Shots on Goal: Shutout Surge/Scoring Drain
By Peter Maingot, RotoWire Writer
Is it just this author's perception or have there been more shutouts this year than usual? There's already been 31 shutouts this season and we're about six weeks into a six-month season. Last year there were 131 shutouts. It has us thinking back to the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season...
The lockout was caused by many factors: rapidly escalating salaries, a steady decline in scoring, overexpansion, and a style of play that was becoming boring to watch at times due to the propensity of lesser-talented teams playing the neutral zone trap.
The success of Jacques Lemaire's New Jersey Devils teams from 1995 to 2003 (including Stanley Cups in 1995, 2000, and 2003) led many other teams to embrace and adopt this style of play in order to try to achieve success. The league over-expanded going from 22 teams to 30 teams in just eight years (1992-2000). The old argument that the fall of communism and breakup of the both the former Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia had led to a big enough increase in talent to fill up the extra 192 roster spots (8 teams x 24-man roster) simply didn't add up. The reality is that the talent level became watered down with all the added roster spots despite the influx of Eastern European talent. As a result of both this overexpansion and the success of the Devils, the quick and easy way for possible early success in this new NHL was playing the neutral zone trap. What you needed was a good goalie, a team that would buy into the program and play vigorously at both ends of the ice, and a decent power play. In other words you didn't need tons of offensively talented players in order to succeed in a league where the players were getting mugged constantly as they tried to move up ice with the puck.
This led to a major drop in scoring culminating in the 2003-04 season when goals scored per game dropped to 5.136 goals per game, the lowest level since the 1955-56 season (source: http://www.quanthockey.com/StaticTables/GoalsPerGameData.php). The average scoring per game took a downward spiral with the success of the trap. In 1995-96 the NHL averaged 6.285 goals per game. That number dropped to 5.136 goals per game by the time the lockout arrived. That's a drop of 1.149 goals per game in eight years.
In 2005-06 change finally came. Zero tolerance for obstruction penalties of all kinds, the allowance of two-line passing and the downsizing of goalie pads all helped lead to the largest year-over-year increase in scoring the league has seen (+.914 goals per game) since 1943-44, as goals scored per game increased from 5.136 to 6.05. Despite the big increase in 2005-06, average scoring dropped again in 2006-07 to 5.758 and again in 2007-08 to 5.440. The trend was stopped in 2008-09 when it went up to 5.695 but it declined again last season to 5.53 goals per game. Five years after hockey fans lost a season in order to increase scoring the rise is just 5.136 in 2003-04 to 5.531 in 2009-10, a mere difference of .395 goals scored per game.
While we cannot pinpoint the exact reason for the relatively steady decline in scoring since the 2005-06 season, we can delve into some of the fantasy implications.
First and foremost of the implications regarding declining scoring is that forwards from teams that stress defense should be avoided, if at all possible. Take a team like St. Louis. With the retirement of Keith Tkachuk and the one-year concussion-induced sabbatical of Paul Kariya (who was a UFA anyway), the Blues were expected to ride the success of their blossoming young forwards this season. Other than T.J. Oshie, who is now hurt, most of these young forwards have not matched their expectations (Backes, Steen, Berglund) and the team has molded itself around the wondrous talents of their new goalie Jaroslav Halak. Let's just examine one of these young/underperforming forwards - David Backes. Though he has only one goal and five points in 13 games, the Blues are happy with his play because he's winning face-offs and finishing his checks. Moreover, the team is winning playing a defensive brand of hockey.
The reduction of scoring is also having a ripple effect throughout fantasy hockey. 40-goal scorers are becoming nearly as rare as 50-goal scorers. 30-goal scorers now receive the prestige, and commensurate salary, that 40-goal scorers used to get. Back in the 1980's, when total goals per game topped out at an average of 8.025 per game, a 20-goal scorer played on the checking line. Alas, I digress.
Back to that ripple effect. When it comes to fantasy forwards and the assembly of a team in a standard 12-team league, your floor would usually be 60 points unless a forward could provide a lot of penalty minutes like Scott Hartnell and Steve Downie these days or perhaps even Sean Avery. Now the floor in the same league setup is more like 50 points for a forward. One positive effect of all this is that you can use your league's free-agent pool as a veritable user-friendly bench whereby you play matchups. For example in the experts league that I'm in these forwards have been dropped in the last week: Shane Doan, Andy McDonald, Tyler Ennis, Michal Frolik. Obviously, you don't need to hoard third-line forwards this year if you're playing in a 12-team league where each team starts three lines.
