Toronto’s tending tandem, and AHL-to-NHL transitional success

Toronto’s tending tandem, and AHL-to-NHL transitional success

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Photo: Sportsnet

As we approach the dog days of hockey, more and more Leafs fans are coming to the conclusion that there’s a strong chance we will see a James Reimer and Ben Scrivens goalie tandem to start the year.

Barring a trade for Roberto Luongo (or a surprise move for another goalie), that’s the duo the Leafs will start the season with. So with that, I decided to take a look at other AHL goalies over the years and how their numbers translated to the NHL.

In a nutshell, Ben Scrivens led the AHL in goals against average this year while also having the fifth best save percentage. A lot of fans have hung their hats on these stats and his generally-speaking strong season, and in light of this I decided to go all the way back to the 2005-2006 season and look up the top three goalies in GAA category of each season. Then, to increase the sample size, I also included the top three save percentages while pointing out notable goalies from each season that year who have had some NHL impact.

Here is the raw data:

Season GAA SV% Other notables
2005-06 1) Sabourin: 2.26
2) Flaherty: 2.40
3) Krahn/M. Smith: 2.50
1) Sabourin: .922
2) LeNeveu: .921
3) Harding/Hauser/Flaherty: .919
Jimmy Howard, Josh Harding,
Pekka Rinne
2006-07 1) Halak: 2.0
2) McElhinney: 2.13
3) MacIntyre: 2.17
1) LaBarbera: .933
2) Halak: .932
3) Goehring: .926
Corey Crawford, Craig Anderson
2007-08 1) Schaefer: 2.06
2) Halak/Leighton: 2.10
3) Goehring: 2.20
1) Leighton: .923
2) Halak: .929
3) Goehring: .926
Cory Schneider, Ondrej Pavelec,
Brian Elliott
2008-09 1) Schneider: 2.04
2) Dekanich: 2.09
3) Lawson: 2.16
1) Schneider: .928
2) Lawson: .927
3) Elliott/Munroe: .926
Jonathon Bernie, Antti Niemi,
Tuuka Rask
2009-10 1) Desjardins: 2.0
2) Bernier: 2.03
3) Sanford: 2.13
1) Benier: .936
2) Lawson: .922
3) McKenna/Mannino: .921
Jhonas Enroth, Braden Holtby
2010-11 1) Sanford: 1.93
2) Thiessen: 1.94
3) Dekanich: 2.02
1) Dekanich: .931
2) Sanford: .930
3) Bachman: .927
Ben Bishop, Ben Scrivens
2011-12 1) Scrivens: 2.04
2) Danis: 2.07
3) Desjardins: 2.11
1) Desjardins: .932
2) Bishop: .930
3) Markstrom: .927
Ben Scrivens: .926sv%

Further, here are goalies that basically became starters in their rookie years after playing in the AHL and how they fared their first season in the NHL:

Goalie NHL Numbers
Pekka Rinne 29-15-4, 2.38GAA, .917sv%
Corey Crawford 33-18-4, 2.30GAA, .917sv%
Antti Niemi 26-7-4, 2.25GAA, .912sv%
Jimmy Howard 37-15-10, 2.26GAA, .924sv%
Ondrej Pavelec 14-18-7, 3.29GAA, .906sv%

Some thoughts and notes to point out based on this data:

– You will see a few goalies noted in the far right column having top seasons the year after they broke into the AHL, namely Cory Schneider and Jonathon Bernier. Although older than both and having nowhere near the pedigree of either of those two first round picks, Ben Scrivens trajectory is similar (and before someone says something, no, I’m not putting Scrivens in the same class as Schneider and Bernier). When Bernier made the jump to the NHL he played 25 games, went 11-8-3 with a 2.48GAA and .913sv%; Schneider also played 25 games and 16-4-2 with 2.23GAA and .929sv%. The Leafs would obviously be ecstatic to get those numbers from Scrivens but keep a couple things in mind here: both of these guys played straight backup roles behind good starters and would start easier games. Ben Scrivens wouldn’t exactly be a backup if he was in a tandem with Reimer, he’d be competing for the starting gig and could possibly be forced to carry the load.

– The top goalies in goals against average in this data are: Sabourin, Halak, Schaefer, Schneider, Desjardins, Sanford and of course Scrivens. Only Sabourin, Schaefer and Schneider are from the college system and only one of those three has(had) a high pedigree. I think we know who Scrivens compares to here.

– Some of these goalies only became mediocre backups or didn’t make the NHL entirely such as Wade Flaherty, Jason Labarbera, and Curtis McElhinney. It goes without saying, but if the Leafs go into the season with Reimer-Scrivens and this is all Ben turns out to be, you can probably kiss the season goodbye.

– It doesn’t get talked about enough, but for as good of a season as Scrivens had this year, he was playing on a very good Marlies team. They had top line AHL talent, good veterans, a deep roster and were well coached. That’s not to take anything away from Scrivens, but there is already a big difference in going from the AHL to the NHL; for Scrivens, he’ll be going from a really good AHL team to a below average NHL one.

– In Reimer’s longest AHL stint he played 26 games,  he went 14-8-2 and had a 2.25GAA and 9.25sv%. That’s not far off Scrivens’ 2.06GAA and 9.26sv% from this year, especially when you take into account the difference in rosters from the Marlies this year and the Marlies of a few years ago. Further to the point, Reimer is two years younger and a physically stronger person already (Reimer weighs around 210, Scrivens is around 190). So I’m not sure why anyone would be in favour of clearing out Reimer in favour of Scrivens. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that Reimer could just as easily have done what Scrivens did this year had he been playing with the Marlies all year instead.

– Clearly there’s only been a few goalies who have stepped right from the AHL into an NHL starting role (and of the guys I included Niemi and Crawford really became starters by beating veteran incumbents during the season). To add to that, all those goalies except for Ondrej Pavelec started for really, really, good teams. With that, Pavelec’s numbers speak for themselves and we can clearly see that Pavelec is still finding his game.

– If we’re making conclusions today based on all of the above data, it should be this: If the Leafs were counting on Ben Scrivens to come in and play 25-30 games as a backup to an established NHL netminder, then there would be no problems. Unfortunately, the Leafs aren’t in that position. Nobody knows if James Reimer can even stay healthy (he’s had quite a few injury-riddled seasons already in his career), let alone how he’s going to play if he does stay healthy. Very few goalies have jumped right into an NHL role as a number one and have done well, those who have were on really good hockey teams.

– At the end of the day, going with Reimer-Scrivens is really just a hope that one of them can take the reigns and run with the starting role. That’s just the truth. And in a division where the other starting goalies are Ryan Miller, Carey Price, Craig Anderson and Tuuka Rask, that probably won’t be good enough.

Even after saying all this, one main sticking point has to be noted here. Goaltending is by far the hardest position in hockey to prognosticate. That’s just the truth. Goalies of seemingly all ages and backgrounds succeed at different times of development. As nice as it is to look back and try to find trends, it has to be said that the goalie position is basically a crap shoot and anything can happen. We could all sit here and make the legitimate case for Scrivens or Reimer to be amazing or terrible next season, but the truth is we won’t have a clue until the games get going. What we do know, though, is the Leafs won’t make the playoffs again if they don’t get good goaltending.


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