During training camp, Mike Condon was in a battle with Dustin Tokarski for the Montreal Canadiens backup goaltender role. At the time, that competition seemed relatively unimportant, as the prize for the victor would be sitting on the bench most nights, watching the player that had put on one of the greatest goaltending performances in NHL history in his last campaign.
In the end, Condon won the job, with his greater size and more composed play in the net standing out from Tokarski's pre-season showing.
The new backup captured attention in his first few starts, holding his own and contributing two of the franchise-best nine wins the Canadiens achieved to start the season. Even once the team's streak was broken in a hard-luck game versus the Vancouver Canucks, Condon's remained alive, going on to record two more wins in consecutive starts that weekend to run his personal win streak to four games.
The reason for those back-to-back starts was an injury that Carey Price sustained before a game versus the Edmonton Oilers. Despite starting (and finishing) the game, Price ended up missing three weeks of action while recovering from the ailment, providing Condon's rapid ascent through the professional ranks another stage of boost.
It took until his fifth game to suffer his first NHL defeat. He did not let in more than two goals until his eighth start, and left the rink with no standings points from his efforts for the first time after game nine. The culmination of that run had Condon being named the NHL's third star in the first week of his emergency promotion to starter.
A re-aggravation of Price's injury has handed that role to Condon for a significantly longer period of time, and he has now given up at least three goals in seven of his last nine games. The dropoff from his incredible start has been coupled with a lack of scoring brought about by a few key injuries up front and more realistic conversion rates from David Desharnais, Tomas Fleischmann, and Dale Weise. Those two phenomena have conspired to turn a team that couldn't lose at the beginning of the season into one that has had a hard time coming out on the winning end of hockey games. In Condon's last nine starts the team has achieved just three wins, and he is currently sporting his first streak of consecutive regulation losses.
The change in the team's fortunes has brought about questions of whether Condon is capable of carrying the load in Price's absence. To answer that, we can take a look at his stats from the first 17 games of his NHL career.
His overall stats are very good, ranking 25th in the league (all stats as of the end of Saturday's games) in save percentage at .913, combining with his team's defensive play to hold the 12th-best goals against average so far this season. (Carey Price sits fourth and seventh in those categories, respectively)
Image credit: WAR On Ice blog (follow link for explanation on adjusted save percentage)
Looking at just five-on-five numbers, Condon's record of stopping 93.1% of full-stength shots he faces is 24th best among the top 60 goaltenders by time on ice. When weighting shots by their danger of becoming goals, the resulting adjusted save percentage of .935 slots even higher at 21st. His 1.81 goals against per sixty minutes of five-on-five time ranks 19th; five positions higher than Price's 1.86.
A main reason for those good numbers is his effectiveness at stopping low-danger shots, ranking sixth with his percentage of perimeter shots saved; first among all goalies who have played seven games or more. While that may not sound all that important, it does mean Condon is not putting a strain on his team by allowing shots from non-scoring areas to put his team on the back foot, as thirteen second-string goaltenders who sit 43rd or lower in this category do for their team.
More impressive, however, is Condon's ability to turn aside the shots from right in front of the crease. While the Canadiens defenders do a fair job of preventing that type of shot (14th in the league in high-danger chances allowed), Condon ranks 10th among the top 60 in high-danger save percentage at .887, right behind Henrik Lundqvist and Marc-Andre Fleury, and ahead of Cory Schneider, Braden Holtby, and even Price.
While he has top-10 numbers on the most- and least-threatening shots, where Condon seems to struggle is in his ability to thwart medium-danger chances.
His .893 save percentage on shots from the mid-to-high slot and between the faceoff dots ranks 53rd, and is just slightly better than his high-danger rate. In his last nine games, he's actually been less effective at stopping those mid-range shots (.841) than he has the in-tight ones (.853).
A significant reason for that odd circumstance quite possibly stems from Condon's poor rebound control, kicking pucks out to the slot and spilling shots off his glove and blocker to the side of his net, as was the case Saturday night on Jeff Skinner's game-winning power-play goal.
Image credit: SportingCharts.com
This flaw in his game may be seen as a serious enough issue to necessitate the acquisition of a more stable goaltender to hold the fort in Price's absence. It is important to remember that Condon is a backup NHL goaltender, forced into a medium-term starter's role by a significant injury.
Every goaltender in the second-string rankings (31-60) allows at least two goals during every 60 minutes of five-on-five game action. In fact, only 27 goaltenders average fewer than that amount.
Condon is not the only backup goaltender in the under-2.00 group, but, limiting the sample to 240 minutes of five-on-five time played to remove goalies with very few starts or who mainly play after a goalie change, there are just five number-twos who have performed better than Condon to this point in the season.
What's clear is that Mike Condon is a more-than-capable backup goaltender with an issue controlling the puck. He is not Carey Price, and cannot be expected to post the same stingy numbers as the world's best goaltender. The Canadiens have gotten by in recent seasons thanks to their goaltender covering up the team's weaknesses. Now the man in net needs the team in front of him to return that favour.