Tim Thomas has spent much of his career being doubted by his critics and struggling to earn respect for his play. Carey Price arrived in the NHL as a can't-miss prospect, drafted in the first round by a storied organization that has since given him every chance to succeed. What do these two goaltenders with widely divergent career paths have in common? They are both having a season of redemption in 2010-11.
It is not often that a Vezina winner finds himself relegated to a backup role less than a year after winning the trophy, but that is the situation Thomas found himself in last season when Tuukka Rask took over the top spot in Boston. After leading the league in goals-against average and save percentage during the regular season, the Finnish rookie played every minute of playoff action for Boston, leaving Thomas stewing on the bench.
Similarly, Jaroslav Halak's hot play in Montreal meant that Price received fewer and fewer starting assignments in Montreal as the season wore on. Like Thomas, Price had to sit and watch most of the playoffs as Halak starred in two upset series victories over Washington and Pittsburgh before the clock struck midnight for the overachieving Canadiens against Philadelphia.
Entering 2010-11, both goalies appeared to be an afterthought, but a closer look shows that we should have seen these rebounds coming.
Looking back at 2009-10, both Thomas and Price suffered most from factors that weren't within their control: a hot teammate stealing starts in the crease and poor goal support from the skaters up front. In fact, both Thomas (.915) and Price (.912) had above-average save percentages relative the rest of the NHL in 2009-10. But those numbers didn't cut it in Boston or Montreal because of the outstanding play of Rask and Halak.
The other factor that disadvantaged both Price and Thomas was goal support. Both Price and Thomas lost more often than they won, but on many nights the problem was actually at the other end of the ice. Boston ranked dead last in the league in goals scored, while the Canadiens finished just a few spots ahead in 26th. What was even more unlucky for Price was that the Habs' anemic offense dried up even further whenever he was in the net. Montreal averaged fewer than two goals per game in Price's starts, the main reason why he posted a much poorer record than Halak.
No goalie can be expected to post the same numbers year after year. In fact, some studies indicate that even goalies on the same team have an average save percentage difference of as much as .010 from year to year, and teammate-dependent stats like wins and GAA can swing even more wildly. Good goalies often have down years because of external factors, such as lingering injuries (this summer Thomas had offseason surgery to fix an ailing hip), poor support from teammates, a few unusually bad outings, poor special teams performances, or simply getting unlucky bounces. But when things conspire to go poorly for a top goalie one year, you can usually count on his luck changing the following year and a performance that is more in line with his true talent.
And that's exactly what's happening in Boston and Montreal. A quick look at their past history suggests that, while neither can be expected to maintain their torrid early season pace, it is likely that both will continue to post strong numbers.
A first-round draft pick that attracted attention through starring turns in the world junior championships and the AHL's Calder Cup playoffs, Price burst onto the NHL scene in 2007-08, posting a .920 save percentage and displacing veteran Cristobal Huet from the Habs' crease. The sky seemed the limit for Price, but two straight seasons of mediocre results led to widespread speculation that he was not mentally tough enough to handle the cauldron of criticism in Montreal.
The reality is that Price's struggles should have been expected, as few goaltenders in their early 20s have been able to consistently cope with NHL opposition (see: Mason, Steve). This season, Price has answered his critics in the best way possible: on the ice. He leads the league in minutes played, saves and wins and has posted four shutouts so far with a 1.96 GAA and a .935 save percentage. If he can add some playoff success to his resume, then the memory of Halak will fade pretty quickly in Montreal.
Thomas is no stranger to acrobatics in the net himself. In fact, his unorthodox, athletic style is misunderstood by many fans, who consider him to be lucky and not among the league's elite. Plenty of professional scouts also shared that view in the past, which is why Thomas' long and winding road to the NHL went through the ECHL, the IHL and Sweden, before he had a breakout season with the AHL's Providence Bruins in 2003-04 and an outstanding season in Finland during the NHL lockout. When he finally earned an NHL shot, Thomas quickly established himself as the No. 1 goalie in Boston.
Over the past few seasons, Thomas has proved himself as a big league netminder, culminating in his 2009 Vezina win. Thomas has especially thrived ever since Claude Julien took over behind the Bruins bench in 2007. Over that three-plus-season span, Thomas has a terrific .927 save percentage, which likely reflects both his personal performance as well as the effectiveness of Julien's disciplined and stingy defensive system. This season, Thomas has left the rest of the league in his dust with a 1.47 GAA and an unbelievable .956 save percentage.
What's notable about Thomas' success is that the rate of defensive breakdowns seems to have gone up this year in Boston. The Bruins are allowing nearly three more shots against per 60 minutes with Thomas in net, and he has also faced a slightly higher rate of power-play shots against this season than last. In contrast, Price's shots-against numbers have dropped by 1.7 shots per 60 minutes while facing a similar ratio of chances against on special teams, indicating that the Habs' improved defensive unit has done a better job of protecting its goalie this season.
Thomas is the odds-on leader for the Vezina at this point in the season, yet there are many goalies who have gone through similar hot streaks yet were unable to keep up the pace. And should he slip, Rask remains an enticing alternative, which could cost Thomas in the voting against a more heavily utilized netminder like Price. Nevertheless, solid play the rest of the way should result in similar overall numbers to what he managed in 2008-09, and that likely gives Thomas a good chance to continue to defy his critics by adding another major trophy to his collection.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Philip Myrland is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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