5 Goalies With Something To Prove In 2015-2016
It takes an incredible amount of skill to even reach the NHL level, but with goaltenders, that skill needs to be proven every single year. There is only room for two goaltenders on each roster, and one gets to be the starter. It’s an incredibly competitive environment, which leaves no room for goaltenders that are inconsistent.
Some perennial all stars are given a break if they falter early on, or have a massive contract, but teams aren’t usually afraid to make a move if they are unhappy with the level of play that a goaltender is providing. Heading into the 2015-2016 season, some goalies will have a bit more to prove than others. These five goaltenders did not perform up to their ability last season, and will have a significantly shorter leash.
Ryan Miller – Vancouver Canucks
With Eddie Lack out of the picture, Ryan Miller will finally have a chance to take over as the full time starter with the Canucks in 2015-2016. At 35 years old, he’ll be the second-oldest starting goalie in the league when the season starts – next to the 36-year-old Roberto Luongo.
Despite being a former Vezina Trophy winner, and the Buffalo Sabres all-time leader in wins, Miller was forced to share the crease with Lack last season. He started only 45 games – the second lowest total of his entire career. The reduced playing time was also partly due to a serious knee injury that knocked him out until the final game of the regular season. The injury could not have come at a worse time for Miller, who was finally settling in with his new team’s system, on top of adjusting to a more conservative, positional game that he had been working on with goaltending coach Rollie Melanson. From the holiday break until the injury on February 22nd, Miller was 10-8-1 with a .922 save percentage and three shutouts. Looking at Miller’s advanced statistics, that stretch after Christmas also saw his high-danger save percentage increase to 88.43% compared to his season-long mark of 85.88%. His low-danger and medium-danger save percentages saw little-to-no change during that time, which proves that he was finally getting comfortable with the changes, and was making the difficult saves that he built his career around.
The adjustment period to his new team proved to be a long process, and some poor stretches early on ruined his season from a statistical standpoint. Even though his final 20 starts were strong, he would finish with a .911 save percentage – his worst mark since the 2007-2008 season. He also finished with a negative goals-saved-above-average for the first time in six years, allowing 4.75 more goals over the course of the season than a league-average goalie would have.
2015-2016 will be an enormous season for Miller, who must prove that he can still be the elite goaltender that the Canucks were expecting when they signed him. His $6-million contract has become a point of contention with fans that have been critical of GM Jim Benning’s recent moves, and a contract of that size certainly comes with an expectation of high-level play. It won’t be easy, considering he will be playing behind a Canucks’ defence that subtracted veteran Kevin Bieksa, and regulars Adam Clendening and Ryan Stanton this offseason. Miller’s rhythm-based style seems to work well when he’s playing behind a team that gives up more chances, but cast aside any hopes of him returning to the glory days of his prime. Even though he’s another year older, an expectation of slightly above league-average goaltending next season from Miller seems much more appropriate.
Kari Lehtonen – Dallas Stars
Playing on a team with as much offense as the Dallas Stars should be every goaltender’s dream, but it turned into a nightmare for Kari Lehtonen. After starting the season with so much promise, things quickly fell apart. A number of weak performances culminated in late February, leading to Head Coach Lindy Ruff’s proclamation that the “goaltending has been tough on our team.”
That frustration was not unwarranted, as Lehtonen posted a .903 save percentage on the season – his worst mark since his rookie season with the Atlanta Thrashers in 2005-2006. It was also the first time in Lehtonen’s 11-year career that he cost his team more goals against than a league-average goaltender. He did it in style, accumulating a whopping -20.96 GSAA – good for second-worst in the entire league.
