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by Dimitri Filipovic / Vancouver Canucks
In the grand scheme of things, it’s tough to quibble with the early returns for the 2015-16 version of the Vancouver Canucks.

Despite the fact that they’ve endured some miserable luck early on in one-goal games - something that was bound to happen after last year’s good fortune, but not to this drastic of a degree - they still currently reside atop the Pacific Division standings as of this moment.

The biggest reason for that to-date has been Ryan Miller, who has managed to turn back the clock and buck mounting evidence that he’d entered the downslope of his goaltending career. Especially after last year’s poor showing in his debut season with the team, which was littered with controversy, injuries, and objectively unseemly play.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that there weren’t other residual factors in the works, further complicating things. Like that he was stepping into a void left by the greatest goaltender in the franchise’s history, or that his arrival was blocking the path for quite possibly the most popular active player on the team. Still, his individual output most certainly didn’t help dissuade any angst fans may’ve had about the situation in net.

His .914 even strength save percentage in 2014-15 was his worst in nearly a decade, and the underlying numbers didn’t exactly shine any brighter of a light. According to War on Ice his save percentage on both low danger and medium danger shots was not only the worst of his career, but also the worst in the league amongst goalies who appeared in at least half of their team’s games this side of Edmonton. A precarious spot to find yourself in while playing in front of fans that have seen their goaltender give up a softie or two over the years.

A month of hockey doesn’t erase that from the mind. It does however warrant mentioning, particularly if there’s an underlying explanation for the improvement. In Goal Magazine’s Greg Balloch did a fine job of illustrating the technical differences between Miller’s style from one year to the next. Intuitively it makes sense that a more aggressive technique would help decrease the likelihood that a puck from a further distance would find an alternate route to the back of the net, whether it be via a tip, or a screen, or just an unfortunate bounce.

The numbers support that notion, with the adjustment having led to promising results early on. While the low danger save percentage has improved only modestly from .965 to .980 (2 goals against on 98 shots), it’s the marked jump in medium danger situations from .886 to .976 (2 goals against on 94 shots) that has made all of the difference in the world for Miller in his first 11 starts this season.

Taking a step back and looking at the landscape for goaltender evaluation in a macro sense, these sorts of zone breakdown advancements are of utmost importance for the hockey community. While fully understanding the goaltending position still remains an elusive proposition, the days of looking at a netminder’s win totals and goals against average as determinants of play are fortunately all but gone. There’s still undoubtedly a long way to go in refining our methods, but the steps taken in recent years are nothing but promising.

Bringing us to Nick Mercadante’s ‘Adjusted Goals Saved Above Average’ (adjGSAA) metric, which in true analytics form has such an unnecessarily convoluted name that it’s likely slowing down its inclusion in the mainstream. Looking past the unfortunate moniker however, the concept itself should be quite innate and easy to get a handle on for hockey fans. All it’s essentially doing is taking the league average save percentage for the three different danger zones mentioned above and stacking it up against an individual goalie’s performance to-date, ultimately providing us with a cut-and-dried plus/minus figure as a result. If a goalie has a positive plus/minus number, he’s saving more shots than a league average goalie would in similar circumstances.

As you can see, Miller has acquitted himself quite nicely early on this season. For the sake of context, his -0.232 adjGSAA/60 was 37th out of the 42 qualified netminders last season. His 3-year rate from 2012-15 was -0.015, good for 24th out of 32 qualifiers. The difference in performance is night and day between this season and what we’ve seen from him in the recent past.

It’s worth noting that Miller’s strong run of play this season hasn’t just been limited to even strength, either. It has extended to shorthanded situations as well; while the penalty kill in front of him has done a sterling job of limiting shot attempts and scoring chances against in such scenarios, Miller’s 4th best save percentage amongst regulars (.919, just behind Halak, Howard, and Andersen) is a back reason why the team has allowed a league low 3 power play goals to opposing teams.

The Canucks have needed every one of those saves early on this season. While their special teams play has been up to the task, their collective play at even strength has left plenty to be desired. Their possession rate (48.8%, tied for 21st in the league) is a concern, but for these purposes the rate at which they’ve been bleeding out scoring chances to opponents might be just as worrisome.

The 28.4 scoring chances per 60 at 5v5 that they’re surrendering are the 8th highest rate in the league, while they’re also giving up the 9th most ‘high-danger scoring chances’, with teams like Edmonton, Philadelphia, and Dallas who you would expect to have extensive difficulties in their own zone in their general neighbourhood. More times than not in this early part of the season, their goaltender has been up to the task as the last line of defence, bailing out the guys in front of him.

When the new regime brought Ryan Miller in as a free agent during the summer of 2014 the rationale was that they were bringing in a proven, reliable guy to provide some stability to a position that had been in flux and filled with drama in recent years. For all of the questions about whether Miller was being imprecisely labeled as an “elite” netminder stemming from his scintillating ‘09-’10 Olympic season, there was no denying that he had at the very least established an extensive track record of being consistent, all while being a work-horse for his team. He has had to be just that early on this season with the injury to his back-up right out of the gate, as he leads the league in time spent on the ice (and tied with Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop for the most appearances).

Those team-wide trends listed above need to be shored up moving forward, but if Miller can sustain anything resembling this elevated level of play it should help mitigate some of those concerns. And if he does so he might just win over some of stubborn fans that miss the guys who used to man the crease for their team along the way, too.

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