There's a few funny narratives floating around for Jimmy Howard, and I wanted to see how they held up. The prevailing theory seems to want to place some of the blame at his feet for the recent two drubbings, and it's a little puzzling to me. I've also seen a few comments that imply Howard has been "below average" which is especially confusing to me. So I wanted to take a more in-depth look at his play with statistics. Let's see if the numbers match the chatter. First, I'm going to talk about 3 different metrics used to evaluate goalies. Second, I'm going to apply those to Jimmy's play and see how he stacks up against other goalies so far in the playoffs. Finally, I'm going to wrap it up and see what it means.
1) GAA (Goals Against Average) - Burn this with fire. This is a 100% useless statistic when it comes to evaluating the ability of goaltenders. Say we have two goalies playing against each other in a game where one team dramatically outplays the other. Goalie A stops 37 of 40 shots, meaning he stopped 92.5%. He gives up 3. Goalie B stops 16 of 18 shots, meaning he stopped 89%. A clearly had the better game, but he had the misfortune of playing behind an outplayed team. He loses 3-2, and walks out with a worse GAA despite stopping a greater percentage of shots than the guy across from him. The only reason his GAA is higher is because of factors he cannot control, namely shots. When we evaluate a goalie, it seems reasonable to say we should exclude factors that he cannot control, and shot volume is one of those.
For this reason alone, we should completely ignore this statistic for goalies. If you want to use this to evaluate overall team ability to prevent goals that's a bit more reasonable I guess, but for measuring a goalie's ability to stop pucks, you really need to control for shot volume. It's genuinely amazing how often you'll hear a goalie get picked on for his GAA when his only flaw is not being able to prevent the other team from shelling him with tons of shots every night. All this to say, no serious analysis of a goalie can use this statistic, so we are going to pretend it doesn't exist here.
2) Save Percentage (sv%) - This is the traditional way to evaluate goalies, and it's still very useful. A goalie who saves 92% of all shots is a lot better than a goalie who saves 90% of all shots. That may not sound like a big difference, but let's say you give up 28 shots a night. That means you've given up around 2300 shots over the course of the season. 92% goalie gives up 184 goals, 90% goalie gives up 230 goals. That means Mr. 90% gives up 46 more goals, good for .56 goals/game. .56 goals against/game is the exact difference between Detroit (a pretty average team in this regard) and Edmonton (dead last).
I won't get into gory details, but the analystics crowd seems unable to find a link between quality of defenders and sv%. As best as they can tell, a goalie has pretty good control over sv%, regardless of the quality of the defenders front of him. It's certainly not proven fact and there's a lot of work left to do in the arena of goalie analytics, but for now it really appears that goalies have real control over their sv%. That means that for our purposes, we'll look at Jimmy's sv% when evaluating him.
3) Even-Strength Save Percentage (evsv%) - If you're thinking carefully, one potential flaw with sv% is that some teams are short-handed more often than others. Goalie sv% are generally worse on the penalty kill. Further, goalie sv% are wildly inconsistent year-to-year on the penalty kill, suggesting that they don't have a lot of control over it. The general belief is that the skaters have more control over killing the penalty than the goalie. Again, getting into nitty gritty here is outside the scope, but the point is that it's a nice measurement to look at if you want to filter out the fact that some goalies spend more time getting shelled while down a man.
Given the usefulness of this statistic, we'll also look at this one to evaluate Howard's game so far. I'm of the opinion that the goalie should always get minimal blame on PP goals. There's so many other people to blame. Possibilities: 1) guy who took the penalty, 2) 5 skaters on the ice who didn't have the puck - if they did, penalty wouldn't have happened (most of the time) 3) Whoever allowed the other player to gain the zone 4) Guy who failed to block the shot. List goes on and on. The point is that I look at goals against on the PK as never being primarily the goalie's fault, so I put a lot of stock into evsv%. There's room for disagreement here, but I just thought I would share my bias.
(note: W-L record is so useless I'm not even going to discuss it here)
I'm not going to get crazy here, just going to give you the straight facts. There are 15 goalies that have played 3 games in the playoffs so far. Here are all of them sorted by top sv%:
Right off the bat, Howard is 3rd. He has given up 6 goals on 87 shots. The median goalie here is Anti Niemi with his .912 sv%. If Howard had Niemi's sv%, he would have given up 7-8 (7.6) goals by now. At that point, there's a very strong chance we're talking about a game 1 loss in addition to the game2-3 losses. At best, we're talking about a G2-G3 that was even uglier. To give you context on what a .931 means, Tuuka Rask was tops in sv% this year, and he put up a .930 (ignoring Harding who played far fewer games). Detroit is literally getting Vezina-quality goaltending out of Jimmy Howard right now.
If that's not good enough, let's filter out the penalty kill time and only look at how Howard has been at even strength. More of the same:
For more context, Rask led the league in evsv% this year at .942. That means Howard's .952 would be by far the best in the league if held up over the course of a season. This amplifies Howard's already-fantastic performance thus far in the playoffs. Howard's performance has actually been so good that it's not really sustainable.
Wrapping It Up
We've looked at the numbers, and I'm even more confused than ever why people want to lay blame at Howard's feet. On one end of the ice we've got a team that has scored 2 goals in 3 games, and at the other end we have a goalie that is putting in a Vezina-quality performance thus far. Statistically, he deserves no blame whatsoever. For some reason, this seems difficult for some people to swallow.
Let's do a thought exercise here. Let's say its 1 hour before game 1 in Boston. I tell you "I am from the future. Here is a list of the next 50 super bowl winners, have fun being rich. Also, Detroit scores 2 goals in the first 3 games of this series. Kbye." Let's also say you are asked to predict what Detroit's record is going to be with 2 goals in 3 games. I bet nearly everyone predicts that Detroit is down 0-3 going into game 4. It's by far the most likely outcome. And yet, here we are just 1 win away from tying this series right back up. In my book, we ought to be thanking Howard for giving us a chance to win. He played more than well enough to win in G1, and he played well enough to win in G3 with a .939 sv% on a night the Wings skaters got dominated and gave up an obscene number of odd-man rushes. Howard didn't let the Wings down, it was the other way around.
There was some discussion on Twitter yesterday that Jimmy's G3 early "soft" goal shifted momentum or something like that. I think this stemmed from the Wings early collapse in G2 after the fluke goal. This seemed like a weird narrative to me, so I looked at the Fenwick chart from G3 (courtesy Extra Skater) to see if the game got more lopsided after the first goal:
Sure doesn't look like it to me. Looks to me like Detroit was already getting dominated, and "momentum" if you want to use that word was pretty much identical even after the goal went in. That goal had 0 measurable effect on the on-ice play of the skaters. The fact that Jimmy gave up just 1 goal the whole rest of the way despite getting shelled is really impressive. The fact is that when the lights came on for Detroit late in the second, it was still just a 2 shot game. Jimmy Howard has played at a Vezina-winning level so far in the playoffs, and if Detroit finds a way to start getting pucks in the net, this series is far from over.