Just over a quarter of the way through the NHL season, the Flames have been mired with inconsistency. But, among all the inconsistency, one thing has been constant—the excellent play of Jacob Markstrom. Through the best and worst periods of play this team has had so far, Markstrom has been a steadying presence in the crease.
I decided to take a look at the numbers to see just how good he has been, how his start to the season has matched up against previous Flames’ goalie’s starts, and how goaltending has affected the Flames’ slow starts over recent years.
Right now, per Evolving-Hockey‘s expected goals model, among goalies with at least 150 Fenwick events faced (Fenwick events include shots on goal, goals, and missed shots), Markstrom is in the top ten for every major category. For those who aren’t familiar with these advanced metrics, here’s a brief rundown.
GSAx stands for Goals Saved Above Expected. Probably the most simple of the stats, it shows the difference between how many goals the expected goals model predicts will be scored on a goalie, and how many actually were scored.
GAR (Goals Above Replacement), is a bit more complicated. This metric takes into account a variety of components to estimate how many saved goals a goalie is worth to his team compared to whoever he could be replaced by from the free-agent market for goalies. Some of the components include Fenwick shots against, strength state, and score state. For a more complete breakdown, I suggest checking out the glossary and references sections of the Evolving-Hockey website.
GAR/60 is simply an extension of GAR, turned into a rate form to indicate how many goals above replacement a player is worth for his team over 60 minutes of game time.
Lastly, GSAA (Goals Saved Above Average) is the most traditional of the above stats as it is based in save percentage. GSAA indicates how many goals above average a goalie has saved compared to how many a goalie with a league average save percentage would have allowed.
So looking at all of these stats, Markstrom’s start has been superb. But even by more conventional evaluation metrics his start has been stellar, as he has posted a save percentage of 92.5%. His utter dominance this season has bailed the Flames out time and time again early on in the season, to a degree which only one other Flames goalie in recent memory has reached, and early concerns about how he might fit in and perform on a new team have already been erased emphatically.
Considering he was brought in to be an improvement over the various stopgap starters the Flames have played over the last few seasons, I got to thinking, just how much an improvement have we seen so far compared to our previous starters?
Markstrom has played twelve games through the Flames first quarter of the season. He’s played another since then, but for the sake of comparison, I put together a table showing statistics of all the Flames’ starting goalie’s first twelve starts from each of the last seven seasons, a timeframe that takes us back to the last time the Flames had a clear number one goalie in Miikka Kiprusoff.
Over all these years, only one Flames goalie other than Markstrom has reached the twelve game mark so quickly —it was no other than Mike Smith, who reached the twelve game mark even faster in 2017-18, sitting out only one of his team’s first thirteen. If you expected to find that only Mike Smith had a comparably hot start in the last seven seasons, you have a much more fond memory of Smith’s time in Calgary than I do.
But despite my (and probably most fans) much more clear memory of his horrific 2018-19 season than his first season in town, he did have one of the hottest starts in recent memory in 2017-18. In fact, its the only season that’s even really comparable to Markstrom’s current level of play.
While the way he followed that season up in 2018-19 with such bad numbers makes it hard to remember a time Smith was so elite for the team, it really did happen, and it was really the only time in the past few years the team has started a season with truly elite goaltending.
Unfortunately, aside from the hot starts of Markstrom and Smith, the list paints an ugly picture of the Flames’ goalies. In fact, the only other goalie above break even in either metric is Jonas Hiller, all the way back in 2014-15. Even if we look back further all the way through each season data is available for (which dates back to the 2007-08 season), no other Flames goalies have had such dominant opening stretch.
What makes Markstrom’s start unique in its excellence even when compared to Smith’s 2017-18 start, is that it’s coming in the ultra high scoring North Division, a division currently holding four of the leagues top ten teams in terms of goals for per game (the Flames are not one of them, slotting in at number 17). The strength of his start makes it all the more disappointing to see the Flames falter out of the gates once again.
Slow goalies, slow starts?
The Flames have a well-earned reputation as slow starters, and considering the generally below average play of their goalies to start the last several seasons, it would be easy to attribute this to the poor early-season goaltending the team has generally received. However, the Flames’ success to open seasons, or rather their lack thereof, has been fairly consistent regardless of how their starting goalie has performed.
In the high-flying 2018-19 season, in which Mike Smith posted the worst individual start for a Flames’ goalie on record, the Flames got out to a 6-5-1 start, identical to their record through 12 this year. The year prior, when Smith was dominant? 6-6-0, slightly worse. Clearly, there is more to the Flames tendency to start slowly than just goaltending.
In any case, Markstrom has had a truly exceptional start to the season, a rare feat among Flames goalies. Hopefully his strong play continues moving forward, and the team starts to take better advantage of his elite play by piling up wins.
Photo Credit: Jeff McIntosh/CP