With the National Hockey League locked out, North America's top hockey league, the American Hockey League, has inherited a group of super-talented players who were slated to play at the highest level this year. The affects of the NHL players' presence is that poorer AHL players have been debated amongst folks who follow prospects and the minor leagues. One effect that is indisputable is that fringe talent AHLers have either been bumped to lower levels or have been put out of a job. Add that to the NHL players, and the result has been a faster, more exciting minor league product.
While fans in AHL cities are getting a treat, AHL goaltenders are not. With only a handful of big-league caliber goalies compared to many NHL forwards and defensemen, there has been a "have and have not" effect. The statistics don't fall completely on the side of goalies with previous NHL experience or prospects, but so far, the gap is wide between the best and worst netminders in the AHL.
The league-average save percentage—albeit in a small sample of only around 25 games per team—has been surprisingly similar to the NHL. Last season, the NHL's average save percentage was .914. This year in the AHL, the average save percentage is .913. At 5-on-5, the highest minor league has also emulated the big show with a .928 average even strength save percentage.
Editor's note: Stats referenced in this article are as of December 14, 2012.
Of course, early in the year luck can have a large effect on some goalies' statistics. For example, the Abbotsford Heat (the Calgary Flames' affiliate) have had an incredibly lucky (and good) stretch for their penalty kill. They've killed off 91.3% of penalties, only allowing eight goals in 25 games. It's tough to believe the Heat could sustain such an incredible PK and keep their goalies' save percentages so high.
But the Heat are a terrifically talented defensive team that includes defenseman T.J. Brodie, who played 56 NHL games last year for the Flames. The effect on goalies can work both ways. Abbotsford goalie Barry Brust, who has been in the AHL since 2003 and never had a save percentage over .925, set a 55-year-old record for shutout streak and currently has a .953 save percentage in 10 games. Sure, there is a good possibility that it will drift back toward his career average, but the thing about the lockout is that we don't know if it will. It's possible the Heat's defensive talent could make for some absurd statistics.
Speaking of absurd statistics, there have been several anti-Brusts—goalies and teams who are having significant trouble cutting it against the increased speed and talent. Hamilton goalie Robert Mayer has been below average for the last two years, but he has had a brutal start to the season with an .884 save percentage.
The statistics in terms of goals saved per 1,000 shots above an average goaltender show that former NHL starter Dan Ellis (despite not having any weird Twitter rants recently) has been the best goalie in the AHL. That shouldn't come as much of a surprise; neither should Ottawa's Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner and Washington's Braden Holtby rising to the top.
One of the more interesting aspects of this enhanced AHL is the opportunity for non-prospect players to prove their skill to coaches and scouts. This chance seems to lend itself to goalies, as it once did for Tim Thomas. For example, Rockford's Carter Hutton ranks seventh in the league in his first chance as an AHL number one goalie. Former Ducks third round pick Frederik Andersen is also performing well for a first-time starter.
On the other end of the spectrum, Rangers' farm hand Jason Missiaen has been overwhelmed by the beefed-up AHL in his first go as a starter, ranking last in the league.
Here's a complete look at all the AHL goalies' goals saved above average per 1,000 shots.
