the old school Bruins’ playbook.

Last month, new coach Jeff Blashill arrived at Traverse City for his first training camp at the Red Wings’ helm. Right away he was socked in the kisser with a dilemma.

Jimmy Howard, or Petr Mrazek?

Which goalie would Blashill tab as his no. 1 guy between the pipes?

Mrazek and Howard

Mrazek (left) and Howard have split the duties 50/50 so far this season

Would it be the veteran Howard, whose injury troubles and poor play down the stretch last season conspired to cough up the starting job to Mrazek for the playoffs, or would it be Mrazek, the confident, almost sassy youngster whose future looked to be brighter than snow reflected on a sunny winter’s day?

Blashill, a former goalie himself, played it close to the chest protector during camp.

The best guy would get the job, he declared as camp began.

Trouble was, neither guy was the best guy, because both guys played pretty darn good in the exhibition season.

So Blashill, no fool he, showed his hockey brilliance.

He went into the regular season with no clear cut no. 1 goalie, so he decided that Howard and Mrazek would rotate.

And it wasn’t because of the old football postulate; Howard and Mrazek could each start on a lot of NHL teams, and not just on the bad ones.

Through eight games of this young season, each Red Wings goalie has started four times. Their save percentages are virtually the same (Mrazek .925; Howard .924).

The  Red Wings schedule has been Blashill’s friend; his team has played three back-to-back sets of games already, which lends itself well to giving each goalie a night off in those scenarios.

But Blashill will likely keep rotating Howard and Mrazek even when the schedule loosens up.

It works out well, because Mrazek, 23, is way too good to be playing in the minor leagues, and Howard is getting a little long in the tooth (32 in March), so not playing 60-plus games this season should keep him fresh all season.

As for the playoffs, Blashill will worry about those when it’s time.

It’s refreshing, actually, to see an NHL coach—especially a rookie one—embrace a two-goalie system, which teams have been abandoning over the past decade or so as the league again has become enamored with the old school model of an established number one netminder who plays at least 60 games.

The Red Wings have two goalies, but it’s not because they don’t have one.

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