There are a lot of people completely writing off the Montreal Canadiens with new news emerging that Carey Price has fallen victim to a mysterious disease and will miss the remainder of the Eastern Conference Finals.
I don’t necessarily blame those people, but I caution those who are halfway to determining Carey Price is now the elitest of elite netminders in today’s National Hockey League. His career save percentage is .917, and before this season, there was the general question as to whether or not Canada even had a goaltender capable of beating the world at the Winter Olympics.
This brings me to Peter Budaj.
Budaj’s career has been decent. He has served as the backup for notable goaltenders like David Aebischer and Jose Theodore before signing onto Montreal in the summer of 2011, becoming the latest experiment in a rotating band of misfits to serve as the Habs backup. His career save percentage of .903 is better than or close to some goaltenders who have been starters for multiple seasons, including Steve Mason, Ondrej Pavelec and Nikolai Khabibulin.
The point isn’t “Budaj” is a good goaltender, because Budaj’s stats are close to goaltenders that simply can’t hack it as legitimate starters in the NHL. He is, arguably, a little over replacement.
However, goaltenders, especially over small samples, are close to indistinguishable. If you replaced Budaj’s career statistics with Carey Price’s career save percentage of .917, Budaj, who has faced 7759 shots in his career, would have stopped 7113 pucks, which is 106 more than he’s made with a .903 career save rate.
106 goals seems like a lot, until you realize that Budaj has played 296 games in the NHL to date. With 16344 career minutes, it takes 154 minutes, nearly two full games, for Price to be one save better than Budaj. One win is generally worth between 5.5 to 6 goals, so it would take anywhere between 14 and 15 games for Price’s ability to be worth one more win than Budaj’s.
And even then, there’s noise. In the 2009-10 season for instance, Budaj’s save percentage was actually higher than Price’s. In 2011-12, they were comparable. This was aided by the fact that Budaj plays, comparatively fewer games per season than Price. He’s not an excellent backup by any means, but he’s serviceable, and serviceable goaltenders have a way of surprising us season-to-season. Two goaltenders nominated for the Vezina Trophy this season, Semyon Varlamov and Ben Bishop, were ranked 25th and 39th among all NHL goaltenders in the consensus draft rankings over at Yahoo. Price went 9th, well back of Pekka Rinne, Craig Anderson and Antti Niemi, three goaltenders who had mostly forgettable seasons.
Where it stings for Montreal is that they probably won’t get goaltending like they got from Price in the first two rounds. Price had a save percentage of .922 through the first 11 games of the playoffs, and that’s a number that you shouldn’t always expect on maintaining.
Every year, one team typically makes the conference final that didn’t always deserve to play there. This year, it happens to be the Habs. The Habs were 26th in the NHL in Corsi Close %, the fourth highest PDO in the league in score-close situations, 8th in the NHL in win percentage in one-goal games, and played in a division where two excellent teams from a year ago, Ottawa and Detroit, curiously went belly-up.
Montreal was already playing with house money by the time they got to Game 1 against the Rangers, and while there’s a lot of “could have been” to be thrown around when and if the Canadiens lose to the Rangers, it’s worth noting even with Price, there was no guarantee. Goaltenders sometimes follow up ten excellent games with ten terrible games, for no reason other than goaltenders are difficult to pin down. The numbers we use and associate with goaltender performance have proven to be close to useless when attempting to pin down the very near future. The last time Montreal came this far, they did it all on the back of goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who put up a .933 save percentage through Rounds 1 and 2. In Round 3 against the Flyers, he went .884.
Generally, the Stanley Cup goes to the best team whose goalie gets hot, and all things being equal between Price and Henrik Lundqvist, well, New York is just a better team. They were 6th in the NHL in Corsi Close % this season and had their record pulled down thanks to a nine-game road trip to start the season. The Rangers were a point out of 30th in the league after their played their home opener nearly a full month into the season. But, they came back, made the playoffs rather easily and won home ice in the first round in a weak division. Lundqvist was fantastic in their second round series against the Penguins.
***UPDATE*** Seems it’ll be Dustin Tokarski, not Budaj, in goal for Montreal. I’d honestly have gone with Devan Dubnyk, but it’s goaltending. You won’t make too many right decisions anyway, so don’t try.
There should be a Vancouver Canucks-related point to all this and there is. The Canucks are currently unlike most teams in that they don’t have a long term goaltender committed. That’s not a bad thing, really. While people tend to joke that Mike Gillis had Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo and now he has neither, that ignores the fact that Schneider has one more year left in his deal before becoming an unrestricted free agent, and Luongo is 35, not guaranteed to be productive for many more years and paid a lot.
For a while I’ve been toying with the idea that the way to go is to have several young goaltenders who come to you at a low price and for a low salary, and generally just hand the reins to one of them who establishes himself throughout the season. Nobody thought much of Ben Bishop in the early going this year, and maybe next season Anders Lindback will have a Bishop-like season. You never know how goalies are going to fare, and, honestly, the best hockey pool advice I could give to anybody is to ignore the previous season’s statistics when making decisions. There really is no correlation between the average pick selection of a goaltender and his performance in a given year.
Yet a lot of teams don’t do this. Tampa Bay is a good example. Ottawa is somewhat of another (but they can’t really afford a high-priced goalie, so…) Anaheim is scary going into next year because by replacing Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth with Frederik Andersen and John Gibson they’re cutting the amount spent on goaltenders by nearly 65%. San Jose has had some success with Niemi making below average for a starter, yet posting above average numbers.
Next season, Corey Crawford’s $6-million extension kicks in, but thanks to having some useful players still on their entry-level deals, they have about a year before they go into salary cap hell (Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Johnny Oduya, Brandon Saad and Nick Leddy all hit free agency the same season). The Los Angeles Kings are paying Jonathan Quick until the end of time. Quick is 16th out of 18 regular goaltenders in save percentage since he signed that deal #uhoh.
The Canucks, to my eye, could gain a real advantage if they did their best to stick with Eddie Lack, Jacob Markstrom, Joacim Eriksson and the occasional sellsword rather than look to the market to upgrade their goaltender. I feel there’s some real cause-and-effect when people look to great teams and point out that the team has a great goaltender. You’re not going to win a Cup if all you have is a great goaltender, and you’re making it difficult on yourself to put a great team on the ice if you’re using up nearly 10% of your salary space on a goaltender.
And then, when your fate rests on the success of a player like Price or Lundqvist, and said player gets hurt, then you’re up the creek without a paddle, and need to bank on your backup having one of the best stretches of his career to pull it off.
I’m not counting out Peter Budaj and the Habs, but the smart money was on the Rangers before this series started. With Lundqvist’s extension kicking in next year, I wonder if this is the last best chance they have to win a Cup with a roster of skaters this good.