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Variation On A Theme

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So far this season it looks like more of the same from Jonas Gustavsson.  As we head into a match up versus the Philadelphia Flyers, many Leaf fans are are shaking their heads at the decision to bring Gustavsson back for another kick at the can as an NHL level netminder.  I can understand this perception and it's obvious that to some extent Leaf fans are extremely frustrated with their perceptions that they have been saddled with substandard goaltending for half a decade - particularly prior to the arrival of James Reimer.

This is where I begin to enter a point of debate - how LONG of a term is required to assess a goalie's quality?  Jonas Gustavsson has played 67 games through the first 2+ seasons of his career, seeing the ice for a total of 3683 minutes thus far.  Generally speaking once you've seen 3000 minutes of play you'd THINK you'd be able to determine just how good a player is. Read on for some reasoning as to why you can't.

This isn't a posting that is designed to convince you that Jonas Gustavsson is a top end NHL prospect, or a goalie that is likely to ever be an NHL starter.  I honestly don't think he will ever be more than an NHL backup at this point, although through no obvious fault of his own he has been thrust into the starter's role in his first 2 seasons, and for all intents and purposes been thrown to the wolves by relatively shoddy defensive outfits.

I am personally of the opinion that NHL defenders do not significantly impact on goaltender save percentages.  There are arguments to be made from both sides, but I personally feel that defenses may allow more shots, and generally individual defenders may surrender more from bad locations, but overall much of this comes out in the wash.  Over the long term, a goalie's quality should theoretically be discernible also.


Below is a list of goalies who played over 3000 minutes through their first 3 career NHL seasons since the 2000-01 seasons, along with their SV% over that span:

Player GP TOI SA SV% Record
Jonas Gustavsson 67   3683   1827   .897   23-29-11
Jussi Markkanen 69 3602 1662 .916 23-26-8
Dan Ellis 80 4254 2138 .913 35-29-7
Martin Gerber   114 6394 3052 .913 55-37-13
Pascal Leclaire 59 3238 1782 .905 17-32-5
Milan Hnilicka 96 5246 2907 .902 25-52-12
Johan Hedberg 116 6832 3301 .901 46-57-12
Marc-Andre Fleury 138 7868 3708 .901 57-57-17
Cam Ward 157 8836 4268 .897 81-54-13
Antero Niittymaki 101 5813 2910 .896 35-44-15
Craig Anderson 56 3029 1484 .892 12-29-6

Now - think about the fact that every goalie on that list played over 55 games and over 3000 minutes over 3 years, so most of us would think it fair to assume we "know" what we're dealing with. Any goaltender with a save percentage under .900 three years running probably isn't an NHL goalie, and won't become one... at least that's the logic that seems to be operating with the ditch Gustavsson crusaders these days.  

With that same group of goalies listed above in mind, here is how their numbers look over the next 3 seasons of their NHL careers:

Player GP TOI SA SV% Record
Jussi Markkanen 59 3008 1330 .882 20-21-7
Dan Ellis 76 4183 1980 .904 37-23-8
Martin Gerber   112 6341 3202 .907 55-41-8
Pascal Leclaire 100 5405 2525 .902 40-37-9
Milan Hnilicka 23 1177 647 .892 4-14-1
Johan Hedberg 61 3234 1431 .899 29-14-5
Marc-Andre Fleury 164 9296 4531 .911 94-72-20
Cam Ward 189 10897 5685 .919 94-72-20
Antero Niittymaki 109 5886 3074 .909 48-35-13
Craig Anderson 53 2788 1628 .928 24-14-7

Does anyone see a lot of connections between the top list and the bottom list? Well Markkanen had the best first 3 years of any of the goalies in the first group, and then promptly followed that up with the worst stretch of goal keeping on his way out of the NHL.  Anderson had the WORST first 3 years of any of the goalies in the first group, and then followed that up with the BEST subsequent 3 season SV%.

Cam Ward and Marc-Andre Fleury are both stars for their respective teams and are unlikely to relinquish their hold on that job in the near future.  Antero Niittymaki is not by any means an All-Star, but he obviously has improved his numbers. Dan Ellis, Martin Gerber, and Pascal Leclaire all saw their numbers drop.  Milan Hnilicka didn't last another full season before leaving the NHL.

Johan Hedberg is an oddity in that he went from 8 seasons of middling work to a recent stretch of stellar keeping over the past 3 years.  He didn't really hit his stride until he was 36 years of age, but he held an NHL job as a back up for a long stretch by being a quality teammate and working hard without rocking the boat.

So what's my point? My point is, even after 3 seasons of hockey, and 3000 minutes of ice time, you really can't be 100% certain how good a goalie is.  We don't have nearly enough data to be completely certain that Jonas Gustavsson will NEVER become a decent keeper in the NHL. That being said, there's also no real way to assess if he's about to improve drastically either.  It's just not a determination we can easily make at this point.

I too am frustrated when he plays poorly for the Leafs, but the idea that there is no chance he'll ever improve is belied by the list above.  Obviously this is a possibility, and the people who work on these things (i.e. Allaire) think there's a chance he succeeds.

Worst case for Leaf fans is this season is a total flop from Gustavsson's perspective and we cut him loose at season end.  If he does turn things around and earns another pay day then the happier we'll all be, but let's wait a bit before we decide to set upon a goalie that currently sports a 1-1 record this season... despite some troubles in the net.