What if the Tampa Bay Lightning had average goaltending?

Pop quiz, hot shot (said in my best Dennis Hopper voice): is it possible to have the NHL's highest goals against average and second-lowest shots-against average?

The answer, surprisingly enough, is yes. That would be the lot of the Tampa Bay Lightning this year. You've got a dynamic offense, even with Vincent Lecavalier injured for the bulk of the year and a reasonable defense that's seen the maturation of Victor Hedman. Tampa's defense won't be confused for world-beaters, but they're playing well enough in Guy Boucher's system to limit the opposition to just 27.1 shots a game. Only the St. Louis Blues have a better shots-against number at 26.7. The difference is that the Blues only score 2.46 goals per game, as opposed to Tampa Bay's mammoth 3.13 goals-per-game.

So, how are all of these goals going in despite the low number of shots-against? That would be the goaltending, where Dan Ellis and Mike Smith have pretty similar awful save percentages (.876 and .872 respectively). Who is in similar company? Rick Dipietro shares Ellis' .876 save percentage, but Dipietro gets a little bit of a pass playing on the team with the highest shots-against and coming back from a long, long injury layoff. From there, the next lowest save percentage is a minor cluster at .895 to .900.

Update: Stupid calculation error fixed below.

If you look at the spread throughout the league of qualified goaltenders (goalies that have played 10 or more games), you'll find that the middle-of-the-road save percentage is around .914. Now, let's do a little bit of math here and play a little what-if. The difference between one of those starters and Tampa Bay's (taking the numerically convenient split-the-difference .874 save percentage) is .04, or 4%. Tampa Bay's goalies give up 4% more goals per game than the middle-of-the-road starter. If you're averaging 27.1 shots per game, that's a difference of 1.084 goals-per-game.

Obviously, that's just going by an averaged, spread-out blanket number. Games have their own ebb and flow and elite goalies have stinker games. However, we've got a large enough sample size for Ellis and Smith now where it's safe to say that they're bringing the team down. Using some rounded-up numbers, I took an average save percentage of .914 and projected out that the goals-against at that level would be about 72. Again, these are using blanket numbers, so you're not factoring in a backup goalie, etc., so a sensible adjustment would be to put the goals-against at 75.

That would give Tampa Bay a goals-for of 3.13 and a goals-against of 2.5, or a differential similar to the Detroit Red Wings.

Here's some other food for thought -- let's take a look at the number of one-goal losses from the Lightning:

10/21 New York Islanders (2-3, OT)
10/24 Nashville Predators (3-4)
11/3 Anaheim Ducks (2-3, OT)
11/4 Los Angeles Kings (0-1)
11/27 Florida Panthers (3-4, OT)
12/10 Edmonton Oilers (3-4, OT)

Two of Tampa's 10 regulation losses were by one goal, and they've lost in overtime four times. Knowing that Ellis and Smith seem to cost Tampa Bay about a goal per game, let's do some projecting. Let's say from those two regulation losses, one of those goes to overtime for a loss by inserting Magic Average Goaltender. And of those four overtime losses, let's say that Magic Average Goaltender turns three of those into a win.

That's four extra points. That may seem like a little right now, but a snapshot from Wednesday afternoon's standings shows that those four points would vault Tampa Bay from the middle of the Eastern Conference pack into the upper tier. Protracted out over a long season, that ugly .874 save percentage could wind up costing the Bolts a good 10+ points in the standings -- or the difference between home ice and a scramble for the eighth seed.

That's just number projecting, but there's a psychological aspect to it. I'm sure Smith and Ellis are liked in the locker room, but players inherently feel different about having a world-beater goalie and a sieve behind them. It's just confidence, and that extra concern about having an unsteady goaltender can affect everything from puck possession to breakout to forecheck.

In short, the Bolts have the potential to be an elite team but their goaltending has dragged them down to the middle of the pack. With rumors of Tampa Bay kicking the tires on Evgeni Nabokov, you have to think that GM Steve Yzerman is already counting the lost points and exploring other options.

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