Nearly 40% of the way into the NHL season, one of the big stories has been the continued struggles of several of the league's experienced veteran goaltenders. Overall save numbers remain high (.912 league average), with several young goaltenders really blossoming (Jimmy Howard, Jonathan Quick, Cory Schneider). A few journeyman are off to sizzling starts as well (Brian Elliott, Nikolai Khabibulin, Mike Smith, Jose Theodore). However, fans in several cities around the league have to be at least a bit concerned that their team has not been getting the saves to which they have been accustomed.
It should not be considered too surprising that some players still have numbers above or below their usual levels, especially for goaltenders. Percentages can vary quite a bit even from one 82 game season to the next, which makes it difficult to conclude too much from an anomalous 15-20 game start. Variance is high early in the season, especially in the crease, as at the moment nine of the top 10 GVT scores belong to goaltenders. At the other end of the chart, the 19 worst scores are all masked men as well.
Experienced goaltenders in the hot seat that have not lived up to expectations so far include Craig Anderson, Martin Brodeur, Ilya Bryzgalov, Jonas Hiller, Roberto Luongo, Ryan Miller, Dwayne Roloson, and Cam Ward. All eight had above-average save percentage records over the past three seasons, averaging an impressive .917 save percentage as a group from 2008-09 to 2010-11. This year, they have combined for a mere .896, with all eight also currently holding a negative GVT score. Goaltenders like Tomas Vokoun (0.2 GVT) and Jaroslav Halak (-0.1 GVT) could also have been named here as disappointments, although their numbers are not as underwhelming as those of the above eight.
So let's look at each case in some detail to see what's going on:
Craig Anderson started off strongly in Ottawa at the end of last season after being picked up at the trade deadline, but has not been able to maintain that form this fall. Anderson has had a high rate of subpar outings, recording just 11 quality starts out of 27, and only twice managing to complete a game allowing just one goal against or less. The offensive prowess of the surprising Senators has kept them on the playoff bubble so far, despite inconsistent goaltending. Anderson's ups and downs last year (.897 with Colorado, .939 with Ottawa) make it difficult to predict exactly where his current NHL talent lies. He had a huge 2009-10 season, but since he became a starting goaltender, he has a .911 save percentage, which is almost exactly league average. It seems most likely to expect Anderson to post improved but still relatively average numbers over the rest of the year.
Time catches up to everybody, even future Hall of Famers. Martin Brodeur currently ranks 69th out of 73 goalies in the league in even strength save percentage with a dismal .884. Brodeur is not quite as bad as that number suggests; subjectively, it looks like he has been somewhat unlucky, while New Jersey has not been good defensively in the early going. His decline is still pretty obvious. This will almost certainly be his fourth straight year of significant decline in even strength save percentage, after going .933, .924, and .912 since 2008-09. With the 39-year-old facing UFA status this summer, there is a lot of speculation as to whether he will retire, a choice that looks more and more likely if his personal stats don't improve.
The league's top free agent goaltending acquisition has not been the savior that owner Ed Snider was hoping for when he made a $51 million commitment last summer. Bryzgalov called his own play "terrible" earlier this season and currently holds a -3.5 GVT, although fortunately for him, the Flyers have still been able to win 15 of his 22 starts. Some have questioned whether the Russian netminder's stats were inflated in the past, pointing to Mike Smith's hot start for the Coyotes. The Coyotes were usually more disciplined than the aggressive Flyers, but that doesn't explain a .025 drop in Bryzgalov's save percentage. Maybe he needs some time to get acclimatized to the hyper-scrutiny of the Philly media market after the obscurity of Phoenix, but the pressure is only going to be ratcheted up if Bryzgalov continues not to live up to his huge paycheck.
It is tough to know what to make of Jonas Hiller's slow start this year. Not only is he making a return from vertigo symptoms that cut short his 2010-11 campaign, but it has been a trainwreck of a season for the 9-18-5 Ducks. Hiller boasts an elite track record, having never posted a save percentage below .918 in any of his four seasons in the NHL. His talent is not in question, but many players struggle coming back after missing a big chunk of a season. Hiller's history makes it seem like it is only a matter of time before he gets back to bailing his team out like they are used to in Anaheim, but as Sidney Crosby would attest, it is never easy coming back from an injury. Ducks fans will need to be patient with their starting goaltender, although that will be difficult with this season slowly slipping away.
