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Can a Fleury-Talbot Tandem Work In The Playoffs?

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

According to Minnesota Wild general manager Bill Guerin, he decided to trade for Marc-Andre Fleury two weeks before the trade deadline. At the time, both Wild goaltenders were in the middle of a massive slump. From Feb. 15 to Mar. 13, Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen posted a combined .872 save percentage at 5-on-5 play.

Allowing your opponents to shoot 13% is no way to win games, as the 5-9-1 record in the time indicates.

So Guerin acquired Fleury, presumably with the plan of making him Minnesota’s No. 1 starter. Before Fleury has even played a game, though, there’s already a goalie controversy. Talbot isn’t giving up the net without a fight.

We’re not sure when Talbot was first informed of Minnesota’s pursuit of Fleury. However, his turnaround neatly coincides with the Wild’s decision to trade for the future Hall of Famer. In his six games since Mar. 8, Fleury’s won six starts with a .926 save percentage. He’s given up two or fewer goals in five of those games, including a shutout against the Vegas Golden Knights on deadline day.

How is coach Dean Evason dealing with this brewing controversy? “They can do it together, too, right?” he told the media after Talbot’s shutout. “We talk about our players all the time and how it’s not one guy on our hockey club that’s scoring goals. Why should it be one guy stopping the pucks?”

That would seem to indicate a tandem in Minnesota, at least for the near future. Tandems are tricky, as every loss can inspire controversy and second-guessing. If Fleury has a bad game, the easiest question to ask is Why didn’t you play Talbot? and vice versa. But can it work?

Let’s take a look at teams that used goalie tandems and had playoff success over the last decade. Let’s set a few ground rules before diving in.

  1. These teams have to at least make the Conference Final. The ceiling we’re interested in is higher than Round 2.
  2. A starting goalie losing their job to injury or struggles isn’t a tandem. Tandems must share the net in the regular season and playoffs.
  3. The second goalie in the tandem must take 33% or more of starts.

Our search turned up (maybe) one result.

At first glance, the 2015-16 Tampa Bay Lightning looked like they successfully used a tandem. Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy had an 11-6 split in postseason starts, with both goalies performing well.

But the Lightning leaned on their starter Ben Bishop heavily throughout the regular season. Bishop started 60 games to the 21-year-old Vasilevskiy’s 21, with Vasilevskiy even getting 12 AHL games, presumably for some game action. You couldn’t really call them a tandem. Vasilevskiy also started postseason games only after Bishop sustained an injury in Game 1 of the Conference Final.

No dice, there.

But what about Fleury’s 2016-17 Pittsburgh Penguins? Fleury took 15 starts, and Matt Murray drew in 10 times, as the Penguins lifted their second Stanley Cup in as many years. Again, both goalies played well.

This is more controversial. Yes, Fleury and Murray split the net evenly in the regular season, with Murray taking a 47-34 edge in games started. But to call that playoff run a tandem? That’s iffy.

Pittsburgh planned on having Murray start in the first round until he sustained an injury during warm-ups. Fleury filled in capably and held the net throughout the first and second rounds. Despite Fleury holding the Ottawa Senators in Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference Final, Pittsburgh yanked Fleury after a five-goals-against shellacking in Game 3. Murray took over and never looked back. Fleury wouldn’t see another minute in net.

So is that really a tandem, either? Eh…

Now, it’s not impossible for a true tandem to do well in the playoffs. Dwayne Roloson and Manny Fernandez famously shared the net for the Wild en route to the 2003 Western Conference Final.

But for most teams, even if they deploy a tandem in the regular season, they want to ride one guy in the playoffs. Most starting goalies don’t even relinquish the net for a minute in the playoffs, as if not to even invite the controversy.

Their play over the next month could change things, but it’s tough to see Minnesota trade for Fleury, only to leave him on the bench in the postseason. For now, he’s the leader in the clubhouse to take the lion’s share of playoff starts.

In the meantime, though, it’s very good for Minnesota if Talbot plays well and pushes Fleury. As of Saturday morning, the Wild have 20 games remaining over five weeks. Do the math, and that’s four per week. Fleury’s a 37-year-old goalie and running him for 15-16 of those games before a grueling postseason run is not wise.

The Wild’s playoff spot is relatively secure, but they’re still fighting for second place in the Central, and thus home-ice advantage in the first round. Talbot playing well means you can split the workload with Fluery, keeping him fresh for a playoff run, without having to compromise their regular-season ambitions.

And hey, if Fleury does happen to struggle or get injured in the playoffs, Minnesota would much rather be in a position to feel confident in their backup, rather than doomed. Guerin made the Fleury trade to secure a solid goalie. If they end up having two, all the better.

Yes, there’s a very good chance that the goalie rotation will vanish in the postseason. Of course, Fleury’s resume and recent playoff performance give him an edge. But until Game 1 of the first round, there’s no rush to eliminate the tandem. Until then, the Talbot and Fleury both playing well and splitting the workload isn’t a controversy. It’s the best-case scenario.

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