We've covered the New York islanders' question mark(s) in goal most of the summer, to the point that the topic gets nauseating and repetitive, but we must tackle it once more before the season starts:
The Isles have an aging, below-average starter in goal backed up by two prospects who have more uncertain attributes than they do "future NHLer" potential. That doesn't mean the Islanders are doomed -- far from it -- but it does mean their most easily identified weakness is in goal, and that weakness is deepened by the uncertainty of their backup pool.
Because goaltending is a mystery, and because (outside of implosions) weak goaltending chips away at you by degrees over time, the Isles can overcome this. But the routes to that which don't include "acquiring a known quantity" are of a probability that shakes the confidence of many an Islanders fan
Evgeni Nabokov is still capable of delivering good games, even stealing a game here or there. But over the aggregate -- say, an 82-game season, for example -- he is sub par.
How can we assert this, outside of our own eyes and hunches? Derek Zona of Copper & Blue recently tallied all goalies over the last five seasons who had two or more years of 25 games played or more. In that group, here is where Nabokov ranks:
- Overall Save Percentage: 35th (.910), in the territory of Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Mason and Martin Biron
- Shorthanded Save Percentage (warning: small sample even over five seasons): 26th (.874), in the territory of Fleury again, as well as Cam Ward, and Jonas Hiller
- Even Strength Save Percentage (the best measure): 32nd (.920), in the territory of Cristobal Huet, Josh Harding, Ty Conklin, Ray Emery and, heh, Fleury again.
EV save percentage is the best measure because it eliminates the whims and luck of penalty kill situations in particular. But regardless, by any measure outside of age and awesome interviews, you can see that Nabokov is:
- At best in the bottom third of goalies that can be considered regular starters
- In his late 30s (38 years old), and thus a concern to (further) decline via injury or age or both
The other thing you'll notice about the players around Nabokov on those lists is that you can win with them. It's just that they aren't the ones carrying weak rosters to victory.
So the Islanders potentially have a superior team with playoff-worthy skaters -- their 2013 possession/territorial figures down the stretch and in the playoffs were that of real playoff team. But Nabokov can at best be expected to help them hold serve, not to carry them to multiple wins through slumps like a top-flight goalie might.
Of course, there is an oft-overlooked fact about Nabokov's sub-par level as told in the stats -- one that goalie-obsessed fans would be wise to consider: It actually doesn't amount to that many extra goals against over time. As garik16 noted in a post here earlier this week:
Over a typical season, that means Nabby will cost the Isles 5 goals (on 1500 shots allowed) that an average goalie would've saved. That's less than 2 standing points - not something a team can't overcome. It's 3 standing points compared to an average starter - but again, survivable.
However, other than any decline from adding another ring to Nabokov's tree, the fear here is in whom the Isles turn to if Nabby gets injured or slumps enough to activate Operation: Backup. If he falters for either of those reasons, it is risky to bet that Kevin Poulin or Anders Nilsson will improve the position. And even in the best case, Nabokov's backup(s) should be expected to play a quarter of the season or more.
Now, Poulin and Nilsson are both 23, which means they are at an age where goaltenders usually continue to improve. And each also carries a caveat about how injury or illness has affected their young careers, potentially enough to mask what might otherwise have been development into NHL-caliber goaltenders. But as garik also noted in the post referenced above, their stats thus far don't build a lot of hope.
There are some unknowns and some probabilities here, but neither points in the Isles' favor, at least from the betting man's point of view. The Isles appear ready to ride Nabokov while letting Poulin and Nilsson battle to prove they deserve a shot -- which, in a post-DiPietro world, is the first time both Nilsson and Poulin will get to try established roles without injuries or a crease crowd muddying the data.
But if this plan backfires and becomes too detrimental to overall success, the Isles better have a list of goalies to target who are higher on those lists. Or they better hope Parker Milner is an early and fast riser.