26-year-old rookie puck stopper Eddie Lack is set to start his 19th straight game for the Vancouver Canucks, a team still improbably fighting for their playoff lives, against the Anaheim Ducks on Monday night. Lack has started every game for the Canucks since the end of the Olympic break way back on February 26th, a stretch that includes Lack starting the second of back-to-back games on multiple occasions, and it’s fair to say that the young netminder has buckled under the mammoth burden.
It’s a burden that Lack is unlikely to be relieved of until the Canucks are mathematically eliminated from the postseason.
There’s a lot to unpack from Lack’s performance since he was, by necessity, anointed Vancouver’s everyday (literally) starter. So let’s focus in on what we’ve learned about Lack, and what his recent performance tells us about his aptitude as a number one goalie going forward.
Read on past the jump.
Here’s what we know about Lack, for starters. He’s excelled consistently in the American Hockey League, and was arguably the best goaltender outside the NHL for a couple of years before he was injured for most of the 2012-13 campaign. Lack finally made the Canucks roster this past season, and excelled as a backup, even credibly filling in for an injured Roberto Luongo for a stretch in early-to-mid January.
Then the Olympic Break happened, and something changed in the blue paint for the Vancouver Canucks (second verse, same as the first). After John Tortorella’s controversial decision to start Lack during the Heritage Classic, a decision which caused Canucks fans to jeer Lack throughout the contest, the wheels of a long overdue Luongo trade finally got seriously spinning.
A few days later Luongo and 85% of his contract was dealt to the Florida Panthers for Shawn Matthias and Jacob Markstrom, a once highly regarded goaltending prospect who has yet to start a single game for the Canucks..
Since then the Canucks have rode Lack, and have arguably ridden him into the ground somewhat. It’s a totally unfair situation for a rookie netminder – not just to have him thrown to the wolves game after game, but also having him replace a netminder of Luongo’s calibre in a ravenous hockey market and noted goalie graveyard – and Lack has, unsurprisingly, played poorly.
But he really hasn’t played *that* poorly. Surely he’s not a central component of what ails this particular moribund Canucks team; a team poised to snap a six-year streak of qualifying for the postseason. The numbers in 18 games since the Olympic break aren’t pretty, however — an 8-8-2 record, a .902 save percentage, five “blow up” starts, and Lack is allowing slightly over 2.5 goals per start over that stretch.
Despite what we might reasonably call Lack’s “iffy” play as a workhorse starter over the past six weeks, the Canucks seem to remain very bullish on Lack’s abilities as a netminder. “Eddie is a very special player,” Canucks general manager Mike Gillis said during his now infamous Team 1040 appearance last week. “He’s got great personality, great size, and his emergence allowed us to think a little differently about where we were going. I have great faith in him.”
Gillis also made a farfetched pitch, suggesting that Lack deserves some Calder Trophy consideration:
If we had given Eddie any run support this season he would certainly be – in my mind – a nominee for the Calder, probably wouldn’t win it, but, should be in consideration based on how he’s played… I think this guy has a great opportunity, he wants to be a Canuck, and I would love to see people get behind him because he’s a terrific young kid.”
The Canucks top executive, in the same interview, also pointed to Lack’s shutout numbers and his performance in one goal games as reasons for optimism. Another reason for optimism: almost all of the hit to Lack’s post-Olympic break save percentage has been on special teams. At evens Lack has performed at an above average (for an NHL starter) level over his past 18 starts, posting a very solid .922 even-strength save percentage. The problem, however, is that he’s only stopped .809 percent of shots in special teams situations over the past six weeks.
Those of you who’ve read CanucksArmy for years know that I much prefer even-strength save percentage as a tool to evaluate goaltenders (though really hockey just desperately needs better goaltending stats). Still, making do with what we’ve got, as the performance sample enlarges even-strength save percentage tells us more about a netminder’s true talent than total save percentage. The problem is that Lack’s sample of NHL performance hasn’t crossed that threshold, so we’re probably best served to consider the entirety of his body of work without correcting for game state at this point.
Keeping that critical qualifier in mind, an 18 game run with a special teams save percentage below .810 screams “tough bounces and bad luck” to me. Maybe it’s something else (perhaps goaltender fatigue shows up more in penalty-kill situations?), but looking at Lack’s performance, I tend to think he remains a reasonable bet to provide the Canucks with league average goaltending in a prescribed starters role.
The key, I’d suggest, is to keep the number of his starts to Brian Elliott-levels (say, 45-50 starts next season) and let him grow into a heavier workload. Just seems like a more optimal situation than running Lack out there game after game like he’s the second coming of Henrik Lundqvist..
Which segues nicely into a discussion of Markstrom – a goaltender with pedigree, but also a goaltender who is dead last in the NHL in even-strength save percentage among regular netminders this season. Clearly the Canucks don’t feel comfortable giving Markstrom the net, even just to spell Lack for a game.
“(Canucks goaltending coach Rollie Melanson) is determined that (Canucks goalies) get in when they’ve shown him enough in terms of their fundamentals in practice to be ready to play,” Gillis said last week. “And Jacob is getting there,” the Canucks general manager added cryptically, the obvious implication being that Markstrom isn’t there yet.
Lack and Markstrom are both signed through next season, on one-way deals that combine for a $2.35 million cap-hit. Consider that, in the 2012-13 season, the Canucks’ two goaltenders (Cory Schneider and Luongo) combined for a $9.33 million cap-hit. So should the Canucks wood with their Brynas tandem of Lack and Markstrom next season, it would represent a significant departure in the club’s approach to goaltending.
It’s a departure that I generally think of as prudent. Goaltending performance is volatile and a club is very probably better off spending their allocated cap-space on skaters than in net.
But I’d suggest to you that counting on Lack to start 62 games next season is a loser proposition, tantamount to setting a talented young player up to fail. Meanwhile Lack’s presumptive backup isn’t even trusted to play the second leg of back-to-backs at the moment, which certainly isn’t ideal, especially if the club hopes to manage Lack’s workload in any sort of reasonable way.
From one goaltending quandry to another, it’s the Canucks way.