In less than three weeks the NHL trade deadline will be upon us, which shapes just about every conversation around teams both good and bad.
Bad team? The thinking becomes “time to sell off and aim for the future,” and so every player undergoes intense evaluation and prognostication. How old is the player, and are they expected to improve or decline? Can they help a team win today? How much do they earn, and how many years are left on their deal?
It becomes a player-by-player, full-roster nitpick. Sure, J.T. Miller is great. But with a cheap deal that has another year left on it, and at 28 years old (apparently this doesn’t qualify as young in pro sports anymore), he has massive value and maybe his prime (and eventual need for a new deal) doesn’t line up with the Canucks’ plan of being Cup contenders in three or four years. And so, his name is in rumours, whether he gets moved or not.
For contending teams, the nitpicking starts at the team level. Where are we weak, and what improvements would help us most? Those teams don’t want to ship guys out, but instead hope to spend other assets to add to what’s already in place.
Because the “good” teams are already “good,” they’re usually paying up to the cap and their needs aren’t usually for elite, top-end players at many positions. These are teams trying to fill in, which usually sounds like, “We need a solid middle-pair D and a depth forward with some grit.”
Oh, and goalies. Among the good teams, just about everybody’s worried about goaltending.
In the front offices of some very good teams there are conversations that sound something like, “We’re one of the eight or so teams with a legit shot at winning the Cup … but is our goaltending good enough?”
In Toronto, Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek are giving people fits. The team has been winning, but since the first week in December, presumptive starter Jack Campbell has posted a save percentage of .890. Meanwhile, Mrazek, who goaltends with the energy of Dénis Lemieux in Slap Shot, is still at an .895 through 13 starts.
Does it matter that Campbell’s save percentage on the year is .917, or that he’s 23-8-4 on the season? Or that he was a .934 in a seven-game playoff series last year? Does it matter that Mrazek is showing signs of coming around? It does not. Not in Toronto anyway, where they’ve gotten good enough goaltending to win numerous playoff rounds in the past, but have blown it in other ways (the save percentage of their post-season starters the past three seasons: .922, .936, .934). The thought of being good enough in every way now except goaltending has the fear-o-meter nearly maxed all the way out in Toronto.
What follows is not a reason for the Leafs or their fans to feel any better about that potential, but to at least realize that, hey, you’re not alone. Have you had a look at the goaltending of the best teams in the league? Or around the league in general?
You know who’s comfortable that their goaltending is good enough to win a Stanley Cup? It’s like Tampa Bay and nobody else. Lots of teams think they have a guy who can get it done, and they may well be right. But mostly, teams have guys who’ve been good over large career sample sizes and then crossing their fingers thinking, “I hope we get that version of the guy when it matters most.” What you see below is a table that goes back to the 2014-15 season, and shows some interesting goaltending statistics. Look at the far right category and start at the bottom, then work your way up to this year.
Across the NHL, league-wide save percentage is falling year-by-year, with this season being under .910 like 2020-21.
Now look at the category labelled “G” for goals. This season teams are averaging a staggering 3.07 goals per game, which is the highest in the NHL since the 2005-06 season where they called a billion penalties and nobody put their stick on anyone. Other than that year, you gotta go back to 1995-96 to see goals per game so high.
Power-play success rates are above 20 per cent for the third time in five seasons. To find a season above 20 per cent prior to that, you have to go back to 1989-90. Offences have become ruthlessly efficient.
My point is, teams score now, and so if it feels like your team gets scored on more than you’re used to, it’s because most every team gets scored on more than it used to. A combined team save percentage like the Leafs have – .907 – would’ve felt awful in 2016. In 2022, it’s 14th in the NHL. So look around the league and pick out who’s saying “we’ve got zero questions about our crease.” Here are the eight-best teams sorted by winning percentage as of March 2, 2022:
Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up. Pittsburgh is in a “go for it” year with an aging Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. Does Tristan Jarry make them feel comfortable? Of course they’d say he does, he’s got a .921 save percentage this season. But he was a .909 last year and he’s only seen seven playoff games – he has an .894 save percentage in those.
The Flames have Jakob Markstrom, one of the NHL’s best goalies. Likely Vezina finalist. Tough to be more comfortable than that. Of course, he’s been in the NHL for 13 years, and made the playoffs once, winning a play-in series and one round. They’re comfortable, but it’s not like he’s proven-proven.
The Blues have Jordan Binnington, who’s won a Cup, but he’s not been very good this season, posting a .904 save percentage. Their backup, Ville Husso, looks great, but he’s played 37 total NHL games and none in the playoffs. The Blues have to be awfully uncomfortable about their position in net.
The Leafs have that combined .907 I mentioned. Campbell has a career .918 save percentage, and Mrazek’s is .910. But we’ve all seen them lately, so of course the team isn’t comfortable.
The Panthers have Sergei Bobrovsky, who’s played the most playoff games of any starter not named Andrei Vasilevskiy who we’re talking about here. But, um, he’s an .899 over those 41 post-season games. Spencer Knight is an .898 this season and in the AHL.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have Vasilevskiy, who is the best goalie in the league and won consecutive Cups. COMFORT!
Carolina has Freddy Andersen, who has decent career playoff numbers and is having a great year. But Leafs fans have seen him fail to outplay the opposing goalie in enough playoff series to know there are questions about his ability to deliver in the biggest moments. Sure, Carolina would feel as good as anyone with Andersen as their goalie. But his past leaves at least a few questions and some discomfort.
And finally, the Avs have Darcy Kuemper and Pavel Francouz, the latter of whom has six playoff games of experience (.892), while the former is as good a bet as anyone, but still not a certainty. Kuemper is having a good year, but has been in the playoffs once since 2015 (and only once in his career as a true starter), winning a play-in round and losing a playoff series. The numbers are good (.917), but I doubt the Avs feel as confident as the Lightning.
The point here is not that “nobody is any good,” because that would be a stupid premise about some of the best players in the world at the game’s hardest position. The point is that goaltending is volatile as hell, and that there are ups and downs. Even with the best in the world, you often have to weather the downs.
All you can really do is have a guy who’s proven himself to be good over a large sample, and hope he gets hot at the right time. There’s not a trade out there – not even for a future Hall of Famer like Marc-Andre Fleury – who can change that right now for a team like the Leafs.
There are tons of goals these days, goaltending is harder than ever, and so everyone is in an awfully uncomfortable position. You get good goalies. You hang on to them. And you hope they make saves when it counts.
“Comfort” in the crease is an NHL luxury all but forgotten, save for a very exceptional few goalies and teams.