Luongo’s Injury will Test the Canucks’ Goaltending Depth

The evidence is mounting: Lack might be pretty good at this "goaltending" thing.
Image via wikimedia commons

On Friday morning the Vancouver Canucks announced the recall of Utica Comets goaltender Joacim Eriksson, a former Philadelphia Flyers draft pick who the Canucks signed as a free-agent this summer.

While there are indications from reporters that Roberto Luongo’s groin ailment isn’t serious, we don’t really know, and the team is playing it close to the vest for now. What we do have is reasonable grounds, however, to presume that Vancouver’s goaltending depth is about to be tested in a serious way. So let’s look at Eddie Lack and Eriksson and see what we can reasonably expect from them if they’re counted on between the pipes for a couple of weeks or so…

Read on past the jump.

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What Does it Mean?

I’m of two minds when it comes to assessing what preliminary inferences we can draw from the Canucks’ decision to call up Eriksson from the Utica Comets ahead of the team’s scheduled back-to-back games this Sunday and Monday. On the one hand the Canucks have two days of practices before they play again and had 22-men on the roster before the Eriksson recall.

So the team didn’t have to make any moves to create space for Eriksson to join the club, and one supposes that calling him up now allows Roberto Luongo – who left a game against the Winnipeg Jets with a groin injury on December 22nd – a couple of additional days of rest. If you read the tea leaves that way, you can potentially see Eriksson’s call-up as no big deal.

On the other hand I’ve benen editing NHL news for long enough to know that a goaltender recall is usually a canary spuaking out Do-Re-Mi in a mine shaft. Most often when a goaltender is recalled from the AHL, his team announces that their regular starter or backup has been placed on Injured Reserve shortly thereafter…

On Friday the team simply reiterated that Luongo is day-to-day with a lower-body injury while Tony Gallagher reported that Luongo will miss 7-10 days. That’s good news for now.

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Lack-to-Lack Starts

So the biggest question facing the Canucks in net over the weekend is whether or not Eriksson will be given a start in his first taste of NHL action. The Canucks play back-to-back home games on Sunday and Monday and it’s worth noting that goaltender performance generally falls off in the second of back-to-back games. That said the the team has already confirmed that Lack will start on Sunday, and I’d imagine he’ll start on Monday as well (unless Luongo returns to the lineup somehow).

My reasoning: Lack has more experience starting in the second leg of back-to-back games as a North American professional goaltender than Eriksson has entirely as a North American professional goaltender. Since debuting in the AHL with the Manitoba Moose in 2010-11, Lack has started 22 sets of back-to-back games, including two sets of back-to-back-to-back starts in the winter and spring of 2011(*). Here’s how Lack’s numbers breakdown in back-to-back starts:

Eddie Lack back-to-back shots faced sv% Record
First Leg 663 0.919 13-6-2
Second Leg 663 0.923 11-8-2
Career 3405 0.924 56-45-11

(*) In one of Lack’s set of three games in three nights he was pulled less than five minutes into the first leg of games after allowing two goals against on three shots. I’ve discounted that game entirely (since I’m looking to quantify fatigue), and counted his third start as the second of back-to-back games in the table above. In the other set of back-to-back-to-back starts, Lack posted a shutout in the third game. That game is also excluded from the table above.

The Big Picture

Admittedly the "fancy stat" community is not particularly good at quantifying goaltender performance. As it stands the metrics we use to evaluate goaltending are rough and rudimentary. We’re about as good at evaluating goalies as sabremetrics were at measuring the impact of base-running and fielding in the mid-90s(*).

(*) I’d mention that analysts like Chris Boyle are, in my opinion, on the right track on this front.

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For now the best we’ve got is large sample save percentage, and when the sample gets large enough: large sample even-strength save percentage (which has proven to be somewhat predictive of future performance even if it remains unsatisfactory). Even there, we don’t have even-strength save percentage numbers for the AHL…

Those qualifiers stated, we’ll muddle along as best we can. It’s worth pointing out, for example, that there is mounting evidence that Eddie Lack might be a pretty good goaltender. Obviously he’s off to a dynamite start to his NHL career with a .928 save-percentage on nearly 250 shots faced, but that’s a minor data point (because of sampling issues) and not one I’d weigh heavily.

Where the evidence gets more compelling is when you combine those 250 saves with his AHL performance over the past three seasons. Lack has faced nearly 3500 shots at the AHL level over the past three seasons and has managed a .924 career save percentage with the Manitoba Moose and the Chicago Wolves. According to studies on AHL/NHL save percentage translations, Lack’s performance in the AHL since 2010 is consistent with what you’d expect from a potentially elite netminder.

Between Lack’s elite performance over 3604 combined shots at the AHL and NHL level, and his stellar performance against NHL shooters at the AHL level, there’s some compelling data that suggests he might be a pretty good goalie. On the negative side of the ledger there’s the fact that Lack went undrafted and struggled in 13 games during the 2012-13 season (before being shutdown to have hip surgery).

On Friday Canucks coach John Tortorella reiterated that he has "total confidence in [Lack’s] play," and he really should. After all there’s next to no evidence suggesting that Lack is a poor bet to be a useful goaltender at the NHL level, and it certainly looks like the Canucks might have a gem in the big Swedish goalie (and a gem signed to a favourable contract through the 2015-16 season).

Eriksson on the other hand doesn’t have much of a track record at all. We should thus be very cautious of saying much of anything about him at this point. His performance early on in Utica was horrid, and his performance over the week and a bit before Christmas was torrid. Either level of performance could reflect his true talent, or perhaps he’ll fall somewhere in the middle, it’s really impossible to say.

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What I’d caution against is looking at Eriksson’s performance over three games and saying "he’s really adjusting well after a poor start" or anything like that. The amount of data we have is not suggestive, is probably just noise, and we won’t know much of anything about Eriksson’s talent level until he’s faced roughly six times the amount of shots as he’s faced to this point in North America. Essentially Eriksson remains a guy who excelled and won in the Eliteserien and Allvenkan back in Sweden, and is extremely inexperienced in North American hockey…

On Friday when Tortorella was asked whether he knows much about Eriksson he answered with "Not a thing." Tortorella: bringing the wisdom!

  • andyg

    Torts seems to be a pretty straight shooter and I can appreciate that. It’ refreshing. I also like his attitude and how he doesn’t coddle players and wants to win. I think he may have shaken up the country club a bit…

  • andyg

    It’s not as though Lack has been overplayed. I think back-to-backs shouldn’t be a problem at all for a backup goaltender who’s looked as confident and calm as Lack has all season. I thought Eriksson looked really good in the preseason and he’s started to pick up his game in Utica but much like Schneider’s first season took a while adjusting and I think he’ll need some time to get really ready for the NHL. I would not even consider throwing him out there. I think Lack can easily pick up 3-5 games in Luongo’s absence–but here’s certainly hoping that Lu isn’t out that long. Flames, Flyers and Lightning on the horizon gives us a lot more luxury to lean on a backup than dealing with the west powerhouses.