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Can The Sharks Win The Stanley Cup With Historically Bad Goaltending?

Despite losing on home ice on Monday, the San Jose Sharks are three wins away from advancing to the Stanley Cup Final for just the second time in franchise history. For a franchise that has been consistently disappointing in the NHL playoffs, a Stanley Cup would provide some much needed redemption. The Sharks lifting the Cup would also be strange by playoff hockey standards: Teams generally don’t succeed in hockey’s second season with subpar goaltending.

There’s little doubt about San Jose’s offensive prowess — the Sharks have scored the second-most goals in the playoffs, and they tied for the second-most goals in the regular season — but deficiencies on the defensive side of the puck, and especially between the pipes, have been a recurring problem. The San Jose goaltending tandem of starter Martin Jones and backup Aaron Dell was abysmal during the regular season, leading the team to a dead-last ranking in save percentage (.889). To be fair, Jones has been better in the postseason, but he is by no means the playoffs’ hot goalie. His playoff save percentage is .905 — an improvement over his regular-season mark of .896 to be sure, but hardly the stuff of world-beaters.

There is a certain mystique attached to the premise of the hot goalie in the NHL playoffs. Save percentage accounts for a higher proportion of a team’s success than any other factor, so it follows that quality postseason goaltending is compulsory if a team wants to win the Stanley Cup in June. The narrative — that these hot playoff goalies appear from the ether — is sexy, but the reality is that most of them build a solid-to-excellent body of work during the regular season and carry that solid-to-excellent form into the postseason.

As such, it’s rare to see a team win the Stanley Cup after enduring a regular season of poor goalie play. Since the lockout, only the 2005-06 Carolina Hurricanes and the 2009-10 Chicago Blackhawks won the title with below-average goaltending during the regular season. Even then, Carolina goaltenders finished close to the middle of the pack in 2005-06 — but just six teams in 2009-10 got worse regular-season save-percentage performances from their goaltenders than the Hawks did.

All this leaves the San Jose Sharks in something of a historical bind. Since the league began recording the stat in 1959-60, no Stanley Cup-winning team has finished last in regular-season save percentage — not even when the league consisted of only six teams. The Sharks are just the third team in the 14 seasons since the lockout to qualify for the playoffs after finishing in the save percentage basement. And not since 1992-93 — an era of the NHL during which it was somewhat unclear whether teams actually put goalies in front of the net — has the eventual Stanley Cup winner posted a worse regular-season save percentage than this season’s Sharks.

But wait, it gets even worse! No team since the 2007-08 season, when this data was first collected, has won the Stanley Cup posting a regular-season quality start percentage1 worse than 50 percent. Jones and Dell combined for a quality start percentage of just 40 percent. Is San Jose’s pitiful netminding a portent of impending heartbreak, or could the Sharks be the team that overcomes the odds?

San Jose’s goaltending may not be Cup worthy

How the Sharks goaltending compares to previous Stanley Cup winners based on quality start percentage (QS%),* 2007-08 to 2017-18

Season Team Regular Season QS% Playoffs QS%
2018-19 Sharks 40.2% 50.0%
2017-18 Capitals 59.8 58.3
2016-17 Penguins 51.2 64.0
2015-16 Penguins 61.0 62.5
2014-15 Blackhawks 68.3 60.9
2013-14 Kings 59.8 53.8
2012-13 Blackhawks 64.6 82.6
2011-12 Kings 60.5 85.0
2010-11 Bruins 69.5 68.0
2009-10 Blackhawks 51.2 50.0
2008-09 Penguins 50.0 43.5
2007-08 Red Wings 56.1 59.1

* Share of quality starts relative to total games started. A quality start is recorded when a goalie posts at least a league-average save percentage in a game. If a goalie faces 20 or fewer shots in a game, a save percentage of .885 or higher earns him a quality start.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

That 2009-10 Blackhawks team might offer a decent blueprint for the Sharks. Chicago goalie Antti Niemi wasn’t that playoffs’ hot goalie, but he didn’t have to be — the Blackhawks simply scored more goals than any other team en route to their first Stanley Cup win in nearly half a century. As luck would have it, Jones is posting numbers that closely mimic those posted by Niemi in 2009-10. (Niemi posted a save percentage of .910 and a quality start percentage of 50 percent in 2009-10; Jones is currently posting a save percentage of .905 and a quality start percentage of 50 percent.) The only difference is that Niemi and partner Cristobal Huet were merely pretty awful during the regular season, and not historically awful like Jones and Dell.

Perhaps the 2005-06 Edmonton Oilers are a better analog. They qualified for the playoffs in spite of some downright lousy regular-season goaltending by a quartet of journeymen and career backups, and they advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup Final because one of those goalies got hot. Could the same be happening in San Jose?

If Jones is able to hold on to his newfound mediocrity, the Sharks might have a puncher’s chance to upset six decades of history. Otherwise, the Sharks will remain what they’ve always been: minnows in apex predator’s clothes.

Footnotes

  1. Quality start percentage was developed by Hockey Abstract’s Robert Vollman to determine whether a goalie gave his team a reasonable chance to win a game. A goalie must post a league-average save percentage or better to record a quality start. If a goalie faces 20 or fewer shots in a game, he can earn a quality start with a save percentage of .885.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.

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