Good, bad and ugly of NHL goaltending

Evolving Hockey’s expected goal model determines the likelihood that unblocked shot attempts become goals based on a number of variables, such as where the shot was taken from and the type of shot. For example, a slap shot from the blue line might be assigned a value of 0.03 indicating that it would become a goal only one out of every 30 times, while a wrist shot taken right in front of the net might be expected to be converted on one out of every four attempts and, therefore, would be given a value of 0.25 expected goals. In this example, it would take roughly eight slap shots from the blue line to match the value of the wrist shot taken from in front of the net. 

Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx) tells us how good or bad a goaltender is relative to league average based on the shot quality the goalie has faced. GSAx is calculated by subtracting the total goals that a goaltender has conceded from the number of expected goals he has faced. Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly through the lens of modern hockey statistics, by division.

Central Division

Petr Mrazek of the Carolina Hurricanes has been very good thus far, saving the team five goals above expected, however, he’s going to miss time with an injury and James Reimer is now manning the crease. Reimer was very good for the Hurricanes in 2019-20, his first season with the Hurricanes. In 25 games, he had a GSAx similar to that of Darcy Kuemper of the Arizona Coyotes, who is recognized as one of the league’s best goaltenders. Reimer should be just fine in the starting role. Alex Nedeljkovic, who has been in the minors since he was drafted in 2014, is the backup, and although he has pedigree, he should be considered a downgrade from Reimer.

Joonas Korpisalo has been very good for the Columbus Blue Jackets, and he should overtake Mrazek as the NHL’s No. 1 goaltender by GSAx with another strong performance. Korpisalo was great in the playoff bubble last year, but before that he was average at best. In fact, he was well below average in the regular season last season. Teammate Elvis Merzlikins was good in 2019-20, but he has been bad this year. In fact, Merzlikins has saved four fewer goals than an average goaltender would have, given the shot quality he has faced, washing out most of the good work Korpisalo has done. It’s worth noting that Merzlikins did have a slow start in 2019-20 and eventually pulled it together.

Elsewhere in the division, Pekka Rinne has been bad and Juuse Saros isn’t where he needs to be for the Nashville Predators to compete for a playoff spot. There’s no reason to think Saros won’t figure it out and return to form, but Rinne is well past his prime, and there’s no reason to expect positive regression. The Chicago Blackhawks have received very good goaltending from Kevin Lankinen, who flew under the radar entering the season, but it’s still early and two of his six starts were against the Detroit Red Wings. Speaking of the Red Wings, they haven’t received adequate goaltenting from Thomas Greiss or Jonathan Bernier, who have combined to allow seven goals above expected on the season. Andrei Vasilevskiy has picked up right where he left off last season and is providing great goaltending for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Sergei Bobrovsky has also picked up where he left off, however, that’s not a compliment. Chris Driedger looks like the better option for the Florida Panthers right now. The Dallas Stars might not have Ben Bishop, but they still have Anton Khudobin, and he looks to be on his game once again. Look for Jake Oettinger to receive some starts. Don’t sleep on the former first-round draft pick.

West Division

Colorado Avalanche goaltender Philipp Grubauer has been stellar in the early going, saving almost four goals above expected through his first eight games. That’s one goal better than Anaheim Ducks goaltender John Gibson in the same amount of time on ice. Hunter Miska, the Avalanche’s backup, has not been up to the task thus far, allowing roughly two goals more than an average goaltender facing the same shots. It doesn't look like the team will see Pavel Francouz return to the crease anytime either.

Jordan Binnington has been average in his three starts for the St. Louis Blues, while his backup, Ville Husso, has allowed more than three goals above expected. Marc-Andre Fleury has been rock solid in three appearances for the Vegas Golden Knights, saving approximately three goals above expected, which is about what Robin Lehner has cost the team thus far. Lehner should bounce back, though, and there’s no question that he’s the best goaltender on the team. Fleury is coming off a terrible season but was pretty good before that. The Golden Knights are in a good position.

Things are going exactly as expected in San Jose as both of the Sharks’ goaltenders, Devan Dubnyk and Martin Jones, are among the worst in the league. Jones and Dubnyk have combined to allow six more goals than an average goaltender would have. Don’t expect those numbers to improve. Gibson is back to his old tricks, keeping the Ducks in games they have no business being in. Gibson has played nine games and has saved the Ducks around 2.5 goals above expected. Ryan Miller has started only twice but has looked fine overall. Nonetheless, the Ducks have a much better chance of coming away with a win when Gibson is in goal. 

Cal Petersen has been solid, not spectacular, for the Los Angeles Kings. Jonathan Quick hasn’t been good at all, allowing more than three goals above expected. The team would be wise to hand the reins to Petersen, and bettors would be wise to consider showing the Kings a little more love when he is in goal. Cam Talbot has been brilliant at times, but he hasn’t been great in his first five games with the Minnesota Wild. Still, he’s a big step up from Kaapo Kahkonen, who has allowed five goals above expected in six games. No surprises in Arizona as Coyotes goaltender Darcy Kuemper is doing just fine, but given what we have seen from him in the past, there’s still a lot of room to improve. Antti Raanta has made only one start this season, partly because of injury. Raanta should provide the Coyotes with average goaltending, at the very least, whenever Kuemper gets a game off.

