Don’t underrate Jason LaBarbera

I have watched the reaction to the Oilers’ acquisition of Jason LaBarbera this summer with interest, and I can’t shake the impression that he’s being underrated.

The Last Five Years

Among active goalies over the last five seasons, 57 players have made at least 1,500 saves, with a total save percentage ranging from the league-leading 0.928 posted by Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask down to the NHL-worst 0.899 number managed by Jonas Gustavsson. LaBarbera ranks 29th on the list with a 0.913 save percentage, and it’s interesting to note the company that puts him in.

Just looking at the names on that list, it’s hard not to be impressed. Over the last five years, Jason LaBarbera has been as likely to allow a goal on a shot as Vezina Trophy finalist Ilya Bryzgalov, Stanley Cup winners Marc-Andre Fleury and Corey Crawford, and Edmonton’s own Devan Dubnyk. Carey Price has allowed, on average, one fewer goal per 1,000 shots, while Jonathan Quick has allowed two fewer goals per 1,000 shots over the last five seasons.

Why isn’t he a starter?

Photo: Mathew Cerasoli/Wikimedia

Opportunity has something to do with it – both missed opportunity and a subsequent lack of the same.

In the mid-2000’s, LaBarbera established himself as too good for the AHL. In 2003-04, he ran up a 0.936 save percentage for the New York Ranger’s minor-league affiliate, and followed that up with a 0.934 save percentage during the NHL lockout. He spent the next season in the NHL with Los Angeles (posting lousy numbers over 29 games, but still outplaying incumbent Mathieu Garon) before posting a 0.933 save percentage for the Kings’ minor-league team in 2006-07. It’s odd that LaBarbera didn’t get much of a shot that year, actually – Dan Cloutier was the incumbent starter but he imploded (0.860! save percentage), Sean Burke wrapped up his career, Mathieu Garon was barely adequate and even the immortal Yutaka Fukufuji got four games.

LaBarbera got his chance in 2007-08, blowing past an assortment of terrible goalies and a couple of prospects (Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier) still early in their career. His 0.910 save percentage was nothing to write home about, but was still competent enough that LaBarbera secured the starting gig and was the incumbent in 2008-09. It was a golden opportunity for LaBarbera, but he fell short, imploding out of the starting gate and opening the door for Jonathan Quick, who grabbed the job and never let go. LaBarbera was dealt to Vancouver to be Roberto Luongo’s backup, then moved to Phoenix to fill the same role for Ilya Bryzgalov.

Since then, he hasn’t really had a chance to challenge his starter. Bryzgalov was brilliant for the Coyotes, and when he left Mike Smith got the first crack at being starter and posted a 0.934 save percentage. For four years, LaBarbera was quite good when called upon, but the simple truth is that it is hard to unseat guys posting 0.920 or better save percentages.


Once again, LaBarbera finds himself behind an incumbent who will get first crack at the starter’s job, and so he’ll only get a real opportunity if Devan Dubnyk falters. That’s probably just as well, since LaBarbera’s numbers indicate a guy who would probably be a bottom-third NHL starter (as he was in Los Angeles in his lone full season in the role).

But it would be a mistake to assume that LaBarbera can’t challenge if given the opportunity, or that he will be hard-pressed by Richard Bachman to maintain the backup job. Bachman’s track record shows a perfectly good third-stringer who can fill-in as backup but has been hard-pressed to hold the job; LaBarbera meanwhile has been one of the league’s best backups. Meanwhile, LaBarbera may be typecast as a backup goalie, but the last four seasons have seen him held back by very strong starters – if Dubnyk doesn’t show himself a strong starter there’s little reason to think that LaBarbera will suddenly stop providing strong play.

  • Supernova

    Labarbara predominantly being a career backup, one would have to assume that his quality of competition wouldn’t be as high as a full time starter. Coaches don’t usually play their backups against league powerhouses unless there was an injury to the starter. Nonetheless, the numbers above still do garner some props for ole JL.

    • That’s a solid point.

