Few teams least expected a goaltending controversy this season than the Detroit Red Wings. Jimmy Howard has been a top goalie since 2009-10 and seemed firmly settled in the starting role, while backup Jonas Gustavsson struggled last season (2-2-1, 0.879 save percentage) in his first year with the Red Wings.
But on Tuesday, Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press reported that Gustavsson will get his second consecutive start in net for the Red Wings against Boston on Wednesday, while Howard graces the bench:
#redwings starting Jonas Gustavsson vs Boston— Helene St. James (@HeleneStJames) November 26, 2013
So, what’s happening?
The answer to that question is pretty simple: Howard has not played well of late, while Gustavsson has. With the Red Wings just coming out of a prolonged slump, head coach Mike Babcock is opting to go with the goaltender that has given the team the best chance to win this season.
Gustavsson, regardless of whatever blemishes lie on his long-term C.V., has provided exceptional play this season. Detroit is 5-0-1 when he starts this season, and his 0.926 save percentage is a big part of that.
Howard, in contrast, has mediocre numbers this year and has been particularly bad in the last month. He has lost seven consecutive starts, and his save percentage in November has dipped to a woeful 0.897. His record on the year is a curious 5-7-6, and at 0.908, his save percentage has dipped below the NHL average.
That’s why the Red Wings feel their best choice is to turn to Gustavsson right now, but what happens down the road? What does the data suggest?
First, we know Howard has been a strong starter for Detroit over most of his career, so is the kind of run he’s suffering through right now uncommon?
Not at all. The following chart shows Howard’s save percentage by month since he became a starting goalie in 2009-10 (data courtesy of Yahoo.com):
Looking at the chart, we can see that in three previous months, Howard’s save percentage has dropped below 0.900. He makes up for that by topping the 0.930 save percentage mark in a single month even more frequently.
The reader may be thinking that Howard’s inconsistency is a problem, but in fact, this kind of fluctuation is common, even for elite goaltenders.
Patrick Roy commented on this once as—recorded for posterity by Vic Ferrari of the blog Irreverent Oilers Fans—after allowing five goals in a game against Edmonton; he chalked the loss up to the shooters simply making their shots. Roy’s career shows the same sort of pattern as we see in that Howard chart; in his last season alone, his monthly save percentage varied from as low as 0.891 (November 2002) to a peak of 0.952 (March 2003).
Cold slumps and hot streaks simply go hand-in-hand with being an NHL goalie, even for the very good ones.
The best predictor of a goaltender’s long-term performance is a look back at his long-term performance, and in the case of Howard and Gustavsson, there can be little doubt as to which will ultimately be Detroit’s starter. According to hockey-reference.com, 43 active goalies have played at least 100 NHL games since 2009-10 (the year, Gustavsson made his debut, and Howard became a starter), and it’s instructive to look at where Detroit’s duo ranks on the list:
|N/A||Average 100+ game goalie||0.915|
Howard has been a top-10 NHL goalie since 2009-10. In the same stretch, Jonas Gustavsson has been the worst goalie (albeit by a very narrow margin over both Nikolai Khabibulin and Mathieu Garon) to play at least 100 NHL games. The two aren’t close.
To his credit, Babcock made it clear to St. James that Howard will be the team’s go-to netminder the rest of the way:
It hasn't gone as good as Howie would like. But let's be clear about this: We're going as far as Howie takes us. We've got an elite goalie who—it hasn't gone as good. It happens for players when they don't score.
In other words, no, there isn’t a controversy brewing in Detroit. Howard is a better goaltender than Gustavsson, the gap between them isn’t small and this is a temporary measure brought about by short-term trends.
It would be a major surprise if this situation doesn’t resolve itself in Howard’s favour in the very near future.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics used come from NHL.com and are current through November 26, 2013.