The era of the workhorse goaltender is over. It has been for years, really, with just one Cup-winning roster since 2011 having boasted a netminder with 60 starts or more in that season. At this point, the days of the 70-game bell cow are as bygone as the mask-less goalies and couch cushion pads of old — replaced now by trendy tandems that operate on a 60/40 split in the name of load management.
Welcome to the future, hockey fans.
This story has been written by guest columnist Mike Stephens live from the NHL-All Star festivities.
That is, unless you’re the Colorado Avalanche.
Since making his way to the mountain ranges of Denver in the summer of 2022, Alexandar Georgiev has been the NHL’s busiest goaltender, making more appearances and playing more minutes than any other player at his position. It’s a role he’s been thrust into thanks, in large part, to the absence of would-be sidekick Pavel Francouz, whose lingering injuries limited him to just 16 games last season before ultimately landing him on long-term injured reserve before this current campaign could even begin.
With Francouz on the shelf, Georgiev has been forced to shoulder the load – for better and for worse.
“You try not to think about it that way,” said Georgiev of his workload to reporters during NHL All-Star media day on Thursday.
“It’s an amazing opportunity for me. Growing up, I always played every single game. And for me, I remember playing, you know, five games in seven days. Of course, it’s junior hockey. But it’s something that was kind of natural for me.”
Still, as goalie workloads are dropping in record numbers, Georgiev’s is moving in the opposite direction, clearly taking a toll on the 27-year-old as he tries to give a championship-caliber roster a suitable last line of defense. It hasn’t always been this way, though. Georgiev handled his increased responsibilities with relative ease in 2022-23, finishing the year with an NHL-high 40 wins in 62 starts while posting a career-best .918 save percentage that earned himself a seventh-place finish in Vezina voting. By all accounts, the Avs had found their stud.
This year, however, has been a different story. While Georgiev’s league-leading workload has so far led to an equally league-leading win total in 2023-24 for the second straight season, his .898 save percentage and negative-6.8 goals-saved-above-average marks clearly paint the picture of a player going toe-to-toe with advanced fatigue. Riding him into the ground at this rate just isn’t sustainable — especially in an era that boasts harder shots and higher skill than perhaps any other in hockey history.
To make matters worse, reinforcements, alas, are minimal. Preseason waiver claim Ivan Prosvetov oozes promise as a youngster, but his results certainly don’t show it yet as the 24-year-old has racked up an unsettling .895 save percentage in just 11 games of action thus far while also stopping nearly three fewer goals than the average NHL netminder.
Look further down the depth chart and the options only get thinner, with Justus Annunen being the Avs’ only goalie prospect to have found game action this season, which culminated in allowing four goals on 40 shots in his lone big-league start.
While the Avalanche would certainly like to give Georgiev a breather – one that both sides would surely benefit from – they simply can’t. So, the only logical step is to play with the cards you’re dealt. Which, as the season progresses, the club has gone lengths to do.
“I think the last couple of months, our goalie coach Jussi and the coaching staff have been focusing on maybe more of the optional skates,” explained Georgiev of how he’s staying as fresh as possible.
“You know, just giving me more time off the ice and maybe a little bit of biking and recovering mentally, I would say. Because, at the end of the day, it’s a lot of hockey, and I feel like that’s the best way to practice if you want to play a lot. They’ve been kind of taking me off the ice for those off days more than usual.”
The good news is those preventative measures have been working of late, with Georgiev heading into a sorely-needed NHL All-Star break on a three-game winning streak that’s seen him stop 85 of a total 92 shots. And with no games on the docket until February 5th, the Avalanche, who currently sit comfortably atop their division, have reason to believe that their netminder will return rested and ready to keep that streak alive.
For Georgiev, the mental rest will perhaps be more important than the physical.
“Just trying to, kind of, after the game cool down,” Georgiev offered when asked how he recovers away from the rink. “Do stretches and then get back to your life. Focus on your hobbies, take a walk, and enjoy your day, not thinking too much about hockey. Because you know the next day, the game day, is going to be filled with the prep and all that stuff.”
On a team featuring talents the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Cale Makar, it’s Georgiev, arguably, who stands as the x-factor for the Avalanche’s Stanley Cup aspirations. If he holds down the fort in goal, the Avalanche can beat anybody. If he doesn’t, well, the road to Lord Stanley gets a lot tougher to climb.
Georgiev needs to be better. He knows that. But down the stretch, the Avalanche will need to give him the tools to do so. And that starts with the occasional night off.