Speaking of trends we will now examine teams that currently have some version of a time-share in effect in net. In other words, if you only own Lundqvist, Luongo, Halak, Howard, Brodeur, Ward, Kiprusoff, Hiller, Backstrom, Vokoun, Turco, Bryzgalov, Lehtonen, Giguere, or even Khabibulin (our sympathies) then you will be reading this for whatever entertainment value it may (or may not) contain.
Ondrej Pavelec has had three starts and one relief appearance since he came back from IR after that scary early-season incident when he passed out cold on the ice during a game. He is still in search of his first win of the season, though his GAA of 2.70 is nearly a goal less than Chris Mason's 3.67. After relieving Mason on Tuesday in Ottawa (stopping 10 of 11 shots in 31 minutes) Pavelec will likely get the start Thursday against Minnesota. Pavelec needs to get on track and the Wild could prove to be the perfect tonic.
Tim Thomas was pulled from his last start, at the Capitals. Tuukka Rask received the subsequent start at home to St. Louis but was once again a hard luck loser as the Bruins lost 2-0. With back-to-back games this week Rask should get another changce at his first win of the season. The problems facing either goalie these days is offensive support, as the B's are missing a key forward in center David Krejci after starting the season without top center Marc Savard (concussion) and top-nine left wing Marco Sturm (torn ACL/MCL). Krejci had been centering the first line in Savard's absence. Now that duty falls upon Patrice Bergeron. This has a trickle-down effect and the Bruins are now deploying winger Blake Wheeler as their No. 2 center. Ironically we had identified Wheeler in last week's column as a player whose size was needed up front as to help support the smaller forwards on the second or third line and now he's the second-line center until either Savard or Krejci return. There are salary-cap ramifications if/when the Bruins activate Savard and Sturm and it may take a draft pick to sweeten the pot for another team to be willing to pick up Michael Ryder.
Craig Anderson (he injured his knee warming up Oct. 26) is reported to be about two weeks away from returning to the lineup. That's good news for Anderson owners. Here's the bad news for Anderson owners - when he returns to the lineup he could be playing behind four rookies on defense. That's the current situation in Colorado with four of the top six on defense currently injured. Three players - Adam Foote, Kyle Quincey, Kyle Cumiskey - are out with concussions while Ryan Wilson (leg) is day-to-day. All things considered, Peter Budaj is doing a pretty decent job. He's 4-2-1 with a 2.84 GAA, a .900 SV %, and a shutout. Three games in four nights later this week will be a severe test for their rookie-laden defensive corps and the hectic schedule may force the Avs to play John Grahame, who's last NHL appearance was March 14, 2008. The last time the 35-year-old started an NHL game and win was December 18, 2007!
Mathieu Garon is the only Jackets goalie who played last week. Garon went 2-1 with a tiny 1.33 GAA and an insane .962 SV %. Starting the week with back-to-back shutouts over Montreal and Atlanta made those crazy stat lines possible. As he ended the week with a loss, Steve Mason started Wednesday against St. Louis.
Pekke Rinne was expected to see upwards of 70 starts this season but an early season injury put that immediately at risk. The Preds' backup goalie Anders Lindback performed admirably in Rinne's absence. When Rinne returned he had trouble re-capturing last season's form and now finds himself in a slump. This slump has been felt team-wide as Nashville has lost five straight games. Injuries to top-pairing defenseman Ryan Suter (lower body injury), top center Matthew Lombardi (concussion) as well as top-six winger Martin Erat (upper body injury) have exposed a lack of depth both on defense and up front. The good news for Rinne owners is that Suter is expected to be back in the lineup by the weekend, as is Erat. Hopefully the return of Suter can inspire the team to block more shots, as they've gone from a top-10 team in blocked shots last year to one of the league's bottom-10 teams at blocking shots. Suter blocked 112 shots last year while Dan Hamhuis, now with Vancouver, blocked 95 shots. Meanwhile former Canuck Shane O'Brien, playing more than they'd like because of Suter's injury, has been a minus-5 over the last eight games with just five blocked shots.
