Scouting and development of goaltenders has been an enigma across the NHL. Goalies have gotten better, the butterfly style has revolutionized hockey to its core and the athleticism has increased since the ‘80’s. But NHL GMs still don’t have a finger on the pulse of when a goalie is in his prime. Rather than thrust a goalie prospect like Kaapo Kahkonen into the tandem role with Alex Stalock this coming season, Minnesota Wild GM Bill Guerin turned to 33 year old Cam Talbot.
Talbot came up in the New York Rangers organization, and caught fire backing up Henrik Lundqvist during the Rangers’ last Cup run. The Rangers chose to sell high on Talbot, and he was traded to the Edmonton Oilers in the 2015 offseason. Edmonton re-upped Talbot for three more seasons following a year in which he proved he could handle a starter’s workload. He averaged a .914 save percentage and 2.53 goals against average before bottoming out in Year 4 with the Oilers.
The former Alabama-Huntsville standout and IIHF World Championship Gold Medalist saw his save percentage plunge to .892, and Edmonton offloaded him in a trade to the Philadelphia Flyers. Last year he signed with Calgary to resurrect his career and got back on track with a .919 save percentage and a 2.63 goals against average.
If this career trajectory prior to landing in Minnesota sounds familiar, it’s because Devan Dubnyk had almost the same course with the Oilers — including the fallout after he left.
Most people are familiar with Dubnyk’s story. He was drafted by the Oilers, was their starter for a few seasons before falling apart, got traded and was on the brink of being out of the league. But he signed with the Arizona Coyotes in 2014-15, and goaltending coach Sean Burke helped him rediscover his game. Chuck Fletcher was desperate for goaltending help that year, traded a 3rd round pick for him midseason and he helped lead the Wild to the postseason.
The similarities between Talbot and Dubnyk don’t stop there. The Oilers aren’t known for their defense: They have ranked 22nd or worse in expected goals against during each of the eight regular seasons played in front of either Talbot or Dubnyk.
|Season – Devan Dubnyk||xGA League Rank – EDM|
|Season – Cam Talbot||xGA League Rank – EDM|
Expected Goals Against is a stat that takes into account shot location. It’s a proxy measurement of team defense: The lower the expected goals against, the better a team’s defense. Thus, these rankings conclude that the Oilers are just bad at playing defense.
The workload of bailing out bad defenses became too taxing on both Talbot and Dubnyk to the point where they cracked.
Goals Saved Above Expected is a metric by which a goalie’s impact independent of his team is determined. Essentially, does a goalie “steal” wins when the team otherwise shouldn’t win, or is the team winning despite their netminder?
For both Talbot and Dubnyk, their arcs were similar. They started well, saved more goals above expected in Year 2, declined in Year 3, until both fell off a cliff in Year 4.
It’s not a surprise that getting shelled night after night and then getting scapegoated shattered each goaltender’s confidence. It also makes sense that once they got out of the situation their numbers rebounded.
That’s what Fletcher banked on with Dubnyk, and what Guerin is betting on with Talbot. While the Wild don’t have Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl scoring goals for them, they have a defense corps that goes five deep. The forward group may have lost a defensive keystone in Mikko Koivu this season, but Joel Eriksson Ek, Jordan Greenway and Marcus Foligno form a formidable shutdown line. Even if that trio isn’t together for most of the game, they can be assembled during times that call for a more defensive posture.
This is all to say that Talbot is coming to a team that is primed to protect him better than he’s ever been. Here is Minnesota’s rankings in xGA since the 2012 lockout:
The Wild had poor play from their goaltending last year. It was clear that when the Wild got requisite NHL goaltending, their fortunes in the “win” column improved. The Wild are getting a goaltender that can offer that much in Talbot.
Furthermore, when the trade market was taken into consideration, the Wild targeted goaltending and improved at the position without giving up any assets. Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford wanted a lot for Matt Murray. Vegas Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is 35, making $7 million per season and has a modified no-trade clause in his contract, so giving up anything significant in a trade for him didn’t make sense. Instead, Guerin went bargain shopping, got a goalie in free agency and kept the term relatively short.
Talbot might be primed to do what Dubnyk did in the years immediately following his arrival. That included being in Vezina consideration, a couple All-Star appearances and backstopping the Wild to the postseason. Talbot is Minnesota’s goalie for the next three seasons. Presumably, that’s enough time for the Wild front office to turn a player like Kahkonen into their No. 1 one day.