Placing the entire blame on Lehtonen would be unfair, though. The Stars, while gifted offensively, play a very back-and-forth game. That leads to an increased amount of chances at both sides of the rink. They averaged 117.7 Corsi events (for and against) per game, which was tops in the league. New Jersey, at the other end of the scale, allowed only 95.6 per game. That can be tough on a goaltender, and it began to show its’ effects on Lehtonen as the season wore on. Comparing his adequate 2013-2014 season to 2014-2015, one thing immediately jumps out on the advanced stat page. His low-danger and medium-danger save percentages were almost identical (differences of +0.19% and -0.94% respectively). His save percentage on high-danger chances, on the other hand, dropped from 86.78% to 81.89%. Practically his entire drop in save percentage during 5-on-5 play came on high-danger shot scenarios. Even more puzzling is the fact that he faced 13 less high-danger opportunities this past season.
While this seemingly random drop off in play looks like an easy candidate for the “goalies are voodoo” crowd to jump in, there is an easy explanation. Lehtonen is now 31 years old, which is past his prime by goaltender’s standards. Dropping almost 5% on high-danger opportunities seems extreme, but it may indicate that changes to his game are desperately needed. As an aggressive, athletic goaltender, the answer may be to tone it back a little bit. As he slows down, it will become harder and harder to recover from over-aggressive positioning. He will be working with the Stars’ new goaltending coach Jeff Reese, after Mike Valley was re-assigned within the organization. Reese encountered some of the same issues with Flyers’ goaltender Steve Mason, and simplifying his game paid off incredibly well. In a perfect scenario, Reese will have the same effect on Lehtonen.
The Stars are hoping that bringing in countrymate Antti Niemi will force Lehtonen to feel pressure that his job is on the line. The two goalies hope to build off each other and work together as a team. If they don’t, the highest-paid goaltending tandem in the league could be in for another long season in Dallas.
Mike Smith – Arizona Coyotes
The Arizona Coyotes had an idea of the type of goaltender that Devan Dubnyk had turned into when they traded him to Minnesota, but decided to make the deal anyway. The unfortunate truth is that the trade had more to do with the situation that Mike Smith’s contract has put the team in than anything else. Since signing his mega six-year, $34M contract, Smith hasn’t been able to recapture his 2011-2012 form. Last season was the worst of his career since his days with the Tampa Bay Lightning, but he will actually receive a $500,000 raise heading into 2015-2016. With all of that in mind, there may still be some light at the end of the tunnel.
Even with his struggles, Smith proved to be a workhorse for the Coyotes, playing in 60+ games for the fourth straight year (if you pro-rate the lockout season). On top of that, he decided to head to the World Championships when the season concluded, and showed no signs of slowing down. Appearing in 10 games with the gold medal-winning Canadian team, he proved to be one of the best goaltenders in the tournament. He would allow only 12 goals in those 10 games, picking up two shutouts and posting a sparkling .930 save percentage.
The real optimism should come from Smith’s strong performance in the final 15 games of the regular season with the Coyotes. Despite being pulled in his second-to-last start, Smith stopped 508 of the 546 shots he saw in the final weeks. That’s good for a .930 save percentage, the same mark that he would reach at the World Championships.
While it is well known that the Coyotes give up a lot of shots, they were also one of the worst five teams in the league for the number of high-danger shots given up. Usually, high-danger save percentage is a strength of Smith’s. He averaged a high-danger save percentage of 87.43% in his first three seasons with the Coyotes, but that dropped all the way down to 81.13% last season. In the final 15 games of the regular season, when his game turned a corner, his high-danger save percentage was 89.66%. His adjusted save percentage was 95.5%, which would have led the league if he kept it up for the entire year.
Although a 15 game sample size isn’t much, one season isn’t a large sample either. Mike Smith is much more likely perform at a level that is closer to his career average than what he displayed for half of a season in 2014-2015. If the last 15 games are any indication, he still has a lot of hockey left in him – the only difference is now he will have to prove himself again on a Coyotes team that likely became weaker in the offseason. With Sean Burke moving on from the organization, they brought in John Elkin as the on-ice goaltending instructor. Smith should be very comfortable heading into next season, having worked with Elkin before. Hopefully he can build off his late-season success, gold medal with Canada, and familiarity with Elkin to return to his usual form.
