|Coyotes goalie Mike Smith won't be repeating his stellar 2011-12 performance. (U.S. Presswire)|
There was perhaps no bigger surprise in the NHL last season than the performance of Phoenix Coyotes goalie Mike Smith. A career backup who had been waiting for years to get his opportunity to be a starter in the league, Smith took over for Ilya Bryzgalov and not only proved to be an upgrade in the Phoenix net but was also one of the best goaltenders in the entire NHL.
He not only could have made a convincing argument for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goalie, he could have been a contender for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP.
He was that good -- and was a vital part of the Coyotes' regular-season success as the franchise won its first division title ever (and that includes the days in Winnipeg when it was the Jets ... the original Jets) and advanced all the way to the Western Conference Final.
Smith finished the 2011-12 season with a .930 save percentage, well above his career norm and significantly above what he had done the previous season as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning (.899). It was a completely unexpected performance.
It's not entirely unheard of for goaltenders to blossom in their late 20s and early 30s after bouncing around the league (or the minor leagues or even Europe) and finally get a chance. The Coyotes' coaching staff led by Dave Tippett and goalie coach Sean Burke also received plenty of praise and credit for his breakout season.
So what's in store for Smith in 2013? Well, we know this much, and it shouldn't be up for debate: Even if he continues to prove that he is a capable starting goaltender in the NHL, he's not going to be as good as he was in 2011-12. And probably not even close. Regression to the mean can be brutal, and it's just a matter of how big of a bite the regression monster is going to take out of Smith this season.
Entering Wednesday's game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Smith has already allowed 10 goals on 57 shots this season, including a six-goals-against performance against Chicago earlier this week that resulted in him brutally sacrificing a goalie stick.
He's not going to be that bad all season, but let's try to figure out a realistic expectation based on NHL history.
There have been 14 seasons in the NHL in which a goalie appeared in at least 40 games and finished with a save percentage of .930 or better (and, yes, Smith in 2011-12 was one of those players).
I wanted to see how each player performed the next year over a full season. And because we're dealing with a shortened season in 2013 (thanks to the stupid lockout) that should at least in part alter the discussion here, I also looked at how each goalie performed in the first 40 games of the following season.
The table below contains all of that data. Let's take a look.
|Goalies with at least 40 games and .930 save percentage|
|Player||Year||Save %||Next season %||Dif||Next season/40 gms||Dif|
(Henrik Lundqvist might be due for a bit of a fall this season, too, but probably not as much as Smith, given his superior track record throughout his career.)
A few thoughts and observations...
1) It's obviously extremely rare for a goalie to be that good over a full season.
2) My goodness, what a player Dominik Hasek was. To be that dominant for that length of time is just baffling. He was on his own level, and it's almost as if he was from a different planet and playing a different sport than everybody else.
3) Speaking of which, unless your name is Dominik Hasek, you're destined for a significant drop in your production the following season (and not even Hasek was immune to that in some cases). Over a full season, goalies who fit our criteria lost an average of 12 points in their save percentage and an average of 14 points over their first 40 games the following season. The only one to actually see an improvement was Hasek (he improved two out of the five times and matched his numbers once over a full season, and improved once over the first 40 games of the next season).
4) If Smith were to see an average regression in his save percentage, it would put him at .916 this season, which is right around his career average (.913). Funny how that works.
Let's pretend (just for laughs, just completely hypothetical) that he ends up playing in 40 games this season and faces an average of 30 shots per game (which is about what the Coyotes have given up in recent years).
Smith would need to put up a .920 save percentage the rest of the way to reach a .916 mark for the season.
Can he do it? Well, if he does, it would be just the second time in his career that he did (with last year being the first).
I understand the reputation that Tippett and Burke have working with goalies (and it's deserved), and I acknowledge Smith might have been a guy who was simply overlooked throughout the early part of his career and never had the right opportunity, but following his performance last season with a comparable one this year is expecting way too much. Sometimes the breaks aren't going to fall your way, and sometimes the defense in front of you isn't as tight as it was in the past.
Regression happens, and history isn't on Smith's (or the Coyotes') side here.
Better goalies than him haven't been able to avoid it.