What do you want in a backup goalie?
It’s a valid question to ask with the Penguins apparently satisfied with Casey DeSmith over Tristan Jarry as the No. 2 behind Matt Murray for the imminent Stanley Cup playoffs.
The way Jim Rutherford has explained the decision makes sense: With Jarry being the younger of the two NHL rookies — by four years — he could theoretically benefit more from additional playing time in the American Hockey League. As a former second-round pick who’s had some success at the top level, Jarry still qualifies as a prospect.
The problem is, with the Penguins about to enter the postseason crucible, what’s right for Jarry’s continued development might not be right for the two-time defending champions.
While there isn’t a Marc-André Fleury waiting on the bench this time around, it’s worth examining whether DeSmith really provides more reliable backing for Murray, should Mike Sullivan need to go that route.
The toughest part of this exercise is that we have a small baseline upon which to judge. The more experienced ‘tender at the NHL level is Jarry, with a grand total of 27 appearances for the Penguins. DeSmith, meanwhile, has touched game ice 13 times this season. Jarry had the additional benefit of backing up Fleury during the first two round of last year’s playoffs, so we can give the younger option the very slight edge in the ‘been there before’ category.
But we’re kidding ourselves if we think we have any idea how either goalie would react to being thrown into a playoff series. Did any of us think Jeff Zatkoff was good to go for Game 1 against the Rangers in 2016? Human psychology can be inscrutable.
Adding Valuable Context
So, in the spirit of Matt-alytics, let’s throw at least a little data into the mix. Since I’m not a goalie coach and (likely) neither are you, the best we can do is examine some of the numbers available to us, starting at the NHL level and working our way down into the AHL experiences of DeSmith and Jarry.
By overall NHL save percentage, DeSmith (.913) has a small advantage over Jarry (.908), but with the limited sample we’re looking at, that’s not a definitive win. Down in the AHL, DeSmith has a .918 in 76 career games, playoffs included. Jarry is at .915 in 94 appearances. Again, a small edge for Casey over Tristan.
Looking a little deeper at the NHL data, using Corsica Hockey‘s Expected Save Percentage metric (xSV%), Jarry has an even-strength save percentage .001 better than what would be expected given the calculated quality of the shots he’s faced. Among the 69 goalies who have played at least 500 five-on-five minutes this season, that ranks 39th.
DeSmith, on the other hand, has the 10th-best differential between actual and expected save percentage. Accounting for the quality of the shots he’s faced, DeSmith ‘should’ have an .895 instead of his .913.
So, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say DeSmith has done better than Jarry in their NHL auditions, considering the circumstances of their outings.
Matter of Consistency
What about consistency, though? An argument could be made that all a team should want in a backup is a dependable baseline of performance. In other words, a backup shouldn’t have to win a game for a team, but he can’t lose it, either.
Glancing back at their AHL track records for additional data points, I searched for sub-replacement level performances from both DeSmith and Jarry. In this era of goaltending, we can neatly define replacement level as a .900 save percentage, at least for the sake of argument.
In this area, the 26-year-old DeSmith comes out on top again. He has had a sub-.900 save percentage in 29 percent of his AHL appearances and 38 percent of his NHL games. That’s a 30-percent ‘blowup’ rate as a professional, if you will.
As for Jarry, he has had ‘blowup’ games in 33 percent of his AHL outings and 44 percent of his NHL appearances, adding up to a 36 percent rate as a pro.
My conclusion? Based on the data we have, DeSmith has a small step up in most categories except total pro experience … and that gap is further closed by DeSmith’s 13 ECHL games two years ago.
If Murray’s health or performance falters in the playoffs, the Penguins will have a major problem, but DeSmith’s appointment as backup appears to be appropriate given the options available.