Saturday, August 18, 2007

Benchmarks, Part VI -- Goaltending

Next up in this look at benchmarks, it’s goaltending…

This is not a look at individual goaltenders, trying to compare Olaf Kolzig to his fellow number one netminders in the league. It is more of a “Jennings” look at goaltenders. The Jennings award, according to the citation at, “is an annual award given to the goalkeeper(s) having played a minimum of 25 games for the team with the fewest goals scored against it.”

BENCHMARK: Minnesota – Niklas Backstrom (no, not that one) and Manny Fernandez

This is something of an odd and, for the Caps (if they’re lucky), unattainable one. Why? Well, who was the number one, and who was the backup? In the playoffs, the number one was Backstrom, but in the regular season? Backstrom had 41 appearances, while Fernandez had 44. The balance extended to several other measures, too:

Minutes played: Fernandez – 2,422/Backstrom – 2,227
Shots Faced: Fernandez – 1,158/Backstrom – 1,028
Wins: Backstrom – 23/Fernandez – 22

But this is very misleading. Of Fernandez’ 44 appearances, only one came after January 30th, the product of a knee injury. Given that opening, Backstrom stormed into it. After January 30th, Backstrom was 18-3-3, 1.95, .921, over the remainder of the regular season.

It was an odd set of circumstances that resulted in such statistical balance, yet such a clear difference between the first and second halves of the year for the Minnesota goaltending pair. But if anything, it points out the need for a reliable backup who can eat minutes. A team aspiring to a playoff position does not always have the luxury of having a Martin Brodeur and a baseball cap at the end of the bench (with apologies to Scott Clemmensen, who bolted New Jersey for Toronto, where he won’t be the number one – or the number two, unless the Leafs move a goalie -- but where he might get more than the odd game every other month).

There is a certain nobility to the notion of the “iron man,” but the days of Glenn Hall are long over. Of the top ten goalies in games played in the regular season last year, three did not make the playoffs (Andrew Raycroft, Dwayne Roloson, and Tim Thomas). Of the seven who made the playoffs, four didn’t make it past the first round. Two others (Lundqvist, Luongo) who defeated top-ten goalies in the first round lost in the second round.

Between the finalists for the Stanley Cup, Jean-Sebastien Giguere played “only” 56 games in the regular season for Anaheim, and Ray Emery 58 games for Ottawa. Whatever the circumstances surrounding those goalies (injury, excellent overall supporting cast), they were fresher in June than might have been the case if they had played 70-plus games.

These days, while settling on one goaltender is the preferred formula for the playoffs, having two goalies who can provide quality time appears to be an essential ingredient for success in the regular season to get a club to the playoffs. While Minnesota came about that in a somewhat roundabout way, the Wild did manage to make the playoffs, largely on what their “backup” did for them.

Capitals (projected) – Olaf Kolzig, Brent Johnson

Kolzig has been a minutes-eater since assuming the number one responsibilities in 1997-1998. Since taking over the top-spot, his per-season endurance numbers look like this:

Games: 65
Minutes: 3,830
Shots faced: 1,865
Shots faced-per-60 minutes: 29.2

However, it is interesting to note that since the 1999-2000 season, Kolzig’s numbers have decreased each year in two relevant areas:

Games: from 73 to 54
Minutes: from 4,371 to 3,184

Couple that with the fact that Kolzig will be 38 on the day after the regular season ends, and it is apparent that the Caps are going to have to get production from the backup goaltending position, if not have a backup who can assume the top job for significant stretches.

Is Brent Johnson that backup? Well, it seems his tenure with the Caps has been something like the little girl with the curl…when he’s been good, he’s been very good. And when he's been bad...

