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Bob’s Regular Season Usage vs. Playoff Performance

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Did the Blue Jackets ride their goaltender too hard?

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Columbus Blue Jackets Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

In the Sergei Bobrovsky Player Review, as well as other threads since the Blue Jackets were eliminated from the playoffs, there has been much discussion of why exactly the Vezina front-runner turned into the worst goalie of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The most common theory is that Bob get overused in the regular season. As important as his performance was in the Jackets’ regular season success, it may have left him fatigued and/or worn down and less able to withstand the offensive pressure of a team as talented as the Pittsburgh Penguins.

If this theory were true, you would expect to see some correlation between overuse and playoff performance among other goalies. Let’s go to the numbers:

2017 Playoff Goalies

Name RS GS RS Sv% RS GAA PO GS PO Sv% PO GAA Sv% Diff GAA Diff
Name RS GS RS Sv% RS GAA PO GS PO Sv% PO GAA Sv% Diff GAA Diff
Sergei Bobrovsky 63 .931 2.06 5 .882 3.88 -.049 -1.82
Brian Elliott 45 .910 2.55 4 .880 3.88 -.030 -1.33
John Gibson 49 .924 2.22 10 .903 3.00 -.021 -0.78
Braden Holtby 63 .925 2.07 12 .908 2.49 -.017 -0.42
Craig Anderson 40 .926 2.28 11 .909 2.53 -.017 -0.25
Corey Crawford 55 .918 2.55 4 .902 2.84 -.016 -0.29
Frederik Andersen 66 .918 2.67 6 .915 2.68 -.003 -0.01
Devan Dubnyk 63 .923 2.25 5 .925 1.86 .002 0.39
Cam Talbot 73 .919 2.39 12 .924 2.51 .005 -0.12
Tuuka Rask 64 .915 2.23 6 .920 2.24 .005 -0.01
Carey Price 62 .923 2.23 6 .933 1.86 .010 0.37
Marc-Andre Fleury 34 .909 3.02 11 .921 2.78 .012 0.24
Henrik Lundqvist 55 .910 2.74 11 .930 2.18 .020 0.56
Jake Allen 60 .915 2.42 11 .935 1.96 .020 0.46
Martin Jones 65 .912 2.40 6 .935 1.75 .023 0.65
Pekka Rinne 61 .918 2.42 10 .951 1.37 .033 1.05

As you can see, Bob saw his stats decline the most of all starting goaltenders in the playoffs. Beyond him, however, there is no other correlation. The other struggling goalies, Elliott and Gibson, had 18 and 14 fewer starts than Bob, respectively. Meanwhile Jones had 2 more starts and saw his numbers improve. Talbot led the league in starts and his playoff numbers have not changed significantly.

Commenter bobcat_mike raised another theory that I wanted to test. He pointed out that in addition to the regular season, Bob also participated in the World Cup of Hockey, where he had a very strong performance as the starting goalie for Team Russia. How have the other World Cup goalies performed )?

World Cup games started and difference between regular season and playoff save percentage (note: the games started stat does not include the pre-tournament exhibition games)

Price: 5 starts, +.010 Sv%
Lundqvist: 3 starts. +0.20
Rask: 2 starts, +.005
Gibson: 2 starts, -.021
Crawford: 1 start, -.016
Rinne: 1 start, +.033

Again, not much to gather from this. Price and Lundqvist were not hurt, but they are also highly talented goalies with loads of both playoff and international experience.

Of course both the World Cup and the playoffs each contain a very small sample of games. All of these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. But is there a way to add to my sample? As it turns out, there is. I went back to the last season in which there was a major international competition: 2014, when several goalies traveled to Russia in the middle of the season to compete in the Sochi Olympics.

