Maple Leafs’ Reimer showing unique ability

James Reimer’s career numbers aren’t all that, but look beyond the surface and you’ll find a player trending toward the NHL’s best.
November 5, 2013, 2:35 PM

Every time the Maple Leafs play, a debate rages on social media and in the hearts and minds of Leafs fans everywhere. Who’s the No. 1? Is it James Reimer or Jonathan Bernier? The prevailing thought among those who follow analytics is that Reimer is a better goalie than he gets credit for. But the question is simple: Can he be an elite goaltender?

The answer is complicated. It involves digging past the most readily available data to look at the quality of shots Reimer’s faced in his career, and hoping—if you’re in his camp—that he can maintain one seemingly unrepeatable skill. Still, the data is compelling.

Even-strength save percentage—the number favoured by the analytical world—suggests yes, Reimer is approaching elite status. On the basis of the past three seasons, his number is better than Carey Price’s and just a notch below Henrik Lundqvist and Tuukka Rask.

And yet, Toronto’s personnel moves during the summer—acquiring Bernier, who was drafted the same year, and giving him a larger contract—suggest the Leafs don’t believe in Reimer. With three years of data on Reimer at my disposal I was able to break down his performance and compare his success rate on clean, transition, deflected and rebound shots to that of the NHL average.

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The 3,000-shot sample indicates that Reimer is below average in all the categories except rebound-shot save percentage. For context’s sake, the graphic below shows how he stacks up against Price, Rask and Lundqvist, as well as Ondrej Pavelec, a poor goaltender statistically.

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Note: In my study I removed all phantom shots registered from the nhl.com data sets, so all goaltenders’ average save percentage will be lower than indicated on the stats page. 3000 shots is they typical workload of a starting goaltender over two seasons.

Reimer scores significantly below the elite goalies pretty much across the board. Even Price, with virtually identical even-strength and overall save percentages the past three seasons, is significantly above average in three of the five categories. But there’s a solid reason for Reimer’s seemingly poor numbers: his 2011-12 campaign drags them down, and although many argue that injuries were the problem, I am not going to blindly speculate, it is part of the sample and is included in the analysis.

With an expected average workload, Reimer’s numbers show him to be merely an average goaltender. But looking deeper into his underlying numbers paints a picture of a goaltender who is much improved from the 2010-11 rookie who posted a .933 even-strength save percentage.

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When charting the percentage of clean shots versus save percentage, Reimer’s ’10-11 campaign proves to be the result of an easier workload. During that season, 90 percent of the shots he faced were clean. When that clean number dropped in ’11-12 (his injury-plagued campaign), his overall save percentage followed. His clean-shots faced number continued to fall in ’12-13, yet his save percentage improved on his ’11-12 mark.

That begs the question of how? With a career save percentage of .618 on transition shots, limiting his exposure to only 4 percent (2.5 percent lower than the league average) helped inflate his save percentage during his rookie season.

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We can see in the above heat maps that Reimer was exposed to higher quality transition opportunities in 2011-12. In’10-11 if he faced the same shot rate as the next season, it would have resulted in 39 more transition shots. If we go with his career save percentage of .618 on transition shots, we are looking at an expected 13 goals added to his total. That is a significant number for a 1,115-shot sample.

If we look at his season-to-season progression, there is reason to believe his career numbers may not represent the goaltender he is showing himself to be in 2013-14.

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His clean save percentage remains fairly static, but his rebound and transition rates continue to improve.

All of this could be small-sample magic, but it is consistent in regards to most young goaltenders’ learning curves. The biggest adjustment a goaltender makes during the adjustment period to the NHL is the speed of the game. When overwhelmed by the pace, he is late tracking the puck and will trail the play. When that happens, he must rely on reflex and reaction. That leads him to play with less control and means more of a struggle to anticipate and read the play.

As a young goalie gains experience, he relies less on reflex and reaction saves because he tracks the puck better. This allows him to skate ahead of the play and employ a game plan. Reimer has quieted his game and with that his deflection and rebound save percentages have risen thanks to better positioning.

The Reimer of 2010-11 could not have survived the onslaught of rebound opportunities he faced in ’12-13—he saw twice the rebound opportunities, yet maintained the exact same goal rate.

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With a strong start to 2013-14, Reimer’s numbers have climbed to a point where he is not just a reliable NHL starter, but a good one. Even if he remains weak in transition, maintaining a dominant performance when faced with rebound shots will push him above the middle class. If we isolate his most recent performance and re-apply it to that of his peers, we see a goaltender who has approached the NHL’s elite over his past 1,200 shots.

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It is easy to overvalue a small sample. Mike Smith was able to approach this category over a 2,000-shot sample, but has descended back to the middle class over his past 1,400 shots.

The purpose of this project is to isolate why performance fluctuates. I found Reimer’s data interesting because traditional save-percentage analysis would show 2010-11 as equal to ’12-13, if not superior. Reimer’s underlying numbers provide us with some insight as to how a goaltender can be protected while producing elite numbers.

I am still skeptical that Reimer can maintain a +.800 save percentage on deflections and rebounds to offset his poor transition ability. Only five of the 30 goaltenders studied have been able to register a +.800 on rebounds and two of them (Price and Lundqvist) couldn’t maintain it the following season.

I still don’t consider him elite, but if—and it’s a big if—his rebound save-percentage is a repeatable skill and not a statistical anomaly, I’ll have to reevaluate.

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