Cam Ward – Carolina Hurricanes
Cam Ward is arguably the goaltender on this list with the most to prove next season. Heading into a contract year, Ward will now have to battle with the recently-acquired Eddie Lack for ice time. That’s a substantial upgrade over Anton Khudobin, who he had previously been competing with. The Hurricanes have also been quietly assembling one of the best cores of young prospect goaltenders in preparation of Ward moving on. Alex Nedeljkovic (18), Rasmus Tirronen (37), and Callum Booth (39) were all ranked on InGoal‘s top 50 goaltending prospects list from earlier this month. While most of those prospects are still a few years away from reaching the NHL at the very least, the real competition will come from Lack – a goalie that is also playing for a new contract.
Most goaltenders don’t improve much after turning 30, but there is a case to be made for Ward. Admittedly, he became quite lazy as the incumbent starter with the Hurricanes, and did not adapt his game as time went on. A recently renewed focus on training, both off the ice and on it, should give fans some hope that he could at least resemble a league-average goaltender in the near future. It’s unlikely he will ever return to the glory days of his age 24-27 seasons, but he should be playing some inspired hockey to try and get back to that point.
On the statistical side, 2014-2015 was probably his most successful season since turning 28. Although he achieved better traditional goaltending stats, his advanced stats show that his performance has stagnated over the last four seasons. His high, medium, and low danger save percentages, as well as adjusted save percentage have all stayed within 1 or 2 percentage points of the previous season.
With the high-end talent that everyone knows Ward possesses, the hope should be that he can work with David Marcoux to make simple modern day tweaks and changes to simplify his normally-aggressive style. If he is able to restructure his technique, his ability could put him over the edge and help him reclaim his status as the starter in Carolina. His $6.8M contract is less-than-ideal, but if he hopes to see a number even close to that next season – now is the time to make a statement.
Ben Scrivens – Edmonton Oilers
It’s hard to believe that, at the beginning of the season, many people expected the Oilers to compete in 2014-2015. Scrivens’ debut as the full-time starter in Edmonton could not have gone worse, as he had easily the worst statistical season of his short career. The 28-year-old was saddled with the unsavory title of having the league’s worst goals-saved-above-average. According to the statistic, he allowed 38.39 more goals against than a league-average goaltender would have in his position. There’s no denying it; Scrivens and the Oilers hit rock bottom.
That failed season led to mass changes on the executive side of the organization, but it also prompted the team to acquire Cam Talbot from the New York Rangers, and sign Anders Nilsson away from the KHL on a one-way contract. Three goaltenders on one-way contracts is a guaranteed recipe for fierce competition, but that’s exactly what the Oilers want. Talbot, who is coming off a fantastic season in New York, certainly has the inside edge on the competition. It will be up to Scrivens to find a way to earn his job back.
The reason for Scrivens’ struggles are hard to pin down. At 28.69, he actually faced the least amount of shots/60 of any season in his career. He had never played on a team that gave up less than 31 shots per 60 minutes prior to last season. The problems may stem from the fact that the Oilers do in fact give up a lot of high-danger opportunities, and Scrivens has never posted very strong high-danger save percentage numbers in his 129-game career – which is, again, not much of a sample size. It’s not the quantity of shots that the Oilers are giving up in front of him, it’s the quality.
Of all the goaltenders on this list, Scrivens’ future looks the bleakest. He has never really proven himself in the NHL, and failed his first test as a starter. Solid AHL numbers prove that the talent is there, but he’ll have to work his way back from the bottom if he wants to get another chance to prove it. With the pressure moving onto Talbot’s shoulders, the attention that the media will provide with Connor McDavid in town, and contract negotiations looming at the end of the season – Scrivens will have no shortage of inspiration to perform heading into 2015-2016.
*All of the advanced statistics used in this article exclude special teams play, and are expressed in 5-on-5 form.
Data was provided by War-On-Ice.com – a fantastic resource for hockey fans and analysts alike.