One of all hockey positions, goalie is the hardest for NHL teams to scout.
First of all, 17 or 18 year-old netminders that are just entering their first year of draft eligibility don’t usually get the same amount of playing time on their junior teams that 19 and 20 year-old goalies do. Scouts just don’t tend to get as many quality viewings of a goaltender as they do with forwards and defensemen.
Secondly, goalies don’t have the same amount of general statistical categories to showcase how good or how bad they are at the junior level. While players, on at least a basic level, can be judged based on their goals, assists, points, plus-minus (to how much degree is hotly debated) and penalty minutes, goalies are stuck relying mainly on their wins, goals-against-average and save percentage.
Problematically, judging a goalie based on his number of wins largely ignores the quality of the team that he played on, while there are also solid arguments that have been made that we can say something similar about G.A.A. With advanced metrics still in their infancy for junior players of all positions, that ultimately leaves us with save percentage as the only statistical category that scouts can really rely on when they haven’t seen a player live a sufficient number of times to form a solid evaluation.
In other words, the higher a goalie’s save percentage is in junior, the more likely that player is to develop into a solid NHLer. It’s not a perfect method of analysis, but it is that straightforward.
Don’t tell any of this to the Pittsburgh Penguins, however. The Pens are currently ahead 2-1 in their second round playoff series against the Washington Capitals, the team that finished 1st overall during the 2015-16 regular season and won the President’s Trophy, and are in that crucial position right now because of the stellar play of rookie goaltender Matt Murray.
You know, Matt Murray: the 21 year-old phenom currently sporting a 5-0-1 playoff record with a .944 save percentage.
Yeah, him. The same guy that posted a hideous .876 save percentage the year that the Penguins drafted him.
Yes, you read that right. In what has to be one of the weirdest statistical careers of any goalie currently playing in the NHL, Murray, the kid that is playing so well that he might force Marc Andre Fleury to find a new job, put up an absolutely ghastly save percentage in 2012, his first year of draft eligibility. That .876 was, by far and away, the lowest number for any goalie that played significant time in the OHL that season.
Despite raw numbers that might lead one to think initially that Murray should have been skipped in the draft altogether, the Penguins nabbed him in the 3rd round, 83rd overall, a decision that could, if things continue along this current trajectory, change the entire future of their franchise.
So, just what did Pittsburgh see in him?
Numbers aside, Murray garnered a healthy bit of draft buzz in 2012, including respectable rankings from NHL Central Scouting and from regarded draft analyst Craig Button. Standing 6’4″ already as a teenager, he had the desired size to play in the NHL, and he combined it with impressive athleticism and flexibility. He also had good showings at that year’s CHL Top Prospects game and as the starter for Team Canada at the IIHF U18s, where he put up a much better save percentage of .910 in seven games. The general consensus seemed to be that, despite needing heavy refinement in his positioning and technique, he still had intriguing NHL potential.
While his terrible numbers from the OHL might have scared away other teams (Murray was the 10th goalie selected that draft), the Pens deserve full marks for scouting him, taking the risk and making the investment in his development. Nobody really predicted that Murray would be this good this soon, but Pittsburgh certainly must have seen something special in him even back then.
The lesson here? Looking at stats alone isn’t nearly good enough for when it comes to evaluating draft prospects, especially goalies.
Oh, and that Murray is really, really good. But you probably knew that already.