Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Why Billy Smith Is Not a Hall-of-Famer

Billy Smith is one of the most overrated goalies in hockey history. He played a total of 680 regular season games, but his entire reputation comes from 93 playoff games played between 1980 and 1984. In that period, the New York Islanders reached the Stanley Cup Finals five years in a row, winning four times before finally losing to the Edmonton Oilers. This gave Smith a reputation as a "winner" and a "money goalie", and booked his place in the Hall of Fame.

But how much did the Islanders, a team good enough to win four Stanley Cups in a row, rely on their goaltender? Evidence suggests not very much. The Islanders were consistently one of the top scoring teams in the league. In 1981, they led the league in scoring. In 1982, they finished 2nd to Edmonton. After a down year in 1983 (15th), they finished 3rd in 1984. From 1981 to 1984, the Islanders averaged 4.4 goals per game. In the playoffs, they were even better, averaged 4.7 goals per game over their 4 Cup runs.

During their Cup winning playoff seasons, the Islanders were ridiculously dominant. They went 15-6 in 1980, 15-3 in 1981, 15-4 in 1982, and 15-5 in 1983. In those four years, they only faced elimination once, winning the decisive game 5 against the Penguins in 1982. They also only ever trailed in a series once, after dropping the opener against the Rangers that same playoff year (which they followed up by rattling off 12 wins in 13 games to bring home the Cup).

The Islanders also had an incredibly low percentage of one-goal games. Only 20 of 99 playoff games were decided by a single goal, and in those games the Islanders went 13-7. That seems pretty good, but it is actually much worse than their overall record of 72-27. The record was mostly fueled by the 1979-80 team, the weakest of the Stanley Cup winning squads. From 1981-85, the Islanders had only 13 games decided by one goal in a stretch of 78 playoff matches, winning 7 and losing 6, indicating that Smith didn't exactly steal the close ones. And over 80% of the time, he could have let in another goal without even changing the final result.

So, evidence suggests that the Islanders didn't need top flight goaltending, since their team was so powerful they would usually win anyway. That reflects on Smith's value, but he doesn't really address his actual level of performance, which is what we turn to next.

Most of the games Smith played were before save percentage was an official stat, so we will have to rely on the traditional stats for the most part. Back then, however, the Islanders tended to platoon goaltenders during the regular season, which allows for a good comparison.

Billy Smith was an Islander from when they entered the league as an expansion team in 1972-73 until his retirement in 1989. Over that period, he played mainly with three goalies: Chico Resch, Rollie Melanson, and Kelly Hrudey. All three significantly outplayed Billy Smith in the regular season, but for some reason Smith was given the playoff starts that enabled him to build his reputation as a winner.

Between 1975 and 1981, when Smith and Resch shared the load, Billy Smith had a lower GAA in a season only once. Only twice did he play more games than Resch, and only twice did he have a higher winning percentage. For the period, Resch recorded a 2.55 GAA and a .662 winning percentage, much better than Smith's 2.81 and .621. Resch also posted 25 shutouts to Smith's 15. Nevertheless, Smith played 30 playoff games, nearly as many as Resch's 34. In those games, Smith's GAA was 2.87, worse than Resch's 2.49, but his record was 16-11 while Resch's was only 17-17. Maybe this apparent run of luck by Smith was what started to earn him a reputation as a clutch performer. A couple of shaky games by Resch in 1980 opened the door for Smith, and he played in 20 of 21 games as the Islanders won their first Cup.

Resch was traded during the 1980-81 season, and Smith's new playing partner became the 21 year-old Rollie Melanson. Despite his youth, Melanson posted excellent numbers over the next 3 seasons, recording a cumulative .906 save percentage, better than Smith's .901, and also besting Smith in goals against average and winning percentage. Nevertheless, Smith got the starts come playoff time, and rode along with the Islanders juggernaut to Cup after Cup.

Smith was awarded the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP in 1983. He played in 17 games that year, going 13-3 with a 2.68 GAA. The Islanders destroyed their opposition, scoring 4.7 goals per game, going 15-5 and never facing elimination. They only played in one game that was decided by a single goal, a game that they lost. Mike Bossy led the team in scoring with 17 goals in 19 games (exactly the same as his Conn Smythe peformance in 1982), Denis Potvin added 8 goals and 12 assists from the blue line, and Brent Sutter had an excellent playoffs with 10 goals and 21 points to finish 2nd on the team in scoring. Melanson played in 5 games and posted a lower GAA than Smith. Yet somehow, the voters decided that the MVP of this scoring machine was the goalie, Billy Smith.

Melanson was traded in 1984, as another top prospect, Kelly Hrudey, was waiting in the wings. Hrudey arrived at the tail end of the Islanders' run of dominance, and once again Smith was soundly outplayed by his teammate. Hrudey's save percentage between 1984 and 1989 was .889, Smith's was .879. Hrudey posted more shutouts, a lower GAA, and a better winning percentage. He also took over in the playoffs from Smith in 1985, and Smith rode the pine during the playoffs for the rest of his career.