Overall with the Caps, Johnson is 15-27-8, 3.53, .897. These are not bad, but neither are they comforting statistics, even for a number-two goaltender. But in 56 games in which he’s played over the past two seasons, Johnson has registered 15 games in which he allowed or was on a pace to allow two or fewer goals. The trouble is, he’s also had 16 games in which he allowed or was on a pace to allow five or more goals. Last year, which serves as the benchmark, he was eight games on the good side and seven games on the bad side of that comparison in 30 total games. By way of comparison, Kolzig was 22 and 8 last year.

It’s difficult to generate a lot of consistency when your work is infrequent and intermittent. But there is a window into Johnson’s performance when he gets more consistent work. From February 15 – March 12, Johnson played in 12 of 13 games the Caps played (corresponding to Kolzig’s knee injury). Over that period, he was 1-8-2 (one no-decision), 3.47, .886. The latter two numbers are not all that different from his season numbers of 3.61, .889. But only twice in that span did Johnson allow or play on a pace to allow five or more goals. Four times did he give up two or fewer. He was more consistent around his season numbers, and that’s the good news.

There has been a lot of focus on Johnson in this benchmark, but that is because unless Kolzig simply forgets how to strap on his pads (he should be a constant in the games he plays), Johnson is the key. Playoff aspirants can’t afford to give away games when the number one goaltender isn’t on the ice. If one looks at the 16 teams that made the playoffs last year, here are the principal backups and their records:

Buffalo: Ty Conklin (16 games, 3-5-2, 3.34, .879)
New Jersey: Scott Clemmensen (6 games, 1-1-2, 3.15, .889)
Atlanta: Johan Hedberg (21 games, 9-4-2, 2.89, .898)
Ottawa: Martin Gerber (29 games, 15-9-3, 2.78, .906)
Pittsburgh: Jocelyn Thibault (22 games, 8-7-2, 2.83, .909)
NY Rangers: Kevin Weekes (14 games, 4-6-2, 3.39, .879)
Tampa Bay: Marc Denis (44 games, 17-18-2, 3.19, .883)
NY Islanders: Mike Dunham (19 games, 4-10-3, 3.74, .889)
Detroit: Chris Osgood (21 games, 11-3-6, 2.38, .907)
Anaheim: Ilya Bryzgalov (27 games, 10-8-6, 2.47, .907)
Vancouver: Dany Sabourin (9 games, 2-4-1, 3.70, .906)
Nashville: Chris Mason (40 games, 24-11-4, 2.38, .925)
San Jose: Vesa Toskala (38 games, 26-10-1, 2.35, .908)
Dallas: Mike Smith (23 games, 12-5-2, 2.23, .912)
Minnesota: Niklas Backstrom (41 games, 23-8-6, 1.97, .929)
Calgary: Jamie McLennan (9 games, 3-5-1, 3.60, .895)

Johnson is certainly not the worst if included in that group, but there are some facts to note here (and yes, there is a chicken-and-the-egg element to it):

-- None of the ten goalies who played more than 20 games in this group (except for Marc Denis, who was demoted) had a below-.500 record.

-- None of the ten goalies who played more than 20 games (again, except Denis) had a goal-against of more than 3.00

-- Only two of the ten goalies in this group who played more than 20 games had a save percentage below .900 (Denis and Johan Hedberg)

Minnesota got spectacular play from a player thought to be a backup. So good, in fact, that the “starter” is now in Boston. But the point is that if a backup is going to be playing significant time, and the history of the past several years with the Caps indicates that he will, then he needs to provide a consistent (despite his still intermittent appearances) level of play. Johnson will need to improve on his numbers for the Caps to have realistic playoff aspirations. Part of that will be the improvement in the play around him – the Caps did upgrade at several positions and should see further development at others. Part of that will be Johnson improving, too. That could be the key to solid overall goaltending this year.


Anonymous said...

As it always has been, a large percent of any team's won-loss record will be determined by the quality of their goal tending. Let's hope Ollie has a remarkable year and Brent has a better than average one.

Anonymous said...

As it always has been, a large percent of any team's won-loss record will be determined by the quality of their goal tending. Let's hope Olie has a remarkable year and Brent has a better than average one.