Quick introduction here because this will be my first post up at Buzzing The Net: you may remember me as the guy in the World Junior chats for two years running criticizing the goaltenders that Canada took to Buffalo and Alberta, respectively. This isn't due to some personal vendetta I have against Mark Visentin. I've never met the guy, but everybody I know who has says that he's a great kid and a hard worker. It was nice that Visentin had a bit of redemption in the bronze medal game this year against Finland.
It's not a problem reserved to Team Canada, but a few junior teams tend to evaluate their goaltenders the wrong way. A lot of hockey teams in general tend to evaluate their goaltenders the wrong way. This year, the best save percentage in the nation belonged to Belleville's Malcolm Subban at the start of December, whereas a year before it was Seattle's Calvin Pickard.
Unfortunately, neither goalie made it, and Team Canada were saddled with goaltender concerns through each tournament, earning a disproportionate amount of negative focus from a rabid fanbase and an unstoppable media machine that now covers the tournament each year.
Again, Team Canada, and junior teams, aren't the only ones who fail to use the position's best available metric when it comes to evaluating goaltenders: save percentage.
The Brandon Wheat Kings, one of the WHL Eastern Conference's best offenses at 203 goals are tenuously holding off Red Deer for the final playoff spot in the conference. Why tenuously? Because they've also happened to allow 209 goals, which is the 5th most in the WHL. They traded this season for Brandon Anderson who has picked up the a higher share of the starts than Corbin Boes (thanks in large part to a hand injury) but the two were splitting time in November and December when they were both healthy, while Boes was stopping more shots and should have been getting the majority of the starts.
How come? Boes is younger and bigger and has a much more favourable save percentage—.906 to .885—this season. Thankfully, Brandon appears to have seen the errors of their ways and have gone with Boes in four of their last five games. We'll see if they continue to keep up that ratio through to the playoffs.
The team that's chasing them, Red Deer, didn't make that mistake. Despite picking up the bigger name in Devan Dubnyk from Moose Jaw earlier this season, head coach Jesse Wallin continued to ride hot rookie goaltender Patrik Bartosak until he went down with a shoulder injury. Thanks to the play of Bartosak (though both goalies have save percentages of over .900) the Rebels were able to stay in the playoff hunt despite one of the WHL's lowest-ranked offenses. Now with Dubnyk playing well, they have a chance at catching Brandon, who were bleeding goals against earlier in the season. Wallin made the tough decision to continue to play with his goalie who was simply making more saves.
Kelowna is a more egregious example: Jordon Cooke and Adam Brown, both small-framed, athletic goaltenders, haven't been used as effectively as they could be by coach Ryan Huska. Brown has picked up a vast majority of the starts, 39 to 16, despite a save percentage that is 19 points lower than Cooke's.
Theoretically, you could say that the right moves have been made by Huska, as Brown has won 47% of his decisions to Cooke's 40%, but save percentage is the best defensive-independent goaltender metric available to us. Shutouts and goals against average are heavily influenced by defense and shot count while wins are attributable to goal support.
The Rockets find themselves in 6th place and look very likely to match up against the high-powered Portland Winterhawks in the first round of the playoffs, and if not Portland, probably Tri-City, both teams that have terrific offenses and could possibly be stopped by a strong goaltending performance: Cooke has stopped 78 of 85 shots against the Winterhawks this season (including a 35-stop performance on 37 shots on the road earlier this month, yet resulted in a loss) while Brown has stopped 56 of 63. They have the same goals against and yet, Cooke has stopped way more shots.
It's a small sample for sure, but it's an example of a team that may have more success with a goaltender that they're resting more often than not. Particularly with the Kootenay Ice having shut down Portland last season on the back of Nathan Lieuwen who carried the team through to the Memorial Cup, we know how important good goaltending is in the playoffs.
This was always something that bugged me when a team would come to town, I'd look at the lineup sheet and note that the goalie with the most starts had much lower measurable statistics than a backup on the bench. Thankfully, this is a trend that seems to be reversing as fewer teams find themselves culprits in this regard.
Cam Charron is a hockey blogger at large who covers the WHL for Buzzing The Net. Follow him on Twitter @camcharron.