Pacific Division being defined by goaltending outperformance
Demko’s exceptional play has been a huge lift — perhaps the biggest one you can find — for a Vancouver Canucks team that continues to look like a playoff-calibre team.
The only problem? Demko and the Canucks are not alone. In fact, the Pacific Division has been defined by goaltending outperformance all season long — some of the best individual, Vezina-calibre play is coming from rival teams.
There’s Adin Hill, Logan Thompson, and the Vegas Golden Knights, perhaps Vancouver’s primary intra-division competition. John Gibson’s rebound season has been a boon for the Anaheim Ducks. Cam Talbot’s stunning return to form is a core reason why the Los Angeles Kings are back. And if the Calgary Flames manage to dig themselves out of their early season hole, they have Jacob Markstrom to thank.
Said another way: well into the 2023-24 regular season, six of the nine best goaltending performances by cumulative goals saved versus expectations have come from the Pacific!
Goals saved versus expectations is meaningful because it allows us to isolate for how individual goaltenders perform in different environments. Markstrom, for example, face a much more difficult shot profile than Demko. And though Demko’s individual stop rate is considerably better, when you adjust for the shot profiles goaltenders are facing in Anaheim and Calgary, you see the performance between the two is closer than what meets the eye.
That’s why goaltending performance can be such a nuanced conversation. Consider a heat map of the shots faced from Demko in Vancouver, perhaps the best goalie this year, but also one who has had some surprising assistance from his defence.
This shot profile is isolated to 5-on-5, via HockeyViz:
That’s an awful lot of protection in front of the net when compared to the likes of Gibson and Markstrom with their respective teams:
In Markstrom’s case, we are talking about a netminder who grades in the bottom third of the league in terms of save percentage. But save percentage is just a much a measure of defensive integrity as it is a measure of goaltending production, and Markstrom is a great example as to why.
The Flames defensive unit is more than willing to invite opposing shooters to Markstrom’s doorstep, where scoring chances and shooting percentages surge. This is the sort of environment where a player can stop less than 90 per cent of shots faced and still be playing well, as he’s likely erased 10 or so goals from the ledger behind a porous Flames lineup.
The other thing it’s done is suppressed goal scoring within the division. If you’ve watched any NFL this season, you know that scoring has been curiously slowed, with defences reigning supreme.
To a lesser extent, it’s what we are seeing in the Pacific, even with notoriously strong offensive teams like the Edmonton Oilers and defending Stanley Cup champions playing within the division:
In a regular season where we have seen notable shifts in the power dynamics within most divisions, the Pacific has shown to be no exception.
If you are the betting type, the odds of this year’s Vezina Trophy winner coming from the Pacific are far greater than where they were just two months ago.
Data via NaturalStatTrick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference