Red Wings’ Greiss Quickly Becoming Top Option in Net

When the news broke that goaltender Thomas Greiss, formerly of the New York Islanders, had signed a two-year pact with the Detroit Red Wings, the immediate assumption was that he and incumbent goaltender Jonathan Bernier would share the starting role in Detroit. Through the first nine games of the 2020-21 season, that has been the case as head coach Jeff Blashill has stuck to the pattern of starting Greiss in the first game of each two-game series, and then turning to Bernier in the following game. What hasn’t been even, however, is their play through the beginning of this season.

Despite the fact that Bernier has been the goalie of record for four out of six of the Red Wings’ total points so far, the early returns suggest that Greiss has been getting the short end of the stick as he has been the better performer of the two. If that hasn’t been plain to see just from watching the games this season, allow me to demonstrate the impact that the German netminder has had on his new team thus far.

The Basic Stats

Judging by the most basic goaltending stats – save-percentage (SV%) and goals-against average (GAA) – we can see that neither Greiss or Bernier are really “stealing the show”. Here’s how things look so far:

Thomas Greiss3.01 GAA.897 SV%
Jonathan Bernier3.54 GAA.881 SV%

With those numbers established, I want to take the opportunity to repeat the fact that Bernier was the goalie of record for both of the Red Wings’ victories. While both goalies’ numbers have taken a sizeable hit due to their abysmal play against the Chicago Blackhawks, as well as their equally porous play on January 28 against the Dallas Stars, it goes without saying that Greiss has deserved better results, but has been punished due to the team’s performance in front of him.

This could be the result of a new goalie still getting accustomed to his new team, as well as the team getting used to him. There have been more than a few moments through nine games where it looked like there was some miscommunication when Greiss went to play the puck from behind the net. Those sort of things eventually work themselves out, and it’s just a matter of minimizing the damage those types of things cause in the meantime.

Damage Done

Through nine games this season, the Red Wings have allowed 32 goals-against for a team GAA of 3.36. This does not fall solely on the goaltending. In fact, as my colleague Tony Wolak points out, team defense has done little in the way of helping their veteran netminders.

It’s been an odd season for Greiss and Bernier. After the first four games, both netminders ranked in the top-15 for goals saved above average (GSAA), but the Chicago and Dallas matchups spoiled those impressive numbers. Part of that stems from Detroit’s less-than-stellar team defense. Greiss and Bernier have been steady presences in net otherwise, providing a calming presence for Detroit’s scrambling defenders.

– Tony Wolak

As Tony notes, if you subtract both games against the Chicago Blackhawks and the second game against the Dallas Stars, you’re looking at two of the better goaltenders throughout the league right now, believe it or not. Unfortunately, you can’t undo what has already been done in the NHL, and both Bernier and Greiss can probably look back on these games and identify at least two goals each that they would admit they should have had.

Luckily, we have ways of quantifying the efforts put forth by both Greiss and Bernier. While it can sometimes be enough to look at a SV% and determine which goalie is doing better, it helps to contextualize the shots that they have and haven’t stopped.

Fancy Stats

Given the Red Wings’ overall struggles on special teams, including the penalty kill, we’re going to compare Greiss and Bernier based on their performances during even strength play. With that in mind, let’s look at a few important stats.

In terms of even strength SV%, Greiss has been the better of the two with a .939 SV%, as opposed to Bernier’s .883 SV%. That alone could be enough evidence that the former should receive a few extra starts going forward. But it doesn’t stop there. In terms of GSAA, their numbers are perfectly inverted with Greiss saving 2.9 goals above-average, and Bernier allowing 2.9 more than average. Unless you’re playing golf, a positive is always better than a negative in sports.

Jonathan Bernier Detroit Red Wings
Jonathan Bernier has been sub-par for the Detroit Red Wings so far (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In terms of high-danger chances (chances that come from the scoring areas of the ice, i.e. the slot) Bernier has actually faced a few more than Greiss (25 to 22), and both goalies have fared reasonably well under those circumstances. The incumbent goaltender still trails his new partner, though, as Greiss has a .818 SV%, while Bernier has a .800 SV%. This is essentially a difference of one extra goal in those situations, but that one goal can mean all the difference.

Eye Test

Besides their gear, you can tell Greiss and Bernier apart just by the way they behave in the crease. Greiss seems to have a reserved approach that allows him to be strong with his technique. It seems like he is always in a good position to make the first stop , with his rebound-control looking good, but not great.

As for Bernier, he seems a lot more reactionary in his saves. He relies on his technique to put him in position to make a stop, but he seems more human in the way he makes his stops. When he’s on his game, I would argue that he’s the more “fun” of the two to watch because he looks like he’s battling in the crease. This leads to big saves, but also big gaffes sometimes, as I’ve personally noted more rebounds coming off of him than Greiss.

But don’t get me wrong, he’s not an acrobatic goaltender like Dominik Hasek was. He’s still fairly reserved in the crease, but his movements seem less calculated than his German counterpart. To that point, Tony also had this to say.

They both have a passive approach to the position, moving economically around the crease and rarely overcompensating.

– Tony Wolak

In a perfect world, you’d like to see your favorite team literally place brick wall in front of their net. Unfortunately, that is definitely against the rules, so you have to find a goaltender that can do a solid impression of said wall. While Bernier was the closest thing the Red Wings had to a wall last season, it appears early on that the new guy does a better impression.

Long-Term Implications

Bernier is in the final year of his contract, while Greiss obviously still has another year left on his. This year in particular could be a fascinating one for pending free agent goaltenders as teams not only need to carry three goaltenders this season, placing an added emphasis on goaltending depth, but the Seattle Kraken expansion draft is looming just around the corner. There may never be as large of a market for goaltenders as there is in 2021.

General manager Steve Yzerman is going to want to squeeze as many future assets out of his current roster as he possibly can, and Bernier could become an enticing piece for a team that lacks goaltending depth. A few teams that come to mind are the Washington Capitals, the Edmonton Oilers, the Colorado Avalanche and the St. Louis Blues. Of course, Bernier will have to get back to looking like he did last season before any team spends a considerable asset to acquire him.

There is also the possibility that Yzerman re-signs Bernier, probably to a one-year extension to line up with the expiration of Greiss’s deal. This would be an interesting outcome as one of them would have to be exposed in the expansion draft, with Detroit more or less daring the Kraken to take one of their goalies rather than one of their skaters. For this particular reason, we might see the Red Wings’ GM wait to extend Bernier until after the expansion draft takes place, if he decides to do extend him at all. One thing’s for certain, the more Greiss plays like he has to start the season, the more likely it is that Bernier will be representing another team come next season.

I’m sure Greiss wouldn’t mind the extra starts in the meantime….

Statistics from Natural Stat Trick

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