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Shutting the door: The impact of a team’s system on goaltending performance

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Was the rotating cast of Canadiens backups in recent years a sign that things weren’t quite right?

NHL: Arizona Coyotes at Montreal Canadiens Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

What are the effects of a team’s system on the performance of its goaltenders? Can a good system make an average goaltender put up better numbers than he would otherwise? Will a poor structure make even an elite goalie seem like a middle-of-the-pack netminder?

These are difficult question to get a conclusive answer for. There are too many variables.

In last year’s debacle of a season for the Montreal Canadiens, the numbers suggested that goaltending was a contributing factor. The numbers were not presented with an explanation of how they came to be what they were, they were just displayed as cold, hard fact.

Some blamed the goaltender himself. Mike Condon was an easy target to place the goat horns on for an epic collapse that saw the Habs go from first in the league to outside of a playoff position.

The response from the management team was to add a veteran backup in the off-season, all but sealing Condon’s fate and bringing his Canadiens career to a close.

A slow start in the pre-season was enough to get Condon placed on waivers, and ultimately snatched up by a Pittsburgh Penguins team battling injuries.

The same situation had played out the season before, in which Dustin Tokarski found himself as the odd man out, losing his spot to Condon. The year before, it was Tokarski who wrenched the backup job away from Peter Budaj after the Slovakian struggled on the way to the Habs’ playoff run.

So why did these backup goaltenders come in, beat out others for the right to backup Carey Price, and then find themselves as third-stringers after a single season or less? Did the Habs get lucky and have successively better players coming in to the team each year, or is something else at play?

The idea that the former backups simply weren’t good enough to maintain an NHL spot doesn’t really hold when looking at this year’s goaltending stats.

Rank Goaltender Team GS W L OTL Sv% GAA SO
Rank Goaltender Team GS W L OTL Sv% GAA SO
1 Braden Holtby WSH 45 30 8 5 0.927 1.99 7
1 Peter Budaj LAK 51 27 20 3 0.917 2.12 7
3 Tuukka Rask BOS 48 28 14 4 0.912 2.28 6
4 Devan Dubnyk MIN 46 32 11 3 0.933 2.01 5
4 John Gibson ANA 45 23 15 8 0.922 2.24 5
4 Cam Talbot EDM 54 31 16 7 0.921 2.36 5
4 Mike Condon PIT/OTT 31 17 10 5 0.913 2.47 5
8 Craig Anderson OTT 23 15 7 1 0.927 2.34 4
8 Carter Hutton STL 16 9 7 2 0.907 2.52 4
10 Philipp Grubauer WSH 14 10 4 2 0.932 1.98 3
10 Matt Murray PIT 32 22 7 3 0.926 2.27 3
10 Sergei Bobrovsky CBJ 47 31 13 3 0.925 2.21 3
10 Thomas Greiss NYI 34 20 11 3 0.920 2.43 3
10 Ryan Miller VAN 37 16 17 3 0.917 2.61 3
10 Frederik Andersen TOR 49 24 13 11 0.915 2.76 3
10 Chad Johnson CGY 32 17 13 1 0.912 2.55 3
10 Connor Hellebuyck WPG 40 20 15 3 0.910 2.79 3
18 Scott Darling CHI 21 14 5 2 0.928 2.19 2
18 Robin Lehner BUF 42 17 17 6 0.925 2.54 2
18 Antti Raanta NYR 16 11 5 0 0.920 2.32 2
18 Carey Price MTL 46 25 16 5 0.918 2.43 2
18 Corey Crawford CHI 40 24 13 3 0.917 2.58 2
18 Pekka Rinne NSH 46 23 15 6 0.916 2.48 2
18 Mike Smith ARI 40 16 17 6 0.915 2.92 2
18 Henrik Lundqvist NYR 44 28 14 2 0.914 2.58 2
18 Cory Schneider NJD 45 19 18 8 0.914 2.61 2
18 Al Montoya MTL 15 7 5 3 0.913 2.56 2
18 Martin Jones SJS 50 28 15 6 0.913 2.34 2
18 Calvin Pickard COL 31 10 19 2 0.909 2.88 2
18 Andrei Vasilevskiy TBL 29 11 13 5 0.909 2.81 2
18 Cam Ward CAR 48 21 19 7 0.904 2.66 2
18 Jake Allen STL 43 22 16 3 0.903 2.67 2
18 Jared Coreau DET 13 5 3 3 0.893 3.27 2

The list above is sorted by shutouts. That particular event doesn't say everything about a game’s quality, but can give you an idea of how tight the system is.

Under Claude Julien, Tuukka Rask had five shutouts this year. Budaj, who was cast off from Montreal is now sharing the league lead, with seven. Condon has notched four shutouts with the Ottawa Senators this year, thrust into a starting role in a manner not unlike what he experienced in his rookie season.

I'm not claiming that those former backups are in the running for the Vezina Trophy. In fact, all three of those players listed above rank outside of the top 10 in save percentage among goalies to play at least 25 games.

Craig Anderson has four shutouts in just 23 starts, and his other stats are better than Condon’s. Together, the shutout numbers suggest that the system put in place by Guy Boucher in his first year behind the Senators’ bench is having a big impact on his goalies’ performances.

Under Michel Therrien, all the backup goalies looked like they were out of their depth, and a reprisal of the role for a second season was a rare feat. For a short period of time each looked great, but maybe the pressure — not from fans and media, but from the system — made them crack.

By contrast, Price’s performance in net was so outstanding that he swept all the awards a goaltender is eligible for in 2014-15. Maybe it took five years for an elite goatender to collapse, as Price seemed to have done at the turn of the new year.

Goaltending is not active, but reactive, and I believe that it's greatly dependent on the system despite all the credit we give to individuals. Now that the Habs have changed their coach we will see how things will turn out.