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Hockey Wilderness
  • How the Wild Can Survive Historically Awful Goaltending

    Tony Abbott

    It took four games, but the Minnesota Wild finally started getting some saves. Between Thursday's win and Saturday's overtime loss, Marc-Andre Fleury looked like Patrick Roy compared to his first two outings. Fleury turned away 62 of 69 pucks for an .899 save percentage. Yes, that number is objectively bad, below last year's league average of .902. But it actually raised the Wild's team save percentage to .852.


    The Wild are now sitting with the worst save percentage in the Analytics Era, which dates from 2007-08. It's the worst by quite a bit, as the worst goaltending performance in that span belongs to the 2020-21 Philadelphia Flyers, with an .881 save percentage.


    Now, it's only a five-game sample for the Wild, which means they're probably not going to only stop 85% of pucks this year. It's basically impossible to be that bad for a whole season in the NHL, even for, say, AHL-caliber goaltending. Fleury's bounce back was watching the regression to the mean happen in real time. Was the goaltending good? No. But it was good enough not to be completely back-breaking.


    If it gets up to around 88 or 89% on the season, it's better, but it'd still be among the worst goaltending teams we've ever seen. Looking at the worst of the worst, we see the inaugural Seattle Kraken (.882), last year's New Jersey Devils (.883), the 2007-08 Tampa Bay Lightning team that finished badly enough to get Steven Stamkos at the following year's draft, and many more also-rans.


    Weirdly enough, though, we also see a team that went to the Conference Finals in 2019. That year, Martin Jones "led" the San Jose Sharks' goaltending unit with an .896 save percentage in 62 starts. His backup, Aaron Dell, somehow did worse. He had an .886 over the remaining 20 starts. The final number for the team was .889, tied for the eighth-worst in the Analytics Era.


    But remember, they made the Conference Final that year. And it wasn't even a case where a bad team sneaks into the playoffs and makes a run, either. The Sharks finished with 46 wins and 101 points, good for second in the Western Conference. They took down a great Vegas Golden Knights team and a Colorado Avalanche squad featuring Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and a rookie Cale Makar before losing to the St. Louis Blues in six games.


    Goaltending is the most important position on the ice, bar none. The goalie can either be a trump card, negating an awful performance by the players in front of them, or a great team's Achilles' Heel. Of course, some great goalies can't overcome a low-scoring team in front of them. But you don't see many instances of the opposite, a team thriving despite goaltending that isn't just a liability but downright horrible.


    Wild fans can recall examples from recent memory of being derailed by poor goaltending. Historically, when the bottom falls out of their goaltending, the rest of the team crumbles. Minnesota went 2-8-4 before trading for Devan Dubnyk in 2015, and they experienced instant transformation into an elite team afterward. The Wild saw similar bumps in getting competent goaltending in 2020 when Alex Stalock replaced Dubnyk, and last year, when Fleury came in to stabilize the scuffling Wild.


    Maybe Fleury or Filip Gustavsson can right the ship and take the pressure off the skaters. But if they don't, they'll have to take lessons from how the Sharks overcame their struggling goalies. How did that happen?


    Simply put: They out-scored their problems. The Sharks may have allowed the seventh-most 5-on-5 goals in the NHL that year, but they scored the fourth-most. Thanks to a deep forward group and two defensive dynamos in Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson, they kept the puck out of their zone and in their opponents' net.


    If Jones was the flaw in the team, the Sharks had to take their own goalie out of the game. They did so by allowing the fewest shots per hour at 5-on-5. Shutdown defenders Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun made sure Jones touched the puck as little as possible.


    This allowed the Sharks to break even at 5-on-5 and let the power play take care of the rest. And did they ever. The Sharks scored nearly nine goals per hour on the power play, sixth in the league. At the end of the year, they had four 30-goal scorers, with a fifth, Logan Couture, scoring 27.


    Could the Wild of the last two years overcome that goaltending? I think you saw that, largely, they could. Minnesota sat at eighth in the NHL in Dean Evason's first two seasons, controlling 53.2% of the expected goal share at 5-on-5. Add in stars like Kirill Kaprizov, Kevin Fiala, and Matt Boldy boosting their shooting percentage, and the Wild were also able to out-score their problems at 5-on-5.


    That team has been MIA through five games. Much of the scrutiny of Minnesota's poor 5-on-5 play has involved their defense. Is it good? Nope. They're allowing 2.80 expected goals per hour, which sits at 21st in the NHL. It's not great when you're worse than the Winnipeg Jets defensively.


    But where's the offense? The Wild are generating just 2.09 expected goals per hour at 5-on-5. That's 30th in the NHL, ahead of just the Sharks and Arizona Coyotes, two teams in the running for the Connor Bedard Sweepstakes.


    If the Wild can tighten up defensively, or at least find a way to crank up the tempo on offense, they're showing early on that they can match that Sharks team in power play proficiency.


    To the extent a 1-3-1 team can be carried by anything, the power play is doing just that. It's early, but only the Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars are scoring more than the 13.98 goals per hour Minnesota is scoring. Whether it's Calen Addison's arrival, Boldy getting comfortable after a year, a better scheme, or whatever, it's clear the power play is looking much, much better.


    If they can put the old-look 5-on-5 game with the new-look power play, you can see Minnesota out-scoring their problems like the 2018-19 Sharks did. They should be able to tap into that old success — we've seen it happen for two seasons. Maybe it sounds crazy, but having historically bad goaltending shouldn't be an excuse for the Wild.

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