Wild Goaltending is Worse Than You Think, Holding Team Back


Let’s start with a premise we can all agree on: The Wild’s goaltending stinks. It’s terrible. It’s a big problem.

I think I’m not ruffling any feathers when I point that out. The team’s 5-on-5 save percentage is the worst in the NHL. Worse than Buffalo. Worse than Dallas. Worse than the two teams who have fired their coaches. Worse than everyone. There’s no doubt that it’s been the Achilles heel of this team.

But, the biggest problem is that it’s worse than you think.

What Goaltenders Did

The chart below gives some different configurations of save percentages for Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom.

The first column is just raw save percentage, then it’s their 5-on-5 save percentage — a number that’s a little bit more predictive of future performance than standard save percentage, which can be effected by the number of penalties teams take and other non-goaltending related factors. There’s also adjusted save percentage and then save percentages broken down by risk zones. A low risk shot would be a shot from the point or a very wide angle. High risk shots, which tend to go in the net more often than low or medium risk shots, are found right in front of the net. (There’s a visualization of those zones later on in the article.)

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There are 54 goalies in the NHL who have played at least 300 minutes. Among them Kuemper ranks 52nd in Adj Sv%, 45th in Sv%L (save percentage from low risk areas), 47th in Sv%M (save percentage from medium risk areas), and 47th in Sv%H (save percentage from high risk areas).

Backstrom ranks 48th in Adj Sv%, 39th in Sv%L, 31st in Sv%M, and 50th in Sv%H.

These are terrible numbers. But, like with any stat or advanced stat, no number should just be left to sit on its own without some explanation.

There are two goaltenders performing poorly. Maybe, as Travis Yost noted about Dallas, this is more of a defensive issue than a goaltending one. Having both goaltenders struggle could easily be a sign of that. Yost, using hextally graphs from War on Ice (where all stats in this article are from), notes that the Stars are giving up not only too many shots in general, but too many high risk shots and that’s part of the issue when you look at Dallas’ goaltending and their league-worst goals against/game.

Maybe that’s true for the Wild as well.

What the Defense Did

Bad goaltending is often blamed on the defense, but the numbers indicate that this might not be the case for the Wild this year. It doesn’t appear to be a similar situation to Dallas.

More from Wild News

The Wild are suppressing shots well. They rank #1 in the NHL in shots against per game at 25.4. St. Louis is in second but they’re nearly two shots behind them at 27.1. The Wild are doing a great job in overall shot suppression. Maybe there’s more to see if we break this down by region of the ice.

Here is a hextally graph of shots allowed by Minnesota compared to league average.

In every area of the ice, they’re allowing fewer shots than league average. That’s unsurprising with them being #1 in the league in shots against. It’s important to note that they’re actually very good in that high risk space directly in front of the net. They’re allowing far less than league average there. (League average would be 1.)

Here is the hextally chart of the opponent shooting percentages against the Wild in those same areas.

Yikes. In the high risk area, despite suppressing shots really well there, they’re quite a bit above league average in opponent shooting percentage in that area. They’re just below league average in the slot, where Backstrom has been decent — the best you can say about either goaltenders’ save percentage in any breakdown — and the Wild come closest to allowing a league average number of shots.

And then there’s more bad news at the point. Opponents are scoring way, way too often from the point on the Wild, an area where the goaltenders need to be getting the puck more often than they are.

The combination of allowing so few shots and keeping opponents out of the high risks areas with the terrible save percentage from the point and the high risk areas — where shot suppression is doing its best — indicates that there’s a problem between the pipes and not with the team.

If this is depressing you, we’ll call this a silver lining: The team defense is actually pretty good and the team ranking ninth in the NHL in goals against per game is a testament to that considering the terrible save percentage both goalies have any way you break it down.

Dec 5, 2014; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Minnesota Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom (32) replaces goalie Darcy Kuemper (35) during the third period against the Anaheim Ducks at Xcel Energy Center. The Ducks won 5-4. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Trying to Find an Answer

Here’s the problem with the silver lining, it’s hard to know if this is fixable.

If the problem was the team’s defense failing the goaltenders, then the solution, while not necessarily a piece of cake to fix on ice, is at least clear. It’s a system issue and the team needs to adjust. Right now the team is doing their part. The problem is goaltending and unfortunately it’s both goaltenders. If this was two mid-career goaltenders coming off good seasons you might be able to easily shrug off their struggles as variance. But that’s not what the Wild have. Instead they have two goaltenders at the poles of that spectrum

Kuemper is still untested. This is just his first full season and he’s only played 53 total career games. He’s looked like Superman at times and like the opposition can get in his head easily at others. There’s not much here to project his future other than hoping that his struggles are mental and that once it’s sorted out he’s the goaltender we saw in the first four games and not the last four games. That’s entirely possible, but there isn’t really any hard evidence to help us or the team feel better about it. What we’re going on is seeing a big, young goaltender who has shown a lot of potential and realistically should go through some struggles early in his career. But nothing is guaranteed and we haven’t necessarily seen enough to know that this is true.

Backstrom has not posted good numbers the last two years but those seasons were hampered by injuries that he played through. That makes it tough for me to say that those numbers are a part of a definitive downward trend. However, he looks like he’s recovered his flexibility and agility following those injuries and two surgeries, but he’s posting some bad numbers. With the injuries, I don’t believe that the .909 and .899 save percentages he’s had in the last two years indicate anything definitive. But, couple those injuries, rough play this year, and that he’s at an age (37 by season’s end) where it’s incredibly rare to see goaltending numbers improve and it’s hard to say this is the downward edge of variance. This might be what he is now, a goaltender whose save percentage is going to hover in the low .900 range.

But with no guarantees of what either goaltender is we can only go with what’s been presented by the tandem and that’s an alarming situation. It leaves the Wild in a position where they’re allowing the fewest shots per game in the league, taking the second most shots per game, have the best Fenwick For at 5-on-5, the third best penalty kill, and still manage to find themselves outside of the playoffs after the season’s first 28 games.