The Blackhawks’ goaltending is eighth best in the NHL so far this season, with a .915 save percentage across all strengths.
Kevin Lankinen has done a lot of the heavy lifting with a .925 save percentage in 11 games, saving 2.01 goals above expected. Malcolm Subban has pitched in well with a .917 save percentage. Both are top 25 goaltenders in save percentage.
That’s despite the Blackhawks’ defense giving up the seventh most expected goals against per 60 (2.37) and ninth most high-danger chances against per 60 (11.09) at 5-on-5. On the penalty kill, the Blackhawks have given up the 13th most shots on net per 60 at 54.19. Yet the Blackhawks’ penalty kill is No. 11 in the league at 81.1 percent.
Most of what’s making the Blackhawks good is that goaltending provided by Lankinen and Subban.
Neither were expected to be this good coming into the season, however. Lankinen had just a .909 save percentage in the AHL last season and Subban, before this season, had a career .899 save percentage in 66 NHL games.
So — besides the inherent talent of the goaltenders being displayed this season — what’s changed?
An underrated factor may be the Blackhawks’ long-time goaltending coach, Jimmy Waite. A veteran of 11 NHL seasons — including 8 in Chicago with a 14-23-7 record, 3.64 goals-against average and .860 save percentage — Waite has been on staff with the Blackhawks since 2014-15. He replaced his brother, Stephane, who went from the Blackhawks to the Canadiens). Since Jimmy Waite took over, the Blackhawks goaltenders have the fourth-best save percentage in the NHL at .913.
Now, a lot of that is due to Hall of Very Good (if not Hall of Fame) goaltender Corey Crawford, who had a .920 save percentage in 277 games during that span. Still, that .920 marks an improvement over the .914 mark Crawford had as the Blackhawks’ starter before Waite became the goaltending coach.
It’s worth noting that Waite has helped produce multiple goaltenders throughout the NHL. Since the ‘14-15 season, the Blackhawks have had 13 goaltenders play at least one game. Four have gone on to play more NHL games elsewhere: Scott Darling, Antti Raanta, Anton Forsberg and Robin Lehner.
Of the eight goaltenders who have played multiple NHL games under both Jimmy Waite and another goaltending coach, five have had their best season under Waite’s guidance (the other three are Cam Ward, Jean-Francois Berube and Robin Lehner).
That even includes Crawford, whose best statistical season was ‘17-18. He had a .929 save percentage, two shutouts and saved 13.11 goals above expected that season in 28 games. He also had his best argument for the Vezina Trophy in ‘15-16 when he finished with a league-leading seven shutouts, .924 save percentage and 13.85 goals saved above expected.
Waite has achieved this with his netminders despite never having a top 10 defense. The best the Blackhawks have finished was 18th in ‘14-15 with 2.2 expected goals against per 60 at 5-on-5.
This season has been the best the Blackhawks have been since ‘16-17 and again, they’re allowing 2.37 expected goals per 60, which is 25th in the league. They’ve been dead last the last two full seasons they’ve played and the Blackhawks goaltending finished 18th and 8th, respectively, at 5-on-5 team save percentage. They’re 12th this season.
So maybe Chicago’s goaltending situation was never as bad as it was made out to be in the offseason. Part of that might be the goaltenders the Blackhawks have to work with, and some of that could be Waite.
Very few goaltending coaches earn name-brand recognition in the NHL, despite it perhaps being the most important position coach. Mitch Korn with the Islanders and Ian Clark with the Blue Jackets may be the two most recognizable names currently and Francois Allaire was one of the best.
But maybe Waite has earned that recognition. After all, if turning a .909 AHL save percentage (Lankinen) and a .899 NHL save percentage (Subban) into a .925 and .917 so far this season isn’t a sign of great coaching then maybe nothing is.