Last year the Islanders had a goaltending problem.
Evgeni Nabokov made 39 starts and posted a .915 even-strength save percentage. Anders Nilsson made 17 starts and the same save numbers as Nabokov. Kevin Poulin made 26 starts with a .900 even-strength save percentage.
Last season Jaroslav Halak was traded twice, but he also posted a .926 even-strength save percentage, which was better than the guy for whom he was dealt in St. Louis, Ryan Miller (.923). That’s not surprising, because Halak has been average or above-average his whole career.
He isn't an elite goalie, but he definitely is better than what the Islanders threw out there last season, which is why most people liked their offseason signing of him.
Now, three weeks into the 2014-15 season, Islanders coach Jack Capuano seems to be needlessly muddying the waters.
Backup goalie Chad Johnson made his fourth start in 10 games Thursday, giving up five goals in a 5-0 loss to the Avalanche. The rationale was likely Halak’s .889 save percentage (.906 even-strength), which obviously isn’t good. But that's over six games at a position where six games means almost nothing in terms of long-term prospects.
You want to know the guys around Halak in even-strength save percentage ? The guy right below him is Tuukka Rask. The guy one spot ahead of him is Sergei Bobrovsky. Two spots? Henrik Lundqvist.
In other words, Halak has not been good so far, but plenty of reputable goalies haven’t been that good, either. And while Halak’s track record isn’t that of Lundqvist or Rask, it’s certainly long enough and good enough to warrant a little more faith.
That goes double with Johnson in the other direction. While there are backup goalies who are worthy of starting, Johnson’s numbers don’t inspire a lot of confidence . He’s an upgrade-in-waiting. Johnson has all of 42 games in the NHL, which means his career .920 save percentage is the product of a tiny sample size.
On the other hand, he has played 170 games in the AHL, where he posted save percentages of .911, .901, .919 and .903 over four seasons. That doesn’t scream NHL-caliber starter.
This year with the Isles, he has an .870 save percentage (.883 even-strength), so he isn't better statistically than Halak.
The season is still early, and over short periods there isn’t a discernable difference between most goalies. Starting Johnson shouldn’t be a huge detriment to the Islanders unless Capuano keeps doing it regularly. Capuano told reporters that "Halak is our guy," per Newsday's Arthur Staple, but again, it seems odd that Capuano's guy would sit nearly half the team's games when it has had just one back-to-back.
Starting the wrong guy in face of evidence can be disastrous to a team’s season. Just look at the Devils and Martin Brodeur last year.