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Goaltending is sinking the Senators

Anton Forsberg Joonas Korpisalo Ottawa Senators Anton Forsberg Joonas Korpisalo - Getty Images

Editor’s note: The Ottawa Senators fired head coach D.J. Smith shortly after this column was posted.

Decoupling goaltending performance from head coaching performance may be one of the most difficult exercises any NHL front office has to manage through. But you can rest assured that analysis is ongoing in Ottawa right now.

The Senators — remarkably carrying a -1 goal differential on the year, on par with a Carolina Hurricanes team that had Stanley Cup expectations this season — have seen pressure mount in recent weeks, unable to gain any ground in the Atlantic Division. Their 11-15-0 record has them sitting last in the Eastern Conference, well outside of the playoff picture.

Attention has squarely turned to a beleaguered head coach. Right, wrong, or otherwise, expectations were higher for this lineup this year, and D.J. Smith’s fifth season behind the bench is starting to look an awful lot like the first four.

I mentioned the goal differential on the season because I still believe this team is showing signs of life. We are talking about a team that’s 19th in the league in rate-goal differential, much of it because the Senators still maintain a top-10 scoring offence, and if you isolate that to even strength, it’s second in the NHL (3.1 goals per 60) behind only Vancouver. Players like Brady Tkachuk, Drake Batherson, Tim Stützle, and Claude Giroux have been fantastic for most of the year.

But that doesn’t mean the team has played great hockey. Far from it. The penalty kill has been abhorrent all season long, and the goaltending tandem of Anton Forsberg and Joonas Korpisalo have been dreadful compared to their peers.

In fact, if you look at the cumulative play between Forsberg and Korpisalo, you see their production has been near the bottom of the league. What’s a legitimate defence of Smith — perhaps the only defence left for Smith — is this felt like a very real outcome for this group. Not six months ago, we discussed whether Korpisalo’s long-term deal was one of the worst contracts of the summer.

Korpisalo’s track record is spotty at best, with “blinking red light” performance concerns over considerable stretches in Columbus. Meanwhile, Forsberg is fresh off shredding both of his knees, not exactly the type of injury profile you want to bet aggressively on.

As a group, consider their play relative to the rest of the league:

Those are gory numbers, good for dead last in the league, and both Forsberg (-7 goals worse than expected) and Korpisalo (-6 goals worse than expected) have contributed equitably to the issue.

Goals saved versus expectations allows us to adjust for shot profiles faced, a better way to isolate true goaltending performance from the defensive play in front. But it is worth acknowledging that defensive play in front has certainly been accommodating.

The reason why the Senators have the league’s 30th best save percentage (.887) – a measure better reserved for how defencemen and goaltenders jointly slow down opposing shooters – is because many of these shots come from dangerous areas of the ice.

Or said another way: Ottawa’s not the worst defensive team in the league, but they’re certainly not a good one, and the shot profiles certainly show it (via HockeyViz):

Yost 2

At times, Ottawa is capable of playing fast-paced, high-pressure hockey that can put teams back on their heels. But the defensive integrity in front of the goaltending is inadequate, and compounding that issue is the fact that the goaltending has capitulated time and again behind it. You may be able to lay the defensive structure issues at the feet of Smith, but the argument certainly gets less convincing when you bring this goaltending group into the equation.

I suspect Smith won’t survive another playoff miss, and perhaps for good reason. But if Ottawa, and Smith, are hoping for a mid-season turnaround, I fail to see how it happens without some good fortune on the goaltending front.

The only problem is that it’s hard to see why anyone would expect a rebound or breakout from Forsberg or Korpisalo right now. And until that changes, Ottawa’s going to remain on the treadmill of mediocrity.

Data via Natural Stat Trick,, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference