Brian Elliott is a better goalie than you think he is

Brian Elliott's not going to impress too many folks with his style, or even his individual numbers. But despite less than stellar GAA and SP, his winning percentage is among the league's best. What explains this counter-intuitive situation?

I don't think Ottawa Senators goaltender Brian Elliott gets a lot of credit around the league. And I'm probably as guilty as just about anyone else: I think Elliott is a serviceable goalie who's done well enough for Ottawa, but certainly doesn't offer the kind of reliable play a team needs to be competitive in the long-term in the NHL. But you know what? Maybe I'm wrong.

Brian Elliott's stats aren't really stellar, in all honesty. Among the 80 goalies who've played more than 20 games since Elliott entered the league, he's got the 34th-best goals-against average at 2.65, and the 46th-best save percentage at .908. And yet, despite those lacklustre numbers, Elliott has still managed won 52.3 per cent of games he's played--21st in the league, and not remotely reflective of the GAA and SP numbers Elliott has put up. So is there possibly some intangible factor that Elliott possesses that could explain his success in the most meaningful measure there is: Winning percentage?

Justin Goldman, goaltending sage behind TheGoalieGuild.com, thinks quite highly of Elliott. He credits the coaching he's received most recently as going a long way in making up for poor guidance in the past. He also thinks that Elliott's numbers don't look great because they're averages, and can be skewed by unrepresentative off-nights.

First of all, Elliott is a very unassuming goaltender when it comes to his style and technique. Coming out of college at Wisconsin, his goalie coach was very unconventional and taught a butterfly style that is not successful in the NHL. When Elliott got to Ottawa, he was working with a couple of new and different goalie coaches. I know Eli Wilson was one of them, but in the summers, Elliott trained with Mike Valley, who is now the goalie coach of the Dallas Stars. If you go to www.elitegoalies.com you'll see more about Valley and his coaching philosophy and some pictures of Elliott.

Valley took Elliott's game to the next level by systematically adjusting his style to match his body and mind. What makes Valley such a good goalie coach (he's the youngest in the NHL) is his philosophical approach to mental toughness. It has worked for Elliott and he is quickly developing into a sound goaltender, not because he is elite in areas of skill, but because he has awesome focus, consistent work ethic and has great mental toughness.

So Elliott won't have flashy peripheral stats, he won't look overly talented on the ice, but he simply gets the job done. Fans and goalie scouts are starting to learn what makes him tick - he works really hard and has good enough talent to thrive. The more he plays, the more experience he gains, the better he becomes.

Another reason why his career stats won't look great is simple math. These are averages. So at the start of his NHL career, his numbers were a little more bloated. The more games he plays, the tougher it is to get those numbers down. So this is the main reason why stats mean nothing when it comes to analyzing the potential of a young goaltender. They could have two terrible games where they give up 10 goals and stop 2 shots and it ruins their stats forever. This is something I stress to all fantasy managers when it comes to drafting and tracking goalies. So I would explain that aspect of it as well.

So, as most of us have seen in watching Elliott, he's not a flashy goaltender. Aside from the occasional very impressive glove-save, most of his saves are due to his technical proficiency and ability to ensure he's in the right position to have the best chances of stopping the shots that come his way. Because his game is based so heavily on technique, he's rarely out of position--and as a result, rarely has to make highlight-reel saves. For that reason, we rarely remember him, and won't often think of him as among the league's top tenders.

Among his peer group, however, Elliott's stats are even more impressive. Or at least his winning percentage, which ranks him eighth best among goaltenders under 25 years of age, ahead of such big names as Henrik Lundqvist, Cam Ward, Cary Price, and Tuukka Rask. His SP is 17 in that group, and his GAA is 15; being eighth in winning percentage is not representative of those numbers.

And to make an even greater case, consider the fact that Elliott hasn't benefited from backing up an elite team, such as the case with Sergei Bobrovsky, Semyon Varlamov, and Michal Neuvirth. While Elliott's won far more games than he's lost in his career (his all-time record is 56-34-17), the Senators' winning percentage since his rookie season is barely 49 per cent. So it's obvious that the Senators win more games with Elliott in net than another goaltender.

So, really, there's little question that Elliott's been a capable goaltender in Ottawa. But is there some way to explain the seemingly counter-intuitive presence of a significantly higher winning percentage than one would expect based on Elliott's GAA and SP numbers?

Goldman's explanation of the fact that the bad games will skew his averages upwards, but the same can be true of the opposite angle: Elliott's got nine career shutouts, and those would lower his average, too.

Or maybe the problem isn't even with a skewed SP or GAA; maybe it's the WIN% that's skewed, especially by the nine-game winning streak Elliott put up last season while the Senators were scaldingly hot, and even a five-game streak this season.

A third possibility, though, could be that Elliott plays well when needed, and not as well when not needed. If it's a tight game, Elliott makes the saves he needs to to get the two points. When the team isn't playing well, Elliott doesn't either, and his numbers suffer as a result.

It's tough to say which the reason is. As Elliott's professional career continues, we'll see more from him: In all likelihood, his GAA or SP will improve, or his winning percentage will decline. But maybe, if Elliott really is the clutch goaltender his stats indicate currently, they'll continue to be oddly uneven, and he'll continue to help his teams win games when they need him most.

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