Editor’s note: Vegas finally has a roster. It’s time to get excited. Over the next couple of weeks, we will be introducing you to these new Golden Knights players.
While the Colorado Avalanche fielded a historically bad hockey team last year—they finished the year with a .293 win percentage, the lowest success rate this millennium—choosing goaltender Calvin Pickard was the easy and obvious choice to make for the Vegas Golden Knights.
Since entering the NHL in the 2014-15 season, Pickard has served as the backup to Semyon Varlamov. In spot stints his first two years, Pickard excelled, recording a .927 save percentage and a 2.46 goals against average in 36 games.
However, after hip surgery limited Varlamov to just 24 games this season, Pickard was given the reigns. And while his .904 save percentage 2.98 goals against average appear discouraging at face value, it doesn’t tell the full story.
Make no mistake, while Marc-Andre Fleury is going to be the main goaltender of Vegas’ infancy, Pickard has the skill set to become the franchise goaltender of the future.
Drafted with Colorado’s 49th overall pick in 2010, Pickard was the first goaltender selected in his draft, and for good reason. While a bit undersized at 6-foot-1, Pickard had a knack for being mobile within the crease. He frequently cut down opponent’s scoring space by playing way out in front of the crease, making the scoring windows as small as possible. Watch the video to get an idea.
The combative style earned Pickard accolades, including three CHL goaltender of the week awards, a nod in the prestigious CHL Top Prospects game and an appearance on the 2010-11 WHL Second All-Star Team.
But Pickard was prone to allowing soft goals. If the puck moved across the ice, Pickard could easily be drawn out of position, allowing large holes towards the goal in standard scoring lanes.
Pickard remains as a mobile goaltender in the NHL, but in a different sense. Instead of bouncing high above the crease to cut shooting lanes, Pickard makes himself larger by dipping more into the crease, making it more difficult to beat Pickard through puck movement. Now, Pickard relies on his speed and his lateral movements, which at times can be nothing short of spectacular.
That above save is a sign of maturity within Pickard’s game. In that same situation at the junior level, Pickard would have immediately sprung forward to the top of the crease to cut down David Perron’s scoring chances. Had he done that, Jaden Schwartz would have had a wide open net and would have drained the game winner. Instead, Pickard recognized that Perron and Schwartz had a two on one opportunity with a rookie forward in Mikko Rantanen defending, giving Perron a prime chance to move the puck to Schwartz.
This development in Pickard’s game is what should be the primary focus when it comes to determining what he is capable of, and not his save percentage and goals against average just last season.
Part of the reason behind Pickard’s struggles was due to the team in front of him.
Colorado allowed 55.5 shot attempts per game and 31.5 of those attempts would be on goal. That was the ninth and fourth-most in the league, respectively, last season.
Those are the totals that the Avalanche allowed between the four goalies they iced last season—Pickard, Varlamov, Jeremy Smith and Spencer Martin—but the numbers are pretty on par with what Pickard directly faced. This season, Pickard saw 55.16 shot attempts per game, which was the 11th-most among goaltenders with 2,000 5-on-5 minutes last season, according to Puckalytics. However, 31.41 of those attempts would become a shot on goal, and that was the fifth-highest total among those same classified goaltenders.
Many of these shot attempts Pickard faced came in the high-danger scoring areas. High-danger areas of the ice are defined as attempts within the immediate vicinity of the crease or within the goalmouth. Here’s a visual from Corsica.
This season, Pickard faced 186 high-danger shot attempts, which is a bit high in comparison to some of the top goaltenders across the league, according to First Line Stats. To put that total in perspective, Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask 194 high-danger shots despite playing 15 more games than Pickard. Here’s a visual from HockeyViz that shows how much more shots Pickard was seeing near his crease in relation to other goaltenders across the league.
To quickly address the abnormally high shot attempts from the points at the blue line, Pickard had a .969 save percentage at 5-on-5 in low-danger shot attempts, right on par with some of the league’s best like Rask (.969), Cory Schneider (.968) and Henrik Lundqvist (.967).
Not all of Pickard’s struggles last season can be written off due to a large quantity of quality scoring opportunities. Pickard’s .775 save percentage in high-danger shots was the lowest total among goalies with at least 50 games played. His save percentage, however, was better than Varlamov’s (.766). Simply put, his success rate was not good.
This may be a bit discouraging, but Pickard had been absolutely dynamite in the past when it comes to these high danger opportunities prior to this season. In the 2015-16 season, Pickard’s .848 high-danger save percentage was similar to Lundqvist’s .842 save percentage and Martin Jones’ .850 save percentage. And in Pickard’s first season with quality time, Pickard posted the second-highest high-danger percentage among goaltenders with at least four games played with a .908 save percentage, though he did play in just 16 games.
Those seasons in which Pickard performed a bit better were years in which the Avalanche weren’t nearly as bad as they were last season, and that suggests Pickard may perform better if he has a more talented team in front of him.
That is perfectly exemplified in Pickard’s performance during the World Championship this year. As a member of Team Canada, Pickard led the way to a silver medal with a .938 save percentage and a 1.49 goals against average in seven games as Canada’s primary goaltender. That team, which lost to Sweden in a shootout in the championship, featured more defensive-responsible players like Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Calvin de Haan, Ryan O’Reilly and Sean Couturier.
While Vegas lacks superstar defensemen, hypothetical pairings have more to offer than the Avalanche. Say, for example, Brayden McNabb and Nate Schmidt are utilized as the Golden Knights’ second pairing. That pairing would be defensively more responsible than Colorado’s pairing of Francois Beauchemin and Tyson Barrie, who played together for 276:53 minutes this season (check the SHOTSUP column, which shows 5-on-5 shots suppressed through 60 minutes of play, with five being the mean).
Pickard won’t immediately face the pressures of an immediate starting goaltender, as Fleury will face the brunt of the work. But when Fleury becomes a free agent following the 2018-19 season, it may be time for Pickard to take command at the age of 27, the ripe age for an NHL goaltender. If he continues to progress and mature, all signs point to Pickard being able to handle the workload in the near future.