When Dan Bylsma gets his U.S. Olympic team together for the first time in Sochi, he'll look at the guys in the big pads and he'll have a rather important decision to make. Who will Team USA's coach pick to be the starting goaltender for Team USA at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games?
Before the year it was a simple decision. In the middle of the season it was a completely different decision. Now the pre-season favorite, Jonathan Quick, and the in-season favorite, Ryan Miller, are putting together a really strong January in the late stages of pre-Olympic evaluation.
So what is Bylsma to do? On one hand, he has Miller, the MVP of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, who has been the picture of consistency throughout the NHL season in a dismal situation with the Buffalo Sabres. On the other hand, he has Quick, a Conn Smythe winner with his name on the Stanley Cup and one of the best postseason netminders over the last two years.
Both are playing extremely well in the last month leading up to the Olympics, which complicates the decision, but perhaps only slightly. There are so many other factors at play that have to be considered from how a player is playing at that moment, the size of the ice and the level of trust all of these things put together provide the U.S. head coach.
Like any good coach, Bylsma will have to weigh the pros and cons. So we should probably do the same.
First off, it's important to note the similarities between the two. Both have had success under bright lights. Miller was the MVP of the 2010 Olympics and put together one of the best performances by an American at the Olympics ever with a .946 save percentage. It's hard to imagine a scenario in which that team gets the silver medal without Miller.
Quick on the other hand has more recent experience in the longer and more grinding Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In leading the Kings to the Stanley Cup in 2012, Quick posted a stunning .946 save percentage and earned the Conn Smythe trophy as an easy postseason MVP. He followed that up with a 2013 postseason run to the Western Conference Final, while posting a .934 save percentage.
The last month has only increased the similarities, with a slight edge to Quick.
Miller has made eight starts since the Olympic roster was named on Jan. 1 and has a .924 save percentage to go along with a 2.33 goals-against average. The Sabres netminder was rock solid in December as well.
Quick, who missed all of December and most of November with a groin strain, has come back strong in the month of January. He has made 11 starts since Jan. 4 and while getting very little goal support, has kept the Kings in games. He has two shutouts, a .938 save percentage and 1.53 goals-against average. It should be noted that Quick has one of the league's top defenses in front of him as well, but he's come back very strong from injury.
Oddly enough, it's Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard, Team USA's third goaltender that has had the best numbers in the month of January with a .943 save percentage over seven starts, but he has also spent the last week recovering from an injury. Howard has had a bit of a roller coaster season, which is why it seems he's destined for the No. 3 job as opposed to competing for No. 1.
When you expand the view to the entire season, Miller probably gets extra credit for the fact that he's been really good all year long and has gotten himself into a rather nice rhythm. With a team getting routinely out-shot in front of him and struggling to score, Miller has posted his best numbers since his Vezina Trophy-winning season in 2009-10, excluding win-loss record.
In that 2009-10 season, Miller posted a .929 save percentage and 2.22 goals-against average. This year, Miller is sporting a .926 save percentage and 2.61 goals-against average.
While his goals-against is similar to more recent years, he hasn't been above a .916 save percentage since the Vezina year. Perhaps more interestingly, Miller's even-strength save percentage at this point in the season is identical to the .928 mark he posted at even strength in 2009-10.
Miller is also in a contract year and another big performance in the Olympics could end up bumping up the price in the off-season, if that was a needed source of motivation (it probably isn't, but it's there).
Quick meanwhile struggled mightily at the beginning of the season before going down with the Grade 2 groin strain that shelved him for nearly two months. His numbers are starting to rally thanks to the terrific January he has put together.
Quick has a 15-9-2 record, .918 save percentage and 2.01 goals-against average. He also already has three shutouts.
Another similarity that will likely be placed in the con column for both is relative lack of recent experience on bigger ice surfaces. Goaltending coaches I've spoken with have often mentioned the difficulty in adjusting to the bigger surface because the angles change and the way a goalie moves in the crease may be altered slightly.
Quick has zero experience internationally save for serving as the third-string goalie on the 2010 Olympic team. He did play college hockey at UMass and some opponents had Olympic-sized rinks, but the expiration date on that experience may have come and gone.
Outside of the 2010 Olympics, Miller's last international event on big ice came in 2003 at the Men's World Championship, where he struggled greatly with an .889 save percentage in four appearances.
Of the three goaltenders on Team USA's roster, Howard has the most recent big-ice experience, having played in the 2012 Men's World Championship, where he performed rather well. Even though that recent experience helps, it's not going to help Howard surpass the other two.
So that's basically a wash there.
Something Bylsma will also have to consider is which goalie he trusts more to face a high volume of shots. Team USA has a fairly young defensive corps which should be solid enough in their own zone, but if Bylsma wants to play a high-paced, puck-moving style, there's a good chance the U.S. netminder is going to face a fairly high number of shots. You also have to account for the U.S. defensemen being less adept to playing on the bigger ice surface.
Quick has seen an average of 24.4 shots per game with the stingy Kings in front of him. Miller is seeing an average of more than 35 a night with the Sabres. The fact that Miller's numbers with more work are slightly better is an advantage for sure.
Another important thing Bylsma has to think about is how he handles games on back-to-back days. Team USA's second and third preliminary-round games come in back-to-back fashion with Russia followed by Slovenia. Next, if the U.S. advances past the qualification round, the quarterfinals come the very next day.
Recent data, as compiled by Eric Tulsky of SBNation and further examined by Tyler Dellow of mc79hockey found that goalies that played both games in back-to-backs had a save percentage .011 lower in the second game than those that played on at least a day's rest. That is a rather significant mark. Though the data comes from the NHL, it certainly translates to the Olympics.
The preliminary-round decision probably isn't that difficult considering Slovenia is unlikely to pose a threat to the U.S. There probably wouldn't be a ton of concern about a drop off against Slovenia and, if nothing else, it's an easy opportunity to start the No. 2. But those back-to-backs coming with the qualification and quarterfinals are absolutely significant and that complicates the decision there.
Only Quick has started games on back-to-back days this season and that came in the first two games of the season. He won the first game with 27 saves, but the next night gave up four goals and was yanked.
The good news is, Bylsma has three bona fide No. 1 goalies and at least two that have proven themselves in the biggest of big-game situations. He has flexibility. That certainly helps deal with the back-to-back question.
Both goalies are probably going to be needed at some point and no matter who ends up No. 2, the U.S. will have the best backup in the Winter Games. That's a pretty nice safety net right there.
However, when choosing who starts the first game against Slovakia, a team that will pose a big challenge right away, the decision should be clear. Ryan Miller, who has been solid over the course of the entire season, should be the No. 1.
It's hard to argue what with Miller has done behind a team that has made him work a lot. The Olympics is such a short tournament, so you need your goalie to be consistent. Over the course of 36 games, Miller has been almost as good as he was in a Vezina-winning season and is bringing in a similar level of play as he did to his sensational 2010 performance in Vancouver.
Quick is rallying right now and he may be the “hot hand” coming into Sochi, but it's only slightly hotter than Miller's. If you take the larger sample of the whole season, and obviously it's not Quick's fault for getting hurt in the middle, Miller seems to have an advantage by a wide margin.
The fact that he's used to a high volume of shots, his sterling Olympic credentials and the best season he's had since that magical 2009-10 campaign all put Ryan Miller in the best position to be Team USA's primary starter in Sochi.