Friday, October 12, 2007

Breaking Down the 07-08 Wolverines: Billy Sauer

The next-to-last stop on this tour through the 2007-08 Wolverines is the starting goalie, junior Billy Sauer.

Last Season: The 06-07 season was an adventure in net. The closest analogy that I can find to describe Billy Sauer's play would be to look at Chicago Bears quarterback Rex Grossman. People starting referring to his outings (and at times, even his individual passes) as "Good Rex showing up" or "Bad Rex showing up".

We had a similar situation in Ann Arbor. Sometimes it was Good Billy, and sometimes it was Bad Billy. You just never knew, and when Bad Billy was in town, the results weren't pretty.

There were times when he was really, really good. He had 35 saves in the CCHA Championship Game against Notre Dame, but it's only the weak goal he let in for the game-winner that gets remembered.

Other times, however, it was simply stunning how a Division I goalie could be so bad. Over a pair of games in early December, he gave up 10 goals on just 33 shots, which paved the way for the one start Steve Jakiel made in a Michigan uniform. 5 goals in the first 21 minutes of the game against North Dakota couldn't hold up for the game, let alone the first 25 minutes, and by the halfway point in the game, we were facing an unbelievable 7-5 deficit.

If you look at the game-by-game breakdown, the streaks were amazing: Early in the year, he gave up 5, 3, 4, 3, 3, 6 over a six game span. He then followed that up by going 2, 4, 1, 2, 1, 1. Then it was right back to being Bad Billy with a streak of 3, 8, 5, 5, 4, 1, 4 before a seven game stretch where he gave up more than two goals on just one occasion. But then he gave up 2 or less just three times over the next ten games.

Down the stretch, he was actually quite good. His mother sat next to me during a game late in the season and I commented that he was playing well, and I wasn't lying. Apart from a six goal bobble at OSU, he played fairly good goal: 1, 3, 3, 3, 1, 3, 6, 1, 3, 2, 2, in the lead-up to the North Dakota debacle.

But for the season, the numbers weren't pretty. Sauer had a 3.03 goals against average with an .896 save percentage. That's simply not good enough. Some of that is on the defense, no doubt. But there were far too many occasions where weak goals, untimely goals, or simply too many goals doomed us. 13 out of the 40 times he played, the opposition scored 4 goals or more. Not even the best offense in the country is going to be able to overcome numbers like that.

One of the most telling stats is that the Wolverines were just 4-11-1 when scoring 3 goals or less, and they were still under .500 when scoring exactly three times. We didn't have the ability to win the low-scoring games, which put a ton of pressure on the offense. You can't expect a team to score four goals a night in order to win.

For all the cracks that I make--and I'm trying to be better about that this year--I really don't think he's the worst goalie in history. He's big, he's athletic, he's good about finding the puck in traffic. The big weaknesses in his game are that he's very vulnerable high on the glove side, and that he doesn't really show the ability to bounce back from a bad goal or a bad game (as the streaks indicate).

Expectations: My expectation was that at this point he'd either be backing up Bryan Hogan or splitting time. But with Hogan's illness that isn't to be, and thus Sauer will get one more chance to prove himself worthy of being the starting goalie for the Michigan Wolverines.

I'm scared. He's never proven to be mentally tough, and I'm worried about how he's going to respond to giving up a slew of goals to North Dakota last year, and having his coach not give him a vote of confidence in the offseason. Playing Boston College and potentially Minnesota right out of the gate, before going on the road for six of the first eight conference games, and a home series against Boston University isn't exactly easing back into it. If he's not on his game--if he can't bounce back--this season is going to get ugly before Bryan Hogan is even back to full health.

It's so hard to know what to expect. Players improve. Sauer strung together some very solid performances last year. And--this is possibly the most important thing--he's still only 19 years old. Coming in as a freshman, he hadn't played very much hockey. He split time in the USHL for one year and was only 3 years removed from playing JV hockey when he became the starting goalie for Michigan.

And all it would take is a little consistency. I've commented to several people that I'd be happy to take Josh Blackburn numbers because you knew what you were getting. He was right around the .905 mark every season. Never especially great, but never horrible either. I can count on one hand the number of times I uttered "Dammit, Blackburn" in the two years I watched him play. I'd much rather have a guy like that than someone who is up and down from week to week. One extra save every four games is all that it would have taken for Sauer to be at a .905, but it's the consistency that really matters. And if he can achieve that, then this team will be in the mix for the CCHA.

As bad as he's been at times, he's not that far off from being the goalie that we need.

Level of Necessity: 10 out of 10.

I have to list him as a 10 as well. As I said in Hogan's profile, we need a goalie. And to be perfectly honest, I'd be happier than a pig in shit if the Billy Sauer that skates out of that tunnel tonight is the Billy Sauer that played out of his mind against BC two years ago in his first collegiate start.

As much as I've hyped up Hogan, I would be perfectly fine if he got healthy and never played a game, because it would mean that Sauer has finally become that kid who was at one time the #4 rated North American goalie and had an outside chance at being a first round selection. The talent is there.

This is his last chance. If Hogan is at all a good goalie, Sauer would be wise to not start this year on a bad note. He was given a reprieve with Hogan's illness and he needs to make the most of this chance.

The tean is going to be hard-pressed to match last year's goal totals (though I don't think they'll be super far off it). But the safety net is going away. We aren't going to give him 25 occurrences of scoring 4+ goals, so we damn well better be above .500 when we put 3 up or it's going to be trouble.

At least in theory, the team defense should be better this season, as it appears they're making a concerted effort to improve that area of the game. We need the goalie to be better. It doesn't matter who is it, but we need the goalie to be better. If he's not, then the consecutive years in the tournament streak could be in serious jeopardy.

Other Stuff: Red Berenson talked with CSTV on Tuesday and answered fan questions. There's nothing earth-shattering in the interview, but he does express optimism that Sauer will put it all together this season. It was a much more positive answer than he's typically given when asked about our goaltending.

Tomorrow morning, we look at Max Pacioretty, I make some final thoughts, and then the puck drops officially on the 2007-08 season.

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