The Anaheim Ducks entered the season with perhaps the richest goaltending pipeline in the NHL. Veterans Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth were, respectively, an established starter and a legitimate candidate for a starting role, and AHL prospects Frederik Andersen and John Gibson are two of the best young goaltenders in hockey today.
Even with the trade-deadline departure of Fasth, necessitated by the presence of Andersen and Gibson, the Ducks have an abundance of riches. Lately, though, that abundance of riches has turned into a conundrum because it isn’t at all clear which of the team’s three goalies should start in net for Game 1 of Anaheim’s first-round series against the Dallas Stars.
Hiller would seem the logical choice, an established starter who has been battle-tested in both the NHL regular season and the playoffs and has proven his mettle in both. The trouble is that his save percentage in the majors this season is the lowest of the three, and he’s been especially bad of late: In his last 10 games the Ducks have gone 3-4-3, and Hiller has managed a 0.865 save percentage.
Andersen’s been better of late and over the season as a whole, but he only has 28 games of experience under his belt. Additionally, while he’s well-regarded, Gibson is the player who seems to be the consensus choice to ultimately emerge as the team’s best goalie. Clouding the picture further is that Andersen has only recently returned from an upper-body injury that necessitated playing time for Gibson.
For his part, Gibson’s been brilliant, with a 0.954 save percentage in the three NHL games he played in place of Andersen, the only three games of his career.
So who will Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau choose? He hasn’t made his decision public yet, but on Monday the L.A. Times’ Lance Pugmire reported what was known:
Ducks Coach Bruce Boudreau said he expects to finalize his decision about who will start Game 1 by Tuesday, and it probably will be 20-win rookie Frederik Andersen, who beat the Kings on Saturday.
If Andersen is Boudreau’s choice, is that the best call?
The easiest part of this decision is the choice between Andersen and Gibson, so that’s a logical place for us to start. Both players have spent much of the last two seasons with Anaheim’s AHL affiliate in Norfolk, Va., so a comparison between the two is easy to make:
Andersen, the oldest of the pair, has been the better goaltender in the AHL. That should be enough to cement his status over Gibson heading into the postseason, because three stellar NHL games by the younger prospect simply don’t represent enough evidence to counter the established AHL pattern.
That leaves a choice then between Hiller and Andersen, which is a tougher one given Hiller’s established level of ability and the simple fact that Andersen’s NHL track record is less than 30 games.
Here it would be extremely helpful if we could compare NHL and AHL save percentages, and thanks to Stephan Cooper’s work at Habs Eyes on the Prize, we can. Cooper found that, on average, an AHL goalie can expect to lose seven points off his save percentage when he makes the jump to the majors. Naturally, there is a lot of fluctuation at the individual level, but that’s the broad trend. Does that fit with what we find with Andersen?
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It does. We’re still dealing with a sample size of less than 3,000 shots, which isn’t ideal, but both his AHL and NHL work point to a 0.923 save percentage. How does that compare with Hiller’s recent work?
In a way, Hiller’s late-season struggles might be a blessing in disguise for the Ducks. There’s a very real possibility that at this stage in their respective careers Andersen is the superior goaltender, and the collapse of Hiller’s game opened the door for a change between the pipes.
If the Ducks opt to start Andersen against Dallas to open their first-round series they will be choosing the goaltender who, based on the evidence, gives them the best chance at winning the game.
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