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March 14, 2012
Howe and Why
Late Season Quality Starts Update

by Robert Vollman


Quality Starts, awarded to goalies on a game-by-game basis for playing well enough for this team to win, is slowly catching on in the mainstream. First introduced as one of our first offerings back in 2009 (as a blatant rip-off of the similar pitching statistic in baseball), a Quality Start is awarded if the starting goalie stops a league average number of shots (typically 91.2%), or plays at least as well as a replacement-level goalie (88.5%) while allowing two goals or fewer.

We've used Quality Starts extensively since then, including the inclusion of three years of data for every active NHL goalie in last year's Hockey Prospectus 2011-12 annual. It's been gradually adopted by both the mainstream media and NHL front offices, and I wouldn't be surprised if you tune into an NHL game some day and see it super-imposed over the goalie during the pre-opening-faceoff introductions, right next to goals against average and save percentage.

Best Goalies

Without any further ado, let's jump right into this year's leaderboard, as of last week.

Goalie                 Team        QS GS  QS%
Henrik Lundqvist       NY Rangers  36 46 78.3%
Brian Elliott          St. Louis   21 28 75.0%
Cory Schneider         Vancouver   15 21 71.4%
Mike Smith             Phoenix     35 50 70.0%
Jhonas Enroth          Buffalo     14 20 70.0%
Jonathan Quick         Los Angeles 37 54 68.5%
Jimmy Howard           Detroit     32 47 68.1%
Pekka Rinne            Nashville   38 57 66.7%
Jose Theodore          Florida     24 36 66.7%
Jean-Sebastien Giguere Colorado    18 27 66.7%
Jaroslav Halak         St. Louis   24 36 66.7%
Minimum 20 starts

Henrik Lundqvist, who was also featured in our Quality Starts essay in Hockey Prospectus 2011-12, isn't a terribly consistent goalie. His Quality Start percentage has fluctuated from 59.7% in 2007-08 up to 67.1% in 2008-09, all the way down to 55.2% two years later, and then up to 78.3% this season.

Even if you don't believe in new-fangled statistics like Quality Starts, just look at his shutouts. He had 10-11 in 2007-08 and 2010-11, and only 3-4 in the two seasons in between. If his goals against average has been largely the same, as it was those four seasons (but not this year), the far higher rate of shutouts must also mean a far greater rate of five-goal nights too. All things being equal, the Rangers would definitely rather have a goalie who consistently allows 1-3 goals per night rather than one who swings wildly between 0-5. Fortunately, this year they're getting one who swings between 0-2.

After Henrik Lundqvist is the surprise appearance of Brian Elliott, who had the fifth-lowest Quality Start percentage among active goalies coming into this season, at just 46.2% (minimum 100 starts), well ahead of teammate Jaroslav Halak, who was 16th with his 56.9% coming into this year.

Elliott is just the first of four straight unlikely suspects, followed by Vancouver's Cory Schneider, Phoenix's Mike Smith and Buffalo's Jhonas Enroth. It isn't until sixth place when we see some familiar faces, Los Angeles' Jonathan Quick, Detroit's Jimmy Howard, and Nashville's Pekka Rinne.

Worst Goalies

On the flip side, Dwayne Roloson is struggling mightily, keeping Tampa Bay in the game just five times in 22 attempts.

Goalie           Team      QS GS  QS%
Dwayne Roloson   Tampa Bay  5 22 22.7%
Steve Mason      Columbus  12 34 35.3%
James Reimer     Toronto   10 28 35.7%
Jonas Gustavsson Toronto   12 29 41.4%
Corey Crawford   Chicago   21 45 46.7%

Steve Mason, who flourished under Ken Hitchcock's system in his rookie 2008-09 season, hasn't had a season below 3.00 goals against average or above .901 save percentage in the three years since then, combining for fewer shutouts in 148 starts than he managed that one year in 61.

Meanwhile in Toronto, the problem apparently isn't the chronically underperforming netminders, nor the defense in front of them, nor even the GM that put them all together—it's allegedly the coach Ron Wilson who is to blame. Interesting.

A great test for how strong a team is playing in front of a goalie is to see how well they do when they leave town. For the Maple Leafs, the only recent example is Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who went from a .900 save percentage as a Leaf to .920 and a top-ten 66.7% Quality Start percentage in Colorado. But we're sure that's somehow Ron Wilson's fault.

Josh Harding Award

Around this time, we also like to handicap the Josh Harding Award race, for the league's best relief goalie. For those new to Hockey Prospectus, Josh Harding has the uncanny ability to come into games in relief, and consistently play at a level far higher than any other cold netminder. Here's how the race looks so far this year.

Goalie           Team        GR  GAA  SV%
Matt Hackett     Minnesota    3 0.00 1.000
Cory Schneider   Vancouver    3 0.00 1.000
Jason LaBarbera  Phoenix      4 0.48  .981
Dan Ellis        Anaheim      5 0.98  .964
Josh Harding*    Minnesota    2 1.32  .959
Ray Emery        Chicago      6 1.75  .935
Sergei Bobrovsky Philadelphia 4 2.14  .933
Dwayne Roloson   Tampa Bay    6 2.28  .933
Anders Lindback  Nashville    4 2.29  .928
Mathieu Garon    Tampa Bay    4 2.09  .917
Minimum 3 GR

Minnesota's Matt Hackett has obviously been studying at the feet of the master, who hasn't come in relief often enough to qualify himself, playing perfectly in all three relief opportunities—just like Vancouver's Cory Schneider.

We may have also redeemed Dwayne Roloson, who has remained effective in a relief role, besting even multi-time Harding Award finalist Mathieu Garon.

Final Word

Henrik Lundqvist, one of perhaps a single handful of goalies that can be safely called elite, is a strong goalie—even those years where we've highlighted his struggles. Being on the absolute top of his game can make an otherwise above-average team practically unstoppable.

Other than Lundqvist, the top 10 this year has a number of surprises, including Brian Elliott, who could have had a case made for his being the worst goalie in the league upon Vesa Toskala's departure. And Minnesota could be a breeding ground for relief goaltending, as Josh Harding prepares to hand his award to teammate Matt Hackett.

Finally, you have to stop and wonder about teams like Toronto and Tampa Bay, two cities where goalies struggle mightily, only to have career seasons upon their departure, like Jean-Sebastien Giguere (Toronto to Colorado) or Mike Smith (Tampa Bay to Phoenix). Oh well, we don't need advanced stats to know that it was probably all Ron Wilson's fault.

Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Robert by clicking here or click here to see Robert's other articles.

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