Elite level goaltending is often the driver of success for teams looking to be serious contenders for the Stanley Cup. The easiest comparison to make to the value of an elite goaltender is like a quarterback in the NFL; if you lack the high caliber performance at the position, your championship hopes are often left in the balance.
We’ve seen this the past few seasons in Washington, with vast swaths of inconsistency and sometimes downright awful play in net dooming the Capitals to now four consecutive first round playoff exits.
With the Capitals cutting loose both Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov earlier this summer, goaltending has become a hot topic among Capitals fans. The main question becomes, how do the new goaltenders Darcy Kuemper and Charlie Lindgren stack up to the rest of the competition in the Metro Division?
We’ll tackle that question in this post using Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) and Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx). There will be a quick summary of what GSAA and GSAx measure soon to follow, but to learn more about these metrics, please check out our NHL Analytics Glossary. The statistics used in this post are courtesy of Evolving Hockey.
What do GSAA and GSAx measure?
GSAA is a great metric to normalize performances by goaltenders by multiplying the league average save percentage by the total shots on goal seen by the goaltender at hand, then subtracting the number of goals allowed by that goaltender to give you a baseline against the league average. A positive figure means that they’re performing above the league average, where a negative number means they are below the league average.
GSAx on the other hand, is a good way to zoom in on a single goaltender’s performance by looking at the goals allowed relative to their expected goals against figure. A positive number means that they’ve saved more goals than they were expected to. A negative figure means that they’ve allowed more goals than expected. GSAx considers the context of goals allowed, since there are extremely high danger shots on goal that are much more difficult saves to make. The cream of the crop in net tends to have remarkably high GSAx, where the worse goalies typically have negative figures here.
Ranking by GSAA
First up, let’s take a look at how each of the expected goaltenders in the Metropolitan Division fared in GSAA last season (click to enlarge):
To no one’s surprise, the defending Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin led the division’s goaltenders in GSAA, posting a gaudy 42.46 GSAA. He was trailed by Ilya Sorokin of the New York Islanders, who posted a 28.97 GSAA. Both Shesterkin and Sorokin ended up leading the league in GSAA as well. Third in the division is the new starting goalie in DC, Darcy Kuemper.
Good news for Caps fans: Kuemper was fourth in the NHL last season with his 22.54 GSAA. After Kuemper, the solid perfomers were Carolina’s Frederik Andersen and Pittsburgh’s Tristan Jarry. The rest were rather close to league average, to the back end of the Rangers’ Jaroslav Halak, the Flyers’ Carter Hart, the Devils’ Mackenzie Blackwood, and the Blue Jackets’ Joonas Korpisalo.
Now, let’s see how the combined GSAA of each of the teams’ tandems stack up:
These ratings end up making sense: the teams with very solid #1 goaltenders skewed towards the top end of the combined GSAA pool here. Charlie Lindgren, signed to be Kuemper’s backup, actually posted rather solid GSAA marks (5.47) in five appearances, which helped buoy the Capitals over the Carolina Hurricanes here. Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Columbus all have below average goaltending at a tandem level.
Ranking by GSAx
Now that we’ve seen performances compared to league average, let’s take a look at GSAx for each of the goaltenders in the Metro:
Shesterkin still holds the top spot here (and just another feather in his cap proving why he was voted the league’s best goaltender). The interesting piece is that Frederik Andersen ended up hopping over both Kuemper and Sorokin for the second best GSAx in the division. Of note, of the top five overall GSAx around the NHL, four play in the Metro (Shesterkin, Andersen, Sorokin, and Kuemper).
After the top four in the division, there’s a slight drop off to Antti Raanta, Tristan Jarry, Charlie Lindgren, and Semyon Varlamov. After that is a cavalcade of mediocrity and bad performances, particularly by Blackwood and Korpisalo.
As a tandem, you’re only as good as your weakest link. So, let’s see how each of the tandems stack up in total GSAx from last season:
Carolina rides two quality goaltenders in Raanta and Andersen to the top spot in the division here. While Andersen is typically the better of the two, Raanta is more than capable to step in and give Andersen a lower share of starts.
