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What's the Deal With NHL Goaltending Right Now?

Some of the top goaltenders in the NHL haven't been the names you'd usually expect. What's happening with the league's top stars?
Connor Hellebuyck

You look at the NHL’s website and check out the individual statistics for goaltenders, and you almost sprain your eyebrows from arching-out-of-control in sheer surprise.

Top-rated goalies such as Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck (.891 save percentage, 3.67 goals-against average), Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy (a relatively pedestrian .911 SP and 2.53 GAA), Seattle’s Philipp Grubauer (.897 SP, 2.93 GAA) and Colorado’s Darcy Kuemper (.893 SP, 3.19 GAA) are not the best out of the gate this season. 

Instead, goalies such as San Jose’s James Reimer (.961 SP, 1.19 GAA), Columbus’ Elvis Merzlikins (.952 SP, 1.47 GAA), Buffalo’s Dustin Tokarski and Craig Anderson (the former who has a .950 SP and 1.40 GAA; and the latter, who has a .939 SP and a 2.04 GAA), and Philadelphia’s Martin Jones (.941 SP and 2.01 GAA) all are having solid starts, albeit in small sample sizes. 

As it is with the NHL standings thus far this year, goalies’ stats are upside-down. And there are probably a few reasons why that is.

The first reason is familiarity, or lack thereof. With an off-season that featured a notable amount of change on the goaltending front, it’s easier for the natural order to be upset, because teams haven’t seen a new goalie acquisition work with a new set of defensemen and forwards. The scouting report at this stage is incomplete. It’s like having a rookie pitcher in major league baseball – the first time he makes it through the league, the advantage is his, but after teams have seen him in action a few times, scouts can prepare a detailed breakdown of his game. It’s then on him to make more adjustments to stay ahead of opponents, and if he can’t – well, it’s back to the minor leagues with him.

This is not to say veterans like Reimer and Anderson don’t have value and can’t play well. But let’s see where their numbers are after, say, 20 games or so. I suspect we’ll see those numbers drop fairly considerably. And I also believe we’ll see rebounds from Hellebuyck, Vasilevskiy and Kuemper, as their talented lineups settle in a little bit more. Right now, it’s about goalies slowly dialing the effort up as they become more familiar with their teammates.

Another reason that may explain the topsy-turvy world of NHL goalie stats this season is health. A shorter off-season may mean that certain netminders who have heavy mileage on them aren’t completely at 100 percent, and can’t deliver at a level they’re accustomed to. Obviously, in the case of the Montreal Canadiens, star goalie Carey Price’s absence from the team is a gigantic factor into the team’s woes. But not having veterans such as longtime Boston Bruins star Tuukka Rask around at the start of the year opens up an opportunity for a relative youngster such as Linus Ullmark to post elite numbers.

Finally, the last reason that could explain goalie struggles is momentum – specifically, how difficult it is for any top netminder to build momentum when, due to the compacted schedule, head coaches are giving more games to their No. 2 goalie. Teams are far less willing to play the same goalie in back-to-back games, so when a veteran is hitting his stride, whether he likes it or not, he’ll be sat down for a game while his understudy gets a shot. And if that backup goalie comes through with a strong performance in a win, it’s entirely possible a head coach will stay with him, putting another bump in the road in terms of a rebound from their No. 1 guy.

If there were an easy solution to the problems some goalies are facing this season, it would’ve been implemented in short order. The real solution has to come over time, and a team’s consistent smart play. Nobody will be making any moves for a goalie just yet, so it falls to the goalies already on the roster to determine which organizations will continue to thrive, which ones will improve, and which ones wind up regressing to the mean.

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