After four of the best games for the Vegas Golden Knights this season, and their first four-game winning streak, a goaltending controversy has come to light. No, Malcolm Subban isn’t pushing Marc-Andre Fleury for the starting job, but he should be seeing more starts.
After national writers speculated that the Golden Knights needed a new backup goaltender, and just 19 starts in 2017-18 and 20 in 2018-19, Subban played incredibly well once given the opportunity. He entered this stretch with just three games played within a week of another start. He had three outside of a week. He’s only had 11 starts so far this season, and six came within the last six games.
Here’s the thing about Subban (and, if expanded, likely all goaltenders): he’s better when he’s seeing consistent time. That’s been a problem throughout his tenure with the Golden Knights. In 2018-19, Subban had more starts further than a week apart (10) than he did within a week (9). Subban, in his three seasons worth of starts within a week, has a .912 save percentage (that’s at .919 this season). With more than a week apart: .877 (.896 this season).
Save percentage isn’t the only stat that demonstrates just how much better Subban is with a consistent schedule. His starts within a week this season have led to a high-danger save percentage of .875 and 2.24 goals saved above expected, his starts more than a week apart have a .774 high-danger save percentage and -3.37 goals saved above average.
Subban, simply, has been used poorly. That’s likely contributed to his standing this season — he’s tied for 37th in the league in save percentage, but he and Fleury have stats that are pretty close. Fleury’s got a .919 save percentage and Subban is at .909 (again, .919 with more consistency would make that go up). Fleury’s high-danger save percentage is at .853, Subban’s is at .845. They’ve both made plenty of high-danger goals saved above average (Fleury 6.46, Subban 3.05).
And Subban isn’t dealing with the team at it’s best:
Despite this, Subban has had a better track record at some aspects this season than Fleury, and has saved more goals relative to expectation.
So Subban is playing well in spite of the team in front of him, sometimes, as the game against the Devils proved.
It’s also likely not a fluke that Fleury’s save percentage fell 14 points last season, from a .927 save percentage in 2017-18 to a .913 save percentage in 2018-19. He had 15 more starts, going from 46 to 61, and while his shutouts doubled (going from four to eight), his percentage of quality starts (starts above his season-average save percentage) fell.
In an era that’s moving closer and closer to platoon netminding — two of the best goaltending performances this season have been from duos, in Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper in Arizona and Robin Lehner and Corey Crawford in Chicago — why wouldn’t Vegas do the same? If Fleury’s demonstrably better with starts numbering closer to 45 than 60, and three of the final four goaltenders in the playoffs last season played between 40 and 50 games (only Martin Jones, statistically the worst of those goaltenders, played more), shouldn’t Subban, who just proved he’s capable of giving more, given the opportunity, be playing more than 20 games?
The answer is yes. Subban’s got 11 starts through the first 31 games of the season. He should likely have more, but before this stretch he wasn’t playing great hockey, and he was injured for a time. Now that he’s proven he’s healthy and he can play excellent hockey, though, getting Vegas their first four-game winning streak of the season, he should see an increase in starts and in percentage of games started.
Nobody wants to see Fleury get hurt again. The Golden Knights want to get back to the Stanley Cup Final, and that was the expectation before the season. There’s a simple answer to these two problems, and that’s play Malcolm. He’s earned it.