Goaltending has cratered across the NHL in March
March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb – unless you live in the state of California, or play goaltender in the National Hockey League.
Goalies have had a rough go of it in the past few weeks – scoring rates are once again at blistering levels, and league-wide save percentages are plummeting. In the heightened scoring era we’re living in, goaltenders were barely holding onto a 90.0 per cent stop rate league wide.
That number has cratered in recent weeks:
We have discussed ad infinitum what is driving scoring to the upside across the league, both at even strength and on the power play. This is a new intra-season wrinkle – attackers are again converting on scoring chances at rates we really haven’t seen before, and all of this is happening with just a dozen or so games remaining on the regular-season schedule.
The old hockey adage of teams sharpening their game defensively as the playoffs inch closer again seems specious at best – doubly so when you look at the teams (and the goalies of those teams) who are struggling so mightily this late in the year.
At first pass, you might be inclined to think the draft lottery teams – those with their eyes on the prize in the form of super prospect Connor Bedard – are the ones driving this mess. After all, the lottery provides an incentive to lose games, and injecting a bunch of skaters and goalies from your farm team is a great way to do that.
But for every draft lottery team that’s giving up goals in spades, you can find a team chasing a playoff berth in a similar position. So, that’s not quite it.
It is interesting that a disproportionate number of Eastern Conference teams appear contributory to league-wide stop rates plummeting. Consider the below tables, which show goaltending performance (as measured by Goals Saved vs. Expectations) on a monthly basis. I have bifurcated it between the two conferences accordingly.
Here’s what the East looks like:
Half of the Eastern Conference – that’s eight teams, including lottery chasers in Columbus, playoff capitulators in Buffalo and Detroit, and playoff-bound teams in Toronto and Tampa Bay – who are seeing their worst goaltending of the season right now.
It’s also a diverse group of goaltenders struggling. Tristan Jarry in Pittsburgh and Ville Husso in Detroit simply cannot buy a save right now. But look at New York’s Ilya Sorokin, a verifiable Vezina Trophy candidate, who has similarly cooled off (90.8 per cent stop rate).
The Western Conference has been a bit more stable month over month, but there is still observable underperformance in multiple markets:
Two of the three teams in the West seeing their biggest performance drawdown are Dallas and Winnipeg, two teams known for high-end goaltending and two teams in the thick of the playoff race.
I’m not sure the last time Connor Hellebuyck, indisputably one of the best goaltenders in the world, was stopping pucks at a replacement-level rate for a month. But that is the case right now. And his save percentage, like most everyone else, is cratering:
Hellebuyck being around break-even relative to replacement level is just as eye-opening as some of the outright futility we have seen in other markets. Whether it’s Anaheim’s John Gibson (stopping 89.6 per cent in March), St. Louis’ Jordan Binnington (87.1 per cent), San Jose’s Kaapo Kahkonen (84.4 per cent), or the Edmonton duo in Stuart Skinner and Jack Campbell (88.7 per cent), there is plenty of substandard goaltending to find and analyze.
Teams like the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers may be feeling great about their goaltending heading into April, but they are more of an outlier than the typical team right now. The typical team, whether they are working on their scouting boards or preparing for the post season, is dealing with distress in net.
That’s never the place a coaching staff wants to be this late in the year.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference