Sunday, January 07, 2018

Washington Capitals: Half and Half - Comparing Seasons at the Half-Way Mark, Part IV

The last part of the comparison of last year’s first half to this year’s focuses on the goaltenders.  It is a position that closely resembles that of pitchers in baseball or quarterbacks in football. They get a lot of the focus and probably too much credit when things go well and too much blame when they don’t.  But from first half to first half, how did the years compare for Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer?

The Tandem

(click on image for a larger version)

The Caps have been lucky in an important respect the last two years.  Many people thought the Holtby/Grubauer tandem was the best pair in the NHL last season, but of particular benefit to the club is that they were a tandem, the only goaltenders the Caps employed last season and this.  This is, so far, the third season in a row in which the Caps have employed two, and only two goaltenders, Holtby and Grubauer.  These three seasons are the only ones in the post-2004-2005 lockout era for the Caps when they used just two goalies.  The last time the Caps used just two goalies in a season before this pair was in 1999-2000 when Olaf Kolzig and Craig Billington split the duties.

As a pair, the two have combined for a goals against average and a save percentage that, frankly, is quite a fall-off from last season, the combined goals against average rising from 1.91 to 2.68 and the save percentage dropping from .931 to .915.  Not that these numbers are bad.  If they were ranked among the rest of the goaltenders in the league with at least 500 minutes, they would be almost smack in the middle, the GAA ranking 29th and the save percentage ranking 28th.

As one might expect, the pair has been victimized for bunches of goals more often this year over last.  So far this season, the pair has allowed three or more goals in a game 20 times versus 12 at this point last season.  Further, the goaltending tandem did not allow more than four goals in any game in the first half last season.  So far this season they have done so four times in 41 games with a high of eight (Grubauer in an 8-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on October 14th).  Conversely, the pair allowed one or no goals 15 times in the first 41 games last season with six shutouts.  However, so far this season that number is 11 with one shutout, and the Caps lost that game (1-0 to the New York Rangers in a Gimmick on December 27th).

Not that it has been their entire fault (this is the “too much blame” area).  As a pair, Holtby and Grubauer have faced almost 100 more shots at even strength this year over last (1,049 versus 958).  Yes, the goals allowed at evens are up (from 57 to 79), but it is still a heavier workload with which they must deal that dropped the ES save percentage from .941 last season to .925 this season.  The problem is more evident when the Caps are shorthanded.  The save percentage of the pair is almost unchanged from last season (from .873 to .875), but they have faced more than a third more shots on opponents’ power plays (from 145 last season to 196 this year), causing the goals to go up by a third (from 21 to 28).

But what might be most noteworthy is just how each goaltender has seen his numbers move in similar directions.

Number One

If there are two words to reflect the first half for number one goaltender Braden Holtby this season, they would be “shots matter.”  Holtby has logged more than 160 fewer minutes in the first half over last season’s first half (from 1954 minutes to 1793), but he has faced almost 60 more shots (from 906 to 962).  On a per-60 minutes basis it is the difference between facing 27.8 shots per 60 minutes last season and 32.2 this season.

The odd part of that shot increase is that it has not been as much a product of even strength increases as it is what he has faced when the Caps are shorthanded.  He has faced only six more shots at evens (779 versus 773).  However, he has faced 164 shots from opponents’ power plays versus 116 at a comparable point last season, an increase of more than 40 percent.  Holtby’s save percentage when the Caps are shorthanded is actually better than last year (.884 versus .853) but he has allowed two more goals (19 versus 17).  Meanwhile, his even strength save percentage has dropped quite a bit, from .943 to .926.

Facing so many shots on a night-to-night basis makes it difficult to keep opponents off the board entirely, and this is reflected in Holtby’s shutout numbers.  At this point last season he had five clean sheets on his record.  This season so far, none.

One area in which Holtby has improved a lot, and arguably entire to his credit and his coaches, is in the Gimmick.  Through the first half last season he allowed nine goals on 14 shots, a .357 save percentage, on his way to losing all four of his trick shot decisions.  This season he stopped eight of nine shots in the first half (.889) and won all three decisions on his record.

The Number One in Waiting

One of the subplots to this season is the question of whether Philipp Grubauer will finally become a number one goaltender after this season.  Somewhere else.  Grubauer is a restricted free agent with arbitration eligibility after this season.  In essence, this season is an audition with the possibility that he will be moved sometime between now and the NHL Draft next summer. 

So how has that audition gone?  It isn’t a clear, cut and dried verdict.  Grubauer struggled to open the season, going 0-2-1, 4.67, .850 in his first four appearances.  But since then, he has a goals against average of 1.86 and a save percentage of .936 with one shutout in nine appearances.  He is, once more, perhaps the best backup in the league.  Not that he has much to show for it in wins and losses.  In those nine appearances he is just 2-3-2.

Overall, comparing his first half over first half, this year and last, his numbers track with Holtby’s overall.  His goals against average is up by a similar margin (from 1.94 to 2.70), and his save percentage has dropped in similar fashion (form .929 to .909).  Unlike Holtby, though, it is not his even strength save percentage that has suffered as much (from .930 to .922) as it is his save percentage defending opponents’ power plays (from .920 to .850).  But he, too, is facing more rubber, just as is Holtby, though not to the same degree.  His shots faced per 60 minutes has risen from 27.2 in the first half last season to 29.8 so far this season.

If Grubauer has settled into a more consistently productive role, as was his performance last season, he will no doubt get attention from teams seeking to upgrade their goaltending.  But more relevant for Caps fans, it would mean no drop off when Braden Holtby gets a break, and that can’t be bad news for Caps fans.

In the end…

If you had a sliding scale that at one end said “goalie performance” and at the other said “skater performance” and sought to place the marker in an appropriate place to reflect the drop in goaltending performance numbers, it would not lie at either end.  Nor would it be precisely in the middle, if we were determining an appropriate resting point.  The Caps have not been able to keep opponents at bay when it comes to denying shots on goal.  Both goaltenders have faced increased volumes of shots on a per-60 minutes basis, and both goaltenders have seen a higher goals against average and a lower save percentage, both in similar degrees, from last year’s first half.  Not that the goaltending has been as consistently sharp as last season, but we would set that marker on the scale closer to the skater end than the goaltender end.  But was we noted, the goalie gets perhaps too much credit for things going well and too much blame for those times when things don’t go so well.

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