      Without digging too far, it is interesting to note who he played against last season:

      1. Chicago – 1 game
      2. Anaheim – 2 games
      3. Vancouver – 1 game
      5. Los Angeles – 3 games
      6. San Jose – 3 games
      7. Detroit – 1 game
      8. Minnesota – 2 games
      9. Columbus – 1 game
      14. Nashville – 1 game

      Thirteen games against the eight playoff clubs, two against the other six non-playoff teams (and only a single game against a bad team, Nashville).

      • Admiral Ackbar

        Yes, JW, he certainly had quality competition last year and posted a 0.923 save%. He even went 4-6-2 against those teams playing for a non-playoff team. I hope the sky is the limit with this guy.

        With such a tiny sample size though, we’ll see what time will tell. The numbers look good but I’m not buying it. This guy is an elite AHLer and career NHL-backup until proven otherwise.

  • Supernova

    I think Labarbera is a excellent compliment to Dubnyk. Dubnyk is given the chance to run with it, in the last year of his deal. if he fails we simply cut bait, and go fishing somewhere else.

    Dubnyk and Labarbera seemingly have a fantastic relationship, so they should be able to support and help each other. if Dubnyk struggles we have a steady capable hand to replace or give him rest.

    Excellent signing in the big picture of the team.

  • vetinari

    Interesting comparables… Dubnyk has the worst GAA of the bunch but that’s probably the result of him seeing more shots per game on average than the other goalies… and Dubnyk shares the distinction of being one of three goalies on that list with a losing W/L record over that period (with Harding and LaBarbera)… I’m not saying that those are hard strikes against Dubnyk because, frankly, he played behind a terrible defence most nights, but it does explain why MacT was open to discussing a possible trade for Schneider at the draft and why Dubnyk may not be viewed as a long term lock as our starting #1.

    • Spydyr

      seeing how canucks were too scared to send us Schneider …and with the trouble Loe Lamerello is inn…..can we get Schneider for Dubnyk, Hemsky & Lander…possibly a 2nd round draft pick

      can offer them Old Shultz, Jones, Lander, Hemsky, marincin, Gernat, Musil

      in my opinion Kleffbom & Nurse are the only No No’s….we need to address our NEEDS

      and Schneider would be hungry too show up canucks for trading him …

      p.s Hemskys fav. Czech line mate Jagr is in New Jersey along with Elias and Zidlicky 😉

      new jersey needs Hemsky

  • The poster formerly known as Koolaid drinker #33

    I’ll always have room for Labarbera just because of what I saw him do at an Oilers pre-season game a few years back. There were some kids sitting behind the bench, knocking on the glass, trying to get a puck or stick or something out of the Coyotes players. Labarbera came over, acted all excited for the kids, reached into a bag, and threw them a handful of smelling salts.

  • As a big fan of goalie mask artwork, I’m really looking forward to what Jason will be sporting this season (I was a big fan of the CM Punk helmet from last year).

    As a backup, I feel the Oilers have a good one here, and I’m still in the camp that Dubey emerges as a bona fide number 1. Failing that I guess we’ll be seeing a trade in the next 12 months.

  • Tikkanese

    Don’t overrate Labarbera either…

    There are only 3 goalies on that list with losing records. Labarbera, Josh Harding and Dubnyk…

    People are somewhat unhappy because most seemed to want from the UFA list, a young goalie with upside such as Khudobin or Greiss. Whom both signed for cheaper than Labarbera did btw.

    Hopefully he is underrated.

    • 1) I’d have been positive about Khudobin, whose track record everywhere is good; not so much with Greiss, who has been pretty lousy at other levels.

      2) If wins/losses were the best way to measure a goalie, the Oilers would never have added Dwayne Roloson in 2005-06 (6-17-1, 0.910 SV%). As I recall, that trade turned out okay.

      • Tikkanese

        Don’t get me wrong, I hope it works out great. Duby and Labarbera apparently were good friends before the signing so it should be good behind the scenes at the least. JL has proven he’s a capable backup. He hasn’t really shown that he will push the starter much though and that is what most wanted.