Dwayne Roloson has pretty much taken over as the Isles' No. 1 goalie. The discrepancy in stats is simply too wide to ignore. While both goalies have just two wins each on the year, Rollie's 2.44 GAA is nearly two goals less than DiPietro's 4.21. Roloson's save percentage is also .60 higher (.910 vs. .850) than DiPietro's.
Brian Elliott is hot, folks. Elliott has six wins in his last seven starts with a 2.29 GAA. For the season he's now 8-4 with a 2.81 GAA and .911 SV %. Elliott has built up some wiggle room over Pascal Leclaire, meaning that it will take more than one stinker from Elliott before Leclaire gets a chance to play more than sporadically in the near term.
The second line of Peter Regin - Jason Spezza - Alex Kovalev has finally showed signs of life and it was an interesting decision by Ottawa coach Cory Clouston to kepp that line intact and drop Nick Foligno down to the fourth line as top-six winger Milan Michalek (knee tendonitis) returned to the lineup on Tuesday and joined Mike Fisher and Daniel Alfredsson on the first line. Now fully healthy at forward, the Sens have a solid team that can roll four lines nightly. The only injury of note is Filip Kuba (broken leg), who has missed 15 games but is practicing with the team and will likely accompany them when they leave Ottawa on Thursday night after the Vancouver game for a four-game road trip from the East Coast (Boston, Philadelphia) down through Carolina then over to the Midwest to St. Louis.
Sergei "Bob" Bobrovsky continues to enjoy the benefits of playing on one of the league's true powerhouse lineups. At this point the injured former playoff hero Michael Leighton (back surgery), who began practicing Wednesday and will return to the lineup in two-to-three weeks, has little value. If you own him there's little point in trying to trade him, except for perhaps to the Bobrovsky owner in your league. Leighton could be acquired for cheap and should still be useful as a No. 3 fantasy goalie with the upside of a higher-end No. 2. Leighton is still worth picking up if he's available in your league. That's assuming that your league has an IR spot and that you're not already using it on an important player.
Brent Johnson continues to flourish while Marc-Andre Fleury continues to flounder. Fleury was humiliated in his last start against Phoenix. He was pulled after giving up two goals in the first 6:56 of the first period. That's brutal - to be yanked out by a team that has major problems scoring goals. Meanwhile Johnson's GAA has ballooned to 1.62! Johnson should get the start Wednesday against a suddenly offensively challenged Boston team. Times are stressful for Fleury owners, as Johnson will need to suffer a major drop in play before Fleury can expect a heavier workload.
The Anterro vs. Antti battle is, for now, a non-event as Niittymaki seems reasonably entrenched as the No. 1 goalie in San Jose while Niemi struggles to see more than one start every four games. Niittymaki has only allowed more than two goals in two of his eight starts, holds a minute 1.92 GAA, a .930 SV %, and has not allowed more than three goals in any game this season. Meanwhile Niemi is 1-4 with a 3.91 GAA and .870 SV %.
What began as a battle of attrition between Dan Ellis and Mike Smith, where neither goalie's peripherals were user friendly in standard 12-team leagues, has evolved over the last fortnight into a clear No. 1 - Ellis. The Lightning's offseason addition signing him for two years at a total cost of $3 million, Ellis has proven to be a bargain based on his play, especially over the past two weeks where he's 3-0-1 in his last four games with a microscopic 0.78 goals-against average with two shutouts. While Smith has a winning record at 4-2 he's lost his last two starts and sports a 3.43 GAA and .880 SV %.
Michal Neuvirth had his first clunker of the season against Boston last week, getting pulled during a 5-3 comeback-win. Braden Holtby proceeded to win his first NHL start the following game against Philadelphia, an impressive feat even despite the fact that the Flyers were missing the suspended Daniel Briere. While preseason No. 1 goalie Semyon Varlamov should be back in the nets by week's end, Holtby is a name to remember should an injury befall either Varlamov again or Neuvirth. Those in keeper leagues may wish to act now on Holtby. Top-four defenseman Tom Poti (groin) remains out though he is listed as day-to-day. The Caps could use him as they've been allowing more goals of late - 12 goals in their last four games.