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?
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.