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Upon Further Review: The Goaltenders

November 23, 2021, 6:47 PM ET [734 Comments]
Hank Balling
Buffalo Sabres Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
There is a brouhaha brewing in Sabreland over whether the Sabres struggles in November are the result of poor goaltending or poor overall play from the team. Are the goalies bad? Is the team bad? What’s happening?

On one side, there are fans who say the goaltending the Sabres are receiving from Dustin Tokarski and Aaron Dell is not responsible for a November skid, as the team in front of them is playing poor hockey. On the other side, some fans are saying that with league-average goaltending, the Sabres would be in a much better position in the NHL standings, rather than their current position at 7-9-2 (25th place).

Let’s see if some numbers can add clarity to the situation.

Firstly, we’ll start with the baseline stats from Dustin Tokarski and Aaron Dell since Craig Anderson last played for the Sabres on November 2. That gives us eight games of game data to analyze and see what to make of the Sabres’ goaltending situation.

Tokarski v. Detroit: 29/33 - .879 sv% (OTL)
Tokarski v. Washington: 25/30 - .833 sv% (L)
Tokarski v. Edmonton: 33/35: .943 sv% (w)
Dell v. Toronto: 21/26: .808 sv% (L)
Tokarski v. Penguins: 45/46: .978 sv% (w)
Tokarski v. Calgary: 18/23: .783 sv% (L), Dell v. Flames 10/10: 1.00 sv% (L)
Dell v. NYR: 31/36: .861 sv% (L)
Tokarski v. Columbus: 8/12: .667 sv% (L), Dell v. Columbus: 14/15: .933 sv% (L)

So, for totals, we have:

Tokarski: 179 shots faced over parts of six games with 158 saves for a .882% saved.

Dell: 87 shots faced over parts of 4 games with 76 saves for a .873% saved.

On the surface, having two goaltenders with a save percentage at-or-below .890 is an almost guaranteed recipe for disaster. A team simply can’t win with those kinds of numbers coming from the crease. Those surface numbers don’t tell the whole story, though, and for that we’ll have to dig a little deeper, starting with the goals-against and expected goals against provided by evolving-hockey.com.

Tokarski: Goals Against: 31. Expected Goals Against: 26. Wins Above Replacement: -.9

Dell: Goals Against: 11. Expected Goals Against: 8. Wins Above Replacement: -.5

What those stats are telling us is that the combination of Tokarski and Dell were “expected” to make 8 more saves than they have this season, and thus they have allowed 8 more goals than would be expected from an average goaltender. Keep in mind that these numbers from evolving hockey also include contests from Tokarski from prior to Anderson’s departure. That said, Tokarski’s save percentage has plummeted in the wake of the elder statesman taking an injury sabbatical, so it’s quite likely that the majority of those expected goals against have come in the last month. Prior to Anderson leaving, Tokarski was playing lights out overall.

So, the above information is the essence of the argument for the group of fans who believe that goaltending is causing the Sabres to skid during the month of October. Now let’s get onto some information that may appeal to the portion of the fandom that thinks the team in front of them needs to be better. During the 8 games following the departure of Craig Anderson, the Sabres were outshot by a margin of 311-232. In total, the Sabres were on the losing side of the shot differential in 6-out-8 games, with a total of a -79 shot differential across the totality of those 8 games. In addition, hockey reference has the Sabres with an expected goals-for-per-60-minutes of 1.99 and an expected goals-against-per-60-minutes of 2.31 which shows that their algorithm believes the Sabres are playing worse than their opponents.

It’s completely unreasonable to expect that a team will win more than they lose when they fail to outshoot an opponent in the majority of games. Sure, there are caveats to that, such as shot quality, but overall carrying the pace of play and generating shots on net is a decent indicator of success. This isn’t to suggest that the Sabres should revert to firing anything at the net in a futile hope that it may go in. Generating quality scoring opportunities is far more valuable than flinging rubber toward the cage.

So, that explains the thought process of the portion of the fan base that believes goaltending has not been the issue throughout the month of November, but there’s still one more thought to consider.

Namely, what did the Sabres expect here? 40-year-old Craig Anderson is hurt, as is reasonable to expect from a 40-year-old goaltender. Tokarski and Dell are playing like goalies who aren’t NHL-caliber goaltenders, which, with all due respect to them, makes sense given the fact that they aren’t NHL-caliber goaltenders. This was always going to happen given the structure of the position following the Sabres’ inability to sign a reasonable starter before the season began.

The Sabres are reaping what they sow in terms of sub-par goaltending and it was their own doing, either by design, or through the flawed thought process which begat the idea that Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen would be ready to assume the mantle of starter (or even backup) for this season. It was always a pie-in-the-sky dream to believe that the team could get good enough goaltending to contend, and they’re also not playing well enough as a unit to have the goaltending be a substantial excuse for their losses.

So who’s right? Is goaltending to blame or is the team to blame?

The partial answer is that both are to blame. The real answer is that Sabres created this situation through the totality of their roster construction.


I'd like to wish a Happy Thanksgiving to our American readers. Enjoy the time with your family, and as always, thanks to everyone everywhere for reading.
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