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Photo Credit: © Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Why Michal Neuvirth Can Lighten Freddy’s Load

Last week, everyone received a notification from Leafs PR. No, it was not THE notification. Just a simple alert that veteran goaltender, Michal Neuvirth had been signed to a PTO.

We have reached the point in the summer where people argue on Twitter over the most mundane topics. But this…this is actually interesting to me. Having done a full evaluation on Neuvirth, he is objectively better than any goaltender not named “Andersen” in the Leafs organization, and an upgrade over the backup, last season.

Speaking of that backup, let’s touch on him for a quick sec.

Garret Sparks was a 7th round pick, and anytime a 7th round pick plays any games for your organization, it’s undoubtedly a net positive. Sparks was suspended by the organization while with the Marlies in 2016, yet, Piero Greco got him back on track where he won AHL Goalie of the Year and a Calder Cup.

Last year, the Leafs lot two goalies to waivers to keep him, when he was probably the 4th best option. I would say they were never keeping McElhinney because keeping a 35-year-old guy over a 25-year-old guy (that you’ve spent years developing) is not great asset management. Now, did he play a lot last season? No. Did he deserve to? No. Were people unnecessarily harsh on him? I would say so. But for him to imply he didn’t get an opportunity in Toronto when you look the run of events that occurred, from suspension to losing better options, is patently false and very unfair.

Now, on to the guy the Leafs brought in.

The fact of the matter is, Neuvirth only played 7 games last season due to injury. That is not nearly enough sample size to make ANY kind of judgement. It was also Philadelphia, and we know what they’ve done to goaltenders over the past decade. However, Neuvirth has always been a goalie of interest to me, even dating back to his days in Washington.

When speaking to others in hockey about goalies, Neuvirth was always a name I brought up, especially as it pertained to the Leafs.

Frederik Andersen should not be playing 60+ games. I’m a bit of a goalie nerd; I love studying goalie styles, talking to goalie coaches, and looking at next steps. What Boston and the Islanders did with their goalies last year worked wonders, with both teams employing tandems to great success. Rask and Halak started 45 and 37 games, respectively, and Lehner and Greiss played 43 and 39 games, respectively. That decreased workload showed when Rask was the Bruins’ best player throughout the playoffs, and Lehner had the best season of his career.

Moral of the story: Andersen should play ~50 games in order to achieve peak performance in the playoffs.

Neuvirth, over his career, has shown to be capable of playing 25-30 games with a ~.917 SV% in those seasons. It should be noted that I used algorithm tracked data, not the NHL data (which is wrong A LOT), and therefore, the numbers will be a little different.

On the 2014-15 Sabres, who were actively trying to tank to an embarrassing degree, Neuvirth managed a .914 SV%. I remember thinking what a feat that was at the time, since Buffalo’s lineup was barely AHL-calibre, in terms of talent. The next season, he posted a .927 in 32 appearances with Philly. In 2016-17, the Flyers weren’t good, and Neuvirth regressed to a .909 (NHL had him at .891) SV% in 28 games. He bounced back to a .931 in 20117-18, after collapsing in April 2017, and being diagnosed with a concussion.

Want to know who else has been a yo-yo with a really bad lower body injury? Pekka Rinne.

I am very not saying that Neuvirth is Rinne; he’s not. I’m saying Rinne has a history of good season, bad season, repeat. He also had major hip surgery, and managed to return to form. Given the track record of Toronto’s sports science and medical staff, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to believe that Neuvirth could return to his Buffalo form.

Why? For starters, I went back and compared Neuvirth to league average in every season since 2015-16 for all shots. Removing last season, because he was injured, let’s examine 2015-2018, which is three seasons.

I have left last season in the chart, as it is his most recent.

As you can see, Neuvirth was .909 or better in all three seasons. He was at, or above, league average in two of those seasons. It should be noted, that league average includes starting goaltenders; and in many studies, backups ranking at, or above league average is a very good sign.

Moving to the high danger areas, the slot and inner slot, backup goaltenders tend to rank below starters, and well below league average. Neuvirth definitely fits the bill here, as he’s below average in high danger SV%.

The biggest reason for why I think he’s a potential bounce-back candidate is his playing style.

Both McElhinney and Sparks play a Hasek-esque style, in that it looks like they are swimming in the crease. Neuvirth is much calmer and concise in his movements. He is 6’1 – shorter than both former backups – but rarely finds himself sliding out of the net, or in awkward positions. Neuvirth’s smaller stature forces him to play that calmer game, as he doesn’t take up as much of the net.

I believe Neuvirth has the most success when he’s at the top of his crease. He plays a little too deep in his net for my liking, especially as a smaller goaltender. When he cuts angles down and challenges the shooter, he’s shown that he’s able to make quality saves on a consistent basis.

Frederik Andersen spoke of how Steve Briere worked with him on challenging the shooter more and being more calculated in his movements. He’s had success since making those style adjustments, similar to the ones I believe Neuvirth needs to make here. Andersen’s height allows him to play a little deeper, but concise movements that he’s added to his game since working with Briere are the ones that Neuvirth will need to perfect in order to regain form.

For my money, I’ll take the more technically sound goalie who’s had a bad year, over the guys who play like fish out of water and give the coaches heart palpitations. One style is significantly more conducive to success, repeatable, and instils confidence in teammates.

Give Neuvirth a chance, he’s the best option the Leafs have, and if he can regain his form, will give Andersen the much-needed break.



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