The Wild faced a goalie controversy last season. This year should be different.
Around this time last year, Dean Evason inadvertently launched a goalie controversy that shaped the direction of the Minnesota Wild in 2022-23. After selecting Marc-Andre Fleury to start Game 1, he told the media doing so was an “easy decision.” That choice of words did not sit well with Cam Talbot, especially as he sat behind Fleury until the decisive Game 6 of last year’s series loss to the St. Louis Blues.
Talbot, as you remember, lost his starting job last season when the Wild traded for Fleury at the deadline. But from the moment the Wild decided to make the trade, Talbot made Minnesota re-think things. He went 12-0-3 with a .920 save percentage, with Fleury going 9-2-0 with a similarly strong .910 for the surging Wild.
It was an awkward situation at the time, but you can’t say the fallout didn’t work out for the Wild. Talbot’s draft day trade demand led to Minnesota getting Filip Gustavsson, after all. We’ve talked about it at length, but Gustavsson’s season ranks near, and maybe at the top, of the best we’ve ever seen for a Wild goalie.
But just like last year, the Wild are benefitting heavily from a late-season surge from both halves of their goalie tandem. Here’s how both goalies have performed since February 17, the start of Minnesota’s scintillating 16-2-4 run:
Fleury: 8-1-1 record, .933 save%, one shutout
Gustavsson: 8-1-3, .946 save%, two shutouts
Looking under the hood at advanced stats, we can see that both goalies are bringing it night after night. Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx) is a stat the folks at Evolving Hockey created. It shows the difference between the goals a goalie gives up and the quality shots they face (that is, expected goals).
Both goalies are extremely strong at this stat since February 17. Gustavsson ranks second among all goalies with a 12.5 GSAx in that span. Fleury sits at fourth with a 10.5 mark of his own. They are both effectively spotting the Wild a 1-0 lead every game.
So, are we looking to see another goalie controversy this year? It’s possible. The Wild are rotating their goalies, and if both continue to play well, there will no doubt be a debate as to who to roll with in Game 1 of the playoffs.
But should they have a goalie controversy? No. This is another “easy decision” for Evason. The Wild have to roll with Gustavsson.
There’s potential for this to create another awkward situation for Minnesota this offseason. Fleury is not just a respected veteran, he’s a future Hall-of-Famer who ranks third all-time in goalie wins. If the Wild lose with Fleury on the bench for a 24-year-old playoff rookie, that’s going to lead to some questions for Evason, Bill Guerin, and the organization.
Besides, we can think of one occasion where sitting behind a younger starter come playoff time didn’t go as smoothly behind the scenes as you’d hope.
But if you’re stacking up these goalies one against the other, there’s no doubt who has been more valuable this season. As good as both have been lately, only one has given the Wild a chance to win every night. There’s only one goalie who deserves the full trust of this staff to lead Minnesota deep into the playoffs.
All due respect to Fleury, but that goalie is Gustavsson.
You can point to the overall numbers, which are wildly in favor of Gustavsson. You want to talk about raw save percentage this year? Gustavsson’s .933 save percentage doesn’t just best Fleury’s .910, it’s not even close. In terms of GSAx, Fleury ranks 35th in the NHL with a solid 3.5, hanging around Laurent Brossoit and… Talbot. On the other hand, Gustavsson racked up 24.8, sixth in the league, between Connor Hellebuyck and Igor Shesterkin, two Vezina-caliber goalies.
If you’re asking yourself, who got Minnesota to the playoffs? It’s Gustavsson who’s done more to deliver for them. It’s important to emphasize that Fleury’s been solid for the Wild, responsible for adding 5.1 of Minnesota’s 97 points, according to Evolving Hockey’s Standings Points Above Replacement metric. That’s good; it’s 16th in the NHL.
But in 10 fewer starts, Gustavsson is at 10.7 SPAR. That’s not just more than double what Fleury’s had, and it’s not even just fifth in the NHL. Entering Monday’s action, it’s the difference between the Wild potentially clinching and sitting one point behind the Calgary Flames for the second Wild Card spot.
Again, this isn’t about disrespecting or minimizing Fleury’s contributions. Fleury often seems to get a bad rap from Wild fans for simply being good, as opposed to Gustavsson being great. We don’t want to make the same mistake. But if you’re looking at “reasons why Minnesota is in the playoffs” Gustavsson is No. 1 or 2 on that list, depending on where you want to put Kirill Kaprizov.
When looking at the full season, it’s not close. There are other considerations, too, of course. But unless you’re talking about Cup count or playoff experience, those all favor Gustavsson.
For example, consistency is very important to coaches. When a coach picks a goalie to play, especially in a big game, they want to know what they’re going to get. And it’s clear at this point of the season that Gustavsson is much more consistent than Fleury.
Rob Vollman tried to measure consistency with his Quality Starts metric, helpfully tracked by Stathead. He defines a Quality Start as one where a goalie has a save percentage at or above the league average. It may be imperfect, but it’s a quick-and-dirty way of figuring out how reliable a goalie is game-to-game.
Gustavsson is the second-most consistent starter in the NHL this year among goalies with 20-plus appearances. He’s posted a Quallity Start in 25 of 33 games, or 75.8% of his games. Only Linus Ullmark (88.9 Quality Start%) has fared better from game-to-game. Gustavsson also has a big advantage over some of the league’s top netminders. Look at Ilya Sorokin (69.1%), or Hellebuyck (66.1%), or Juuse Saros (65.5%) or Andrei Vasilevskiy (62.1%).
And the “Gus Bus” has been more reliable than Fleury, as well. Fleury has 26 Quality Starts in 43 games (60.5%, 22nd in the NHL). Again, solid, but it’s no contest that Wild fans have to be more confident seeing Gustavsson in net. Especially since Fleury has twice as many “Really Bad Starts” (ones with a save percentage below .850) with eight, as opposed to Gustavsson’s four.
Lastly, there’s the track record both goalies have had against playoff teams. Again, there’s no question Gustavsson has the advantage. Give Fleury credit lately. In his last three games against playoff teams, he’s stopped 120 of 126 shots (.952 save%) and won two of them.
Even with those recent showings, it’s clear his save percentage is built on playing great against non-playoff teams. Against playoff teams, Fleury has a terrible 6-11-2. Not a lot of hard-luck losses in there, either. He has an .866 save% against playoff teams, thanks to them handing Fleury six of his eight Really Bad Starts. When he faces non-playoff teams, that record is up to 18-8-2 with a .921 save%.
On the other hand, Gustavsson is even better against playoff teams than he’s been against non-playoff squads. Gustavsson has a scintillating .940 save percentage against the best teams in the NHL, which probably deserves even better than the 11-5-2 record he has against them. Against non-playoff squads, he’s still ahead of Fleury, with a .924 save percentage.
You can see the trust level play out in how Minnesota deploys their goalies. Since February 17, Evason’s put Gustavsson out in seven of his 12 starts, including then must-win games against borderline playoff teams in Calgary and the Nashville Predators. Fleury has started against just three playoff teams in his last 10 starts.
The question of who gets the net in the biggest games has been an easy decision for Minnesota. So what’s changed? Nothing. There’s a possibility that Gustavsson falters in the postseason, or runs out of gas. But until he proves that he isn’t, Gustavsson is the goalie who gives the Wild the best chance to win, and Minnesota can’t lose sight of that.
This article was originally published on April 3, 2023. All data from Evolving Hockey and Stathead.
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