Goaltending: There’s No Sure Thing, As Philadelphia/Pittsburgh Proves

Jonathan Willis
April 19 2012 09:44AM

Last night, the Pittsburgh Penguins entered their game against Philadelphia down three games to none. They weren’t about to fade quietly into the night, though; they scored 10 goals in one of the greatest offensive outbursts in recent memory.

Hockey Night in Canada’s P.J. Stock responded to the game at the second intermission of the contest between Vancouver and Los Angeles. His first thoughts? That Marc-Andre Fleury had a good game.

Sure, Fleury allowed three goals on 25 shots for a 0.880 SV%, but it’s still easily his best performance over a full game in the series. In his previous three starts he’s allowed six, seven and four goals; his save percentage has never hit the elusive 0.850 plateau. But Stock wasn’t alone. Articles entitled “Fleury’s baby steps mean the Penguins can climb a mountain” and “Fleury good enough to keep Pens’ season alive” ran late last night. It’s because he’s been so very, very bad that even a mediocre game is praise-worthy.

Fleury’s a first overall pick, and when Pittsburgh drafted him they thought they were fixing their goaltending for the long haul. However, since a brilliant run brought the Penguins to the finals, he’s struggled. He was a question mark all the way to the Stanley Cup in 2009, nearly costing Pittsburgh their second-round series against Washington and finishing the playoffs with a lukewarm 0.908 SV%. He did end the Pens’ series against Montreal a year later, allowing eight goals on the final 38 shots he faced in the series – he finished the post-season with a sub-0.900 SV%. He did the same thing last year against Tampa Bay, allowing four goals on 25-or-fewer shots no less than three times in a seven-game series. Over his career, he’s a 0.905 SV% NHL goalie. Of the 22 goalies with more than 20 playoff games since the lockout, Fleury ranks 19th in save percentage (for the sake of contrast, the much-maligned Roberto Luongo's 0.916 SV% sits seventh on that same list).

Of course, Fleury looked even better last night when compared to the gong show at the other end of the ice. Ilya Bryzgalov and Sergei Bobrovsky split time in net, with each allowing five goals against.

Like the Penguins had with Fleury, when Philadelphia went out and signed Ilya Bryzgalov last summer, they thought they were fixing their goaltending for a long, long time. They jettisoned core players in Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, and instead spent a whopping $51 million to secure Bryzgalov for the next nine seasons. After years of deploying average-ish goalies between the pipes, the Flyers were going to spend money (including $10 million in year one) and get the best.

Has landing the dream free agent worked out any better than burning a first overall pick? Not really.

Bryzgalov ended the regular season on a high note, salvaging what had been a disastrous run to start the year. And while he’s won his first three playoff games for the Flyers, he hasn’t exactly been barring the castle gates in doing so; he’d allowed 12 goals in those three wins and has yet to post a save percentage higher than 0.900. Then he allowed five goals on 18 shots yesterday.

There is simply no sure thing between the pipes. The top-10 goalies in terms of save percentage this post-season have been, in order:

  • Long-time journeyman Scott Clemmensen (one shutout in one game played)
  • Highly-touted Cory Schneider
  • Jonathan Quick, who was supposed to have lost his job to Jonathan Bernier by now
  • Tim Thomas, who at 31 made the jump from the AHL to NHL full-time; he won the Conn Smyth last year
  • Braden Holtby, a mid-round pick and Washington's third-string goalie
  • Pekka Rinne, drafted in the eighth round in 2004 - the draft ends after seven rounds now
  • Henrik Lundqvist, a seventh-round pick in 2000
  • Mike Smith, the castoff Phoenix signed to replace Bryzgalov
  • Jaroslav Halak, another guy drafted in the old post-seven round world
  • Brian Elliott, signed for nothing this summer after burning through two previous NHL homes

Some of these guys - Rinne, Lundqvist, Halak - had risen beyond their humble draft position and were highly regarded this summer.  But most of these guys wouldn't have made any top-10 goalie lists last summer, and some would have been hard-pressed to crack a top-30 list.

