I’ve started a new job, and people have gradually begun to learn what I did with my old one, which is analyze and write about hockey. A few co-workers have asked why it is I’m not as keen on the Ryan Miller signing as others, and I think that the answer goes well beyond “don’t overpay for goalies, because they’re random”.
The right answer here is that even if Miller were to provide a significant upgrade over Eddie Lack in net, is it really something the Canucks need?
I compiled this small, simple chart comparing the Canucks to the rest of the league in goals for and goals against last season in each of the three major playing situations: 5-on-5, 5-on-4, and 4-on-5. In each situation, the Canucks are above average in goals against, but below average in goals for:
|Goals For||+/- Average||Goals Vs.||Vs. Average|
|5 on 5||139||-7.6||142||4.6|
|5 on 4||35||-8||4||2.2|
|4 on 5||5||-1.2||36||7|
Now, Lack played half the season and just 100 fewer minutes than Roberto Luongo, so obviously he had a lot of input in what happened last season. The theme here is that the Canucks were okay when it came to preventing goals (that 13.8 means that the Canucks were 13.8 goals better than the NHL average), and pretty terrible when it came to scoring them.
Trying to improve the Canucks goaltending is like a news anchor spending more time ironing his pants when his boss complains about his on-air appearance. I mean, sure, it probably couldn’t hurt, but it’s distracting from the real problem.
I like the Radim Vrbata signing because Vrbata does two things when he’s on the ice: take shots and score goals. He’s scored at a 20-goal rate for five consecutive seasons and has averaged close to three shots a game throughout his career. That’s the kind of player the Canucks need, but the problem with Vrbata is that he’ll be 33 next season, and far from a long-term solution.
The only players the Canucks have below the age of 26 with a 20-goal season to his credit is Nick Bonino, and nobody should expect Bonino to repeat last year’s performance, where he scored goals nearly 200% of his career rate (sustainable!).
It’s not that the $6-million the Canucks will spend on Miller for three years could be better served looking at other players in free agency, but possibly conserved for when a young player does become available. A year ago Bobby Ryan was traded from Anaheim to Ottawa, there have been rumours involving trades of Evander Kane and Nazem Kadri from their respective teams, and any of those three players would go further towards correcting the real issue with the Canucks than Miller.
And I don’t think for a minute that Trevor Linden and Jim Benning don’t know this, and that they’ve had to suck it up and make a move to appease a large casual fan base that’s been turned off by the lack of star power. There’s wasn’t much difference, numerically, between Miller’s and Lack’s seasons a year ago. The real difference between the two goaltenders is that Miller is a household name and Lack isn’t, having gone undrafted and beginning his pro career in Sweden. At 26 and a starting goaltender for four of his seasons in the pros, you’d be more stretching why that guy, who comes with a cheap price tag, shouldn’t be a starting goalie in the NHL rather than should.
Goaltending, as we’ve covered, is impossible to predict in small samples. Miller could have a great season next year, but there’s a chance that in an alternate universe, a Canucks team that used the $6-million elsewhere and went with Lack as the starter did better.
Besides, the more you improve your skaters, the less point there is to even having a good goaltender. Improving a team’s Corsi by 1.5% can have the same effect as an average team as adding 5 points of save percentage, and improving the players in front of the goaltender is a much more sustainable way to build a team.
I get that a lot of people posted on Facebook that “the Canucks had two goalies and now they have none!” and a lot of those people buy tickets, but as mentioned in Moneyball, the key to improving attendance is to turn your no-names into star players by winning games.
Just by analyzing the Canucks needs, I don’t think you can argue that the Canucks are a better team by adding Ryan Miller. If anything, it makes them worse, by tying up precious salary cap funds at a position that doesn’t need drastic improvement.