2014 Playoff Goalies

Name RS GS RS Sv% RS GAA PO GS PO Sv% PO GAA Sv% Diff GAA Diff
Name RS GS RS Sv% RS GAA PO GS PO Sv% PO GAA Sv% Diff GAA Diff
John Gibson 3 .954 1.33 4 .919 2.69 -.035 -1.36
Kari Lehtonen 64 .919 2.41 6 .885 3.30 -.034 -0.89
Dustin Tokarski 2 .946 1.84 5 .916 2.60 -.030 -0.76
Antti Niemi 64 .913 2.39 6 .884 3.74 -.029 -1.35
Ilya Bryzgalov 30 .909 2.68 8 .885 2.63 -.024 0.05
Frederik Andersen 24 .923 2.29 7 .899 3.10 -.024 -0.81
Ryan Miller 59 .918 2.64 6 .897 2.70 -.021 -0.06
Sergei Bobrovsky 58 .923 2.38 6 .908 3.18 -.015 -0.80
Ray Emery 21 .903 2.96 3 .888 3.49 -.015 -0.53
Semyon Varlamov 60 .927 2.41 7 .913 2.77 -.014 -0.36
Anders Lindback 18 .891 2.90 4 .881 3.92 -.010 -1.02
Corey Crawford 56 .917 2.26 19 .912 2.53 -.005 -0.27
Jonas Hiller 50 .911 2.48 2 .906 2.19 -.005 0.29
Jonathan Quick 49 .915 2.07 26 .911 2.58 -.004 -0.51
Tuuka Rask 58 .930 2.04 12 .928 1.99 -.002 0.05
Darcy Kuemper 25 .915 2.43 5 .913 2.03 -.002 0.40
Marc-Andre Fleury 64 .915 2.37 13 .915 2.40 .000 -0.03
Carey Price 59 .918 2.64 12 .919 2.36 .001 0.28
Henrik Lundqvist 62 .920 2.36 25 .927 2.14 .007 0.22
Jonas Gustavsson 26 .907 2.63 2 .917 2.72 .010 -0.09
Jimmy Howard 50 .910 2.66 3 .931 2.02 .021 0.64
Steve Mason 60 .917 2.50 4 .939 1.97 .022 0.53

The first thing I notice is that Bob’s 2014 playoff stats took less of a dip than they did this season. The second thing that you notice is that again there is no correlation between regular season workload and playoff performance. Lundqvist and Fleury and Mason (!!!!) all started at least 60 games and put up equal or better numbers in the playoffs. Meanwhile the workhorse Finns Lehtonen and Niemi both declined.

These were the playoff goalies who started in the 2014 Olympics and their save percentage difference from the regular season to the playoffs :

Lundqvist: 6 starts, +.007
Quick: 5 starts, -.004
Price: 5 starts, +.001
Rask: 4 starts, -.002
Varlamov: 3 starts, -.014
Bobrovsky: 3 starts, -.015
Hiller: 3 starts, -.005
Lehtonen: 2 starts, -.034
Miller: 1 start, -.021

Now here we finally get a noticeable trend. By far the playoff goalies with the biggest improvement in save percentage were Howard and Mason, neither of which participated in the Olympics. Of the 9 goalies who started in both the Olympics and the playoffs, only 2 saw improvement in their save percentage. In most cases, however, the difference is very small. Still, it fits what you would expect, that a midseason event would have a greater impact than a preseason event.

Conclusion

What have we learned? With the usual sample size caveats, what I’m taking from this research is a) I spent too much time compiling these numbers and 2) the number of games started in the regular season does not have a correlation with poor playoff results. Therefore it’s still very possible that Bob could see a similar workload next year and yet still deliver the playoff performance that we have been hoping for since 2014.

Other possible factors to consider going forward:

  • Opponent. 2014 and 2017 both saw Bob facing the Penguins. Would he fare better against a different opponent?
  • Teammates. If you look at the 2014 Blue Jackets roster, it’s hard to believe that team made the playoffs. 2017’s blue line was a huge improvement. That being said, it was still not the optimal defense. Ryan Murray was out, who had been reliable in that third pairing role. Markus Nutivaara missed games with what turned out to be a hip injury. Gabriel Carlsson started every playoff game despite just 2 regular season NHL games under his belt. Scott Harrington played. My point is that Bob could have gotten more help than he did. Even if he let in plenty of soft goals, the lines in front of him can affect his confidence. He may put pressure on himself if he has less faith in them than he had in the Streak lineup.
  • Experience. Bob has just 13 total playoff stats, spread over 4 playoffs and 7 seasons. By contrast, Marc-Andre Fleury - who outplayed Bob in this series - has 102 total playoff starts in 10 consecutive seasons. Bob can still learn how to be a playoff goalie, and he could benefit from consecutive playoff appearances. If he can make it back next season, the lessons learned will be fresher in his mind.

Stats gathered from NHL.com, Quant Hockey, and Hockey Reference