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Where is it most important to be elite? Part III: Goaltending

I don’t need you on that wall. You ARE that wall!

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the third in a series that takes a look at the league’s offensive, defensive, and goaltending team units to determine:

- Which play drives success? Offense, Defense, or Goaltending?

- Do elite players drive the elite play?

Part III of this series will focus on the goaltending.

Let’s rehash the ground rules:

First, all statistics and metrics used are based on 5v5 play. Obviously, power play and penalty kill units are important, but they are called ‘special teams’ for a reason and I wanted to focus on full strength play.

Second, all statistics and metrics are from Natural Stat Trick. Different sites have different formulas, so I stuck to NST for consistency’s sake. I am not placing any numerical weight on one metric over another. So there is a bit of subjectivity to this. However, nothing outrageous. I value High Danger chances more than Medium Danger, for example. Here’s a “Glossary” of the metrics I used.

Third! We are focusing on regular season play only. Success, therefore, is measured by how a team does in the regular season standings.

Cuatro, I have set the bar at “elite” to mean being in the Top 5 in a given metric or statistic. I don’t remember what color ribbon we received for 6th place during field day in grade school, but I have none to give out. I think they were green.

Fifth and last. Teams are assigned a reverse order numeric value. 1st place in CF is 8 points, 2nd is 7 pts, etc.

So far, we’ve learned that elite offenses and defenses take up about 2/3rds of last season’s playoff spots. Perhaps that will make up the balance of this past season’s playoff teams. Check out Part I: Offense and Part II: Defense for a refresher.

Ready? Vamos.

Which teams have Elite Goaltending?

Goaltending is the one area of play that fans most often connect one individual player to the quality of the overall play. If you’re asked which teams had elite goaltending in recent years, you’d likely rattle off – Tampa Bay Lightning with Andrei Vasilevskiy, Columbus Blue Jackets with Sergei Bobrovsky, Anaheim Ducks with John Gibson, and perhaps the Washington Capitals with Braden Holtby or Boston Bruins with Tuuka Rask.

The thing about that is that more teams – especially top teams – seem more comfortable resting their starter during the regular season, which leads to fewer actual starts for that elite goaltender. Case in point, Vasilevskiy won the Vezina this past season and played in only 53 games. Not that stats always matter when that award is given out, but still… Anyway, that left 29 other games for a different, and often lesser, goalie to play. Only 6 goalies played more than 60 games last season. That means that for most teams, grading the goaltending isn’t as simple as matching the starter to the team stats.

As with the defense, there aren’t all that many metrics to look at for goaltending. I’ve split these up similarly to the defensive stats:

- Goal Metrics – GA, xGA, Luck (Not like PDO – this is the ratio of GA to xGA. Did a goalie perform better than expected)

- High Danger Goal Metrics – HDGA, HDGA/60, HDSV%

- Medium Danger Goal Metrics – MDGA, MDGA/60, MDSV%

You’ll also see me refer to GSAA – Goals Saved Above Average. The stat is for individuals and allows for goalies to be compared in an ‘apples to apples’ sense.

Goal Metrics

The eye-test stats. We can all see a goal that goes in, even if replay is sometimes suspect. We often point out when a goalie allows a goal on a shot that seemed a little…soft. If the guy sees it, he should stop it, amirite? Fair enough, usually. The defense has done all it can to prevent the puck from coming the goalie’s way. Which ones were better, generally, at keeping the rubber out of the net?

Goal Metrics

New York Islanders
Boston Bruins
Dallas Stars
Nashville Predators
Carolina Hurricanes

Nothing too surprising here aside from the Carolina Hurricanes finally getting good play from a position that’s bit them in recent years. The Islanders were tops in the league in both GA and the Luck metric – they outperformed their xGA by 15%! Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss were the ideal platoon netminders – they were 4th and 3rd, respectively, in GSAA and basically split the season evenly between them in terms of games played.

Dallas, with Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin, where another stellar platoon pair coming in at 1st and 12th, respectively, in GSAA and close to even in GP. If you’re going to platoon, it certainly helps when both goalies turn in impressive seasons.

We’ll talk about Columbus later.

High Danger Goal Metrics

The High Danger areas are where the best goalies bring their ‘A’ games. If you want to get paid, you stop the puck here. When your prized defender, that wanted to join your team because it has a winning culture, forgets to move his skates and allows Mat Barzal into your personal space… now’s the time to stack those pads.

