Wild About Numbers: No More Excuses For Niklas Backstrom

Doug Pensinger

With much of the debate about Niklas Backstrom's struggles this season centering around whether or not he has been unlucky and/or let down by his teammates, it's worth noting that this trend of below-par performance goes back to last season....

Before we get into the stuff about Backstrom, it's worth remembering that evaluating goalies is tricky as they are quite unpredictable, and a lot of other factors can play into their results, but there has been mountains of research and analytical work done to show that Even-Strength Save Percentage (ES Sv%) is the best stat to use for evaluation and that the players in front of a goalie on the ice or the systems teams play don't have all that much of an effect on performance.


As you all know, Backstrom arrived in Minnesota back in 2006-07 from Europe as a 29 year old, which is actually past a goalie's normal prime. While it's not concrete, research has suggested that a goalie's peak performance occurs between 23 and 26, and they rarely improve after that.

He had an amazing first year, leading the league in 5v5 Sv% and recording 5 shut-outs. Between that season and this one, he has had erratic results, to put it mildly.

-Here are each of his seasons along with his 5v5 Sv% and where it ranked among league goaltenders that year:

Niklas Backstrom: 5v5 Sv%

Season

Sv%

Rank (Goalies 750+ Minutes)*

2006-07

93.30%

1st

2007-08

92.54%

21st

2008-09

92.73%

16th

2009-10

91.64%

32nd

2010-11

93.09%

11th

2011-12

93.17%

8th

2012-13

91.69%

35th

2013-14

91.22%

40th

*500+ minutes for 2012/13 & 2013/14

-Here are the above results in graph form:

Backstrom_rolling_sv__medium

As you can see, Backstrom's Sv% has been all over the place, but after a couple of good seasons in 2010/11 and 2011/12, it has plummeted in the last 2 years.


One of the main excuses given for his poor performance last season is that due to Josh Harding's MS issues and Darcy Kuemper's lack of experience, Backstrom was run into the ground by the team and as a result, he collapsed down the stretch.

-Here is his rolling 5v5 Sv%, game-by-game from last season:

Backstrom_rolling_medium

He started the year pretty consistently, but after that the graph gets very erratic and this trend continues right up to the end of the season.


-To further explore this point, here is last season broken down into 4 parts, along with Backstrom's TOI and 5v5Sv%:

Games

Total TOI

5v5 Sv%

1 to 10

586:24

92.89%

11 to 21

608:24

91.08%

22 to 31

548:36

82.81%

32 to 42

604:48

90.49%

It's clear that he was better in the first half of the season than the second, but his worst period was between games 22 and 31, with his performance actually recovering somewhat down the stretch for the final 11 games of the year.


It's hard to come-up with a definite answer as to whether or not it was an extraordinary workload that was to blame for Backstrom's poor season but, for comparison's sake, let's see how his TOI stacked-up against the minutes played by other starters in the league.

-Here are the top 10 goalies in terms of TOI last season:

Player

Pos.

Team

GP

TOI

Sv%

1

Ondrej Pavelec

G

Jets

44

2066.7

91.30%

2

Henrik Lundqvist

G

Rangers

43

2046.1

93.60%

3

Antti Niemi

G

Sharks

43

2034

93.00%

4

Evgeni Nabokov

G

Islanders

41

1998

91.60%

5

Pekka Rinne

G

Predators

43

1978.2

92.80%

6

Niklas Backstrom

G

Wild

42

1873.4

91.40%

7

Jimmy Howard

G

Red Wings

42

1872

94.00%

8

Ilya Bryzgalov

G

Flyers

40

1751

91.00%

9

Sergei Bobrovsky

G

Blue Jackets

38

1744.2

94.10%

10

Ryan Miller

G

Sabres

40

1744.1

92.30%

Five goalies played the same amount of games as Backstrom, and five played more minutes. There appears to be no trend in terms of the effect of a heavy workload. Pavelec, Nabokov, Bryzgalov and Backstrom were bad, but Lundqvist, Rinne, Howard, Miller, Bobrovsky and Niemi were very good, so it seems that results were down to talent more than workload.


This year Backstrom has been somewhat unlucky. The Wild's water-tight defensive play seems to desert them only when Backstrom is in net, so he has faced a lot more shots than Josh Harding. Are his poor numbers this year a result of being shelled?

-Here are NHL goalies with 500+ minutes player this year ranked by Shots Against Per 20 Minutes:

Rank

Name

Team

TOI

SA20

5v5 Sv%

1

James Reimer

Toronto

734:26:00

12.009

93.42

2

Jonathan Bernier

Toronto

1301:31:00

11.371

93.38

3

Ryan Miller

Buffalo

1404:13:00

11.366

92.61

4

Robin Lehner

Ottawa

780:33:00

11.172

92.2

5

Craig Anderson

Ottawa

1234:58:00

11.045

91.79

6

Braden Holtby

Washington

1214:21:00

10.87

92.42

7

Steve Mason

Philadelphia

1397:58:00

10.673

92.9

8

Mike Smith

Phoenix

1554:13:00

10.41

92.46

9

Carter Hutton

Nashville

722:11:00

10.385

90.4

10

Justin Peters

Carolina

945:56:00

10.36

92.65

11

Devan Dubnyk

Edmonton

1198:42:00

10.345

90.32

12

Semyon Varlamov

Colorado

1495:55:00

10.321

94.04

13

Kevin Poulin

NY_Islanders

781:01:00

10.294

90.3

14

Ondrej Pavelec

Winnipeg

1467:41:00

10.22

90.93

15

Carey Price

Montreal

1556:54:00

10.148

93.29

16

Evgeni Nabokov

NY_Islanders

1082:06:00

10.129

91.79

17

Jimmy Howard

Detroit

1085:18:00

9.914

91.82

18

Reto Berra

Calgary

866:24:00

9.834

91.55

19

Cam Ward

Carolina

830:31:00

9.801

91.65

20

Sergei Bobrovsky

Columbus

1030:44:00

9.799

92.28

21

Henrik Lundqvist

NY_Rangers

1338:04:00

9.79

91.3

22

Roberto Luongo

Vancouver

1480:18:00

9.728

92.64

23

Niklas Backstrom

Minnesota

727:14:00

9.708

91.22

24

Tuuka Rask

Boston

1571:21:00

9.699

94.36

So there are 22 goalies facing shots more regularly than Backstrom. Some of the best-perfoming goalies in the league this year have faced among the highest shot totals. James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier of the Toronto Maple Leafs are notable in that regard, as is Ryan Miller of the hapless Buffalo Sabres.

You could say age is a factor, with the younger goalies having more stamina and therefore being better equipped to face more shots, but the likes of Miller and Roberto Luongo are facing a higher rate of shots against than Backstrom and doing just fine in spite of their age.

*

The bottom line here is that Backstrom struggled last year, and has continued in a similar vein this season. After signing a new 3-year contract in the offseason, he needs to turn things around fast if he is to prove to the organisation that they didn't make a mistake by keeping him around. With the huge question marks surrounding Josh Harding's long-term health and the need for young goalie prospects Darcy Kuemper and Johan Gustafsson to be developed slowly and not rushed into action, it's vitally important that the Wild have someone who they can rely on to carry the load in net.

There's every chance that Backstrom can get out of this funk and return to something close to his 2011/12 performance, but with his age, and around 60 games of mediocrity in his recent history, the odds are against him.

With Josh Harding now on IR, there's no more time for excuses; Backstrom just needs to get it done.


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