Hockey fans love an empty net. They also love it when statistics support their teams’ decisions, and they definitely love it when stats help a team win. It doesn’t take statistics to show that pulling the goalie can help a team tie the score and maybe net the win, but there is a strategy behind this move. So what is the deciding factor for coaches?

Time on the Clock

All things being equal (but when are things really equal in hockey, right?) an extra skater means a better chance of netting that tie and possibly a win. But an empty net is risky because that sweet win can turn into an even worse loss if the other team scores on an unmanned net.

Patrick Roy was the trailblazer when it comes to pulling the goalie early, and statistics are on his side. Simulators show that for average league scoring rates, a team increases the chances by 9 percent of scoring with an extra attacker when there are 60 seconds left on the clock. The chances jump if the coach pulls the goalie earlier:

  • 15 percent increase at two minutes left
  • 18 percent increase at three minutes left

The optimal time, statistically speaking, would be to pull the goaltender somewhere between 3:50 and four minutes left on the clock. Who does that?

Aggressive Coaches and How It Works Out for Them

While Patrick Roy has moved from coaching to owning hockey teams, coaches who are still in the game are following in his pulling footsteps. New Jersey Devils’ Head Coach, John Hynes, has taken to pulling the goaltender with anywhere between two and a half and three minutes left on the clock to even the score. After finishing last in the NHL Eastern Conference for the 2016-17 season, the aggressive move to pull earlier has moved his team up to a playoff spot for this year.

Bruce Boudreau, who is currently coaching the Minnesota Wild, has also been credited with aggressive goaltender pulling. The Wild have been rapidly moving up the ranks to wildcard spots over the last few seasons, but Boudreau’s techniques, including pulling the goalie early, have paid off with a playoff spot for this season’s Stanley Cup games.

So does it pay off to pull the goalie earlier and earlier? The stats would show that it does, but only the end of the game and the season will prove if it really does.

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