The 2021 NHL season is looking more and more like it’s going to be a game of chance. Simple as that; if you don’t get struck hard enough with the lucky stick, chances are it’s going to be a fairly rough ride for you and your favorite team.
The Avalanche’s fortunes have, so far, been a bit of a mixed bag. They’ve lost Erik Johnson and Nathan MacKinnon all in the last week, have yet to see a second of action for Pavel Francouz, and are currently sidelined with covid-related game postponements.
But with the bad has come a few strokes of good fortune. They’ve gotten to start off their season on a hot streak, going 7-3-1 to start their year and allowing fewer goals than any team so far in the Honda West Division save the Vegas Golden Knights — and Vegas holds four games in hand over Colorado due to their own covid shutdown.
It’s that last stat, the impressively stingy goal totals against that they boast, that truly showcases one of the bigger strokes of luck that Colorado has managed to benefit from this year.
The Avalanche are benefiting from some of the best hockey Philipp Grubauer has played in his career, with the 29-year old German goaltender sitting pretty on a .934 save percentage in all situations through his first nine games played on the year. He’s been forced to do some serious heavy lifting in Francouz’s absence, but that — combined with a hairy situation for goaltenders this year thanks to a lack of preseason action to warm them up mentally — hasn’t done much to faze him. He’s the league’s fifth-highest performing goaltender three weeks into the season, earning Colorado all seven of their wins thus far and shutting out two separate opponents in the process.
For Colorado, that’s been their difference-maker. The team’s defense has been sufficient in the bulk of their games thus far, but that’s to be expected; they’ve gotten a pleasantly easy start to the season with six of their eleven already-completed games coming against the struggling California teams.
The workload, though, has been substantial. They played 10 games in two-and a half weeks during January, and Grubauer played eight of them. In comparison, he only played nine games in the entire month of October last year to start off the season, and didn’t play more than seven games a month from that point on. The only month in which he was on pace to surpass his seven-game monthly cap was February, in which he played seven games between the first of the month and Valentine’s Day — and midway through the month, he ended up suffering an injury during the Stadium Series and didn’t return again before the season shut down in mid-March. His starts were even more spaced out his first year with the team, with him only taking on a heavy workload down the final month of the season and into the playoffs.
A moderate-level injury suffered in November of the 2019-20 season for Grubauer coupled with that February injury to pose the question of just how durable he could be. For the Avalanche, the constant spectre of Semyon Varlamov’s delicately-disposed groin made for a fanbase gun-shy about goaltenders who might be prone to spells of injuries and absences.
Not only has Grubauer avoided that so far this year, though, but he’s managed to do it while being at the top of his class — and while keeping the team alive until they can figure out what to do to help him.
From a numbers standpoint, it’s hard to argue he’s been anything but otherworldly. Using basic metrics, his .934 save percentage in all situations — combined with his .921 save percentage at even strength and his .957 save percentage on the penalty kill — put him in a position to save his team’s skin when they need him to be at his best. He leads the league with a 7.22 Goals Saved Above Average in all situations, which is particularly impressive when considering that the two goaltenders who fall directly below him in that metric (Kevin Lankinen of the Chicago Blackhawks and John Gibson of the Anaheim Ducks) are over-performing behind two of the worst defensive teams in the league.
Even his predictive analytics suggest he’s outperforming expectations. According to MoneyPuck.com, he’s outperforming his expected save percentage on unblocked shots by .742%; for perspective, only nine goaltenders are currently outperforming their expected save percentages by a higher percentage, and three of those are relative NHL newcomers. He’s posted quality starts in just under 67% of this starts, and not a single one of his nine games so far has been dubbed ‘really bad’ by Rob Vollman’s metric — meaning that even in the games where he’s not blowing everyone out of the water, he’s still doing the right thing.
Are his numbers sustainable? It’s not particularly likely, as disappointing as that may be.
The Avalanche have been one of the most powerful teams straight out of the gate, even with their ever-growing list of players missing for injuries. Just five of their players with eight or more games under their belt have already scored a goal this year, Cale Makar is up to 12 points in 11 games, Mikko Rantanen is sitting on seven goals, and Nathan MacKinnon managed to pick up a casual 14 points in his 10 games before his injury. But while they’ve typically been a team that looks to top all the offensive stat lines, they’re currently sitting as simply ‘good’ in that respect; at some point, the double-duty being forced upon players like Rantanen, Nazem Kadri, captain Gabriel Landeskog, and youngsters like Makar and Samuel Girard will start to catch up to them. At that point, it’s almost certain that Grubauer will start to see his performance fall back to earth a bit; after all, he’s unlikely to keep posting shutouts every four to five games given the workload he’s bearing.
Luckily, the team is getting a built-in break in the form of their covid-related postponements. They’ll watch as five consecutive games get rescheduled on a later date, giving the team time for their growing number of players on the covid protocol list to be cleared for a return.
That break is good for their growing injury list — they’re currently without Devon Toews, Erik Johnson, Matt Calvert, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Nathan MacKinnon, and Francouz, which helps a handful of those names potentially inch towards a return and gives the remainder a chance to rehab without stressing about their absences.
It’s even better for players like Grubauer, though, who desperately need to stay healthy. Because if the Avalanche can continue to ride their starter with the kind of effort he’s been putting forth so far, it’s not a matter of if they’ll be playoff ready — it’s a matter of how deep they’ll be prepared to go when they get there atop the division.