How Many Goalies on a Hockey Team: Exploring the Roster Dynamics

Goalies are the backbone of any ice hockey team — the last line of defense and often the difference between victory and defeat. Understanding how many goalies on a hockey team isn’t just trivia; it’s central to grasping the strategic mechanics that drive this fast-paced sport. 

How many goalies on an NHL team? A standard team will have 2 goalies on the NHL roster for the majority of the season. However, certain conditions will increase this to 3. 

Let’s look at goalies and how they work on an NHL roster.�

Standard NHL Team CompositionTypically includes 2 goalies, but can increase to 3 under certain conditions.
Roles of Goalies in NHL– Starting Goalie: Plays the majority of games (around 60 per year).
– Backup Goalie: Steps in for rest or injury, playing around 25 games per year.
– Third-String Goalie: Less playing time, often kept to avoid losing them through waivers.
Goalie Rosters Across Levels– Professional (NHL): 2-3 goalies, with additional goalies in minor leagues.
– College/Junior Hockey: Often 3 or more goalies for development.
– Recreational/Amateur: Usually 1 goalie, with flexibility in arrangements.
Emergency Backup Goalies (EBUGs)Unique to hockey, EBUGs are available for either team in case of goalie injuries, not typically on official rosters, and do not count against salary caps.

What does a standard hockey roster look like? 

Within the highly regimented world of competitive ice hockey, team rosters are crafted with as much strategy as the gameplay itself. 

A typical professional hockey team, like those in the NHL, consists of up to 23 players: 12 to 14 forwards, 6 to 8 defensemen, and most notably for our discussion, between 2 and 3 goalies. 

The vast majority of the time there are two goalies, but there are situations where three makes sense. We will get to the reasons behind this. 

However, first let’s look at the different roles a goalie would have on the roster.

how many goalies on an nhl roster?

How do goalies work on an NHL roster? 

  • Starting Goalie: The main player tasked with guarding the net for the majority of the season’s games. This player is usually the most skilled and relied upon goalie on the team. They will play approximately 60 games per year.�
  • Backup Goalie: Always ready to step in when the starting goalie needs a rest or in case of injury. Notably, they must maintain a high level of readiness and skill despite less frequent game time. They will play approximately 25 games per year.�
  • Third-String Goalie: Some teams opt for a third goalie who gets little playing time but is kept around, mostly, so the team does not lose them to another team through a transaction called waivers.

The question of how many goalies dress for a game is dictated by league rules and team strategy. In the NHL, teams can dress two goalies for each game — the starter and their backup. These rules ensure that each team has a fair chance to compete despite the physical challenges of the position.

Why would an NHL team have a third goalie on their roster? 

A third goalie on an NHL roster is something that is more motivated by asset management than performance. 

When players are not good enough to make the NHL team they are sent to the minors. 

However, the rules between the NHL and the players makes it so players who have enough professional playing time to be put through a paper transaction called waivers went sent to the minors. 

Waivers allow another team in the NHL to claim the player for free, and do not have to give up any players or draft picks to the team putting the player on waivers. 

Therefore, if a player has three goalies and each one of them needs to go to waivers before being sent down to the minors, and they believe another team may claim one of those players they may choose to keep all three on the NHL roster until a trade can be worked out where they do get another player or draft pick back. 

So, if your team has three goalies on the roster this is what is happening. Three goalies is too many to have around and no team wants to manage their team this way. 

The Impact of Game-Day Roster Decisions

During a game, the active roster must include two goalies, but the distribution of playing time is at the discretion of the team’s coaching staff. The starter typically plays the whole game unless performance issues or health mandates a change. 

Goalie Rosters Across the Hockey Spectrum

The number of goalies on a hockey team is not a static figure across all levels of play. Rather, numbers can vary from the professional echelons of the NHL to the community rinks of youth leagues. Let’s glance at the factors that influence the goalie headcount.

Professional Leagues: The NHL Standard

At the height of professional hockey, in leagues like the NHL, teams typically carry two goalies: a starting goalie, a backup. They will also have NHL capable goalies within their minor league affiliates. Maintaining such depth ensures that a team can endure the long and grueling season while managing the wear and tear (and injury) on its most crucial players.

For instance, in their Stanley Cup year of 2022-23 the Vegas Golden Knights used 5 goalies during the year, and even three in their playoff run. Their third string goalie – Adin Hill – was the goalie who won the Stanley Cup for them. Wow!

College and Junior Hockey: Developing Future Stars

In the college ranks and junior levels, teams might expand their goalie roster beyond the professional standard. It isn’t uncommon to find three or more goalies in these developmental leagues as they focus on nurturing a broader range of talent and giving young players the necessary exposure to evolve.

An NCAA team will likely have three goalies on their roster, although, one of them will get the majority of the starts. 

Source: Love this little goalie!

Recreational and Amateur Leagues: A Flexible Approach

The dynamics shift again when it comes to recreational or amateur hockey. In lower competitive leagues or adult leagues, many of these teams only have one goalie. 

What happens if your goalie gets hurt? Another player from your team can change into the goalie equipment as quickly or possible. 

As well, you can often get a goalie from another team to come and fill in. Getting a goalie let alone two goalies is often hard enough for most teams. 

Teams will even pay goalies to come play for them. Goalies in older leagues are hard to find! 

IV. Navigating the Challenges of Goalie Injuries at the Professional Level and Emergency Backup Goalies (EBUGs)

Ice hockey, with its high-speed collisions and hard-hitting action, is a sport where injuries are not just possible—they’re probable. Goalies, despite their extensive padding, are not immune to this reality. 

Dealing with Goalie Injuries

When a starting goalie is injured, the impact can reverberate throughout the team. Not only does a backup goalie have to step up, often with little notice, but home teams must also ensure that there is an emergency backup goalie (EBUG) in the building in case either team needs one. 

Let’s look closer at the emergency backup goalie. 

The Role of the Emergency Backup Goalie (EBUG)

One of the most unique aspects of hockey is the concept of the emergency backup goalie, or EBUG — a position that gained notoriety thanks to a few memorable instances. 

The EBUG is a goalie who is available to either team should both of a team’s rosters goalies be unable to play.

Notable EBUG appearances include:

  • Scott Foster: An accountant by day who stepped in to play for the Chicago Blackhawks in 2018, making seven saves to maintain a shutout.
  • David Ayres: A Zamboni driver for the Toronto Marlies who famously won a game for the Carolina Hurricanes in 2020 after both of their goalies were injured.

The EBUG Protocol

The protocol for utilizing an EBUG varies by league, but they are typically present at every game and are required to be ready to dress if called upon. The NHL’s specific rules regarding EBUGs dictate that:

  • They must be available for both teams.
  • They can be called to play at a moment’s notice.
  • They are not typically on a team’s official roster.
  • They do not count against the salary cap.

The Impact of EBUGs on Professional Hockey

This EBUG provision ensures the game can continue even in the rare cases when a team’s goaltending roster is fully depleted. While EBUGs are not often called into action, their potential impact on a high-stakes game is nothing short of dramatic—and the stories of their appearances have become the stuff of hockey legend.

Final Thoughts

At the NHL level the vast majority of time you will only have two goalies on your roster. 

If your team has three goalies this is not ideal and, most likely, management is trying to work out a trade for one of them instead of losing them for free on waivers. 

At amateur levels – everybody needs one goalie, but even that is not always easy to find!

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