Overreactions to goaltending and small sample sizes

Goaltenders are a tricky bunch to figure out. Fans will either love or hate them depending on how they perform in a ten game stretch. If they stand on their head for and steal a couple of games for their teams, the goalie will be heralded and be a front-runner for Team MVP. Whereas if they have an awful or sub-par stretch for ten games, fans will want their netminder on the first bus out of town and their back-up to get the majority of the starts. We've seen this in plenty of cities over the years (Vancouver and Philadelphia specifically come to mind) and are beginning to see glimpses of it in Carolina with incumbent starter Cam Ward.

Ward is normally beloved in Carolina for playing a critical role in the Hurricanes winning their only Stanley Cup in 2005-06, but his play as of late has left many Canes fans frustrated. He is currently sporting a save percentage of .896 and has given the Hurricanes only four games that fit under Hockey Prospectus' "quality start" guidelines. Goaltending can play such a critical role in winning and losing and what the Hurricanes have gotten from Ward so far isn't good enough to win games. His most recent outing against the Winnipeg Jets was especially bad, as Ward let in three very soft goals which ended up being the deciding factor in a game that the Hurricanes played well enough to earn at least a point.

As frustrating as Ward's start to the year is, I don't think there is much to worry about with him. Some may think that his is a sign of his career being on the downturn but let's not forget that he went through a worse bump in the road in the first half of last season.

Chart displays 2007-13. Black lines indicate different seasons

This bad stretch is nothing Ward hasn't experienced before and he should be able to rebound. I know a lot of people want more consistent performances from Ward, but he's never been that type of goalie. He has the reputation of being an "elite" goaltender from some people when there isn't much evidence from his career that suggests this. He has been above average for the latter half of his career but the only time he performed at a level close to elite was during a few ten-game stretches over the last few seasons. Ward actually went on one of the best runs of his career after his slow start last season, so the rut he is going through now is nothing that he can't recover from. Still, he isn't the type of goalie who you can expect to stand on his head every night and steal every game for the Hurricanes.

As for what the Hurricanes should do until then…well that I'm not completely sure of. Goaltenders themselves are a mystery and you never really know what you're going to get on a nightly basis. Even the best goalies have bad stretches so predicting their performance is a lost cause. The most we can really do is just hope Ward pulls through this bad stretch like he did in the past. The Hurricanes are actually in a good position goaltending wise since they have a legitimate #2 netminder in Dan Ellis who can start at least 10-15 games this year if they need him to. It's been a very long time since the Canes have had a back-up they can trust, so having Ellis at their disposal can help their overall goaltending and he has done that in a big way so far.

The only thing that concerns me about Ellis is that he has played way over his head so far with a .967 even strength save percentage on 92 shots faced and a .943 save percentage overall. Ellis is performing at an elite rate in a small sample size and his career numbers suggest that he isn't going to continue this and be a brick wall every night, so fans might want to temper their expectations with him a little bit. 

Save for that one bad outing in Philadelphia, Ellis is playing some of the best hockey of his career right now and isn't going to sustain a save percentage of .943 throughout the entire season. He is probably good enough to stay above average in a small sample size, has never been able to sustain a high save percentage over a long stretch of his career either. Then again, I gave up trying to predict goaltending after Brian Elliott posted elite numbers for the St. Louis Blues last season, so Ellis could continue to post ridiculous numbers for all I know. The main thing to remember is that there are no guarantees with goalies and you never know what you are going to get with them, so Ellis might give the Hurricanes a few more good/great starts but fans should not expect him to stand on his head every night. 

On that subject, there has been some talk of Ellis receiving a lighter workload than Ward in his starts. The Canes' raw scoring chance differentials at even strength might suggest that the team has played better in front of Ellis than Ward, but both have had to deal with roughly the same workload. 

Player 5v5 TOI 5v5 SCF 5v5 SCA SC +/- SC% EV CF/15 EV CA/15
Cam Ward 489.15 142 134 8 0.514 4.35 4.11
Dan Ellis 169.28 63 46 17 0.578 5.58 4.08

The Hurricanes are giving Ellis more offensive support, but both goalies are seeing roughly the same amount of scoring chances against per game at even strength. Ellis has just been stopping more of the shots that he's facing. He has played in fewer games than Ward, but he has still been giving the Canes better goaltending whenever he starts.

The soft goals and sub-par goaltending from Ward has been frustrating to watch this year but he has done enough over his career to show that he can give the Canes at least average goaltending on a regular basis and I think he'll return to that form soon. Having two reliable goaltenders is never a bad thing and the Hurricanes should find themselves in this situation once Ward returns his normal form. If he continues to struggle…well then Carolina has a bigger problem on their hands.