Kevin SchultzOn Monday night, the Islanders placed netminder Evgeni Nabokov on injured reserve for the second time this season, turning the net over to Kevin Poulin once again.
The Islanders have had a problem keeping pucks out of the net this season. They’re currently 29th in the league in goals against per game and 29th in save percentage, both terrible marks. For the first two-plus months of the season Islander goalies struggled in net whether their last name was Nabokov, Poulin or Nilsson. To compound that, injuries to defenders Brian Strait and Lubomir Visnovsky made the defensive corps paper thin.
But when Nabokov and Strait returned from their respective injuries, Nabokov December 14 against Montreal and Strait December 12 against Phoenix, the team’s fortunes changed considerably. Since the 12th the Islanders are 7-4-2, a clear improvement from the previous 13 games where they had gone on a 2-9-2 streak without the two aforementioned players.
Neither Nabokov or Strait is a game changer or, if we’re being honest, a significantly above average NHLer. But they both helped add depth to a team that was playing average or below players at back-three positions.
From Nabokov specifically the Islanders started to get performances reminiscent of the ones he turned in down the stretch last season, which helped the team sneak into the playoffs. Those were in stark contrast to the ones he turned in early this year leading to a below .900 save percentage before he was put on injured reserve the first time in mid-November.
In 10 games between IR stints from December 14 through January 6, Nabokov turned in one shutout and a .924 save percentage, well above the league average of .913. Finally, we got to see what the Islanders could do with an average or better NHL goaltender.
Coincidentally, the Islanders defense got better too and not just from Strait returning. Calvin de Haan was called up and has been a revelation. He’s been solid visually and statistically he’s the Islanders second best defender at getting pucks away from his own net and towards the opposition’s.
Since December 13, the Islanders have allowed an opponent to score more than three goals three times (13 games, in 23% of those games). Prior to that, they had allowed more than three goals 15 (!) times (32 games, in 47% of those games).
Clearly, the defense and goaltending have been much better recently for the Islanders and have helped them on the 7-3 run they are currently on.
But now that Evgeni Nabokov is gone, can Kevin Poulin continue the good times?
One of the big debates this year has been whether the Islanders poor defense has been a result of the defenders, the netminders or both (some folks say it’s the forwards not backchecking, which is absurd because they don’t have more of an impact on defense than the guys who are specifically on the to play defense).
So now, with Nabokov out for a week or two, the team clicking offensively and defensively, we should get a better idea of whether Poulin’s below .900 save percentage is a product of its environment (the defense) or his own abilities.
Poulin wasn’t overly impressive in either of the past two games, coming in relief against Dallas or last night in Toronto. Folks can point to rust or coming in off the bench but when you’re job description is literally backup goaltender, you are supposed to be ready for those sorts of odd situations. As my job description is blogger, I need to be ready to write and rant at a moment’s notice. But anyway, to be fair, two games isn’t enough to judge a player completely (fortunately we’ve had more than two games of Poulin this year with which to judge).
Earlier this year, I posted a chart of goalie save percentages game-by-game while Nabokov was out. The results were not pretty as Poulin and Nilsson combined for above league average save percentage (.915 at the time) in only three of 15 games while Nabokov was hurt. While each game in itself is a small sample that gets majorly skewed by a bounce here or there, over the course of a month or months it should tell us more about what a goalie is capable of. A good goalie will tend to make saves, even tough ones.
Here’s the same chart since Nabokov’s initial IR stint and updated through last night. It’s been adjusted since the league average SVP has dipped to .913:
During the 9 full games Nabokov played between IR stints, Nabokov had above average marks in 6 of them. I’ve been a big Nabokov detractor over the last year-plus but clearly he played well in recent games.
Now, with the same defense, can Kevin Poulin pull of a similar feat? Or can he at least do better than he did last time Nabokov was out? He’s got an improved defense over last time — more over the same one that Nabokov has had in recent successful games — and now has a couple starts under his belt to “get back in the swing of things” or what have you. Hopefully, this stint as start will go better for Poulin than last time. If it doesn’t the Islanders are due to have Nabokov back within two weeks, who hopefully (fingers crossed) will be able to find similar form to what we saw over the last month.