East Division

Before being placed on the league’s COVID-19 protocol list, MacKenzie Blackwood of the New Jersey Devils was impressive, saving roughly four goals more than an average goaltender would have in three outings. Scott Wedgewood has stepped in and provided goaltending similar to what you would expect from a league average player, but he isn’t, and the Devils’ defense is horrid. The Devils have had their games postponed for the rest of this week, at least, because of a virus outbreak. 

Outside of Blackwood, no goaltender in the East has been spectacular. Surprisingly, Carter Hart’s performances have been below average, allowing almost four goals above expected and ranking among the worst in the league. Veteran Brian Elliott has been getting the job done for the Philadelphia Flyers in goal, posting a respectable 1.2 GSAx. Hart has a ton of potential, but he hasn’t proved himself just yet. Neither Tuukka Rask nor Jaroslav Halak has been consistent, and neither is providing the Boston Bruins with above-average goaltending through nine games. It’s reasonable to expect both goaltenders to heat up, though, as they have been very good in recent years.

Igor Shesterkin has played well for the New York Rangers in six appearances, but he’s nowhere near the level he performed at in his 12 starts last season. Chalk it up to growing pains for now, but if it continues, adjust accordingly. Alexandar Georgiev has allowed slightly more than two goals above expected, but he is a serviceable backup and should provide the Rangers with close to average goaltending going forward. Over in Brooklyn, the Islanders have struggled. Rookie Ilya Sorokin is off to a rough start, proving just how hard it is to transition from the Kontinental Hockey League to the North American game. There’s a lot of talent there, though. Semyon Varlamov hasn’t been much better. Nothing is going right for the Islanders this season, despite being one of the best defensive teams by expected goals. If they don’t get rock-solid goaltending, the team is going to be in trouble because offense is a big problem.

The Washington Capitals have not received good goaltending this season, and given that their underlying metrics are poor, they’re quite lucky to be where they are in the standings. Ilya Samsonov has appeared in only two games, reportedly because of a positive COVID-19 test, and newcomer Vitek Vanecek has stepped in in relief. Samsonov had allowed more than 2.5 goals above expected in just 125 minutes on the ice, while Vanecek sits at -2 GSAx through eight games. In Buffalo, Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton have struggled. Goaltending was always likely to sink this Sabres team, and the goaltenders have combined to allow almost four goals above expected.

The biggest goaltending story in the East is just how bad Tristan Jarry has been. The Pittsburgh Penguins were smart for moving on from Matt Murray (more on him shortly), but Jarry has allowed almost seven goals more than an expected goaltender would have given the shots he has faced. It’s the second-worst mark in the league behind, you guessed it, Murray. Casey DeSmith hasn’t been as bad as Jarry, but he has been well below average. The Penguins haven’t played well overall, but they probably would have fared a little better if they had a little luck. Jarry was good last season but was average or below before that. We could see some positive regression, but I wouldn’t bank on a huge turnaround at this point. With that being said, goaltenders are voodoo.

North Division

Let’s start with the ugly. Murray is bad, and it doesn’t matter what metrics you look at, the Ottawa Senators are the worst defensive team in the league. It’s not a good combination. Murray has allowed approximately 10 goals above expected and his backup, Marcus Hogberg, has allowed almost four more than an average goaltender. Don’t expect things to change in Ottawa, this team is on an island. Even the most pessimistic forecasts may have underestimated just how bad this team is.

Meanwhile, the Edmonton Oilers seem intent on running goaltender Mikko Koskinen into the ground. Koskinen has played 10 games to date and has allowed approximately four goals above expected. Stuart Skinner made his NHL debut in goal for the Oilers on Sunday and looked shaky at times. Jacob Markstrom has been very good for the Calgary Flames and has saved the team about three goals above expected. Backup David Rittich has started only once, and it wasn’t a good outing. Bettors should value the Flames differently depending on who is in goal.

Frederik Andersen is still trying to find his game in Toronto, but he sure doesn’t look as rough around the edges as he did last season. Andersen’s -1.2 GSAx suggests he has been below expected, but he doesn't have very far to be where he needs to be. Jack Campbell is a solid backup option, but he’s listed as week to week. Bettors should beware a Michael Hutchinson start as he does not have a good track record. Carey Price hasn’t been good so far this season, but that hasn’t really mattered to the Canadiens as they have provided him with plenty of offensive support. We haven’t seen a whole lot of Jake Allen, but he has been above average, saving approximately one goal above expected.

Thatcher Demko has saved almost two goals above expected and has been good for the Vancouver Canucks, who are once again atrocious defensively. Braden Holtby, however, has allowed almost 2.5 goals above expected, and it’s not reasonable to expect him to improve. This is the type of player Holtby is now. In Winnipeg, Connor Hellebuyck hasn’t been consistently stringing together strong performances like he did for the Jets in 2019-20, while backup Laurent Broissoit has played well in a limited amount of ice time. Make no mistake about it, though, Hellebuyck is one of the league’s best, and the team’s chances of winning are significantly reduced when he is not in goal.

 

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