The Rangers bringing in Halak to be their backup pulled down the total for the Rangers slightly, since he posted a -0.71 GSAx in Vancouver last season.
The Isles have a similar situation as the Hurricanes, where they have two solid goaltenders who have proven they can play at a high level.
With Kuemper and Lindgren, the Capitals have a solid tandem. Lindgren is still rather unproven with only 26 appearances under his belt, but through those appearances between Montreal and St Louis, he has a career GSAx of 7.22.
Now that we’ve seen the GSAA and GSAx metrics for each of the goaltenders and the total by goaltending tandem, let’s rank the overall tandems in the division:
- New York Rangers – Yes, they didn’t have the highest combined GSAx as a tandem compared to Carolina. On the other hand, Igor Shesterkin is the league’s best goaltender coming into the 2021-22 season after his regular season performance last season. Halak won’t be asked to play a ton, mainly to give Shesterkin breaks on back-to-back games, but Halak has proven that he’s a capable backup in the past.
- New York Islanders – Sorokin is now the starting goalie of the present and future for the Islanders, but the veteran Varlamov is almost as good as you can get as a “backup” goalie. Both Sorokin and Varlamov have posted very solid numbers the past few seasons, and with a defensively focused system presumably continuing on Long Island, we can expect the Russian duo in net to continue that trend.
- Carolina Hurricanes – The Hurricanes get the nod for third here, mainly because they have two proven commodities in net. Andersen, who was cast away from Toronto after some playoff disappointments, bounced back with a really solid season last year in Carolina. Raanta is a great fallback option for the Hurricanes and his experience gets the Hurricanes’ tandem into the top 3.
- Washington Capitals – The tandem in DC was just edged out for the third spot in my opinion, just because Charlie Lindgren hasn’t had a wealth of experience in the league just yet. He has had some promise in his performance last season and both goaltenders are upgrades over the previous tandem of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek. For the first time since Braden Holtby left the Capitals in free agency, the Capitals have a clear cut starting goalie in Kuemper. As far as the league wide results go, the Capitals are more than likely to be in the top ten tandems overall. The Metro is just ridiculously stacked in goaltending quality.
- Pittsburgh Penguins – Tristan Jarry is coming off of a career-best season, drastically out-performing his 2020-21 statistics in both GSAA and GSAx. Casey DeSmith is also decent, but struggled a bit in GSAx last season, which puts the Penguins clearly behind the top four teams ranked here.
- Philadelphia Flyers – It’s been quite a considerable fall from grace for Carter Hart, who looked like he was a future franchise-level goaltender for the Flyers in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons. In the 2020-21 season, Hart’s performance plummeted, posting a gruesome -22.73 GSAA and -24.34 GSAx. With that, the future is questionable for Hart. Felix Sandstrom, presumably his backup, is unproven. Sandstrom only has five career appearances, but has positive figures for both GSAA and GSAx.
- New Jersey Devils – Mackenzie Blackwood is another young goalie in the division that showed a lot of promise in his first two seasons, then saw considerable drop-off. Health and injuries is certainly a question for Blackwood, which drove the Devils to acquire another goaltender, former Cap Vitek Vanecek. Vanecek is what he is: a relatively average goaltender who has flashes of dominance followed by stints of stinkers.
- Columbus Blue Jackets – Elvis Merzlikins has posted rather solid GSAA and GSAx figures in his three seasons in the NHL with Columbus, positioning him solidly as the starter there. Joonas Korpisalo’s GSAA and GSAx have him solidly as a below average goaltender in the NHL. Korpisalo’s struggles have been surrounded by injuries, drastically bringing down his potential ceiling as a goaltender. Merzlikins’ career high in appearances in the NHL is 59, and with Korpisalo’s performance the past couple of seasons, he may be called upon for more than that.
For Capitals fans, the most important question of the offseason was answered by acquiring Darcy Kuemper. Kuemper was a top five goaltender last season. Was he playing behind a very talented team? Yes, absolutely. The very best teams still give up quality chances and shots on goal against. Kuemper played at an elite level, and the hope is the trend continues in DC.
Oh, and just to nail the point of how much better the Capitals are in net this season compared to last, here’s a visual to sign us off:
By Justin Trudel