That's something for the Oilers to keep in mind next summer, when Nikolai Khabibulin's contract mercifully comes off the books.  Spending a top draft pick or a pile of money on July 1 doesn't guarantee performance.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#1 @Oilanderp
April 19 2012, 11:00AM
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When a winger makes a mistake, the coaches notice. When a center makes a mistake, the coaches and some of the fans notice. When a defenseman makes a mistake, everyone on the team and most of the fans notice.

When a goalie makes a mistake, everyone and their dog notices. Just in case they didn't, there are large red lights and deafening sirens to alert you.

Goalies aren't any more inconsistent than the professional at any other position. It's just that their inconsistency has extreme consequences.

Goalies can never take a shift off.

Imagine if Dustin Penner was a goalie!

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#2 Jesse
April 19 2012, 01:43PM
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@Oilanderp wrote:

When a winger makes a mistake, the coaches notice. When a center makes a mistake, the coaches and some of the fans notice. When a defenseman makes a mistake, everyone on the team and most of the fans notice.

When a goalie makes a mistake, everyone and their dog notices. Just in case they didn't, there are large red lights and deafening sirens to alert you.

Goalies aren't any more inconsistent than the professional at any other position. It's just that their inconsistency has extreme consequences.

Goalies can never take a shift off.

Imagine if Dustin Penner was a goalie!

Too easy... http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-1ByGCL6jM14/T3HcTBk3vVI/AAAAAAAANhI/OfFWtYV4xzg/s1600/turk.JPG

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#3 Tony_Clifton
April 19 2012, 11:36AM
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i'd rather have horcoff's contract on the books than bryzgalov's.

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#4 geoilersgist
April 19 2012, 09:58AM
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I have a feeling this series is going to go the distance. For my pool I hope the Pens are the ones who come out on top!

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#5 Lexi
April 19 2012, 10:32AM
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JW,

This proves to me that the one area the Oilers don't need to upgrade for 12-13 is goalie. DD has shown me enough to hand him the reins for 55 plus games and if he doesn't play well the Oilers don't contend for a playoff spot, just like if Mike Smith struggles Phoenix misses the playoffs. I love how the Oilers are developing Roy and Bunz. It's almost like they are following the Willis formula of drafting a goalie in the 4th or 5th round every one or two years and hope one of them turns into a bonefide NHLer every five years.

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#6 D-Man
April 19 2012, 11:43AM
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@ SK

If Penner were a goalie - his consistent diet of pancakes would surely pay off... Imagine his girth with the addition of extra maple syrup covering 95% of a NHL regulation net...

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#7 Prudham's
April 19 2012, 12:04PM
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Thank goodness that terrible picture of the woman with implants is gone from this blog. I was getting tired of being greeted by her every time. Sorry it's off topic of this article.

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#8 BingBong
April 19 2012, 12:15PM
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I agree that goaltending is more-or-less a crapshoot nowadays. Spending any significant amount of money/years on a goalie seems foolish. Elliot was brutal last season; this season he's an all-star. His improvement is obviously partly due to Hitchcock's system, but that just reinforces the fact that most goalies can succeed if given a great team to play for.

As for the Oilers, Dubnyk will be the starter next year; if he succeeds then re-sign him, if he bombs then pick up a cheap UFA. Goaltending shouldn't really be a big concern at this point considering the holes we need to fill on defense and regarding toughness up front.

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#9 Stocc
April 19 2012, 01:30PM
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@@Oilanderp

Imagine if Dustin Penner was a goalie!

He'd cover a lot of net...

edit: I wish D-man had thought of that.

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#10 OilLeak
April 19 2012, 05:28PM
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Tim in Kelowna wrote:

Saying that Fleury has "struggled" since the 2009 Cup Final is a HUGE stretch.

2.36 GAA and 0.913 Save% this season isn't vezina worthy but it's pretty decent.

You know Dubnyk's numbers are better right?

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#11 Dave "Killer" Carlson
April 19 2012, 09:56AM
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So far Fleury and the Pens are not helping my playoff pool. I'm guessing I'm not alone on this one.

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#12 DieHard
April 19 2012, 10:00AM
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Totally agree. It's tough to project goalies. First they're up then down then up. It's a crap shoot.

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#13 Spydyr
April 19 2012, 10:38AM
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I'm also a firm believer of taking a goalie in the later rounds every draft.

