One of the interesting parts of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract 2014 as I was reading through it was the book's treatment of goaltending stats and specifically about what it meant for Jimmy Howard. Being the goalie in Detroit is always going to mean extra scrutiny and Howard has grabbed his fair share. I've tended to lean toward being positive on Howard through his career, as I feel it's justified to like a goalie who is better than a majority of other goalies and also facewashes people I don't like.
However, that doesn't mean that he's above criticism. I've just always wondered why it seems he's taken more than his fair share of heat for things which really aren't in his control. Some of that is native to his position, as goalies always probably get more credit and blame for things than they deserve. However, I wanted to take a look at the way he plays to see how much opportunity for confirmation bias he's giving his critics.
To start, you'll have to indulge me in the idea that Jimmy Howard is a good goaltender. If you're unwilling to look at his career and believe that, then I recommend skipping the rest of this post entirely and jumping straight back to braying in Facebook comments about how the team should cut him or whatever other illegal things you think should happen.
Please see Hockey Abstract for full chart and more information
Jumping into the analysis, Hockey Abstract takes a look at quality starts for goaltenders over the last three seasons. To qualify for this analysis, goaltenders had to have at least 50 starts over the time period. To get credit for a Quality Start, the netminder had to either post a .917+ save percentage or better than 0.885 if his opponent failed to get 21 or more shots. Additionally, what Vollman has done is to have created a count of what he calls "Really Bad Starts," where a goalie who stops fewer than 85% of shots against gets an RBS counted against him.
As you can see above, Jimmy Howard is 10th in the NHL over the least three years for the percentage of his starts which have met the definition of a Quality Start.He's in front of 37 other netminders in the category, including four of the last six goalies to win the Vezina trophy (Bobrovsky, Thomas, Brodeur, and Miller). However, you'll also notice that of the goalies showing on that chart, only Jonathan Quick has a higher number of Really Bad Starts.
If we reorganize things by RBS percentage, this is where the hint of frustration with his play shows. He jumps from 10th-best in the league at earning Quality Starts all the way down to 26th-best over the last three years at avoiding Really Bad Starts, putting up a stinker in 14.8% of his games (for comparison, Henrik Lundqvist leads the league at only 7.8% of RBSs and even Jonas Gustavsson is ahead of Howard here; Scott Clemmensen was the worst at 24%). Essentially, for every 40 starts Howard makes, he'll put up 25 Quality Starts and 6 Really Bad Starts.
Jimmy Howard 2013-14 Season
We could have gone off nothing but save percentage to tell us that last season wasn't up to Jimmy Howard's standards, but I think it's interesting that his bed-shittings fell right in line with expectations (1 more RBS out of 50 games jumps that percentage up to 16), but that it's his QS% which dropped off so severely. This pretty well fits what the eyeball test told many of us last season about Howard's play: it wasn't so much that he cost them more games, it was that he had six fewer games than he should have where he gave the team a better-than-average shot at winning.
Actually, it might even be a little worse than that:
Jimmy Howard 2011-12 and 2012-13 Seasons
This is what expectations looked like for Howard going into last season. Sure, his RBS% is a bit higher, but that QS% is over 99 starts (which is still a larger sample than 19 of the 47 goalies featured in Hockey Abstract's findings). Provided Howard could have kept that up, not only would he have been third in the entire NHL over the span for QS%, but we also could have expected nine more total Quality Starts out of him in the 2013-14 season (and perhaps even more than that, considering he probably cost himself a few starts through his inconsistencies).
So, while there no doubt have been people beating the "Jimmy Sucks" drum since 2009, the parade certainly grew some after a preseason of potential Vezina consideration turned into a mediocre gasp behind a beat up team.
Let's go back to leaguewide considerations for a minute and consider the interplay between Quality Starts and Really Bad Starts. Let's play it out as though a RBS cancels out a QS and see where that leaves us. Here's the top 20:
So Howard is 14th in the league among goalies if one RBS cancels out one QS. Again, if we throw out last season and just go with the 99 prior starts, his adjusted QS% jumps up to 53.5%, which would have made him sixth.
This is kind of where it gets funny, because if you look at cap hits, Jimmy Howard currently sports the 14th-highest cap hit in the league for goaltenders. That's not to say that fans should simply expect to have the NHL's 14th-best goalie and be satisfied because that's what the money should say, just that the hope for Jimmy Howard to be top-five also comes with the potential for a great deal of thankfulness that he's not making $6.3M or more against the cap like the top-five paid goaltenders all do. As a fan of the Red Wings, I hope it comes out that every single one of their players ends up miserably underpaid every single year for the type of performance they put up because the more guys you have like that, the more chance you have of lifting the Cup at season's end.
Right now, the Wings are getting value for their starting goaltender. Even if he's less consistent than we'd like to see, he generally puts up the very good at a high enough rate to overcome a slight increase over normal of the very bad performances he'll drop into a steaming pile from here to there. I'm going to look into consistency a little more later, but for now, we have a bit better starting point from which to judge exactly what a mediocre season for a guy with high expectations can do.