Finding the right back-up goaltender

Ever since Cam Ward became the incumbent starter for the Hurricanes, the team has had a lot of trouble finding a reliable back-up for him. For the most part, they have been using guys called up from the AHL (see Leighton, Michael; Peters, Justin) or career journeymen like Manny Legace and John Grahame to spell Cam Ward and none of them have been that good in a back-up role. Because of this, Ward has started at least 80% of the Hurricanes games when healthy and it has definitely led to him being fatigued as the season goes on.

There were a lot of people who thought that Ward would get a few extra nights off this season because the team signed veteran Brian Boucher to back him up. In fact, this signing was praised by quite a few people including Jonathan Willis of Hockey Prospectus who had this to say about it.

In 2010-11, the Hruricanes used Justin Peters in the [back-up] role and he was a train wreck, costin gthe Hurricanes 11 more goals than a league-average goalie would have. This contrasts with his replacement, Brian Boucher, who stopped five more goals than an average goaltender would have for the Flyers in 2010-11. While Boucher’s ability to have a positive impact will be limited because a) he will play in fewer games this season and b) his career track record suggests that he is a pretty average goalie, he should be able to stem the bleeding that happened every time Peters skated off the bench. If the former Flyers backup netminder can provide an average or even just below-average performance for the Hurricanes, they’ll make up all the ground that they’ll lose if Ward’s save percentage dips next season. The addition of Boucher alone means tht things are much better than they were one year ago.

At the time this piece was written (summer of 2011), it seemed like a fair assessment but things didn’t turn out the way most predicted at all. Brian Boucher was injured for most of the season and played in only 10 games. However, when he was healthy, he performed at below replacement level and Ward was ridden like a pack-mule for most of the season. If that wasn’t enough, the goalie who Boucher was supposed to replace, Justin Peters, played six games with the Hurricanes and was terrific in all of them, stopping .945 of the even strength shots he faced so the Boucher signing might look like a bust to some.

One thing that a lot of people fail to realize is that goaltender performance is hard to predict and  Carolina has struggled with this since the lockout. What we saw from Boucher and Peters in a combined 17 games probably isn’t anywhere near their true talent level. Thus, it is unfair to judge the Boucher signing now and it also too early to say that Peters should be the back-up next season. After the jump, we will take a look at how Ward’s back-ups have performed over the years and how Boucher might perform next season.

Below is a graph showing every Carolina goaltender since Ward became the starter and their even strength save percentage compared with both the team’s average save percentage at even strength (green line) and the league average (blue line). Why do we use even strength? Because most of the game is played there and that is a better indicator of a goaltender’s true talent. A goalie’s save percentage usually gets dragged down on the penalty kill because of the high number of shots he faces and vice versa on the powerplay.

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The last two seasons, the Hurricanes have seen some horrible performances from their back-up goaltenders with Peters and Boucher playing very poorly at even strength in 2011 & 2012 respectively. Albeit, those are with extremely small sample sizes but their performances were pretty ugly nonetheless. You could say that the 2010-11 season was an aberration for Peters since he had respectable performances at even strength in the years before and after it but that is only 16 total games.

If the playoffs this year can tell us anything, it is that crazy things can happen in small sample sizes, especially with goaltenders. Just look at Braden Holtby in Washington, a goalie who was called up from the AHL and posted a save percentage of .940 in seven games. You could also look at Marc-Andre Fleury’s ghastly .834 save percentage in six games in the first round as an example of what small sample sizes can do. Peters performance in his seven games with the Hurricanes this season is no different from either of these and expecting him to continue performing at that level would be unreasonable. It is tough to determine what his true talent level is, but my guess is that it lies somewhere around the league average.

Speaking of “league average,” take a look at where Ward is on the chart. He was forced into a starting role at a very young age and it definitely took him awhile to adjust but he has developed into an above average goalie the last few seasons. I am a little nervous about how he will perform the next few years because he had a drop in performance this season and I’m hoping that it doesn’t continue. He was still an average goalie at even strength despite the drop-off in save percentage, but he also started over 80% of the Hurricanes games so take that for what it is worth. Goalies who start that many of their team’s games have to be better than average.

Moving onto Boucher, his terrible performance last season is probably a little concerning but, like Peters, he didn’t play in many games so it doesn’t represent what his true talent likely is. The one thing that does concern me about Boucher is that he is in his mid-30’s, has a rough history with injuries and has two serious “lower-body” related injuries in the span of two years. I have to wonder how well his conditioning and his health are next season and if it affects his play at all. Knee, groin and leg injuries are tough to overcome if you’re a goalie and it is something to keep an eye on with Boucher.

That being said, Boucher’s performance last year looks like an outlier in relation to how he’s performed in the past, as illustrated by the graph below.

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This is what a perfect storm of injuries, poor play and a small sample size usually looks like and even if Boucher performs like he did during the 2009-10 season, the Canes would have significantly better back-up goaltending compared to the last two seasons and that would help out the team a lot long-term. If Boucher continues to struggle, then Carolina can easily cut their losses with him and see what they have in Peters or Mike Murphy. Boucher is only signed for one more year at $900k, which isn’t a lot of money to swallow if he is waived, bought out or sent to the minors. The quality of performance the team will get from Boucher next season is unknown, though.