        You can look at other stats all you want but when it comes down to it, Wins/Losses is the only way to measure a goalie. Roloson worked out great for the playoff run, after that not so much, he never got us to the playoffs again did he.

  • Jay Gray

    It’s good to see lot’s of positive comments. This was a good read.

    Bad thing is…I also had high hopes for Belanger, Eager, Khabby, etc, etc…and..well…we know how that played out for them in Edmonton.

    So at this point my hopes will not be raised, but tempered. If he plays great and pushes Dubnyk, excellent. If he doesn’t play good, well…he’s the backup, who cares.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Might I be the first to point out that LaBarbera has also had the benefit of playing behind defensively good (to great) teams, unlike Dubnyk has, well, ever? I mean, just like I roll my eyes at the Dubnyk haters who somehow manage to ignore the terrible defense and young offense-first minded rookie forwards we’ve been rolling with in the past few years, I can’t look past the quality of the defensive play of those teams Jason’s been on either. If it’s fair to say that Dubnyk’s numbers have suffered for it, then I think it’s equally fair to say that JL’s numbers are inflated for them.

    Do I think he’s a good backup and a great guy in the locker room? Absolutely, but I’m not going to sit here and try to argue that he’s on the same level as DD too.

    But hey, who knows. We probably could have said these same things about Mike Smith a few years ago too.

  • The poster formerly known as Koolaid drinker #33

    Good read.

    So what I got out of that is whoever Labarbera backs up ends up having a great season(s). Is this the year Dubbie becomes a legit #1 then?? Fingers crossed.

    PS. Can we nickname him Hanna?

  • nuge2drai

    Oiler Domination To Follow

    Tim Thomas 1yr@2mil

    Tim Thomas ends up being to the 2013 Oilers what Rolosan was to the 06 Oilers.

    Worst case trade Thomas for a 2nd rounder at the deadline and get ours back for the Perron Trade.

  • nuge2drai

    I hope they take that NEGATIVE TV commercal that makes Dubby look like a big dumb farm boy, off the air.! The guy is very well spoken and quick minded unlike the way he is protrayed on that commercal. Here we go Oilers, here we go!!!

  • nuge2drai

    good read… I also think he’s underrated, but only slightly.

    @Naky – Fair point, but Phoenix has never really been a winning team despite their defensive finesse, and still they were likely playing a lot more hockey in their own zone. I’d like to see Labarbera’s total shots taken (and per game average) compared to the others.

    I think its about as good a tandem as we could ask for at this point. They are both pretty average NHL goalies, which is pretty dang good. One is 6’5 and the other 6’3. Physically speaking they are monsters who will compound the intimidation factor if Edmonton can ever shore up its back end.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    MacTavish showed serious interest in Khudobin as well. He turned down more money to come out west here. Walked away from a 1.5 per multi yr deal I heard.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    I think the key for the Oilers in the regular season is to get competent goal tending from their duo. I think Habby played either lights out or god awful, whereas Dubnyk was on a more consistent keel. Yes he did let in some soft goals, but he absolutely stole wins for the Oilers last year as well. With an upgraded defence, and perhaps if Dubnyk can tighten it up even a bit more, all Labarbra has to do is be good enough to give the tam a chance to win.

  • Zipdot

    “But it would be a hard-pressed mistake to assume that LaBarbera can’t challenge if given the opportunity, or that he will be hard-pressed by Richard Bachman to maintain the backup job. Bachman’s track record shows a perfectly good third-stringer who can fill-in as backup but has been hard-pressed to hold the job; LaBarbera meanwhile has been one of the league’s best backups. Meanwhile, LaBarbera may be typecast as a hard-pressed backup goalie, but the last four seasons have seen him held back by very strong starters – if hard-pressed Dubnyk doesn’t show himself a strong starter there’s little reason to think that LaBarbera will suddenly stop providing hard-pressed strong play.”