It is extremely difficult to assess goaltending performance in small samples. Playoff evaluation is exactly this. A hot shooting streak can vault players from anonymity to temporary superstar status and the same holds true for goaltenders. Career backups can go on extraordinary runs because it is extremely difficult to separate luck from the environment created by strong defensive coverage.
In the first round of the playoffs, Thomas Greiss was producing statistics that placed him among the elite netminders in the league. The Islanders’ netminder clear-sight save percentage was on the same level as Carey Price, his slot-line passing success was above Henrik Lundqvist. One or two goals in a small sample will re-adjust these totals and when the Islanders faced the Lightning in Round 2, Greiss’ numbers saw a dramatic shift. The Isles were forcing the Panthers into 88 percent clear-sighted shots in the opening round. This number dropped to 79 percent against the Lightning and Greiss’ numbers normalized.
With an individual like Greiss, who had a 3,000-shot history to assess, expecting a regression was an easy assumption when compared to the unsustainable levels he was producing. Through all my studies, all the goaltenders began to settle into their true ability after 2,500 shots. So when a goaltender emerges in the NHL with nothing but minor league and junior data to assess, film study becomes essential to avoid poor assumptions.
It is what makes Murray such an interesting study. Through the first two rounds, Murray’s run has made people forget the name, Marc-Andre Fleury. Like Greiss, he has produced elite results during his small sample playoff run.
If we look at his situational save percentages, we can see he is performing well above the expectations of a player who has only played 13 regular season games. It would be very easy to look at his non-NHL experience and assume he is elite, but producing these type of numbers at 21 was beyond the reach of players like Carey Price because of the speed adjustment at this age. This is no different for Murray.
While reviewing the Penguins/Capitals series, two things stood out. The Penguins are doing a spectacular job of insulating Murray from complex scenarios. He is facing almost 89 percent of his shots where he can gain clear sight and set and information gather. The Penguins are forcing their opposition into straight lines, and in this environment, every goaltender can be productive. This not only gives him the confidence to succeed, but it avoids situations where he can chase the play or highly complex situations where the pace of play creates desperation decision making.
When the play has broken down for Murray, his play begins to reflect a lack of experience. When a goaltender trails the play, they begin to get into a reactive mode instead of a position where they can set their feet, assess the situation and gather information for a plan of attack.
We can see from the scenario above that Murray puts himself into a reactive position because of his late read. When the situation is relatively basic, Murray is able to maintain his route, but when Nicklas Backstrom identifies Alex Ovechkin with backside pressure, the problems begin to cascade. Murray looks for a lane on the left side of the screen and Backstrom initiates a backdoor feed through the layers in front of Murray. Experience will eventually teach him to read the threat levels at the appropriate pace, but in this scenario, we can see how far behind he is at Ovechkin’s release point. By the time Murray gains back his space, he can’t set, square or threat assess because the puck is already by him. Desperation mode leads to him trying to make the save while moving.
I have illustrated the optimum path to remain square to the puck while it moves through the zone, and we can see Murray trail the ghosted path for the majority of its transition. This is route efficiency and it ultimately exposes goaltenders who cannot maintain the proper pace.
If you beat the play, you can solve the equation because you have all the elements that form the question. If you trail the play, you need to fill in the blanks. This can work in short-term scenarios because of shooter error or luck, but over large samples, you will be exposed. At this point, you become dependent on your environment to protect you from this exposure.
Simple equations, easier answers.
Murray continually trails the play, but the Penguins continue to provide him with simple scenarios. The question is: Can they provide the same scenarios during the Eastern Conference Final against Tampa Bay?
The Lightning have elite speed and they forced Greiss into difficult situations. Only 79 percent of the shots he faced allowed him the opportunity for clear sight. Murray has merged fortune with a strong environment to this point, but he cannot continue to trail the play and maintain success without the Penguins’ support. Eventually, the regression will occur and we may see the return of Fleury. While Fleury doesn’t possess a great playoff reputation for somebody who owns a Stanley Cup ring, he is fully capable of playoff success within an environment where he receives 89 percent of his shots with clear sight.
If I use the exact same distribution for Murray and apply it to Fleury’s career percentages (2,000-shot sample), Fleury would have delivered a .927 save percentage in this playoff environment. While Fleury struggles in transition, he is significantly above average on clear-sighted shots where he excels with a .955 SV% (+.006 above NHL average). The current defensive environment is perfect for Fleury’s strengths and if he is healthy, he’d likely excel.
If the Penguins continue to provide this type of goaltender support, either choice will lead to success. I would view Murray as this year’s playoff bridge, a glimpse into the Penguins’ future, but I’d be surprised to see him finish this playoff run.