James O'Brien

Hockey Daily Dose

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Who Takes the Throne?

Tuesday, June 04, 2013


Who’s the best goalie in the NHL, or at least in 2013? Or at least in this year’s playoffs?

 

Before the third round began, those three questions weren’t necessarily easy to answer, but there was some comfort in the notion that you could make a choice of some kind.

 

Maybe you soak in the year-in, year-out excellence of Henrik Lundqvist (or if you really want to be rebellious in that vein, Roberto Luongo). Perhaps you looked at the big-game hardware and leaderboards and decided to tab breakthrough American netminder Jonathan Quick.

 

It’s foolish for someone to allow two games, one summer’s worth of work or even a potential outlier of a season, but the hysterical analysis flowing from the Twitterverse during and after the Pittsburgh Penguins’ pitiful Game 2 performance shows that people aren’t afraid of overreacting after a few days of play.

 

So with two games down in each series, black could very well become white and up might be down for many fans.

 

PITTSBURGH’S PITY

 

While Tomas Vokoun’s impressive save percentage numbers (mostly in Florida) prompted many stat-leaning bloggers to pick him as a dark horse choice as an elite goalie, I doubt that there are droves of people evoking the name Vokoun or Marc-Andre Fleury in best-in-the-business conversations. Yet with the Penguins’ high-powered offense and puck-moving defense in mind, the thought was that merely above-average goaltending could push them deep in the postseason.

 

In the big picture, that might be true. Still, many will boil down team-wide failures to the suddenly struggling combo, so what is Dan Bylsma to do.

 

Option 1: The Safe Narrative Route - Fleury is the younger goalie at 28. The Penguins have a lot invested him as a $5 million guy (albeit only through 2014-15) who was the top overall pick of a downright historic 2003 draft. It doesn’t take a front office insider to guess that Pittsburgh’s brass would probably prefer a scenario in which “The Flower” figures it all out and wins his second career Stanley Cup.

 

Sure, his .883 save percentage is nothing short of putrid, but the guy's playoff experience (80 GP) actually towers over Vokoun's resume (just 20 postseason GP).

 

(Side note: it's actually interesting that Fleury was significantly better when the Penguins lost in the 2008 Stanley Cup finals [.933 save percentage] than he's ever been in any other postseason.)

 

Option 2: The Unsexy Veteran Possibility - To many, Vokoun is a guy who put up empty stats on mediocre-to-bad teams and then “flopped” when he played for contenders. Some simply think that he looks like a plumber.

 

Still, even after that rough game-and-change against the Bruins, Vokoun's save percentage ranks among the postseason elite at .929. That's a world better than Fleury's aforementioned .883 mark, even with small sample sizes in mind. His career .925 playoff save percentage in his notably fewer appearances is also a world better than Fleury's pedestrian .903 mark.

 

My easily ignored advice: Go with Vokoun.

 

Fleury’s basically walked a gilded road to franchise goalie status, which stands in almost hilarious contrast to Vokoun’s path. While “MAF” was the first name picked in an entire draft, tumbleweeds must have been rolling about when Vokoun was made the 226th pick (round nine) in the 1994 draft.

 

A guy’s background doesn’t really matter, but to me, it all says that MAF needs to learn conclusively that he’s not going to play merely because he’s seemingly bred to be The Man.

 

Dan Bylsma might choose Fleury because lazier media types will inexplicably be easier on him for doing so, but Vokoun was given the salary of a cheap starter ($2 million) in part to strengthen the incentive to avoid starting Fleury just because.

 

And by almost any objective measure, Vokoun has been the better goalie lately.

 

The Penguins need more from just about every major player in the mix, but in the powerless situation of packing high stakes games in succession during two weeks, the only things they can really do boil down to: 1) make subtle tweaks, 2) hope Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang get it together and 3) pick the best goalie available.

 

The salary structure says Fleury is the guy, but the stats say Vokoun.

 

NOT EXACTLY KINGS OF THE ROAD

 

While the Penguins lost two games in the hyper-modern (read: not particularly home-ice advantageous) Consol Energy Center, the Los Angeles Kings can at least say that they’re going to attempt to even their series in the friendly confines of the Staples Center.

 

Darryl Sutter basically shrugged his shoulder when he was asked about his team’s home-away disparity, but the numbers are damning. They’re 1-7 in the postseason and 8-12-4 in the regular season away from Los Angeles. Their impressive 18 goals for at home in this year’s playoffs match a worrisome 18 goals allowed on the road in that same span.

 

Maybe it’s a matter of line matching. Then again, it could be that opponents get confused and bewildered by Eric Cartman’s surprisingly grating “Let’s go Kings!” chant.

 

Whatever the reasoning is, it’s a surprising stark difference that the Kings need to work out. If they can even get back to Chicago, that is.

 

Oh, by the way, I think Quick is going to be fine ... although Sutter has thrown the meaning of the word "fine" into question with Mike Richards' concussion situation. So I guess you'll just have to wonder if there's some double meaning to that appraisal.

 

(Nah, he's pretty good.)

 

OUT OF THE SPOTLIGHT

 

I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize for playing into a trend I’m about to point out: some goalies are putting up performances that are great, yet they’re clearly overshadowed by famous netminders having meltdowns.

 

While the Penguins’ duo seems like a comedy of errors, Tuukka Rask seemingly adds a few thousands to his earning potential with each playoff performance. He's now 10-5 in this postseason with a .935 save percentage, improbably improving upon absolutely fantastic regular season numbers (19-10-5 with a .929 save percentage). It’ll be fascinating to see how much money the pending free agent can pry from a Boston management team that probably wants to keep Nathan Horton around pretty badly now.

 

Out West, Corey Crawford can probably relate to Rask in how his successes have been glossed over, at least relatively speaking.

 

If the Western Conference finals follow early trends, Crawford's .938 save percentage will overtake Quick's .940 mark as the best percentage in the playoffs. (Well, unless Rask leapfrogs them both).

 

Instead of wondering if Crawford will regress to his ship-sinking 2012 ways, maybe we should start wondering if that was just an off year for a guy who could eventually become a rock in net?

 

Either way, both Rask and Crawford deserve a lot more credit than they're receiving. If only caffeine-hoarding fantasy columnists would feature them in the first graphs instead of later in stories …

 

QUICK HITS

 

Sorry, but I don’t dig the new Dallas Stars logo. The D just doesn’t work for me … Jarome Iginla has had a weird season, eh? I have no idea a) how much he’ll make as a free agent and b) how much he should make. It would be a bummer to see him retire, though, if that’s a possibility … New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello has a busy summer coming up, with Patrik Elias, David Clarkson and Adam Henrique among the guys he needs to re-sign and some serious questions about his ancient goalie duo … In case you’re wondering, David Krejci has only added to his postseason lead for points. He sits at 20 now, just three back of his 2011 playoffs-leading mark … Uh, why did people think the Boston Bruins should scratch Jaromir Jagr? He had two assists and continues to be a useful forward, despite the bad shooting luck.

 

***

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James O'Brien is the Hockey Daily Dose's author and has been a contributor to NBC's Pro Hockey Talk for more than two years. Follow him on Twitter.
Email :James O'Brien



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