NCAA Hockey 101: Parker Gahagen, the best darn goalie around

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College hockey is normally loath to give players Atlantic Hockey and the WCHA too much credit for producing big numbers.

It’s understandable. Guys who would be perfectly good players in, say, Hockey East or the NCHC can go to an Atlantic Hockey or WCHA club and dominate the lesser talent they face on a regular basis. It seems like every year there’s the one token player from that conference, some junior from Canisius or something who put up 58 points, but that’s as far as one ever gets in terms of national recognition.

Again, rightfully so. Zac Lynch was a great player for Robert Morris, for instance, but his 55 points in 39 games were not seen as being anywhere near as legitimate as, say, Drake Caggiula’s 51 in 39 for a North Dakota team is a significantly better conference.

But with all that in mind, it is perhaps time to start talking about how damn good Army goaltender Parker Gahagen is and has been.

Gahagen led the nation in save percentage last season at .937. That was ahead of well-regarded players like Alex Lyon (who signed with the Flyers), Nick Ellis (who signed with the Oilers), and Thatcher Demko (a Canucks second-rounder who won the Mike Richter last season). The year before that he was .913, above the national average.

And so far this year, he’s sitting at .949 in 10 games.

That, too, leads the country.

On Friday night, he pitched his third shutout of the season (also in a tie for the national lead) and ultimately stopped 46 of 48 on the weekend (.958).

Now, again, it’s easy to say he hasn’t played anyone. Colgate, Sacred Heart, UMass, Robert Morris, Air Force and most recently Canisius are not difficult opponents. He also played a mostly bad schedule last season (he opened against BC but gave up 5 on 40, and otherwise that’s it for quality opponents). But we’re talking about a goaltender who over the course of 40-plus games is sitting on a .939 save percentage, and that’s really incredible, right?

Moreover, of the 83 goals he’s given up in those last 44 games, fully 35 have been in special teams play, which tend to be less “on” the goalie than those at 5-on-5. So we’re talking about an incredibly high-level player plying his trade somewhat thanklessly for an underwhelming Army team.

Indeed, Army has been one of the better teams in Atlantic Hockey this season and was only a game below .500 last year despite having just one player clear 30 points last year. This year, too, they don’t have anyone particularly close to producing a point a game (leading scorer Dominic Franco has 2-5-7 in nine appearances). Not that you’d ever expect Army to be an offensive power, but there are plenty of Atlantic Hockey teams that have the ability to score plenty of goals thanks to, say, one dominant line or even a single great player.

Gahagen is a difference-maker on the back end, then, and right now seems to have the Black Knights well-positioned for a winning season for the first time in almost a decade. In 2007-08 they made their only national tournament appearance in team history with 19 wins. They’re up to six already this year and that’s down to their goaltender.

This is a guy who faces tons of shots every night: Army has a 44.5 percent share of shot attempts in its games so far this year, down from 48.1 percent last season. He’s faced one of the highest shots-per-game total in the nation over the past two seasons and that seems unlikely to slow down.

It just seems like Gahagen is really good. This has, of course, often been a hallmark of the service academies’ hockey teams in general: Army and Air Force have good goaltending more often than not in part because of score effects; when opponents lead by large margins, they tend to throttle back high-end offensive opportunities whether consciously or not. In general, the Army and Air Force teams were, despite score effects, still giving up 40-plus shots a night, which helps to inflate goalies’ save percentages.

Even when Army had back-to-back seasons north of .500 a decade ago, they weren’t necessarily getting great goaltending; those teams seem to have been legitimately good, procedurally speaking. The one that went to the tournament actually had a shots-on-goal advantage of plus-270 or so for the full season. They also got above-average goaltending in 2007-08, but it wasn’t anywhere close to this good. The year before that it was about the national average.

One wonders how long this lasts. Gahagen had good numbers in the OJHL before coming to Army and for his career he’s sitting at .925. Even if you think he can’t stay this far above .940 for the whole season — so few goalies do that you’d be wise to make such an assumption — a “collapse” to his career norms still leaves him well above-average not only nationally but certainly in his conference. Last year Gahagen already set the Army single-season save percentage record. He’s well-positioned to at least threaten it again, if not obliterate that number if he can keep this up.

And if he’s at .930 or so, near the top of the national save percentage leaders, again come March, he damn well better be getting serious and legitimate consideration for both the Mike Richter and Hobey Baker awards. That doesn’t mean Atlantic Hockey/WCHA tokenism that’s congratulations for a good season in a conference no one ultimately believes is any good. That means honest-to-goodness “Oh this guy might have been the best goalie in the country for the past two seasons.” Gahagen will have not only dominated, but also played basically the full season two seasons straight.

One year of lights-out goaltending can certainly be a fluke. Look at Cam Johnson last season versus this season, or Ryan Massa and Kevin Boyle versus the entire rest of their careers. Two is probably closer to, “This is exactly how good this guy is.”

And all the evidence we have at this point suggests Gahagen is really damn good.

A somewhat arbitrary ranking of teams which are pretty good in my opinion only (and just for right now but maybe for a little longer too?)

  • Denver (swept at North Dakota)

  • Boston College (beat UNH and Arizona State)

  • Minnesota-Duluth (split with Western Michigan)

  • Notre Dame (took three points at Northeastern)

  • Boston University (split at Michigan)

  • UMass Lowell (split a home-and-home with Maine)

  • Quinnipiac (beat Dartmouth and Harvard)

  • Penn State (swept Alaska-Anchorage)

  • Minnesota (idle)

  • Harvard (won at Princeton, lost at Quinnipiac)

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and also covers the NCAA for College Hockey News. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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