NHL fans are no different from fans in any other sport
Relying on perception rather than reality, sports fans tend to fall back on the “watch the games” method of player evaluation. Moreover, if a player is traded immediately after a rough patch, that period tends to stand out as the sole method of worth determination. Brian Elliott is the victim of both. Although his numbers at the end of his days with Ottawa are indeed below average, his first season was quite solid for a rookie: 16-8-3-1, with a 2.77 goals-against average and .902 save percentage in 2008-2009 as he adjusted to NHL shooters. Elliott followed up with an even better campaign, posting a 29-18-4-5 mark, reducing his GAA to 2.57 and improving Sa% to .907. Remember, these were decidedly average Senators teams, so these numbers are about what was expected. As it happens so often with NHL teams, as its overall play declines the emphasis is placed on the goaltending. Elliott was traded after matching the team’s below-average play to the Colorado Avalanche, a team decidedly in rebuilding mode at the time. Elliot did not play well, reflecting the rather porous defense in front of him. A free agent after that campaign, Elliott signed with the Blues prior to the 2011-2012 campaign, one in which he put up historic numbers.
One team’s Elliott is another’s treasure
Brian Elliott was installed as the Blues’ 1A goaltender, effectively splitting time down the middle with Jaroslav Halak. Elliott embraced this role, putting up incredible statistics: 23-10-4-9, with a miniscule 1.56 GAA and .940 save percentage. There’s no evidence to support the idea that Elliott would have fallen apart had he been handed the majority of games that season; and if he had maintained most of that dominance, a Vezina in addition to the Jennings he helped win would have been in the discussion. In the postseason, Jaroslav Halak was injured. Elliott won the series handily against San Jose, but was unfortunately swept at the hands of a dominant Kings team and eventual Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick. Elliott responded the following season with another strong showing, although his numbers weren’t quite as ridiculous. Elliott — like many players — had a rusty patch after the lockout halved the season. Elliott was back to his dominant self after a conditioning stint in Peoria, with his season-ending numbers only tainted by the rough start. Additionally, although many quality goaltenders struggle with low shot counts, Elliott has been the notable exception in the St. Louis twine.
The myth of poor playoffs haunts Elliott’s reputation
There is a common feeling around people that know hockey that there is an unspoken “race to three” referring to the fact that once a team scores three goals, odds are very good that they will win. This is part of the reason that once an NHL goalie’s GAA reaches close to or above three goals per game, either there is a problem with him or the team isn’t very good. Examining Elliott’s GAA — we’ll exclude save percentage for now — shows that out of three series with the Blues, he’s only given up three goals a paltry three times. In comparison, Jonathan Quick’s GAA was 2.58 — good enough in 2014 to win the Cup. Clearly, it’s equally (if not more so) about the team as a whole. For evidence, Quick’s first few games against the San Jose Sharks saw him surrender an uncharacteristic 6, 7 and 4 goals in that order. However, the Kings went on to sweep the remainder of the series and move on. Elliott’s numbers show that even the two series he lost against the Kings were winnable from the perspective of what he did to aid in that effort.
It’s Brian’s team now
Management has taken notice of Elliott’s performances as a Blue. After Ryan Miller was told to find a new team following another too-early playoff exit, Elliott was handed a new three-year deal worth $7.5 million. For a guy with 16 shutouts in the past three seasons, a case could be made for underpayment. Nevertheless, the contract is a signal to the rest of the team and the fans that Elliott, despite expected stiff competition from rookie Jake Allen, will get the majority of the starts this season. The Blues have become a perennial playoff staple and President’s Trophy/Stanley Cup favorite. Elliott will have his opportunity to prove to the rest of the NHL that he’s the real deal — and arguably the best value in an NHL net today.