What have we learned about Eddie Lack since he became an everyday starter?

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.

  • Peachy

    To the current tandem cap commitment, you probably want to add the retained salary for Luongo.

    The cap allocation is probably much more efficient from a team performance perspective, even if risk adjusted…

    Still, I heard some quote from somewhere, something like this: “goaltending is 80% of winning hockey games, unless you don’t have it, in which case it’s 100%”.

    And there’s also the ticking bomb of salary recapture. Ironically, it might not blow up until after the expiry of the current CBA, in which case there’s always the amusing possibility that the league flip flops on it. Call it “CBA enforcement: Lamoriello style”.

  • Peachy

    Instead of going after someone like Hiller/Halak/Reimer as Rhys suggested, would it not have been a better allocation of cap resources to keep either Schneider or Luongo with Lack as the backup?

    Because Hiller (for example), Lack, retained salary on Lou and possibly some of Markstrom’s cap hit is probably going to exceed $6.5 million of the cap while providing inferior goaltending than that to which we had grown accustomed in the Luongo era…

      • andyg

        Does this organization really need to corner the market on checkers?

        And, of course, the Canucks could have both Lou & Horvat.

        Although it would have been easier if they had never gone down the path of sabotaging Lou’s value in the first place…

        • pheenster

          I don’t disagree that Gillis has horribly mismanaged the situation with going from two top 10 goalies in the NHL to a blue chip prospect, 1 unproven (but arguably still blue chip) prospect, a third line center and 15% of Lou’s salary and has looked terribly incompetent while doing so. But I don’t see why you have to malign Horvat along the way. Is he sufficient return for Schneider — still unclear since he didn’t get the reigns until too late in NJ and may dominate for the next decade out there while we don’t know what Horvat will do. Every indication we’ve had is that Horvat is a bona-fide two-way center with significant offensive skills — why must you continually call him a checker? Or Kassian just a third line grinder? I don’t think that’s the case at all and frankly given Hodgson’s middling performance on an admittedly crap team, I’m still not sure we lost that trade.

          I’m on board with getting rid of Gillis and I think the bigger story — his total misplay of the goaltending situation — still holds. I just don’t think you need to trash some of the legitimate prospects along the way.

          • pheenster

            What makes you believe Kassian & Horvat are anything more than checkers at the NHL level?

            As for Hodgson/Kassian, if they both end up as third line players, that’s hardly a “win” for Vancouver.

            There are a number of top 6 forwards/top 4 defenseman that have already emerged from Hodgson’s draft class, many of whom were selected after him.

            Considering the Canucks had the 10th overall pick and have nothing else to show for the 2008 draft (or the 2006, 2009 & 2010 draft), ending up with a third liner is nowhere near good enough…

          • pheenster

            Because that’s either projecting on something we don’t know – you have no better idea than I what Horvat is going to end up as and the evidence of his junior production is not equivalent to Gaunce who probably will be a third line checker — or it’s wildly mid-characterizing. Kassian isn’t in any way a checker he’s a wildly inconsistent skill player with size. Saying they’re just checkers is pointless and detracts from your broader point which I agree with. On its own the Hodgson pick or the Kassian trade isn’t bad. In the context of the wasteland of bad drafts poor trades incompetent system building and asset management it’s more evidence of Gillis’ poir performance.

          • pheenster

            We don’t know that Mallet won’t turn into the next Lucic, either.

            What do you feel is the most realistic outcome for these guys?

            Keep in mind Kassian’s low shot rate at the NHL level and Horvat’s production at the junior level…

  • andyg

    Thanks for the reminder about 5v5 save percentage. The other issue with keeping Luongo (as opposed to Schneider) is he is 35. This is an age that several folks have shown perilous decline in save percentage. Already we were seeing more and more injuries, especially groin muscles. I love Luongo, especially in the strombone era, and I hope he proves ageless, but keeping him was a bad bet.

    Not sure that Lack is the solution, but a lot of good teams (including several recent Cup winners) have average to slightly above average goaltending. As long as you are in that range, I agree that it’s better to have skaters who keep the puck in the other end of the ice.

  • andyg

    So question, what has Lack EV EV% been since Luongo trade? I know it’s .922% over all.

    I def think they are better off signing a Hiller type goalie for next season to help share the net with Lack. The problem is this marketplace. They’re inevitably gonna compare both netminders next season – we’ll have Schnieder/Luongo drama all over again. I though it was nice of Gillis to specifically say “I hope our fanbase can continually support Lack, cause he wants to be here”. Pretty much pleading with this irrational fanbase not to run him out of town (like the guys before). He’s right. This fanbase better not start drama. We’ll have ZERO goalies next yr.

  • pheenster

    What we have learned from Eddie Lack is that is what happens when your player agent GM does nothing but sit on his ass all day long and when he does do something, it involves shooting himself in the foot.

    But here’s how it will play out. The Canucks are done, don’t even bother hoping for the playoffs, it’s not going to happen. And when they learned that math wise they are out, they will revert back to the their trade mark Luongo sad face on the ice and blow their last games.

    Come next season when the fan boys shell out money for season tickets they will be amazed at the team progress….well, compared to this year, anything would technically be amazing. Then the same routine will start again and the fans will rejoice and part their money for mediocrity. Maybe the team may even make the playoffs, and the fans will declare and delude themselves into thinking their team is a contender again.

    50 years will come with nothing to show, but hey, please take your time Canucks.
    Clearly Aquaman has no intention of anything other than making money off false hope and BS hype. And when it’s all said and done and the last fanboys tune out the team, Aquaman will sell the team and the next chapter of futility will start again. Nordique fans got smart, they tuned out a loser franchise. Not so sure about the hipsters and dietards in the west.