HOW GOOD IS STUART SKINNER?
According to Greek mythology, Atlas was a formidable titan. He fought in the Titanomachy, a war that pitted the old gods, the Titans – against the younger Olympians – for control of the universe. Unfortunately for Atlas and his brother Menoetius, the Titans lost the war and most were exiled to Tartarus – a punishment worse than hell itself. Atlas was spared the torment – instead condemned by Zeus to forever stand at the edge of the earth and keep it from the heavens. The weight of the world upon his shoulders, he was known as Atlas Telamon – enduring Atlas.
As a rookie, Stuart Skinner started 38 games for one of the (statistically) worst hockey clubs in the Western Hockey League. Asked to burden a load no rookie goaltender should, how did Skinner fare in comparison to his central division counterparts?
Photo via Prince Albert Daily Herald, Perry Bergson)
The Lethbridge Hurricanes selected Stuart Skinner with their first selection in the 2013 WHL Bantam draft. Skinner, an Edmonton native, played AAA with the highly esteemed South Side Athletic Club. In three seasons with the SSAC, he posted save percentages well over .900. Along the way – Skinner was also part of his team winning the AMBHL championship, and was awarded AMBHL North top goaltender for ’12-’13. With all the markings of a top-flight prospect, the Hurricanes were hoping Skinner could bring the success he had in AAA, to major junior.
Skinner started the year splitting time with Zach Robidoux. As is well documented, the team got off to a rough start. Neither goaltender was able to develop much momentum as the team in front of them struggled to score goals. Skinner was pulled in two of his first ten starts, but had also managed four wins. As the season progressed, it quickly became evident that Skinner was the Canes’ best option in goal.
Looking at the numbers, the first thing that jumps out is that Skinner was able to maintain a very strong .909 save percentage, while simultaneously posting a less than stellar 3.69 GAA. The numbers speak loudly at the Hurricanes awful shot differential. Skinner was facing so many shots each night, that his goals against average was over 3.5 while maintaining a .909 save percentage. Specifically, Skinner faced an average of 41 shots in the games he started. That is a monumental amount of rubber over a single season for a rookie goaltender. Despite the immense workload, Skinner managed to win seven games when facing over forty shots. An impressive number considering how many of those shots were prime scoring opportunities.
(The WHL doesn’t track (at least not publicly) scoring opportunities. I admit I am making an assumption when I say that Skinner faced a higher percentage of shots from prime scoring areas than other goaltenders in the division, but I saw enough games to jump to conclusions.)
Looking at the numbers as a whole, Stuart Skinner had an extremely impressive first full year in the WHL. Playing on a bad team, Skinner managed to keep his head above water in the first half, then come into his own later in the year. I would argue that above all, the fact that he was able to face so many shots, allow so many goals, and win so few games, yet maintain a fantastic .909 save percentage, speaks to Skinners mental strength (and the weakness of the team in front of him). Stuart Skinner is a goaltender that can shake off a tough outing and deliver next time he has a chance. What really matters is that he gave his team a chance to win games that they had no business winning. On a team that finished as poorly as the Hurricanes in ’14-’15, I can confidently say that goaltending was the least of their problems. Of course there were games where Skinner struggled, all goaltenders have those nights. But against all odds, number 74 flourished in a trial-by-fire season.
VS. THE CENTRAL DIVISION
In order to fully comprehend Skinners’ accomplishment, we ought to look at the other goaltenders in the central division. The graphic above is a save percentage ranking of the starters from each central division team from ’14-’15. Calgary was a difficult tandem to quantify because Shields and Burke split duties in net for much of the year. I decided to use Shields’ numbers because he played a few more games than his counterpart, and spent the whole season in the central division. Stuart Skinner was not just the best goaltender in Lethbridge, but also in the central division. Understanding wins matter most (and Skinner didn’t have many), he managed to make more saves than all of his competition. He was also clearly the better option for both coach Berehowsky, and later, Anholt.
Note that the goaltenders with the best save percentage on the figure above had the lowest winning percentage in the division. The simple (and obvious) explanation is that both Stuart Skinner and Tristian Jarry played on inferior teams. Jarry and Skinner faced more shots, and likely, higher quality scoring changes, than the other goaltenders. Each was able to rise to the occasion – and as a result – maintain the highest save percentage(s) in the division. How would the other goaltenders have faired if they played on the Hurricanes or Oil Kings? Unfortunately we will never know. It’s possible that Shields, Langhammer and Hoflin would have done better facing more shots in Lethbridge and Edmonton than they did under less duress in Calgary, Medicine Hat and Kootenay respectively. Many goaltenders prefer to face lots of shots each game as it allows them to stay focused and engaged. It isn’t uncommon to hear a goaltender talk about the toughest games being the ones where he/she only faced twenty or so shots. Since we can only work with the numbers we are provided, we have to conclude that Skinner and Jarry were (at least based on save percentage) the best goalies in the central.