Goals saved above average per 1,000 shots for AHL goalies
1. Charlotte (Carolina), Dan Ellis (14.7)
2. Springfield (Columbus), Curtis McElhinney (13.2)
3. Binghamton (Ottawa), Robin Lehner (13.1)
4. Abbotsford (Calgary), Barry Brust (7.8)
5. Binghamton (Ottawa), Ben Bishop (6.8)
6. Hershey (Washington), Braden Holtby (6.6)
7. Rockford (Chicago), Carter Hutton (5.5)
8. St. John's (Winnipeg), Eddie Pasquale (5.1)
9. Norfolk (Anaheim), Frederik Andersen (4.5)
10. Abbotsford (Calgary), Danny Taylor (4.4)
11. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Pittsburgh), Jeff Zatkoff (3.7)
12. Providence (Boston), Niklas Svedbert (3.4)
13. Adirondack (Philadelphia), Scott Munroe (2.3)
14. Manchester (Los Angeles), Martin Jones (1.7)
15. Albany (New Jersey), Keith Kinkaid (1.6)
16. Connecticut (NY Rangers), Cameron Talbot (1.1)
17. Peoria (Nashville), Mike McKenna (0.9)
18. Grand Rapids (Detroit), Petr Mrazek (0.8)
19. Albany (New Jersey), Jeff Frazee (0.8)
20. Lake Erie (Colorado), Calvin Pickard (0.0)
21. Portland (Phoenix), Chad Johnson (0.0)
22. Texas (Dallas), Cristopher Nilstrop (0.0)
23. San Antonio (Florida), Dov Grumet-Morris (0.0)
24. Worchester (San Jose), Alex Stalock (0.0)
25. Hamilton (Montreal), Cedrick Desjardins (-0.4)
26. Grand Rapids (Detroit), Tom McCollum (-1.0)
27. Toronto (Toronto), Ben Scrivens (-2.0)
28. Houston (Minnesota), Matt Hackett (-2.2)
29. San Antonio (Florida), Jacob Markstrom (-2.7)
30. Worchester (San Jose), Harri Sateri (-3.6)
31. Rochester (Buffalo), David Leggio (-4.3)
32. Charlotte (Carolina), Justin Peters (-4.5)
33. Syracuse (Tampa Bay), Dustin Tokarski (-4.9)
34. Portland (Phoenix), Mark Vistentin (-5.5)
35. Bridgeport (NY Islanders), Anders Nilsson (-5.6)
36. Hershey (Washington), Dany Sabourin (-6.0)
37. Milwaukee (Nashville). Jeremy Smith (-6.2)
38. St. John's (Winnipeg), Mark Dekanich (-6.3)
39. Bridgeport (NY Islanders), Kevin Poulin (-6.5)
40. Peoria (Nashville), Jake Allen (-6.6)
41. Texas (Dallas), Jack Campbell (-6.7)
42. Lake Eric (Colorado). Sami Aittokallio (-7.0)
43. Syracuse (Tampa Bay), Riku Heleius (-7.0)
44. Norfolk (Anaheim), Igor Bobkov (-7.3)
45. Adirondack (Philadelphia), Cal Heeter (-7.1)
46. Hamilton (Montreal), Robert Mayer (-8.5)
47. Connecticut (NY Rangers), Jason Missiaen (-12.6)
Minimum 200 shots faced.
It can't be said enough that small samples and luck play a role in how the numbers have shaken out so far. Unfortunately, it's a little more difficult to tell exactly how much luck because of the limited number of statistics made available by the AHL as opposed to NHL figures. For example, the AHL does not provide power play shots against for individual goalies, so it's impossible to tell each goalie's 5-on-5 save percentage, which is a better overall indicator of success than just save percentage on its own.
However, we can find team 5-on-5 save percentage and team shots against per game. With this, we can get somewhat of an idea of which goalies have faced more shots and presumably more scoring chances. We can also figure out whether the team as a whole has had great or poor special teams that might be affecting the overall play of its goalies.
Here are some examples:
• Rochester's goalie David Leggio has a .906 save percentage. He has also started all but two of the Americans' 23 games, facing 620 of the team's 746 shots against. The Americans' team 5-on-5 save percentage is .932, which is .004 ahead of league average. But Leggio's save percentage is .007 below league average. It isn't a stretch to suggest that his power play save percentage is probably dragging down his overall save percentage statistic or simply that he has been better than his overall save percentage and goals saved per 1,000 shots looks. Also, the league-average shots per game is 29.1, but Leggio has faced 32.4 shots per game.
• Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's team 5-on-5 save percentage is an ugly .901, but its overall save percentage is .906. In other words, their goaltending is below average overall, but that's with some good luck on the power play. Assuming things balance out in terms of luck, the Penguins could be looking at some terrible goaltending down the road.
• Binghamton goalies Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop have been even better than it has looked, if that's believable. The B-Sens are facing the league's most shots per game at 35.6 and have a 5-on-5 save percentage of .957. Then again, total shots per game can be misleading sometimes, meaning that the opposition may be desperately chucking the puck at the net while playing catch-up.
• Syracuse has a brutal 5-on-5 save percentage of .874 and overall of .894. However, the Crunch face only 24.9 shots per game, more than four per game less than league average. Their goaltending can't be that bad, can it? They are averaging 2.41 5-on-5 goals per game, which is the most in the league. So, maybe it is.
The AHL goaltending situation will be fairly fascinating to watch if the NHL comes back. It appears that only a few AHL goalies have any chance to move up to the NHL if and when the lockout ends. It seems reasonable that save percentages will go up with fewer talented players taking the shots. There are probably more than a few goalies who (though they wouldn't admit it) wouldn't mind seeing less of Taylor Hall and Adam Henrique.
Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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