Today’s post is two topics, really, and I’ll discuss the more timely one first: the firing of Pierre Gauthier, the former general manager of the Montreal Canadiens. I think people may have overstated how bad of a GM he was; the Canadiens weren’t necessarily a terrible team this season as much as their record indicated, and he was also the architect of one of my favourite trades from a value perspective early in his tenure.
The Habs, until about halfway through the season (or, until Randy Cunneyworth’s system, or lack thereof, really started to take hold) they were a positive possession team, as indicated by this Behind The Net graph. Jacques Martin may not have been the best fit for the team, but, as with Bruce Boudreau, the team did noticeably worse both to the eye and on the stat sheet after his departure. Even so, Montreal’s goal differential wasn’t reflective of a 15th place team, but at minus-18, it’s still good for 9th in the Eastern Conference.
Again, not necessarily good, but it’s not like this isn’t a team in disrepair. Carey Price had a bit of a down year by his standards, posting a .916 overall save percentage and just a .918 at even strength, well below the .923 and .931 he put up last season. The second measure, the .918 even strength save percentage, boils around the league average after subjecting itself to a pretty significant regression to the mean.
Not to say that Price is a bad goaltender. That save percentage ought to trend upward next season, but the Habs’ tough season may mean that he’s going to make fewer bucks when he’s re-signed this summer as a restricted free agent, although he’ll certainly have a raise on the $2.75M he made this season and the one before.
And that’s significantly less than you’d think a star goaltender ought to be signed for, and comparative to the $3.75M the St. Louis Blues dished out to Jaroslav Halak in the summer of 2010. This is the trade of Gauthier’s that I really liked, early in his tenure, he shipped the popular Halak, coming off an absolutely dominant playoff run wherein he may have singlehandedly won Montreal two series’, to St. Louis.
Had this trade backfired, it would probably be the number one thing that fans point to as an error by Gauthier, but it isn’t, in fact, it’s rarely brought up because it was such a great trade. Nevermind that there’s serious Vezina Trophy talk for Halak with the Blues this season, Gauthier made the deal to sign Carey Price for a cheaper cheque, and his even strength save percentage stat has been just a tenth of a percentage point lower than Halak’s, but Halak has had the benefit of 41 fewer starts, more rest, and more suitable backup goaltenders behind him.
Montreal got Lars Eller in the deal, a moderately tough-minutes third line forward who has managed to keep afloat in possession this season, and one of the bright spots on the season for Montreal with 16 goals on the year. Players of Eller’s defensive ilk seldom grow into 20-25 goal scorers, but the continued usage of Eller is a key to Montreal one day turning the corner. Would the Blues have given up the young Eller for Carey Price? I doubt it, given the type of run Halak was on.
Jaro Halak has taken a backseat to his backup Brian Elliott in the Vezina Trophy debate. Daniel Wagner floated the possibility back in December, which seems so long ago, but Elliotte Friedman also made a couple of good points on this week’s 30 Thoughts when looking at the situation in St. Louis.
To recap, Elliott leads the NHL in goals against average, save percentage, and is tied with Jonathan Quick in shutouts. His win percentage probably ranks up there, but I really don’t place enough weight on goaltender win percentage as an indicator of his talent. Nor do I really look at goals against average or shutouts with any tinge of importance. A good team will reduce the shots a goaltender sees, which leads to fewer goals, and that’s exactly what Elliott has had in St. Louis. As for save percentage, I put more weight on that statistic when a goaltender plays a lot more games, and that’s something neither Elliott nor Halak have done this season, as Ken Hitchcock has platooned his goalies to get maximum effectiveness out of both.
Anyway, here’s what Elliotte had to say:
13. The GMs vote for the Vezina. What are they going to do with the St. Louis goaltenders? As of Monday morning, the Blues are 17 goals better than second-place Los Angeles with a true tandem of Jaroslav Halak (43 appearances) and Brian Elliott (35). They’ve got 14 shutouts between them, most in the NHL since Tony Esposito’s 15 in 1969-70. The last shared victory was 1981 (Richard Sevigny, Denis Herron, Michel Larocque), as the league created the Jennings Trophy to eliminate this phenomenon.
14. The last goalie to win the Vezina with fewer than 50 appearances was Patrick Roy in 1989 (48). Saw some suggestions on Twitter that Elliott should win it, after he whitewashed Phoenix for his eighth shutout of the year. Tough thing is: he won’t play 40 games. How many goalies have won the Vezina without playing at least 40? Zero – unless it was shared. (Bill Durnan was closest, hitting that exact number in 1945-46. Of course, it was a 50-game season then.)
If you sit down and tally up the number of shots each goaltender faces, you won’t see that Elliott or Halak have had to make as many stops as the next guys. In something called ‘win threshold‘, we can calculate the minimum save percentage a team needs to make the NHL playoffs. I calculated the Blues’ number at .904, tied for seventh in the NHL with the New Jersey Devils (who have gotten replacement-level goaltending this season from Martin Brodeur, but that’s a topic for another day) despite the team’s 2.54 goals per game, they also only give up 26.4 shots (or did yesterday when I downloaded the data) the lowest number in the league.
Situations like Halak and Elliott, who have both been elite this season sharing the torch, is for what the William M. Jennings Award was created for, awarded to the team that allows the fewest goals. As for importance to their team? Jonathan Quick and Henrik Lundqvist are superior, and, as Los Angeles’ win threshold is seventh-lowest in the NHL at .920, I think the Kings’ stalwart deserves a nod for more than just the Vezina. He’s been arguably the most consistent, tested and successful goaltender in the NHL this season.
Elliott and Halak have been as fine a two-headed monster as we’ve seen, but we haven’t seen enough of either to convince me that one of them is individually the best goaltender in the NHL.