Keep Proving Me Wrong, Matt
[not pictured: me applying clown makeup]
I was wrong. As a writer for this site, I get things wrong often. Some things I write age more poorly than others. My Matt Murray takes this season have aged like milk. Matt, I owe you an apology for that. Not that I alone got it wrong when looking ahead at this season, the coaching staff and management in Ottawa doubted Murray enough to waive him in November. So what happened?
In addition to my admission of bad-take-having, I want to provide a disclaimer that I know nothing of the mechanics of goaltending. I won’t try to sell you snake oil like so many other internet goalie coaches. As far as I can tell, NHL netminders operate on pixie dust and mothers’ love. I can find no rhyme or reason to their successes and failures. I hope someone with legitimate knowledge of the art of goaltending writes an article breaking down Murray’s turnaround in a way that I can’t even fathom.
So I offer this article as a consolation for my poor prognostication and my lack of technical knowledge. I have some numbers in a spreadsheet. I wanted to know if they could tell me anything about Matt Murray’s career as a Senator to date. They have something to say. They didn’t tell me what I expected them to. I hope you find the results as pleasantly surprising (and utterly perplexing) as I do.
Before I forget, I want to add a couple more disclaimers: we have some small sample sizes here so don’t expect any scientific conclusions from anything I write, and these numbers do not include last night’s game against St. Louis. As always, stats come courtesy of naturalstattrick.com. So let’s get into it, starting with Matt Murray’s numbers at five-on-five before and after the Senators demoted him in Belleville (before indicated as “2021” as in “Fall of 2021” and after indicated as “2022”):
|Murray||5v5 SV%||5v5 GSAA/60||5v5 HDSV%||5v5 HDGSAA/60||5v5 MDSV%||5v5 MDGSAA/60||5v5 LDSV%||5v5 LDGSAA/60||5v5 Rush A/60||5v5 Rebound A/60||5v5 Avg Shot Dist|
|2021 (6 GP)||91.7||-0.11||79.2||-0.21||91.1||-0.06||96.4||-0.10||4.19||3.75||39.83|
|2022 (10 GP)||94.1||0.84||87.1||0.39||91.7||0.06||100.0||0.40||0.96||2.75||33.67|
The first eight columns confirm what our eyes already assumed, Matt Murray has played much better hockey since his demotion and subsequent recall. No surprises there. The last three columns indicate that while the Senators’ defence have allowed fewer rush attempts and rebounds in front of Murray at five-on-five, opposing shooters have managed to get shots off from closer range, on average. We’ll dig deeper into Ottawa’s defence but let’s look at Murray’s penalty kill numbers this season first:
|Murray||PK SV%||PK GSAA/60||PK HDSV%||PK HDGSAA/60||PK MDSV%||PK MDGSAA/60||PK LDSV%||PK LDGSAA/60||PK Rush A/60||PK Rebound A/60||PK Avg Shot Dist|
|2021 (6 GP)||81.3||-4.22||60.0||-4.11||100.0||3.81||80.0||-3.17||0.00||9.60||30.28|
|2022 (10 GP)||94.6||5.79||100.0||3.95||87.5||0.79||100.0||1.31||0.00||13.68||27.84|
Here, the first eight columns mostly indicate that Murray has played better in the second sample, with the exception in mid-difficulty shots on the penalty kill. The aggregate save percentage still jumps by over 13 points. The last three (really just two) columns indicate that the Sens’ D has given up more rebounds on the PK and that shooters are getting in closer. This brings me to the crux of the whole thing, how do we explain Murray’s resurgence given Ottawa’s defensive struggles?
To provide some evidence to my claims of Ottawa’s defensive woes since the calendar flipped to 2022, I ran the numbers (again “2021” refers to the Fall of 2021 and “2022” refers to the last month and a half):
Senators This Season
|Senators||5v5 CA/60||5v5 xGA/60||5v5 HDCA/60||5v5 MDCA/60||5v5 LDCA/60||PK ATOI||PK CA/60||PK xGA/60||PK HDCA/60||PK MDCA/60||PK LDCA/60|
At five-on-five, the Sens have given up on average two fewer shot attempts against per 60 at five-on-five but in terms of quality against, things haven’t changed. On the penalty kill, Ottawa has spent a little less time short-handed per game, but the penalty kill has gotten worse in terms of how much it gives up and the quality of the chances against. Again, Murray’s PK save percentage has jumped over 13 points, but the defence in front of him has gotten worse. It bears asking questions even if the small sample sizes mean we can’t draw definitive conclusions.
So with the small sample sizes in mind, I felt the need to revisit those first six games for Murray this season and I have to conclude that not only did we overreact as fans, but the team probably acted hastily waiving their (financially-speaking at least) number-one goalie. Everything looks different in real time and hindsight. What felt like some awful play from Murray last fall looks like a blip on the radar now. Of those six games, three absolutely stunk for Murray. We can’t get around that. And while we shouldn’t use injury and illness as excuses, two of those poor starts occurred after Murray came off the injured reserve, and the third after Murray cleared COVID protocol. You can insert those first six games (including the three clunkers) into Murray’s season totals and the numbers still look great–especially compared to last year:
Murray by Season
|Murray||55 SV%||PK SV%|
|2020-21 (27 GP)||90.16||86.44|
|2021-22 (16 GP)||93.33||89.77|
Look at that, we get over three points of improvement in save percentage at five-on-five and on the penalty kill for Murray this season over last even with those three poor starts in the fall (and the stinker on new year’s day against Toronto). Surely this we can attribute to better defensive play from the Senators, right? Right?
Senators by Season
|Senators||5v5 CA/60||5v5 xGA/60||5v5 HDCA/60||5v5 MDCA/60||5v5 LDCA/60||PK CA/60||PK xGA/60||PK HDCA/60||PK MDCA/60||PK LDCA/60||PK TOI|
Well, the Sens spend about a minute less per game short-handed this season and other than that pretty everything looks much worse. I find this alarming as a fan but it reaffirms the notion that Murray has improved his game despite the defence of his teammates and not because of Ottawa’s D. By this point I think I’ve made the point that I never really intended to when I first started. Murray has played like a completely different goaltender this season and I don’t consider it a by-product of the team playing defence in front of him.
And while I still don’t have any technical insight to offer as far as Murray’s improvements go, I did try to see if shot locations could offer anything. Looking at goals against before and after his demotion/recall:
Goals by Location
|2021 (6 GP)||6||5||6||2|
|2022 (10 GP)||10||7||5||0|
Looking at just 41 data points doesn’t amount to much and my methodology leaves a lot to interpretation (my definition of netfront may end after your definition of slot begins) and we’d probably get a much better idea looking at two years worth of saves as opposed to half of a season worth of goals. With that said, the numbers confirm that Ottawa has consistently given up high danger chances and that has led to most of Murray’s goals against. The per-game averages on netfront and slot goals against have maintained. Because Ottawa has given up less from lower-danger areas and/or because of improvements to Murray’s game, goals against from those areas have declined in the new year.
In a season when just about every core player has missed time due to illness or injury and all of our predictions have fallen by the wayside, one of the players I had the least faith in has definitely put me in my place. While I see some trace evidence of how the team in front of him could have influenced his improvement, I feel compelled to give Murray all the credit for this remarkable stretch of strong performances. On more nights than not, he has played behind the same old struggling Senators and all of a sudden he has found a way to bail them out. It’s Murray’s world for now and we’re just living in it.