The Bruins, Blue Jackets, and Avalanche haven’t had great starts to the season, and it seems a lot of fingers are being pointed toward their goalies. Boston's Tuukka Rask hasn’t been very sharp at all, Colorado's Semyon Varlamov has already fallen out of favor with head coach Patrick Roy, and Columbus' Sergei Bobrovsky has let in four or more goals in five consecutive games. It’s an ugly start that’s a bit shocking considering their output over the last few years. In the two seasons prior, Rask has had a sparkling .936 save percentage at 5-on-5 (and a Vezina trophy) while Bobrovsky (a Vezina in 2013) and Varlamov (second to Rask in 2014) are at .928 and .927 respectively.
This year, Rask, Bobrovsky, and Varlamov are at .863, .830, and .843. To say they’ve been brutal is putting things lightly. At this point they might be better off using beach balls instead of pucks, but I’m not sure they’d save those either. It’s not all their fault, though. Looking at the location of shots they’ve had to face paints a bleak picture of the defensive problems facing each team. It’s easy to point the finger at the guy in net, but the players in front of them haven’t done them any favours. Hockey stats website
War On Ice tracks where each shot comes from and puts them into three zones: in front of the net (high danger), the ‘home-plate’ area (medium danger), and everywhere else (low danger). Unsurprisingly, the closer you are to the net, the easier it is to score. In the high danger zone, a player will score on about 16.6 percent of shots, from medium danger it drops to 7.4, and in low danger that falls all the way to 2.6 percent. War On Ice also tracks rebounds, which are categorized as shots that came within four seconds of another shot. In those situations, a player’s chances of scoring basically doubles. For the charts below, only rebounds that were within 20 feet of the goal were included. Using those zones and comparing the shot rates from each zone from this year to the past two seasons illustrates just how difficult it’s been for each goalie this season.
For all three teams, the biggest question marks going into the season were on defense and it doesn’t appear those questions have been answered. The goalies have been terrible, but there’s no doubt that their defense is hanging them out to dry. Compared to the past two seasons, all three teams are giving up more than one shot per 60 minutes in scoring chance areas, with Boston and Colorado bleeding the most in front of the net. Not only that, but each team is giving up more rebounds too. Bobrovsky has taken the biggest hit in that regard and is seeing almost twice as many rebounds per 60 minutes as he’s ever seen during his time in Columbus. These are huge changes to get accustomed to for a goalie and it’s harder to perform when things in front of you don’t go as expected. Looking at just Columbus and Boston, it’s clear that their defensive system tactfully pushes shots to the outside, but they haven’t been able to execute that this season, leading to more chances from in close. In Boston, Zdeno Chara’s absence has likely played a role in that regard and his return to action should mitigate some of those problems. None of this is meant to exonerate the three netminders, only to bring context to their situation. There’s no doubt they’ve been bad, but they’ve had a tougher selection of shots to face. Based on the distribution of shots they’ve seen, their expected save percentage is five percent lower than the previous two seasons, and that’s without factoring in the additional rebounds they’ve faced. That’s worth almost 0.2 extra goals allowed per game, and that’ll add up quickly. It’s only been a handful of games, so obviously things will change. The past few years have shown us that these three can be elite goaltenders and there’s no doubt they can get back to that form after a rough start. But if the defense in front of them doesn’t get its act together, don’t expect the same sparkling numbers they’ve put up in the past.