Malcolm Subban, Andrei Vasilevski: Which first-rounder is better by the numbers?

Few will be surprised if Malcolm Subban and Andrei Vasilevski at opposite ends of the ice for the gold medal game of the world junior hockey championship in Ufa, Russia this January.

Both goalies have a long way to go in their progression to being NHL starters. Each is an early favourite to the starting goalie for a junior hockey powerhouse.

How will they fare against one another? Chris Boucher, a Montreal-based scout, has compiled data from four games played each by Subban and Vasilevski, not necessarily against one-another, but in an attempt to determine which goaltender is superior.

My scouting reports for goalies focus on their ability to make saves, make big saves, and control rebounds. The results of these attributes are added together to produce the goaltender's rating. The highest possible rating is 4.00, while the lowest possible rating is 0.00. The higher the value the better a goalie has played. [Boucher Scouting]

Typically, I judge goaltenders by the simple criteria of save percentage. At the NHL level, the data is provided for goaltenders at even strength, which balances out the scales for goalies who see a lot of penalty-kill time, when goals are more frequent. For our purposes though, save percentage at the junior level works as an elephant gun. It's powerful, but imprecise, best used to be able to say that the London Knights' Michael Houser, who had a .925 save percentage in 62 games, was probably a better goaltender last season than the Kingston Frontenacs' Igor Bobkov, who had a .902 save percentage.

Over the course of the three or four games that typically take place over a junior camp where a team will decide which goalie to take, sometimes there just isn't enough games or shots to make a real clear decision. In a 30-shot game, a difference between a goal is .033 points in save percentage.

Boucher's work also uses numbers, but it hinges more on performance and less of the team in front of him. In the four games that he ranked for Subban, the Boston Bruins selection had an even strength goaltender rating of 2.03 out of 4, scoring big points through saves made off of clear scoring chances and by safely securing rebounds.

Again, from Boucher:

The average rate at which goaltenders were able to keep the rebounds they produced at even-strength out of the slot was 52%.

Subban has a higher "safe rebound" percentage at even-strength. Fifty-four percent of the rebounds he produced landed outside of the slot, while 51% of Vasilevski's short-handed rebounds could be described as safe.

With four games used for each goalies, two of them were Games 1 and 4 of the recent Canada-Russia challenge. Subban won both games, but they were close, and Canada had the superior team in each, outshooting the Russians by a combined 73-49. Additionally, two OHL regular-season games were used to evaluate Subban and two world junior games for Vasilevski.

While Subban scored high in "safe rebound" percentage, Vasilevski, whom the Tampa Bay Lightning selected in June, was found to have a slightly higher "no rebound" percentage. Those are plays where the puck is either frozen or deflected out of play. Vasilevski had a 35 per cent success rate, which is equal to the average at even strength. Subban's was only 34 per cent.

Better puck handler?

Subban, whose Belleville Bulls play on an Olympic-sized ice sheet similar to the ones that will be used in Ufa, scored slightly higher playing the puck. He was credited with "12 successful plays for every 1 unsuccessful play" while Vasilevski had just "5 successful plays for every 1 unsuccessful play."

Overall, there are challenges to evaluating goaltenders this way, as with save percentage. Sample size is a big issue, and scouting enough games to find real predictive value is tough. Still, it's excellent work done by Boucher and a good example of how certain scouts and possibly organizations are quantifying their scouting instead of simply writing "Subban handles rebounds well." The numerical attachment gives the preceding qualification a lot more value.

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