On August 15th, 2017 the CWHL saw a major shift in the balance of power. This change in balance was due to the Haley Irwin trade being completed with stand-out rookie goalie Emerance Maschmeyer going to Montreal Les Canadiennes. Maschmeyer will be taking the spot of the recently retired Charline Labonte. It won’t be easy though as Labonte’s legacy in the CWHL is one that puts her as a Top 2 Goalie in CWHL history and extends beyond the CWHL into international play as well. So the question that was obviously asked at the time of the trade was how does this affect the CWHL as a whole? The general feeling is that while Maschmeyer is a talented goalie the Inferno will still have Genevieve Lacasse (assumes she’ll be back for the 2018/19 season) and Delayne Brian (who is more than capable of holding down the fort in an Olympic year) who showed last year that they are very capable goalies themselves. So while losing Maschmeyer isn’t ideal her leaving won’t hurt the team because not only does the Inferno have two starting goalies plus a potential one in Lindsey Post, they also have a great team up front.
Is that true or did trading Maschmeyer to Montreal tilt the league heavily in the favour of Montreal? Looking back at last season it’s looking like the latter. Adding Maschmeyer to Montreal isn’t only the addition of the best goalie in the CWHL last season, it’s also taking away a major piece that kept Montreal from being the undisputed top team in the CWHL. In other words the gap has potentially widened to the point where we’ll see Montreal repeat their 2015/16 season of dominance when they put up 42 points, 21 wins and second best was the Inferno with 34 points. It’s unfair to make this point though without proof apart from my opinion.
So first we’ll look at the differences between the 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons for Montreal. They ran the league in 2015/16 when the Boston Blades saw an exodus from their Olympic players therefore leaving Montreal with minimal competition during the regular season (and 2/3 playoff games). This season Montreal saw themselves facing the type of competition they had to deal with when the Boston Blades were at their full strength when the Calgary Inferno kept their momentum from their 2016 Clarkson Cup win taking first place in the 2016/17 CWHL regular season. What gave the Inferno a boost was full season’s from Rebecca Johnston, Meaghan Mikkelson, and Haley Irwin who in 2015/16 combined for 7 points in 15 games (0.467 PPG) while in 2016/17 combined for 47 points in 61 games (0.771 PPG).
This brought Calgary on even ground with Montreal and their high scoring abilities. The factor that pushed Calgary past Montreal in the standings was Emerance Maschmeyer. In 2015/16 goaltending vs Montreal was obviously below average at best while being a complete non-factor at worst. The average SV% vs Montreal in 2015/16 was 0.886 while opposing goalies only made 8 Quality Starts in 24 games for a 0.333 QS%. The top goalie vs Montreal was Erica Howe who posted a 0.921 SV% in 2015/16 along with a 0.500 QS%. Howe was the only goalie in 2015/16 to post a SV% vs Montreal above the CWHL average SV% as well as the only goalie to post a shutout.
In the 2016/17 season the Montreal Les Canadiennes shooters and the CWHL shooters finally met their match in Emerance Maschmeyer. Against Montreal Maschmeyer posted a 0.952 SV%, 0.667 QS%, and the first shutout against Montreal since December 12, 2015. Erica Howe remained remarkably consistent against Montreal as well posting a 0.923 SV% and a 0.667 QS%. One other goalie stepped up against Montreal and it was Christina Kessler who went from a 0.889 SV%/0.250 QS% in 2015/16 to a 0.922 SV%/0.833 QS% in 2016/17. For Kessler and the Toronto Furies this saw them take two wins vs Montreal when they couldn’t win a single one in 2015/16 playing a part in helping Calgary overtake Montreal.
The three goalies above were the only goalies in 2016/17 to post a SV% above the CWHL league average against Montreal. Now Maschmeyer is with Montreal and Kessler has retired leaving Howe as the only goalie who has proven success versus Montreal. Looking at the 2017/18 season we are going to see the addition of Noora Raty (aka Top 2 goalie in all of women’s hockey) so we can predict with some certainty that we’ll see two goalies be above average versus Montreal but it’s still a decrease from the three the previous season.
While that doesn’t seem like a big deal going from three to two it’s important to remember the teams that these goalies come from. Howe and Kessler come from the two GTA teams who recently haven’t pushed Montreal for the top spot in the CWHL so while losing them would hurt Markham/Toronto the large gap between the two teams will be there whether or not Howe/Kessler provides above average goaltending vs Montreal. The gap that matters is between Montreal/Calgary for now and in the near future. Up front these two teams are relatively. In net the edge went to Calgary because of Maschmeyer. Neither Brian in 2015/16 nor Lacasse in 2016/17 on the same team got even close to the impact Maschmeyer had against Montreal. So looking forward we’re potentially looking at a large gap in goaltending between the two teams which will be the deciding factor in which team is more dominant.