High Danger Metrics

Boston Bruins
Dallas Stars
Nashville Predators
New York Islanders
Pittsburgh Penguins

The top four teams are familiar with the Pittsburgh Penguins kick-saving into the fifth spot. Was Nashville solid in net all season? I was likely too attuned to the Metro to focus on any Western teams, but they had elite play in the high danger area with the top HDSV% in the league. Boston takes the top spot here, though, which is getting repetitive. Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak mostly split the season’s games but I can see why there was discussion about letting Halak play over Rask in the playoffs – he was 2nd in the league in HDGSAA.

Columbus is still coming later, but I can say that this is the only space in which the CBJ were Top 10 in any goaltending metrics – which shouldn’t be surprising.

Medium Danger Goal Metrics

When a goalie gives up a score from a high danger spot, fans tend to be a bit more forgiving and anger is usually sent the defenseman’s way. Not so for a medium danger goal. It probably isn’t always right, considering that a snap wrister from these areas isn’t an easy shot to stop, but the goalie does have a split second longer to look and react.

Medium Danger Metrics

New York Islanders
Boston Bruins
Calgary Flames
Dallas Stars
Vegas Golden Knights

A couple of new names show up here – Vegas Golden Knights and Calgary Flames – but the Islanders and Bruins are still tops. The Islanders’ duo swept the top spot for all of the medium danger metrics.

Conclusion (Non-CBJ)

The elite goaltending teams for the 2018-2019 season were consistent across the board: Boston, NYI, Dallas, Nashville. The team that gets bumped up to the 5th spot is the St. Louis Blues. Jordan Binnington had a great year, but the team generally hung around in the top 10 in more of the metrics than any other team. None of these teams should be a surprise if one was paying attention – Dallas is the team that I, personally, lost track of the most. The team that should have been here but wasn’t was Tampa Bay. They were Top 8 in only 2 metrics and were just above average elsewhere. Vasilevskiy was not good (37th!) in high danger GSAA, but he was tops in medium danger GSAA. Anaheim also doesn’t make the list despite the perceived, and often actual, heroics of John Gibson.

So if you’ve kept track, the Boston Bruins are the only team that come out as elite in all three areas. If I expand the Top 5 elite goaltending teams to a Top 8 – all are in the playoffs last season.

The Islanders, Stars, and Predators are the new teams with elite units in the postseason. This means that 13 of 16 playoff teams had an elite unit of some kind. The teams that missed out were the Colorado Avalanche (2nd WC West), Winnipeg Jets (2nd in Central), and our Columbus Blue Jackets (2nd WC East).

Columbus and the Last Three Seasons

Last season was a particularly strange one for Columbus in the goaltending department. While it may not be possible to disentangle the contract stuff from the on-ice stuff, I’m only worried about on-ice performance here. Last season, the CBJ came in 19th in the goal metrics, 10th in HD, and a dismal 25th in MD situations. Bob was a Top 10 goalie in HD, but had an awful season at range. I think we all saw that he had trouble with shots that he normally stops easily. Korpisalo was the opposite – dismal in HD but above average in MD.

This was simply not normal. Over the last three seasons, Columbus ranked in the top 8 for all of the goalie metrics. That means that, even despite a crappy season last year, the CBJ had elite – Top 5 in league – goaltending over the past 3 seasons. Only FIVE teams allowed fewer goals than expected during this time span – Columbus was 3rd best. If you threw out last season, the CBJ were the best.

Add this together with the Columbus defense’s propensity to allow a buttload of HD and MD shots on goal – yes, it is safe to say Bobrovsky was the reason for the team’s success during the regular season in recent years. While last season’s play made it easier for many fans to scoff at the idea of paying him, there wasn’t anything in Korpisalo’s play that inspired confidence. His strengths did not match up with the team’s defensive weaknesses.

That’s the past and now we look forward. Will Chase started a conversation on the goalies, but I think there has to be more than that. The team simply cannot play defense going forward like they have played over the last 3+ years. The Jackets have to get better at limiting opponent’s shots. There is a silver lining here. The defense, while just average last season, did play better than in the previous two years. Perhaps this was in response to worse play in net. Can the 15 skaters pull their s*** together in front of the new netminders? Here’s hoping.

Thanks for reading! I hope this series has been above replacement level for you.