Friday, January 26, 2007

Do Good Goalies Win, or are Winning Goalies Good?

In every sport, there are average or decent players who are considered to be stars, possibly due to media hype or the hidden efforts of their outstanding teammates. Similarly, there are very athletically gifted players that despite their physical prowess deliver sub-par production, often because of poor work ethics or poor fundamentals. It is very difficult to accurately judge both types of players, since for both of them the highlight reels and the win column tend to be very powerful blinders to the truth. This is especially true for the most important positions in team sports, such as football quarterback, baseball pitcher, or hockey goaltender.

This suggestion may be controversial to some, but ask them if their boss is deserving of his position, or about that co-worker who got the promotion ahead of them, or the owner's nephew over in marketing. Who among us cannot think of a regular guy who is in a high position of responsibility, or who is getting recognition we feel is unjustified? There is no reason why the same type of thing can't happen in sports. Sports are not a complete meritocracy, and talent valuation ineffiencies do exist. Just read Moneyball.

This is especially true for hockey goaltenders. There are only 60 jobs open in the world, so there can be many reasons why a talented goalie does not make it while a less talented counterpart becomes famous. Some examples are team strength, team depth at the goaltending position, developmental abilities, injuries, and the ability of the coach to evaluate goaltenders. Just think about Dominik Hasek – despite being the best goaltender in Europe at a young age, he spent years backing up Ed Belfour and having his non-traditional style being dismissed by all the top goalie talent evaluators in North America, before finally getting a starting job and putting together some of the best individual seasons in the history of the NHL.

Goalies are only as good as their team, in the vast majority of circumstances. Only if a goalie is substantially deviant from the norm does their performance become a major input in the team’s success or failure. A good team can win with an average goalie. The most recent example is last year’s Carolina team, and the Red Wings, Senators and Flyers have also been consistently good despite often having mediocre goaltending. There is of course also the New Jersey situation which has given title to this blog.

The problem is that it is hard to see average goalies for what they are. Good goalies are defined as goalies that win, therefore goalies that win are considered good, and it becomes circular logic that argues for the basic premise that you need good goaltending to win, when, in fact, winning largely creates the perception of good goaltending. This is especially true when you evaluate goalies based on playoff performance alone.

I certainly have no anti-goalie bias in this debate, I am a goalie myself. I won a tournament once when I was playing for the best team and pretty much just had to stand there and watch. I also once lost in a tournament where I was maybe the best goalie there, and even shut out one of the other top teams, but my team was bounced in the first round. In the short run, goalies can and do steal games. In the long run, it’s the team that wins or loses, and the goalie is in most cases just along for the ride.

2 comments:

OJ said...

I still believe that you need a great goalie to win. There are always exceptions the way or the other, but in a long run it usually shows up. There are some points/examples I'd like to assess:

1) Most recently the Ducks won the Cup - and a lot credit should go to their goalie. Emery had a great run until the finals, but Giguere was at his steady best. You don't want your goalie to give up any easy goals and that's what J-S did. It's not just about making the big saves, it's about not giving any easy goals.

2) On the other hand it was last year when Cam Ward took home the Conn Smythe. I heavily disagree with that though. Canes were dependent on their offense and Ward didn't play all that well really.

3) We could compare the two great Canadian goalies: Roy and Brodeur. It's going to be a hot topic (if not already) that which is/was the best goalie in the NHL. They both have great regular season stats, Brodeuer edges it by a margin though. However, like we all know the playoffs are all that matters. Roy has won 4/5 and Marty 3/4 Cups. That in itself is a great achievement. They were both important to their teams, but what's surprising is that Brodeur didn't actually win the Coon Smythe in any of those seasons. However, Roy won it three times. It suggests that Roy was the unquestionable star in those teams and they were dependent on him. In Brodeur's case, not so.

4) Living in Finland and watching our national team closely I have to emphasize the importance of a goalkeeper. Great teams don't need that good keepers to win, but the-not-so-great teams need, desperately. It's true that defensive minded set-ups don't allow Shots on goal as much as offensive ones. In that kind of a system a goalkeeper is under more pressure, because it's ultimately up to him. It's not enough to not allow easy goals, you have to make big saves too. And in average teams you just don't win without a quality goalie.

So it is possible to win without a great goalie if the team is good enough, but certainly you can't win with a poor goalie either. Then again, in an average team you need a big time goalie and a defensive set up to have any chance of succeeding.

Matt C. said...

Just catching word of your blog, so I'm plowing through the archives to catch up. Great premise. I, too, am a goalie and I'm currently on what I'd call a less-than-average team. I'm having the internal debate of whether or not I'm better than the record and stats indicate or if they're poor due to my team's overall skill. In the times I've filled in for better teams I've brought home more wins, but was it me or the better team?

Thanks.