The counter-point of course is that Maschmeyer played on a team that made playing goalie easy. This is partially true as its obvious Calgary is stacked but Maschmeyer benefitted as much from the players in front of her as the players in front of her benefitted from her goaltending. And I’m not just talking about using the eye test to make that assumption; I’m talking about using analytics. That’s right for the first time in…well probably forever I’ll be using analytics from the CWHL to make an argument. While it’s fair to argue that the sample size is small (12 games from 2016/17 season tracked due to lack of video made available) it’s enough to paint a picture of not only the goalies of the CWHL but the teams themselves.
With the analytics available we can see that Calgary liked to play a little loose defensively knowing that the goalie behind them will most likely make a stop. It’s a valid assumption but it only works because the world class goalies behind the Calgary defense. You’re putting your goalies in a tough position when you allow opposing teams to move the puck immediately following a shot. Passes, rebounds, and tips are difficult to stop because they involve pre-shot puck movement. Clear shots are by far the easiest type of shots to stop because you are in position and that shows in the respective SV% for each type of shot.
This problem is amplified when Calgary plays Montreal. In two regular season games versus Montreal Maschmeyer only saw clear shots at a rate of 53.6% and 55% when at the other end of the rink Labonte saw clear shots at a rate of 63.6% and 78.6%. This was a trend for the Montreal defense which allowed Labonte to see 71.5% of shots she faced which is significantly higher than what the Calgary defense did for Maschmeyer who only saw 57.1% of shots. This helps to explain the difference in the two goalies and their respective impacts as seeing more pre-shot puck movement limits your ability to direct pucks into non-dangerous areas.
Now I don’t mean this article to be declaring the impending doom of all CWHL teams. Calgary still has a very impressive offense because of their skill. They get in close and pick spots in the net with quick shots while also having the option to pass. Against Montreal though their offense was turned one dimensional as Montreal couldn’t stop their skilled players from getting in close they stopped Calgary from getting off any successful passing plays. This fed into Labonte’s strength of being able to read the play and thereby always being in position. Maschmeyer has the added bonus of being quicker than Labonte that severely limits how effective passing will be. This is something to look for when we move into the 2017/18 CWHL season as Montreal has the coaching and goaltending to take advantage of the lack of Olympic players in the league in a significant way. Beyond this season will be even more important when teams reach their full strength.
Before we end this article I want to cover one more topic, Christina Kessler retiring. Fans are rightfully allowed to hurt losing Kessler because of the excitement she provided this past season and especially considering the scare she put into the Calgary Inferno in the playoffs. It’s hard to replace the person that Christina Kessler is but Toronto fans I’m here to tell you that the Furies crease will be more than fine in the hands of Sonja van der Bliek.
Before this season Kessler has been pretty average throughout her CWHL career. In fact before this season Kessler had quite the below average year where she was outplayed by van der Bliek. So we’re not talking about the need to replace a Labonte level goalie that has a long history of success like Montreal is doing. Toronto is replacing a goalie that had a career year while being an average starter up to this point. The skates that van der Bliek are still big but the Furies aren’t throwing a Hail Mary by having van der Bliek as the starter.
If we look at the history of van der Bliek she’s never been far from matching Kessler in on-ice results. If we look at this season when Kessler took her big jump we also see that van der Bliek took a rather big jump herself. Both goalies benefitted from the addition of Erin Ambrose/Renata Fast and van der Bliek wasn’t sheltered in her starts either getting two games versus Calgary as well as two games against Brampton. So while it’s been a since van der Bliek dealt with a starter level workload this is the perfect season to get her into the starting position because of the lack of Olympic players that would make the transition difficult.
Let’s take a look at more angle of van der Bliek replacing Kessler and that’s their analytical on-ice results. Both goalies provide a similar impact while playing behind a defense that forces an above average rate of clear shots on net. Kessler’s impact is slightly better however she does see more clear shots than van der Bliek does so it’s natural that Kessler would have the edge. Plus I will say that Kessler is the better goalie but my position has always been that the gap is small and that’s what we’re seeing here both analytically and statistically. If you want to talk about eye test I have scouting reports available via request on my website at this link http://creasegiants.wixsite.com/index/scouting-reports so you can see how close I view the two goalies.