Goaltending is probably the toughest position to evaluate in all of hockey. A poor performance by the numbers may betray a goalie hung out to dry by his teammates. A flashy performance in net – acrobatic glove saves and desperate cross-crease slides – may mask poor fundamentals. Today’s touted first-rounder may be tomorrow’s franchise goalie, or tomorrow’s unremarkable journeyman. A playoff hero may be a legend in the making or a flash in the pan. Well-compensated â€˜keepers can be subsequently relegated to the backup role, often without warning. The only consistent thing about goaltending, it seems, is that it’s inconsistent.Some, like Gabriel Desjardins at Behind the Net and Philip Myrland at The Contrarian Goaltender, have tried to attack the problem statistically. They, and others like them, have figured out a few interesting things, like how shot volume affects save percentage, how playing with or without the lead affects where the balance of play occurs, how play in different situations creates dramatically different expectations for save percentage1, and how bloody terrible the NHL’s scorers actually are – seriously, read this article about the MSG shot-distance estimates, that guy is out to lunch. On the other hand, some of the stuff these guys write can get pretty heady, especially the notion that luck can be a big factor in short-term results: not every fan is going to have the time or interest required to understand and apply this stuff to their own armchair-GM assessments. Furthermore, even the most repeatable statistic, even-strength save percentage, seems like it would be rife with complications due to variations in defensive play, as well as other, less tangible factors – confidence, personal issues, disputes between teammates, whatever – leaving plenty of room for variation and debate. I’m not yet convinced that there’s a single, reliable way to evaluate goalies, especially given the inconsistencies noted above.
So where am I going with all of this? Well, while different NHL teams use these sort of advanced stats to inform their decision-making process to differing degrees – some use them quite a bit, while others don’t use them at all – when it comes to the media and fans, it seems like the most important statistic is the simplest, the win. It’s the first number you hear in a stat line most of the time, and many times, it’s played as a trump card to end all debate. “At the end of the night, this guy wins hockey games, and that’s all that really matters,” the radio host smugly concludes before hanging up and taking the next caller. The problem with that line of thinking is that it ignores over half the game, and does a grave disservice to the other 18 guys on the ice.
To borrow a line from long-time checker and coach Craig MacTavish, hockey is a game of what you create minus what you give up. While the goaltender may be the final arbiter of “what you give up,” in the most critical sense, he’s far from the only contributor: the defencemen and forwards obviously have to cover their men and break up opportunities, and the best of each at that job are given major awards at the end of the year, highlighting their importance. More to the point, the goaltender has very little influence on “what you create”: save for the odd clearing pass that’s taken all the way, you’re talking about half of the game the goalie has nothing to do with, yet the win or loss is credited or blamed on them alone on the stat sheet. How is it fair that the goalie gets slapped with the loss when their team fails to score? Or that the goalie gets credit for the win even when they were terrible and their teammates bailed them out in a 6-5 game?2
Here are a couple of recent examples to illustrate my point:
1) Miikka Kiprusoff: In 2008-09, Kiprusoff led the NHL with 45 wins, leading certain local radio hosts to tout him as not only the team MVP, but also a Vezina candidate, and possibly Mayor of Calgary. It was crazy. Problem was, every Flames game that I had seen (excepting those against my Oilers, funny enough), Kiprusoff looked like a shadow of his former self, biffing saves he would’ve readily made in his Vezina year of 2006. I couldn’t accept that he was the best Flame on the ice, especially with the years Cammalleri and Iginla had had. So I went to the stats to see what was going on and there it was: his GAA (2.84) and SV% (.903) were both good for 32nd in the League, putting him behind not only most starters but several backups as well. Then, I checked the team stats and saw that he was being bailed out by his teammates, to the tune of 251 goals, 8th-best total in the NHL and 4th-best in the West. In a
hilarious cruel twist of fate, he posted top-ten marks in both goals-against (2.31, 7th) and save percentage (.920, T-9th) this year, but won just 35 games and missed the playoffs because this time, his â€˜mates failed him, putting up the second-worst offensive totals in the League at just 201 goals. Ouch.
2) Carey Price: According to the storyline for this past season, Carey Price floundered under the pressure of Montreal’s media and fanbase, and the allure of the city’s famous nightlife, while Halak remained focused, won the starting job halfway through the year, and carried the team to the conference finals. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really tell the whole story: Chris Boyle of Eyes on the Prize, an excellent Canadiens blog, did statistical breakdowns of the two goalies, and in November and December, augmented them with a look at the goal support they received. To summarize all of that, it appears that Price got weaker goal support (to the point where he’d have needed to play like vintage Hasek just to salvage .500), put up better individual numbers in those low-scoring games (and, strangely enough, worse numbers in higher-scoring affairs), but lost a lot of games, anyway, because no one bloody scored for him. In the end, their individual stats were almost identical through the first half, with Price giving up a few more bad goals by Boyle’s eye during December, yet Price had the far worse record (10-13-3 vs. 11-6-0), a difference that appeared well before any drop-off in play, and became the goat in Montreal for his efforts. While he could be criticized for some lapses in December, despite having overall strong individual numbers, the W-L record clearly didn’t tell the whole story here.
So given that the win stat is only partially based on what the goalie actually does in-game, why do we still use it? I think in the end, it’s just the culture of sport: winning is everything. While the way a person plays should trump whether they happened to win or lose that night, results are, for better or for worse, how all sports and athletes are judged. To take another example, let’s look at current UFA Ilya Kovalchuk3. It’s been said on this very show that he’s “never won anything,” or something to that effect, which to my mind, is completely irrelevant and only partially true anyway. For one, he has three international gold medals to his name from Team Russia; for another, he played for the Atlanta Thrashers for most of his career. No one has won with that club. Speaking of ex-Thrashers, was Marian Hossa a “loser” before last month? If so, why did Chicago sign him? If winners beget winning, and winning experience is such a key, how did Pittsburgh defeat Detroit last year? The fact of the matter is, it’s not winners or winning that produce the best teams or the best hockey players. Talent, combined with hard work and a keen understanding of the game, are they keys to being a good hockey player, and good hockey players who function well together within their defined roles in the group make good hockey teams. It’s true in any era, and it’s not something that can be captured with a simple win tally.
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Before I go, I’d like to point to this article by “E” at Theory of Ice (mild language warning), which is tangentially related to the topic at hand. She doesn’t write terribly often anymore, which is a crying shame, because she’s much more eloquent and thoughtful than I am. Anyway, that article sums up my own feelings on the way we analyze and discuss hockey pretty nicely. Suffice to say, when you read a post-game summary and wonder if you even watched the same game as the reporter in question, it’s usually a bad sign.
1 The answers, in order: more shots tend to produce higher save percentages, because there’s usually a higher volume of crappy shots; the team with the lead usually winds up defending more, especially as the game goes on; save percentage tends to go down on the PK, and up on the PP.
2 All of this leaves aside the slightly-weighted coin-flip that is the shootout, which has made a mockery of the record book in recent years, especially with the already-dubious win stat. Ilya Bryzgalov and Jonathan Quick both set franchise records for wins in 2009-10, and while Bryz may ultimately prove to be the best goalie in Coyotes-Jets franchise history, with only Nikolai Khabibulin as serious competition, there’s no way Quick belongs in the conversation with Rogie Vachon and Kelly Hrudey in LA at this point. Vachon should be in the Hall of Fame, and while Hrudey isn’t in that category, he’s a lot closer than people give him credit for. Also, you damned kids can get off my lawn.
3 You know, when my schedule started slipping and one week became two, I figured I’d have to rewrite that sentence. Little did I know…