Hey, gang. Sorry I've fallen off the post bandwagon for a bit there -- even though preseason schedule has been brutally upon us, it still feels a lot like summer doldrums. Yeah, I know that east coast has been showing me its share of preseason on TV, which does help, but until I get to see a televised Koivu, none of it feels real. Additionally, I've been having a weird combination of experimenting with a new iPhone* while my home computer fights through many issues, which has severely altered my web habits.
* BTW, the comments section here would be a fabulous place to recommend some useful or fun iPhone apps -- I'm in over my head at this point. But I can still spend half a day doing word jumbles.
At any rate, I'm going to finish off my inaugural "Season Review" offseason series with a look at Anaheim's main two netminders, but I should add a word about the overall series. For one, you'll note that it's ironically titled -- mostly these posts have been looks forward, not backwards, and I've included future players like Lupul while excluding past players like Pronger. Somewhat related, you'll note that I haven't done any defenseman-centered posts since Captain Niedermayer three weeks ago -- that's because every other defenseman on the roster is new to the club (less than 42 GP for any of them, including playoffs), and as a whole, I just need to see them play some games before I can pass any proper judgment.
So now we skip ahead to goaltending, which while important, is a battle that I don't think needs to be solved by next week or even by December. We know already from preseason results that we can expect many different things from a Prongerless defense, and I expect that the blueline will continue to evolve the first few weeks of the season (as well as probably the forward lines). The upside to all this dynamic change is that there are two quality netminders to audition during that span, and yes, naysayers, I am counting J.S. Giguere as one of them.
After the jump, a look at both contenders' seasons last year plus a loose discussion of each player's strengths and weaknesses (warning, though: goaltending criticisms are Rudy's specialty, not mine -- I largely criticize goalies through spreadsheets).
Now it's perfectly reasonable to associate Giguere's fall to mediocrity last season with the passing of his father in Montreal -- definitely too touchy a subject to contradict, at least. But definitely I remember thinking last year that I started seeing the fall of J.S. right around the time he was put onto the All-Star Game ballot, and thanks to tireless Anaheim robot voters, when he became the frontrunner starter for the west. That proved to be an ironic honor for Giguere -- career-wise he was a worthwhile starter in his native city's event, but at the same time he was playing the worst hockey of that career. The drop is probably best evidenced in looking at save percentage by month:
Oct 08 -- .903
Nov 08 -- .913
Dec 08 -- .920
Jan 09 -- .858
Feb 09 -- .895
Mar 09 -- .879
Yup. Whatever issue plagued Jiggy, he fell off the map, save-percentage-wise. Giguere was a 2.92 GAA / .911 sv% goalie the last three months of 2008 and a 3.43/.882 sv% goalie the first three months of 2009. His results worsened by 1/2 a goal a game, and by 3 goals per 100 shots -- huge swings by our typical goaltending metrics.
But while it's easy to look past Giguere's chances because of his recent mediocrity and Hiller's recent stardom, it's probably too early to write a eulogy for the guy's career -- there's been very very few goaltenders who have been consistently better than Giguere since the lockout. He's the last goalie not named Bryzgalov who had success behind a Prongerless defense in Anaheim's history, and if the Ducks' defense does turn into a wild west firesale, I almost have to think that Giguere is the favorite to reassume the #1 role in Anaheim. Because assuming Giguere returns to some pre-funk form, at his best Giguere is a guy who swallows pucks -- Hiller at his best is a guy who blocks many back into play. If Anaheim can't control rebounds as well as they could with Pronger (something I'd call "very likely"), then Hiller's style becomes less useful, but we'll get to that below.
One vote of confidence for Giguere comes from Anaheim's preseason results, I suppose. The only two games the Ducks won in regulation this preseason were the only two games that Giguere played 60 minutes. Even that has caveats, though -- both wins featured last-minute 6-on-5 goals that brought the opponents within one; Giguere likes to make every game a nailbiter.
But he's got experience. He's got an excellent pre-2009 track record. He's got a Smythe and a Cup and an undeserved ASG start. And he's got $6M counting against the cap this season and next with a no-movement clause; from an accounting and trade-likelihood** perspective it'd be much better for the Ducks if Giguere could re-dominate the nets.
** One argument against moving Giguere is this: the two most successful postseasons the Ducks have enjoyed have exactly coincided with J.S. Giguere's last two contract years. Jiggy is only one season removed from his next contract year -- dare the Ducks fuck with karma?
It's fair to say that when Giguere faltered last season, Hiller then stepped in and began dominating the nets. But I think Hiller played excellently all last year -- fluctuations in his results were more about the team in front of him, I suspect. When the Ducks played serious hockey, Hiller was instrumental in their wins. And let's not fuck around -- Hiller beat the San Jose Sharks and pushed Detroit to 7. Getzlaf and pals had enormous playoffs for sure, but the Ducks collectively were outshot 532 to 349 over the 13 games of the playoffs, yet the Ducks outscored their opponents 35 to 32!
It's tough to nail down exactly where Jonas Hiller 2009 ranks among the goaltending performances that Anaheim fans have enjoyed this decade -- as I mentioned in the playoffs, every three years a goalie makes his debut and owns a postseason, and Hiller's eye-popping .943 playoff save percentage was exactly that -- even a step up from his regular season .919.
But it's also important to remember the Ducks' survival strategy employed throughout many stretches in last year's playoffs -- weathering the storm until Getzlaf's next shift. And while opponents threw great volumes of shots at Hiller's net, the Ducks dedicated themselves to securing Hiller's loose pucks -- the Swissman is an excellent puckstopper but a frequent rebound machine. And that was really where Pronger and Beauchemin both played key roles -- they were both instrumental in the battle outside Hiller's crease.
There's no reason to think that Hiller won't remain excellent at his #1 skill -- stopping the first shot with amazing consistency -- and if Giguere continues his decline, Hiller will see plenty of them. But if and when the new blueline has less control of rebounds (especially shorthanded), how will Hiller's numbers get affected by loose puck battles? Will he have to adjust his "first shot" game to hold more pucks, and can he make that adjustment easily?
I should stop there -- really I'm talking in hypotheticals and there's nothing that I know about Jonas Hiller that suggests he'll be anything less than a monster in net this year. And unlike Giguere, Hiller actually is on a contract year this year -- while it definitely will make trouble heading for next summer, I think it's a really good thing. Hiller needs an audition behind a thinner defense before the Ducks should commit any big money/years to the guy, and this situation should be perfect in determining his long-term value. He'll definitely take a bite of salary-cap-space next summer, quite possibly with another team, but that's down the road. For now, it's just time to see how dominant he really can be.
I guess I could end this post with a simple 2-option poll, but I don't know -- my perspective on the situation changes quite frequently, and until I really get to see this blueline play (Row B on Saturday, bitches!), it's tough for me to even nail down a prediction. And as usual, Coach Carlyle is zero help -- that guy is more likely to tell me his ATM PIN than who his starting goalie will be.
But even though it's difficult to predict who will ultimately seize the day, it's a great overall situation -- both guys have lots to prove, there's plenty of time to get it right, and the front office gets to react next summer based on better knowledge of each player's abilities. Feel free to offer your predictions or hopes in the comments -- who will be the Ducks #1 by mid-season? -- and feel free to change your mind as many times as you like. For now, though, it's time to drop some pucks and see how this new-Ducks team looks. Can't fucking wait -- standings points start getting awarded tomorrow, if you can believe it. I'd better get started on a gameday post.