Vancouver is a town that loves its goaltending controversies, and the debates were white hot earlier this year after Roberto Luongo got off to his customary slow start while Cory Schneider made a strong bid to take over the starting duties for the defending Western Conference champs. Much of the local disenchantment with Luongo stems from his well known, if somewhat overblown, playoff struggles, but there are some warning signs for the 32-year-old, including some technical flaws in his game (particularly with his lateral movement) as well as an extreme home/road split (a .929 save percentage at home since 2008-09 compared to a below-average .906 on the road). The home/road dichotomy was pretty evident, albeit in a small sample size, in the 2011 postseason, suggesting that maybe Vancouver's matchup game makes it much easier to play goal on home ice.
Of late, however, the controversy has slowly slipped away as Luongo has finally rounded into form, re-establishing himself as Vancouver's clear #1 by starting seven of the last eight and posting a 10-3-1, 1.95, .931 record since November 1. It seems that only playoff success will fully resolve Vancouver's goalie question, but expect continued strong play from Luongo with his customary October slump now in the rearview mirror.
It has been a trying season in many ways for Ryan Miller. In response to his inconsistent early season play, many Buffalo fans began calling for backup Jhonas Enroth to receive more playing time. Things became even worse for Miller when Boston's Milan Lucic ran him over in a game with little response from his teammates, causing Miller to miss three weeks of action. With Enroth holding his own in Miller's absence, there were even a few trade rumors surrounding the American Olympian, although there is little chance at all of the Sabres giving up on their franchise netminder. Since returning to action, Miller's save percentage has been just .891 in December. The pressure is certainly on in Buffalo, with owner Terry Pegula starting to make waves after his team's disappointing start, including recent comments criticizing the team's goaltending. Expect Miller to eventually find his usual game, although his total games played this year will come in well under his usual 65-70 because of injuries and the emergence of Enroth.
It's not a stretch to call Dwayne Roloson one of the best 40-year-old goalies in league history. The only goaltender to play in more games at the age of 40 and 41 than Roly was Ed Belfour, a future Hall of Famer who promptly retired the next season. Third on the list is Eddie Johnston, who as a 42-year-old saw his numbers balloon, got shipped out of town and ended up with just 16 games played before retiring at the season's end. That's not the way anybody would really want to bow out, but amazingly Johnston's 1977-78 season still ranks as the second-best goaltending season by a 42-year-old in the past 39 years, surpassed only by Roloson's former teammate and ageless wonder Dominik Hasek. In short, it's almost impossible to play at a high level as an NHL goaltender past the age of 40.
Roloson's stats prior to this season do not show a noticeable decline, but sometimes goalies just fall off a cliff performance-wise, particularly at the end of their careers. It's not too late for Roloson to turn it around, but the smart bet is that he is just too old to continue to provide even average-level goaltending in the NHL. Mathieu Garon will likely take most of the starts the rest of the way, and Tampa should consider bringing in another goaltending option to help turn their season around after a disappointing start.
Entering this season, Cam Ward seemed to be one of the safer bets league-wide in terms of a goaltender capable of playing huge minutes and recording strong numbers, but his performance has been well below his usual levels this season. Could fatigue be a factor for Ward after leading the league by a wide margin in shots against last year? Or can he point the finger at the rest of his team, which is off to a poor start and has already seen their coach fired? Perhaps there is a small bit of truth to that last one, given that new coach Kirk Muller's first win against Edmonton was also the first time this season that Ward won a game with a save percentage below .920. Backup Brian Boucher has also been shredded in his brief playing time (0-4-1, 3.27, .888). On the other hand, Ward has faced a very low rate of shots against on the penalty kill this season, which has actually slightly boosted his save numbers. So far Ward has been unable to play his way out of his current slump and find his usual form, but given his track record and ability, it seems only a matter of time before he rebounds.
At this point in the season, all goalies and players with extremely hot or cold starts are good bets to see their numbers regress towards their career averages, including the eight featured in this article. Luongo seems to have already turned things around, and expect a similar outcome for Bryzgalov, Miller, and Ward. Anderson should be fine as well, although he is not as talented as those three. Hiller is a bit of a wild card, but it might not even matter too much whether he finds his game this season given the huge hole the Ducks have already dug for themselves. Unfortunately, the signs are not as good for Dwayne Roloson and Martin Brodeur, who appear to be well into the decline stages of their careers, and as a result will likely end up finishing the season as 1B or backup options for their teams.
Philip Myrland is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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