Anders Nilsson deserves to get a series of starts

Canucks backup has been the better goaltender so far this season.

Pass it to Bulis

The Canucks entered the season without a proven number one goaltender, with the incumbent Jacob Markstrom the favourite to win the job. Accordingly, Markstrom has been given the bulk of the starts so far, starting 15 of the Canucks’ 22 games.

Markstrom has ranged from okay to outstanding this season. At the very least you could say that he’s rarely been the reason the Canucks have lost a game, which is sometimes all you want from a goaltender.

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But Anders Nilsson has been better.

Markstrom’s .913 save percentage is 22nd in the NHL among goaltenders who have faced at least 200 shots this season and it’s a couple points above the league-average save percentage of .911. Consistent league-average-or-better save percentage is basically what defines a starting goaltender.

But Anders Nilsson has been better.

Markstrom has shown great mental fortitude, bouncing back from bad or unlucky goals early in games to shut down opponents for the rest of the game. More often than not, Markstrom gives the Canucks a chance to win.

But Anders Nilsson has been better.

Markstrom has actually struggled recently. Over his last six starts, he has a .901 save percentage, giving up three or more goals in five of those games. It’s a troubling trend, even if he bounced back with a 36-save performance against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Nilsson, on the other hand, is well-above league average. After making 43 saves on 45 shots against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday, Nilsson has a sparkling .934 save percentage, good for third in the NHL among goaltenders who have faced at least 200 shots.

Nilsson has allowed two or fewer goals in five of his seven starts this season, including two shutouts. One of his two blemishes is the game against the Boston Bruins that went off the rails with Erik Gudbranson’s five-minute major for boarding. It’s pretty hard to blame Nilsson for that one.

When you look at Nilsson’s even-strength save percentage, he looks even better. Among goaltenders with at least five starts, Nilsson leads the NHL with a .949 even-strength save percentage. Simply put, Nilsson has been phenomenal at even-strength.

We can take this further using some of the goaltending analytics available at Corsica.hockey. Looking just at 5-on-5 situations, as shorthanded situations tend to be a lot more dependent on the skaters in front of the goaltender and are a very small sample, we can see just how much better Nilsson has been than Markstrom so far this season.

  Save Percentage (SV%) Expected Save Percentage (xSV%) Save Percentage Above Expected (dSV%) Low-Danger Save Percentage (LDSv%) Medium-Danger Save Percentage (MDSv%) High-Danger Save Percentage (HDSv%) Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA)
Anders Nilsson 95.17 92.61 2.57 95.89 96.00 90.91 3.72
Jacob Markstrom 93.20 92.86 0.34 96.02 93.00 85.48 1.14

 

There are a couple telling numbers here, starting with dSV%. That statistic is the difference between a goaltenders actual save percentage and the save percentage we would expect from a league-average goaltender given the quality of shots he faces.

Nilsson and Markstrom have a similar expected save percentage (xSV%), indicating that they have faced a similar quality of shots at 5-on-5. That makes Nilsson’s actual 5-on-5 save percentage of .952 particularly impressive. His dSV% is the third highest in the NHL behind Anton Khudobin and Darcy Kuemper, both of whom have been similarly outstanding in a backup role.

Similarly, Nilsson’s save percentage on high-danger shots is a sparkling .909, third in the NHL behind those same two goaltenders. Nilsson is also ahead of Markstrom in medium-danger save percentage, fifth in the NHL at .960. And, while Markstrom is ahead in low-danger save percentage, they’re pretty much equal in that area.

Finally, there is goals saved above average (GSAA), which is what it sounds like: given the quality of shots each goaltender has faced, how many goals have they saved their team as compared to a league-average goaltender?

Despite playing in about half as many games as Markstrom, Nilsson has saved the Canucks more than three times as many goals against. The only goaltenders with a higher GSAA than Nilsson this season are all starters for their team and Anton Khudobin, who has seriously been ridiculous this season, and has basically taken over as the starter for the Boston Bruins.

There’s a strong argument to be made that Nilsson should do the same in Vancouver.

There’s no guarantee that Nilsson can continue to play this well if he gets more starts — in fact, odds are that he won’t — but it seems like high time the Canucks find out. That means giving him a series of starts, including the chance to bounce back the following game if he has a bad performance. Give him the same chance to earn the number one job that has been afforded to Markstrom and may the better goaltender prevail.
 

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