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Unmasked

Goaltending surprises in first quarter of season

Decline in save percentage, emergence of young stars among early trends

by Kevin Woodley / NHL.com Correspondent

The belief that NHL goaltending has never been better has been a near constant refrain for the past dozen seasons. Save percentages rose steadily throughout from 2005-06 through 2015-16, starting at .901 and finishing at .915, thanks, in large part, to a revolution in the way the position was taught.

But that belief is undergoing a challenge now.

Save percentage dropped to .913 last season and is down to .911 through the first quarter of this season. If that trend continues, it would mark the first consecutive season decline since 1998-99 through 2000-01.

Does this save percentage regression mean goaltenders are getting worse?

Not necessarily, according to goaltenders and experts on the subject.

Detroit Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard said the trend is more about shooters getting better and a crackdown on slashing that allows them to take uncontested shots frequently. Shot volume is up dramatically this season; the 31.7 shots per team per game is the highest in more than 30 years. It was 30.2 last season.

The slashing crackdown also has led to a slight increase in power plays, which, on its own, negatively affects save percentage, but Howard said the effect goes beyond that. There have been 3.47 power-play opportunities per team per game, up from 2.99 last season.

Video: COL@DET: Howard stops multiple shots after turnover

"It's about the rule changes and defensemen not being able to put a stick on anyone anymore, so shooters hands are a lot more free," Howard said. "They are able to basically go to the net and get shots off unimpeded now."

Former NHL goalie Steve Valiquette is seeing it reflected in statistics compiled by his company, Clear Sight Analytics, which has been tracking 34 data points for every shot taken during the past three seasons, factoring in preshot passing, screens, deflections and broken plays to try to get a deeper understanding of shot quality.

According to their data, the number of mid- and high-quality chances off the rush were up 11.5 percent. Valiquette, who played 46 NHL games during five NHL seasons and works as a studio analyst for New York Rangers broadcasts on MSG Network, said he sees the crackdown on slashing affecting more than just the final shot.

"What I've noticed from covering the Rangers and seeing the change in our League-wide data is players, not having to contend with contact all the way up the ice, are able to connect passes cleaner and the receiver has an extra half second to receive [and] to get shots off more frequently without interruption," Valiquette said. "The biggest impact is plays off the rush. Team numbers are up across the League from the year before."

Here are a few more goaltending surprises through the first quarter of the NHL season:

 

Five alive for Vegas

The Vegas Golden Knights appeared to be in good shape going into the season with Marc-Andre Fleury, the former Pittsburgh Penguins starter, as their No. 1. But Vegas reached Thanksgiving in first place in the Pacific Division despite being led in appearances (11) and wins (5) by fourth-stringer Maxime Lagace after injuries to the three goalies ahead of him. The Golden Knights even played Dylan Ferguson, a 19-year-old emergency call-up from junior, in relief during an 8-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Nov. 14.

Lagace has played well in four of his past five starts after giving up at least four goals in three of his first four in the NHL. Fleury had a .925 save percentage winning three of his first four starts before being sidelined with a concussion, Malcolm Subban, obtained on waivers from the Boston Bruins before the season, was 2-0-0 with a .936 save percentage before he got injured, and third-stringer Oscar Dansk was 3-0-0 with a .946 save percentage before he was injured.

Watch closely and you'll see similarities in the aggressive style the goalies play. That hasn't changed as Vegas worked down the depth chart because goalie coach Dave Prior picked goalies he believed could handle that style.

"I have had an advantage in organizations where I do the scouting, so I am looking for goaltenders that possess qualities that allow them to play the way I want them to play," said Prior, who is the Vegas director of goaltending.

Video: VGK@ANA: Lagace shuts down Manson's breakaway attempt

 

Big names, early struggles

There was a lot of star power hovering around or below .900 save percentage at the end of October, and though some, like Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers (.914), have improved since the calendar turned to November, there are some surprises near or on the wrong end of it of .900.

It's a list led by injured Montreal Canadiens standout Carey Price (.877), Ottawa Senators starter Craig Anderson (.896), Edmonton Oilers workhorse Cam Talbot (.901), and Boston Bruins No. 1 Tuukka Rask (.897).

Though Price, like Anderson and Talbot, will get a chance to play his way out of the early slump when healthy, Rask watched a third straight game Wednesday as the backup to Anton Khudobin, who made 40 saves in a 3-2 shootout win against the New Jersey Devils and has a .938 save percentage while using an aggressive, rhythm-reliant style that seems better suited to more starts than a backup role.

Video: MTL@MIN: Price makes terrific sliding save

 

Kids are all right

The first Unmasked column this season focused on how the NHL youth movement prevalent among skaters did not include goaltenders, with 17 of 31 starters 30 or older. But Tampa Bay Lightning No. 1 Andrei Vasilevskiy, 23, has been among the League's best with a .929 save percentage;John Gibson (.924), 24, has helped stabilize an injury-riddled defense for the Anaheim Ducks; two-time Stanley Cup winner Matt Murray (.907) is adjusting to a full-time starter's role at age 23. Dansk and Subban are also 23 years old.

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