The Canucks’ Pedestrian Goaltending Threatens to Rear its Ugly Head Once Again


I don’t want to talk about it as much as the next person.

We just watched two incredibly talented goalies get shipped out of town due to asset mismanagement that forced Mike Gillis to deal from a position of strength. By resting on his laurels in dealing Roberto Luongo, it forced him to give up Cory Schneider for 50 cents on the dollar, in turn losing him his leverage and, ultimately, his job.

Jim Benning threw a rather expensive band-aid over the issue by signing veteran goalie Ryan Miller to a three-year, $18 million dollar deal. The deal, done in part because of Eddie Lack’s inexperience holding an NHL crease for a full season, made sense at the time, and it still does. Canuck fans were optimistic about the move as Miller is still a viable option; they were also given a first-hand experience of Miller’s abilities in the 2010 Olympics.

There were obvious benefits by deploying Miller as the new starter. He supplements what is still a veteran core of leadership, he’s outspoken and he’s a competitive guy in search for a Cup. The Sabres stuck with Miller for a long time because of that competitiveness and a resolve that made him perfect to compete in adverse environments. They valued his best days, even if they were becoming few and far between, over his worst; they put up with his curtness with the media. Miller hasn’t been an “elite” goalie for the past few seasons, but he’s still above-level.

Miller’s start with the Canucks brought on more of the same feelings of excitement. He’s stolen games against divisional opponents already, been hung to dry and kept the team in many more and hasn’t been the one to blame when he does have the occasional stinker (Dallas game comes to mind). According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, Miller has also been brushing up on the technical side of his game, something Cory Hirsch told Friedman he “was really behind in.”

"Rollie Melanson has got him playing a lot smarter. He’s playing a little deeper in his net and not attacking so much. Teams were starting to pass around him he was so aggressive…He’s a deep thinker for a goalie, you always have to explain why something will or won’t work for him. He’s still very talented, but I thought he was really behind in new goaltending techniques and saves."

All this is good and well, and Miller’s been better than his layover in St. Louis as evidenced by being tied for the league lead in wins at 11 (he’s currently tied with Carey Price and Pekka Rinne). But it’s not all rosy – far from it. At 5 on 5, Miller’s save percentage numbers are fairly pedestrian – over a five year sample size with a minimum of 2000 minutes played, Miller sits No. 23 in eligible goalies at .925. That’s not a bad number per se, but it’s far from the benchmark numbers goalies like Tuukka Rask and Henrik Lundqvist have put up at .935 and .931, respectively.

Miller was quite good for a porous Buffalo Sabre team, but faltered after the trade, posting just a .903 save percentage with the Blues in the regular season before getting eviscerated by Central Division rival Chicago, to the tune of .897. That’s… not very good. The revitalization of his technical game seems to have done him good in Vancouver thus far, but that’s not a project completed over night. That’s going to be worked on as much as possible throughout the year.

But you begin to see where having pedestrian numbers for an extended period of time besets a different perspective entirely. The Canucks are currently last in the league at 5 on 5 save percentage this year with a putrid .898. Part of this is because of the Canucks inability to control the play, something our Joel Wheeler looked at yesterday, and part of it is the amount of games Vancouver’s already been blown out in deflating their save percentage over a small sample size, which is important to note given we are still just 18 games into the season.

It is optimistic that the Canucks still have Eddie Lack as a competent back-up, and his numbers after being thrown to the wolves behind an awful team last year were promising. Lack posted an average .912 save percentage across all situations last year, but was very good in the “home plate” area of the ice where scoring chances are more prevalent, stopping shots from that area at a .950 clip. So far, though, he’s struggled this season, with a .896 save percentage in six appearances. We’re (thankfully) not at the stage of goaltending controversy, which bodes well for Benning’s free agency splash that’s paid dividends thus far.

Eddie Lack’s play against absolute and relative shooting percentages.

Ryan Miller’s play against absolute and relative shooting percentages.

Over at TSN, hockey analytics writer Travis Yost posted an article on Nov. 11 that explored adjusted save percentages based on the “quality” of shots goalies faced. This is done by measuring shots by distance, so as to give a better idea if a goaltenders save percentage is inflated due to facing a lot of shots on the perimeter. The same can be said if a goalie doesn’t appear up to par because he’s facing a lot of quality shots in that home plate area. “While save percentage is a decent metric over longer samples, it’s subject to the same, wild fluctuations that shooting percentage experiences in smaller ones,” Yost explained.

The “home plate” zone is where a majority of quality scoring chances come from. One of the marks of a good goalie is their ability to stop the puck in this area. Lack did it to the tune of a .950 Sv % last season.

Thanks to, we can both see the raw data and visualize it – it’s an incredibly practical tool. Miller’s EVSV% is 90.2% but after adjusting for shot quality, he falls to 90.0%. Lack’s aEVSV% does rise – from 89.57% to 89.95% – which seems to agree with the fact that Lack has been somewhat unlucky by starting a few games on back-to-back’s, where the Canucks have struggled mightily this season. These do not suggest Lack should be the starter, or that he even should see more time, but it gives context to the fact that despite Miller’s proclaimed heroics, he’s not playing astronomically better than Lack, and neither of them are up to snuff at this point. This particular set of data doesn’t illuminate very much other than the fact that Miller needs to step his game up in order to counteract an assured regression.

The unadjusted and adjusted save percentages for Miller and Lack thus far. There’s not a discernible difference at this point.

Given the enthusiasm fans are giddy with right now, it’s not surprising that the Canucks’ real issues are flying under the radar a bit. Yet if the Canucks start to fall by the wayside, much like they did last season after starting out 9-4-1, goaltending is going to be a subject of conversation.

In one way or another, the goaltending graveyard stands distant in the moonlight, and it’s in the best interests of the Canucks to have some stability in net to qualm the inevitable fear.