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#14 John Chambers
April 19 2012, 10:42AM
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Fundamentally it's a good philosophy for teams to invest in goaltender redundancy. What happens when one gets injured? What happens when one goes up in flames, like Fleury.

There's really no reason to have a goaltender budget above $5M. Pay two guys $2M apiece, and have either a young stud or a seasoned AHL vet on the farm ready to take some reps in the event of a total disaster.

The difference in sv % between elite, mid-tier, and even poor goalies isn't enough to justify the disparity in salaries. Run a tandem next year of Dubnyk and whoever is cheap (Harding, Vokoun, trade for James Reimer ... whatever) just keep the term short and be willing to accept you made a mistake and bury a guy in the minors if he craps the bed.

Amazing how many teams pony up a large chunk of their budget for a marquee goalie - both an inefficient use of budget, and a large risk when your playoff hopes might rely on Curtis f'ing Mackelhenny.

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#15 Quicksilver ballet
April 19 2012, 10:57AM
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This is just an aberration. Things will soon return to normal (.925 and up)

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#16 Reg Dunlop
April 19 2012, 11:17AM
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Actually there has been 1 sure goaltending display the past decade; Kipprusof owning the oil. I think the small # of elite tenders in the league are worth the $$$ they command. After all, if it wasn't called 'playoffs' it would be called 'goaltending'.

Of course the 25 teams without elite tending are better off with inexpensive short term contracts.

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#17 DieHard
April 19 2012, 11:35AM
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Reg Dunlop wrote:

Actually there has been 1 sure goaltending display the past decade; Kipprusof owning the oil. I think the small # of elite tenders in the league are worth the $$$ they command. After all, if it wasn't called 'playoffs' it would be called 'goaltending'.

Of course the 25 teams without elite tending are better off with inexpensive short term contracts.

I agree, Kipper is good. He's the reason the Flames are a middling team.

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That's something for the Oilers to keep in mind next summer, when Nikolai Khabibulin's contract mercifully comes off the books. Spending a top draft pick or a pile of money on July 1 doesn't guarantee performance.

I'd assume given Dubnyk(top 15 pick) and Bulin(pile of money UFA) are our current duo that ST should know this.

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#19 Oilers89
April 19 2012, 03:50PM
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I have always thought that goaltenders should not be paid over 5 million or even 4 for that matter unless they are unquestionably elite. Guys like Kipper, Lundqvist are worth it, and guys who come off of one or even two good seasons should not be assumed to be elite. However I believe that Schneider in Vancouver will be one of those goalies, and I would love the Oilers to get him, but unfortunately he will cost too much. I am also fine with DD as the starter at least until Roy or Bunz arrives.

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#20 madjam
April 19 2012, 04:13PM
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Sounds like Vancouver looking to dump Luongo and his long term contract on someone . Should we risk it , and for what on that 10 year contract (time still left i believe) ?

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#21 Tim in Kelowna
April 19 2012, 04:29PM
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Saying that Fleury has "struggled" since the 2009 Cup Final is a HUGE stretch.

2.36 GAA and 0.913 Save% this season isn't vezina worthy but it's pretty decent.

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#22 Tim in Kelowna
April 19 2012, 05:58PM
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OilLeak wrote:

You know Dubnyk's numbers are better right?

Fleury also had 42 wins, which is twice as many as Dubnyk.

Not saying his numbers are stellar, but no one suggested Fleury was struggling until he started getting decimated by the Flyers 9 days ago.

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#23 Randall Shermer
April 19 2012, 10:04PM
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@Prudham's

Missed it: link?

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#24 Reg Dunlop
April 19 2012, 11:02PM
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Tambo stated that he still believes in Khabbi and that he wants to play 5 more years. Not wanting to admit a grave mistake, I bet Khabbi starts game 1 next year. In a perfect world, DD would take over #1 next year, start minimum 60 games and win the Vezina. More likely Khabbi starts in game 1.

The question 'where does Luongo fit?': I dont think he will play for Van again, but the Leafs may grab him. With his issues dealing with pressure, the Toronto media will drive him to Frank Mahovlich's old rubber room at Mimico Asylum,cutting out paper dolls.

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