Brian Elliott has been one of the biggest stories in the NHL this season. He went from dead-last in the league in GVT last year to his current ninth-place ranking, a whopping 34-goal swing in value, which is equivalent to about 11 points in the standings. Elliott's performance has been a major factor in the Blues' surprising start, which has placed them among the top teams in the Western Conference.
It is not a stretch to say that Elliott's season to date represents one of the most spectacular turnarounds in NHL goaltending history. In seasons past, there have been goalies with larger statistical swings, but typically that has been largely due to team factors. For example, Brian Hayward had a 4.72 GAA and .842 save percentage with the hapless Winnipeg Jets in 1985-86 before being traded to the defending Stanley Cup champion Canadiens for the 1986-87 and seeing his numbers improve to .894 and a league-leading 2.81 GAA. The parity in today's NHL has made drastic shot quality-produced swings like that a thing of the past.
Lately, we have not seen anything like what Elliott has accomplished this season, where he has improved his save percentage by a whopping .045 from last year's .893 to this year's .938. Since 1994-95, there have been 67 seasons where a goalie posted a save percentage below .900 with at least 40 games played. The majority (50 out of 67) saw their save rate improve the next season, but the average rate of improvement was just .009. Here were the top five, with three goalies in particular posting very strong bounceback seasons:
Rank Goaltender Season GP Save % Season GP Save % Change
1 Manny Fernandez 2001-02 44 .892 2002-03 35 .924 +.032
2 Evgeni Nabokov 2005-06 45 .885 2006-07 50 .914 +.029
3 Ed Belfour 2001-02 60 .895 2002-03 62 .922 +.027
4 Kirk McLean 1997-98 44 .881 1998-99 30 .900 +.019
5 Chris Mason 2007-08 51 .898 2008-09 57 .916 +.018
Elliott is not the only 2011-12 goaltender on pace to make it onto this list. Nikolai Khabibulin has a .918 this year after last year's dreadful .890, which would place him in between Nabokov and Belfour on the list, although with a line of 2-10-1, 3.25, .894 for the stumbling Oilers since December, it is far from certain that Khabibulin will remain in that lofty spot come season's end.
Elliott needs a .925 to top the list, which at his current pace would require only about a .910 save percentage over the rest of the season. It seems very likely that he is on his way to easily the biggest comeback season for a goaltender in the last 15 years. What is even more unusual is that Elliott does not have an elite track record behind him. Fernandez was coming off of back-to-back .920 seasons when his play temporarily fell off in 2001-02. Nabokov had played four full seasons as a starter at .915 before struggling to get back into playing shape coming back from the lockout. Ed Belfour had a Hall of Fame track record and was just two years removed from leading the league in save percentage and making the second of back-to-back trips to the Stanley Cup Finals in a starring role. For each of those three, it was a pretty safe bet that they would return to a high level of play. But for Brian Elliott, who began this season with a .901 career save percentage in the NHL, it was a different story.
Elliott does have one prior extended hot streak in his career. From mid-January to late March in 2010, he went 2.10, .929, on 659 SA in 24 GP as a member of the Ottawa Senators. Yet that run was certainly no guarantee of future success, as over the following 500 shots against (playoffs included), Elliott's save percentage plummeted to an awful .886.
Will a similar pattern repeat itself for Elliott down the stretch? It is difficult to predict, given the relatively unprecedented nature of his comeback year. He looks like a better goaltender than before, and his numbers are much improved, but there have been other goalies that temporarily looked like world-beaters for a stretch before time inevitably dragged them down to their established talent level. The extreme nature of his statistical performance thus far indicates quite strongly that Elliott has improved as a netminder, very probably to a level of at least league average or better. Whether he has truly developed into an All-Star talent or has been benefiting from a hot streak on a strong defensive team remains to be seen.
While some observers (particularly Ottawa Senators fans) would not yet be willing to wager on Elliott's long-term success, the St. Louis Blues were comfortable rewarding him with a two year extension at $1.8 million per season. It seems likely that the team is buying Elliott's stock near its peak, which is usually not the most prudent business move, but the good news is that the cap hit is fairly reasonable relative to comparables around the league.
The nature of goaltending roles means that contracts in that salary range are comparatively rare. Established starters will quickly see their pay rise above $3 million, even during their restricted free agency years, while many teams look to save money by finding a backup willing to play for $1 million or less. As a result, only 10 goalies in the league had cap hits this season between $1.5 and $2.5 million. Three of them (Rynnas, Bobrovsky, Nilsson) are on Entry-Level Contracts, earning a low base salary with potential bonuses being applied against the cap. The others are a mix of relatively unproven starters and veteran backups (stats given are as of the signing date of the goalie's contract or extension):
Goalie Cap Hit Date Signed Career Save % Career SA
Jimmy Howard $2,250,000 Feb 28, 2011 .916 3469
Antero Niittymaki $2,000,000 July 1, 2010 .903 6599
Mike Smith $2,000,000 July 1, 2011 .906 4382
Chris Mason $1,850,000 July 2, 2010 .914 6791
Jonathan Quick $1,800,000 Oct 23, 2009 .911 1262
James Reimer $1,800,000 June 9, 2011 .921 1134
Michael Leighton $1,550,000 June 30, 2010 .902 2814
Brian Elliott $1,800,000 Jan 18, 2012 .906 4359
Elliott's closest statistical comparable is Mike Smith, who is also having a resurgent season. It seems likely that going forward Elliott will be able to match or surpass the contributions of other veteran backups like Niittymaki or Mason, especially since Elliott is considerably younger. Cheaper backup options would certainly have been available to the Blues, but with St. Louis unlikely to spend to the cap over the next two seasons, an overpayment to the backup goalie will not have much of an impact on the rest of the team.
Elliott's ability to live up to his contract will also depend on the play of starter Jaroslav Halak. After a very poor start (.843 in October), the Slovakian international has a .936 save percentage since November 1, a turnaround that closely coincided with the hiring of coach Ken Hitchcock. Halak went two full months without losing a game in regulation, and with eight starts in the teams' past 11 games has regained the upper hand in the battle for the Blues' starting job. If Halak remains hot, Elliott's playing time will decrease considerably compared to the first half. It would be quite difficult for one of the highest-paid backups in the league to earn his salary with just three starts per month.
The real loser in the Elliott deal is Ben Bishop. The 25-year-old 6'7" monster currently ranks sixth in the league in save percentage with an impressive .926 in his fourth full season at the AHL level. Bishop was in competition with Elliott for the backup job at the Blues' training camp this year, and it looks like failing to take advantage of that opportunity will cost Bishop not just an NHL salary for this season but very probably the next two seasons as well, unless the impending RFA is able to sign an offer sheet or find another open spot via trade.
At this point in the season, it seems clear that Brian Elliott is a much-improved goaltender, but it will take more games to determine whether he is a complete statistical outlier in that regard or whether he is another example of a goalie that figured out his game and became a solid journeyman in his mid- to late-twenties. St. Louis is betting $3.6 million on the latter, which is based almost entirely on 23 games of work but still appears to be a reasonable risk. Don't count on Elliott making a habit of attending All-Star Games over the rest of his career, but if he can form an above-average tandem with Jaroslav Halak for the next two seasons at a combined cost of $5.55 million, then that should be considered money well-spent for the Blues.
Philip Myrland is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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