There are – of course – intangibles that the numbers don’t take into account. For example, Jarry and Skinner could hold great save percentages but also have a propensity for allowing bad goals at inopportune times. At the same time, some of the other goaltenders on the list with a worse save percentage could be the type of net-minders that are able to shut the door when it really matters. I can’t quantify those kinds of intangibles and won’t attempt to. I didn’t watch enough games involving Calgary, Medicine Hat, Red Deer, Edmonton or Kootenay to say one way or another. All I know for certain is that Tristian Jarry and Stuart Skinner did well to hold the save percentages they did.
The chart above also tells us allot about the team each goaltender played on. Calgary for example was able to score enough goals to overcome Shields’ less than average (in the division) save percentage. Both Edmonton and Lethbridge relied heavily on their goaltenders to win games. When they didn’t get the stops, neither team was able to consistently generate enough offence to win (obviously the issue was much greater in Lethbridge than in Edmonton, but the point remains). As a result, both Jarry and Skinner suffered average and poor winning percentages (respectively).
The WHL either does not keep, or does not release time on attack or time on defence statistics. As a result, our analysis is somewhat crippled. We are forced to come to conclusions through shot differentials alone. I calculated the shots both for – and against – each team in the central division then determined their respective shot differential (shots for – shots against = shot differential). I wanted to see how shot differential related to a team’s overall winning percentage. Since I couldn’t find a name for this exact statistical relation (and a “Boot Rating” sounds like something you see in a GQ footwear review), I am calling it (for now) SDWP (shot differential – winning percentage). Think of it as a poor man’s corsi or fenwick. The SDWP allows us to generalize if a team is being outplayed and how it affects their ability to win games. What it does NOT tell us is the quality of the shots or the relation to individual players. Maybe someday those stats will be made available….
When I first created the graph, I immediately double-checked the numbers. Lethbridge seemed beyond bad. Almost incomprehensibly so. After looking at the numbers again, everything appears to be accurate. Let’s review.
Medicine Hat was the most dominant team in the central. They consistently outshot their opponents by a wide margin and won more games than everyone but Calgary. The difference between those two teams is really quite negligible and it will be interesting to see them battle it out in the second round of this years playoffs.
Edmonton is a very interesting case. Looking at the graph, the Oil Kings heavily outshot their opposition for a good percentage of games, yet boasted the lowest winning percentage outside of Lethbridge. Without claiming to be an expert on Edmonton, there are possible explanations to by analysed. It is possible the Oil Kings territorially dominated teams but struggled to get goals. We already know that they got good goaltending from Tristian Jarry, so we can rule out goaltending as the issue. Since the Oil Kings lost so many of their top flight offensive players (after back to back Memorial Cup appearances), scoring goals may not have come as easily this season. There was a transition happening as younger players were called upon to start contributing more offensively. The team was able to sustain plenty of offensive zone time – and generate more shots than they surrendered – but without top flight snipers – couldn’t score with regularity.
Red Deer was able to maintain a balanced shot differential. They neither consistently dominated, nor were consistently dominated. They got by through solid goaltending from Toth and contributions all around. Red Deer just didn’t have the guns to compete with top flight teams like Calgary and Medicine Hat.
Kootenay was the only team that had a negative shot differential, yet still made the playoffs. Not only did they make the playoffs, but they finished ahead of Edmonton, who had a much better shot differential. The only thing I could conclude was that Kootenay was stronger offensively than Edmonton. Indeed, the numbers supported the claim. Kootenay scored 245 goals, while Edmonton only netted 217. Despite having consistently better goaltending, Edmonton won (3) less games than Kootenay.
The stats demonstrate just how competitive the central division was in ’14-15′. Outside of Lethbridge, every team made the playoffs, and all but Kootenay and Red Deer, appear to have territorially dominated their opposition.
Without looking at all the data, I don’t think it is possible to fully appreciate Stuart Skinners’ accomplishment in ’14-’15. Lethbridge’s shot differential was lower than -1,000. Literally ‘off the charts.’ They were territorially dominated in ways the other five teams in the division couldn’t have imagined. Against all odds, Stuart Skinner emerged as not only the top rookie goaltender in the division, but arguably the whole league. With Skinner in net, the Hurricanes had an opportunity to win every night.
The data also suggests just how far the Hurricanes have to come to be in contention for the playoffs next season. If Kootenay is the measuring stick, the Hurricanes would need to improve their shot differential by close to +900. Understanding that it’s possible to generate lots of shots but not many good scoring opportunities, we need to be careful not to over value shot differential. However, when you were as far away from the pack as the Hurricanes were in ’14-’15, it is safe to say the shot differential is going to need to change before the winning percentage goes anywhere but down. Then again, with #74 in goal, anything is possible. Atlas Telamon indeed.
Honorary wanna-be. Twitter master for @canesdomain. Reader and blog follower. I work in digital design and write when I have something to say. Was a bench warmer for two time U of L hockey intramural champions, the Cal Cluttermucks. Have a degree I will (probably) never use.