• mathman

Episode IX: The Rise of Stalock

I hated the new Star Wars that came out recently. The Rise of Skywalker? What? It felt like a carbon copy of pretty much every other Star Wars they’ve released in the new trilogy. Fortunately for all of us, a much better Rise was available for your viewing pleasure over the past few months: the Rise of (Alex) Stalock. And this feature did not disappoint.

At the start of the now-paused NHL season, the Wild’s #1 goaltender was not even remotely a point of contention. Devan Dubnyk has been the undisputed starter since his arrival in Minnesota - and for good reason. He carried the Wild in his backpack to multiple postseasons and despite the team’s lack of notable success, he remained consistent for years. Then, due to unforeseen circumstances, Stalock’s position this year was elevated, and he turned the tables.

If you like watching structured, play-it-safe goaltending, Dubnyk is your guy. Stalock, on the other hand, takes about as many chances as a freshman at a sorority party. Most noticeably, he changes the flow of the game and the dynamic of the Wild’s breakout with his frequent touches and quick passes on opposing dump-and-chases. Precise passes to defensemen on the hash mark from the trapezoid behind the net create a situation where offensive players are forced to create a turnover in order to regain puck possession, as opposed to finding an already-loose puck in the corner. It’s tough to find examples of his solid play, given that a quick, successful breakout is hardly highlight material, but here’s an example of Stalock’s puck-playing success seen at extreme, earning the Wild an extra point in the overtime session in October of 2018.

This approach to goaltending goes relatively unnoticed in its success, but its failures are blatant and frustrating. Take, for example, Mika Zibanejad’s tying goal in the last minute of the game against the Rangers in February. Stalock elects to play the puck rather than freeze it or allow Suter to make a play. His pass doesn’t connect, New York gains possession, and a tying goal ensues. (I couldn't find a tweet with this goal, so here's a greasy video.)

While his high-risk approach definitely makes for ventilator-requiring hockey (and who doesn’t love that), the glaring mistakes that Stalock was prone to making always solidified his spot as the #2.

This year, however, things changed. A family medical situation for Dubnyk led to a change in playing time, and a rise in the standings came along with an increase in Stalock’s ice time. Alex made fewer gaffes like the one seen above, and the Wild started picking up important wins. But, as that annoying teacher in high school always said, correlation does not imply causation. So, what other data besides purely an increasing frequency of wins imply that Stalock was the superior goaltender? Strap in, numbers incoming.

First, a little bit of background info. A 10% shooting percentage is achieved by scoring 3 goals on 30 shots, which is pretty much average across the NHL and a fair point to divide the Wild’s offensive performances into ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Additionally, games were grouped into strictly wins or losses, rather than accounting for overtime/shootout losses, solely for the purposes of this argument. Empty net goals were also removed from the calculation of the Wild’s shooting percentage, in order to more accurately represent their offensive production for a particular game.

Over the course of the (almost) full season, it seems that not only was Stalock’s play far superior, as can be seen by both his higher GAA and higher save percentage; the team seemed much more confident in front of him. When the Wild shot at or above ten percent, both goalies had a similar win percentage, with Dubnyk going 7-3 (70%) and Stalock posting a 15-7 record (68%). However, when the Wild shot less than ten percent, Stalock excelled. He posted a 40% win percentage, going 6-9, while Dubnyk only won 22% of those games, finishing with a 4-14 record. This suggests that while both goalies earned wins at a relatively similar rate when the Wild’s offense was rolling, Stalock earned wins more frequently when the Wild struggled to score. What’s more, the Wild seemed more confident in front of Stalock - their shooting percentage was above ten percent in 59% of his starts, compared to just 36% for Dubnyk.

As we look forward to the next NHL game, whether it be in the 19-20 or 20-21 season, Stalock has our attention as the Wild’s top goalie. His ability to come in clutch for the Wild in close games kept them in the playoff race this year in the midst of franchise-altering trades and coaching staff firings. Whether he can lead the team to true success in the playoffs remains to be seen, and one can only hope he gets a chance to prove himself if this year’s season resumes.

(creds to MSG, FSN, and the NHL for video content)

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