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How Closely Can a Great Goalie Keep a Bad Team in Games?

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As a Devils fan, and especially as a season ticket holder, I am hoping to watch some competitive and fun hockey this season. My team may not win, but if it is fun to watch, then I'll take it. But how close can a goalie keep a bad team in games?

Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, Cory Schneider was hands down the best player on the New Jersey Devils.  He singlehandedly kept the team in games and made some games competitive that did not deserve to be.  Keith Kinkaid also did a standup job in his replacement duties.  This upcoming season, the hope amongst most Devils fans that I talk to is that Schneider once again will continue to keep games close so that games are at least interesting to watch all the way through.

The question I had, however, was how close can a great goalie keep a bad team in games?  In the 2013-14 season, I found that amongst the entire league, the Devils spent the most minutes playing close games.  That team, however, was a possession giant that controlled the flow of games despite not being able to score.  On the other hand, it also had an ageing Martin Brodeur who posted a .901 save percentage in 39 games played, which worked against the team.  It all led to a lot of nail biters.

This past season, as we all know, the Devils were not a possession giant, but instead were regularly out-possessed.  For a team that still could not score, it was a death sentence.  But given the quality goaltending that we were able to witness, I want to know if Devils games were still close, as compared to the rest of the league.  Let's see the impact that Schneider had.

5v5 Close Minutes

First, let's look at the amount of time that the Devils spent in 5v5 close situations.  This specifically tracks when the team was playing in a tie game at any point, or in a one goal game in the first two periods.  This is obviously not 100% ideal as it leaves out special teams and 3rd period one goal games, both of which would be beneficial to this study, but nonetheless it is a great starting point.

The chart below will look at the top 10 teams in the league last year in terms of 5v5 close minutes played.  Stats here are courtesy of stats.hockeyanalysis.com.

Team

5v5 Close TOI

5v5 TOI

CF% in Close

Boston Bruins

2,698:49 minutes

4,014:19 minutes

52.1%

Florida Panthers

2,625:12 minutes

3,930:17 minutes

50.8%

NY Islanders

2,611:21 minutes

3,962:36 minutes

52.9%

Ottawa Senators

2,591:59 minutes

3,866:09 minutes

49.5%

Nashville Predators

2,582:11 minutes

3,933:01 minutes

53.5%

Philadelphia Flyers

2,574:48 minutes

3,930:51 minutes

49.1%

St. Louis Blues

2,574:10 minutes

3,938:12 minutes

51.2%

Detroit Red Wings

2,540:50 minutes

3,826:16 minutes

53.7%

Colorado Avalanche

2,524:43 minutes

3,903:51 minutes

42.9%

New Jersey Devils

2,511:11 minutes

3,944:38 minutes

47.8%

So this past year, New Jersey fell to 10th in the league in terms of the total number of 5v5 close minutes.  They were over 180 minutes behind the leaders, the Boston Bruins, who ran away with it, being over 70 minutes ahead of the 2nd place team, Florida.  Boston was also aided by playing a high number of 5v5 minutes overall, as they were the only team to play over 4,000 minutes at 5v5 throughout the entire season.  Nonetheless, they clearly spent the most time in nail-biting situations.

For the Devils, however, being on that list at all does speak to Cory's brilliance in net.  As shown by the Corsi numbers, the Devils were decimated in possession during close games.  Only Colorado had a worse Corsi in close games while still making the list (42.9...wow.  What does that say about Semyon Varlamov?).  With poor possession like the Devils had, it is extremely unlikely that they would have made the list had they not had an excellent goalie in net.

But it also shows that a goalie can only do so much.  In 2013-14, the Devils had a much worse goaltending situation with Brodeur and his .901 save percentage starting almost half of the games.  However, they played considerably more close minutes of hockey given their high possession rate (54.7% in close situations) and their inability to score.  A better team, a better defense in particular, and especially a better system in front of the goalie will do wonders to keep a team in more games.  A goalie has a great ability to keep a team in games, and Cory did just that last season, but without a better team in front of him, he can clearly only do so much.

Overtime Games Played

To give a little further clarification, let's also look at the 10 teams who played the most games that went to at least overtime.  This helps to account for the shortcomings in the 5v5 close stat, at least a little bit.  The information on overtime games played comes from www.sportingcharts.com.

Team

Overtime Games

Boston

27

Ottawa

26

Philadelphia

26

Detroit

25

Nashville

24

Florida

24

Colorado

24

Winnipeg

24

Montreal

23

Anaheim

23

New Jersey

20

This list is similar to the last one, but not exactly.  Boston remains on top, and repeat teams include Ottawa, Philadelphia, Detroit, Nashville, Florida, and Colorado.  I added New Jersey's total at the bottom for clarification purposes, but they were not close to making the top 10.  So while the Devils played in a lot of 5v5 close minutes during the season, enough to make the top 10, that did not translate to many tied games at the end of regulation.  At some point, the Devils just could not find a way to score and force those close games to overtime.

Conclusion

So clearly, the Devils did not play nearly as much hockey this past season in close situations as they did the year prior.  And this is despite having an all-star caliber goalie to keep the team in games.  In truth, it comes down to the fact that a goalie can only do so much.  Cory will keep the team competitive and in games, but if the offense cannot score, if the defense cannot help prevent goals, and if the team cannot drive possession, then they will not be playing many close minutes.  And when your team is bad, you hope to play more close minutes, as it means your team is in games.  When the team is not playing close minutes, it more than likely means that they are losing, which is never fun.

Your Thoughts

What are your thoughts?  Do you think that too much of a burden is being placed on Schneider's shoulders to keep this team competitive?  What can this team do to keep itself competitive and in more games?  What stats can you add to further the discussion?  Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.