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June 26, 2012
Howe and Why
Quality Starts, 2011-12

by Robert Vollman

We often supplement our analysis of goaltenders with an examination of Quality Starts, so with the exciting conclusion to the 2011-12 NHL season, we bring to you a quick recap of the statistic, the 2011-12 leaderboard, and a brief examination of three of this year's more interesting cases, Tuukka Rask, Ondrej Pavelec, and Evgeni Nabokov.

Quality Starts, the data for which can be found on Hockey Abstract for the past six seasons, has been covered regularly in Hockey Prospectus and in our books, where it has been defined as follows:

An idea blatantly lifted from baseball, Quality Starts were one of Hockey Prospectus' first contributions back in 2009 as a measure of whether a goaltender "gave his team a chance to win". In order to record a Quality Start, the starting goalie must stop at least a league average number of shots (typically 91.3% prior to 2009-10, and 91.7% since), or play at least as well as a replacement-level goalie (88.5%) while allowing two goals or fewer.

Without any ado, here is last year's leaderboard, headed by a pair of Blues goaltenders with Vancouver backup Cory Schneider sandwiched in between, and Roberto Luongo nowhere in sight. Cory Schneider is the only goalie to appear in the top 10 each of the past two seasons, though Pekka Rinne just barely missed the list.

2011-12 Leaderboard

Goalie           Team        GS QS  SV%  QS%
Brian Elliott    St. Louis   36 28 .940 77.8%
Cory Schneider   Vancouver   27 19 .932 70.4%
Jaroslav Halak   St. Louis   45 31 .925 68.9%
Jonathan Quick   Los Angeles 69 47 .929 68.1%
Henrik Lundqvist NY Rangers  62 41 .930 66.1%
Jimmy Howard     Detroit     57 37 .921 64.9%
Scott Clemmensen Florida     25 16 .917 64.0%
Jhonas Enroth    Buffalo     22 14 .919 63.6%
Kari Lehtonen    Dallas      59 37 .922 62.7%
Miikka Kiprusoff Calgary     68 42 .921 61.8%
Minimum 20 games started

Remember that the save percentage posted here is how each goalie did as a starter, so it may be slightly different than their overall save percentage, which includes how they did when they came in relief of another goalie.

There are obviously no surprises in the top five, especially for those already familiar with Schneider's success and were making the case for his selection as Vancouver's starter in their first round match-up with the eventual Stanley Cup champions, but what of the next five? Other than Miikka Kiprusoff, there aren't any goalies that you regularly hear about, despite their providing solid and consistent goaltending all season long.

The real surprise might not be who finished in the top 10, but rather who didn't, starting with Boston's backup Tuukka Rask, who virtually everyone would argue is a superior option to either Florida's Scott Clemmensen or Buffalo's Jhonas Enroth.

Tuukka Rask

In 2010-11, we noted that Tuukka Rask had an unusually poor 48.1% Quality Start percentage, which seemed awfully low for someone with an otherwise decent .918 save percentage. Indeed, Martin Brodeur managed the exact same Quality Start percentage with just a .902 save percentage, and even Mike Smith (.902) and Steve Mason (.901) managed to keep their teams in games slightly more often.

Needless to say, we kept a close eye on Rask this year, and the same thing happened, as he managed just a 54.5% Quality Start percentage despite a mighty .928 save percentage. There are goalies like Jonas Hiller (.910) and Ilya Bryzgalov (.911) who managed about the same Quality Start percentage with a much lower overall save percentage. Indeed, his own comparable .930 save percentage way back in 2009-10 was good for a whopping 69.2% Quality Start percentage, second that season to Ryan Miller's 70.6%. What happened?

Backup goalie statistics are perhaps more volatile than starting goalies due to their smaller sample size, but the Bruins ought to be very careful with Tuukka Rask as their starter this year just in case there's some substance behind the apparent and troubling lack of consistency brought to light by his Quality Start percentage.

Ondrej Pavelec

In 2010-11, Ondrej Pavelec enjoyed a decent .917 save percentage but managed just 25 Quality Starts in 54 starts for a lowly 46.3% Quality Start percentage. The bad news in 2011-12 is that Pavelec's save percentage slumped all the way down to a questionable .907, allowing the most goals in the league in the process, but somehow managed 35 Quality Starts in 67 games for an improved and respectable 52.2% Quality Start percentage, exactly the same as his former partner, and current trusted back-up in New Jersey, Johan Hedberg (.921).

When goaltending is below average, it's actually a good thing when it's inconsistent, as we'll explore momentarily with the New York Islanders. A more consistent goalie of the same ability wouldn't give the Jets very many wins—it's very hard for a league-average offensive team to make the playoffs if their goalie is consistently stopping just 90.7% of the shots. On the other hand, if he's opening the flood gates one game out of five, but playing above-average hockey the other four, that might actually make the difference between the Jets, and an otherwise similar team with more consistent goaltending, the New York Islanders.

New York Islanders

As a San Jose Shark in 2009-10, Evgeni Nabokov finished third in Quality Start percentage before departing for a forgettable 2010-11 season in the KHL and then returning to the NHL and the New York Islanders this season, matching his career average with a .912 save percentage (as a starter). Given that any individual start requires a goalie to stop .917 of the shots for a Quality Start, it unfortunately comes as no surprise that Nabokov's performance resulted in just a 43.9% Quality Start percentage, as he only gave the Islanders a 75% chance of winning in just 18 of his 41 starts.

Obviously, there's a big difference between the defense behind which he used to play (Rob Blake, Dan Boyle, Douglas Murray, Marc-Edouard Vlasic) and the one behind which he played last season (Mark Streit, Andrew MacDonald, Travis Hamonic, Milan Jurcina), but his back-up, veteran AHLer Al Montoya played behind that exact same defense and managed a superior 46.2% Quality Start percentage despite a much worse overall .890 save percentage. What gives?

Despite how it seems, this is actually disguised praise for Nabokov, not Montoya. Of the seven times the Islanders were opened up for six goals or more (all regulation-time losses, obviously), Nabokov was the starter only once. Of the five other legitimate five-goal nights (excluding empty-netters and regulation time only), Nabokov was in nets for only two. So despite being awarded half the team's starts, and generally the tougher ones, Nabokov was responsible for only a quarter of the team's blowouts.

Montoya, and New York's other goalies, would occasionally get shelled, but otherwise gave the Islanders a better chance to win than the mediocre but consistent Nabokov. Most teams, like the Sharks, would probably prefer a rock steady performer like Nabokov, but a team like the Islanders should be more comfortable with someone more unpredictable who throws away some games completely as long as he also gives them a pile of winnable one-goal nights, too. Like Montoya.

Wrapping It Up

Quality Starts have helped reveal how Cory Schneider is one of the league's more consistent goalies, right up there with St. Louis's rock-steady pair, and two of the league's very best: Jonathan Quick and Henrik Lundqvist (whose consistency and Quality Starts were covered in some detail in Hockey Prospectus 2011-12). They've also brought some previously unsung heroic back-ups to light, like Scott Clemmensen and Jhonas Enroth, which places question marks on Boston's heir apparent, Tuukka Rask.

It'll be most interesting to see what the Winnipeg Jets and New York Islanders do with their goaltending in the offseason. For more detail, both current and historical, download the raw data from Hockey Abstract and post your questions and findings in the comments section below.

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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