(HockeySTL)-- The 2013-14 National Hockey League season is just past the midway point and The St. Louis Blues are rolling, winning seven of their last eight games and climbing to within three points of the Chicago Blackhawks for first place in the Central Division.
Despite all the success the team has had, and the improvements the team has made on almost every level, the focus league-wide still seems to often fall on its goaltending situation.
The Blues have depth at every roster position, including between the pipes. At the NHL level, the club has Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott. With the Chicago Wolves, the club has two-time American Hockey League All-Star Jake Allen. The club’s depth in net is the cause for the controversy, but in reality, there is nothing controversial about the Blues’ goaltending.
The Blues like what they have in Halak and Elliott. The club looked towards other options this past offseason, namely Buffalo’s Ryan Miller, and perhaps are still exploring the trade market. But the club is also content with that they have in Halak and Elliott, and Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock is using a strategy that has worked the past two seasons: using both goalies.
To start the season, Hitchcock used Halak as a true No. 1 goaltender, starting him in each of the club’s first six games. Halak emerged with five wins. When October concluded, Halak had started in all but one of the Blues’ first nine games. He started the majority of the November games, as well. Currently, Halak has been the starting goaltender in nine more games than Elliott, but that number is expected to gradually decrease as the season drags on.
“(Halak) just played really well at the start and we wanted to give him the load and see how he handled it,” said Hitchcock. “I think, as you see, we are starting to use both more. You are starting to see the splits. I think with playing every second day, you will see more of the split. We wanted to get one guy in rhythm (at the start).”
Last year, Elliott started in 24 games, Halak in 16. Of course, Halak was battling injuries all season, which skews those numbers. The Slovakian goaltender appears to be in a healthier state this year.
The 2011-12 season is a better blueprint of Hitchcock’s plans moving forward. In that campaign, Halak started 46 games and Elliott manned the net for 38. The duo’s performance that year was worthy of the Jennings Trophy, which is awarded annually to the goaltending tandem that allows the fewest goals. That season’s split is a realistic expectation of where it will be when the 2013-14 regular season concludes. And the team is hoping the statistical comparison is close, too.
“I think you are going to see at the end of the year this is going to end up in the same place at 55 (percent)-45 (percent), said Hitchcock in regards to each goalie’s start ratio. “How we get there might be a little bit different but it looks like we are going to get to that position again.”
Hitchcock started down that track a few weeks ago when he began splitting starts between Halak and Elliott. Then, when flu-like symptoms sidelined Halak for a little more than a week, the team began to ride Elliott’s hot streak. Elliott, too, is playing like a No. 1 goaltender, boasting a 13-2-2 record along with a .925 save percentage and a 1.86 goals against average. Elliott’s save percentage and goals against average are ranked 15th and 5th in the League, respectively. His goals against average is tied with former Blue Ben Bishop’s.
“He’s been solid,” Hitchcock said of Elliott. “He is giving us a chance every night and that is what we are asking. He’s been very good early in games and has allowed us to get our traction.”
Yet, despite Elliott’s streak, Hitchcock wasn’t afraid to use a recovered Halak last Thursday against Calgary. Halak stopped 33 shots in the 5-0 victory over the Flames and secured his third shutout of the season. It was a risky move considering Halak hadn’t started a game in nearly two weeks, but it’s also a glimpse into Hitchcock’s thinking and his intent to use both goalies moving forward.
“We are better playing both guys,” Hitchcock admitted. “Sometimes it works better when they are a tandem. This is a good tandem. One guy plays more early and one guy plays more late however it ends up.”
Where the Blues’ goaltending situation gets interesting is next season. Both Halak and Elliott are unrestricted free agents following this year and both are likely to command a pay increase.
“It is an important year for both guys,” said Hitchcock. “One guy is looking to extend his career and one guy is looking to enhance his career. Both guys want to have really good seasons.”
The Blues also have Allen’s situation to consider. The young goalie is currently in the first year a two-year contract. Allen is a two-way player this season but under the contract terms he and the Blues agreed to, the deal converts to a one-way deal next year. Yet, despite all of the variables and possibilities, Hitchcock doesn’t want to look towards next season just yet, even with an interesting decision looming.
“I think this is the wrong business to be in if you are looking to next year,” Hitchcock said. “Everybody is looking at having a good year and getting control of it. We want both guys to have really good years so they are controlling it. To me, you want to be in control when you have potential to be an unrestricted free agent. The way to do that is to play really well. Both guys recognize that. “
Despite what the rumors may say about the Blues’ goaltending, the situation is pretty simply defined. Hitchcock is using a strategy that has worked, and continues to work with his team. And while there are certainly avenues for improvement at the position, the Blues are likely asking themselves whether a change is needed. Perhaps down the road, but right now, change is seemingly unnecessary.