Another career accomplishment of Smith's is that he has the honor of being the first goalie to be voted the Vezina winner, after the rules were changed in 1982 from automatically awarding the trophy to the goalie with the lowest goals against. That season, Pete Peeters and Philadelphia had off-years, and Montreal (the Jennings trophy winners) split their playing time among three different goalies, leaving the door wide open. Richard Brodeur in Vancouver was almost certainly the best goalie that year, posting a winning record and a 3.35 GAA for a 77 point Vancouver team that scored only 290 goals (4th worst in the league), playing in the same division as Gretzky's Oilers. Brodeur's backup Glen Hanlon, an NHL starter for most of his career, had a .389 winning percentage and a 3.95 GAA in 28 games behind the same defence. But Smith led the league in wins and GAA, and as it so often does, that managed to swung the vote his way.

In summary, Billy Smith had an unremarkable career. He was almost always the second best goalie on his team, and his regular season stats are not outstanding. His reputation is based entirely on his playoff performance, played entirely behind one of the greatest teams of all-time. The Islanders of the early '80s were a dominant offence and defence that won Stanley Cups virtually unchallenged. They weren't reliant on their goaltending at all - their wins came from their prolific offence, and most of the time Smith could have given up another goal or two and still got the W. If Resch, Melanson or Hrudey had been in net instead of Smith, it is completely reasonable to expect that the Islanders would have won all of their Cups. In addition, his Vezina and Conn Smythe trophies were both questionable choices and probably undeserved. Billy Smith is one of the best examples of how a team can make their goalie look good; he is in the Hall of Fame today more because of what Trottier, Bossy, Potvin, and the Sutters did than anything he did on his own.

9 comments:

Colin Timberlake said...

You make a valid argument, but many teams have proven that great position players alone can't win you the cup. The Canucks of '02 couldn't escape the first round with the highest scoring line in hockey. Some goalies benefit too much from having a great team in front of them, but Billy could play.

FAUX RUMORS said...

1) Having watched each and every one of Smith's wins during the Isles 19 consecutive playoff series wins we can say definitively that the Isles don't win any Cups without him
2) He played his best hockey when the games meant most. His rotation with the other goalies(Resch/melenson/Hrudy kept his regular season win totals far less than they otherwise would be. He is definitively a HOF goalie!

Anonymous said...

you know nothing about hockey. batlin billy single handedly won the 1983 stanley cup finals by himself holding the greatest scoring team of all time the oilers to 6 goals. 6 GOALS!! and wayne gretsky to NONE. stan fischler called game 1 of that series a 2 -0 islander win. really a 1-0 victory isles scored late empty net greatest game by goalie hed ever scene and stan has seen alot of games my uninformed friend. stop wasting space with dumb articles like this one you posted.

Anonymous said...

You obviously never saw Billy Smith perform in the playoffs. Had you witnessed his performances, particularly those in the 1983 Stanley Cup Finals against the Edmonton Oilers, you would understand why he is in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The Oilers came into that series winners of 11 of 12 playoff games. They scored 74 goals in those games, averaging move than six goals per game. They were setting offensive records virtually every game.

And then it came to a sudden and shocking halt. Smith and the Islanders allowed just six goals in four games. Wayne Gretzky was held without a goal. Smith's performance in Game 1 was the most incredible I have ever seen. He made something like 35 or 36 saves. I can assure you that at least 15 of those shots should have, and would have, been goals with any other goaltender in the nets. But Smith, who held a 1-0 lead until the final seconds of the third period when the Isles got an empty-netter, wouldn't allow that tying goal.

That was the standard you have to use for his greatness. Billy Smith was the greatest money goaltender of all time. He might allow four goals in a game, but if that fifth goal was going to beat him, he never gavce it up.

He is the epitome of a Hall of Famer, and while you are entitled to your opinion, you couldn't be more wrong.

Anonymous said...

It's obvious that you have a great disdain for Billy. It's also obvious that you have no clue as to what makes a hall of fame goalie. I was there for three of the Islanders four cups (season ticket holder), and while there is no doubt that the Islander's dominant offense would give any goalie some added confidence, to discredit or diminish Mr. Smith's role as an intimidating integral part of the Isles defense, and his ability to win high pressure championship games, and basically declare that any goalie of average skill would've been good enough to win 4 cups with the squad is moronic.

Anonymous said...

I didn't know the Isles even had another goalie in the 80's. All I hear is Billy Smith Billy Smith Billy Smith. (joking)

Turns out they did have other goalies and they might have been better but we'll never know. It's not like the other goalies didn't get their name on the cup, anyway. I think that's good enough for them.

That being said, Billy Smith belongs in the HoF because he was a large part of a dynasty. When you go to a museum, you want to see history. Billy Smith is part of hockey history.

Anonymous said...

It is blatantly obvious that you have never seen him play so lets just go by what he did on paper. How a goalie who won 305 games in the regular season, won 4 straight stanley cups as the starter, a vezina, conn smythe, jennings and all star game mvp trophy doesn't deserve to be in the hof is beyond the reasoning of even the greenest hockey fan. The same goalie who held the impossibly mighty Edmonton Oilers offense to six goals in a four games series, in addition to rendering the greatest offensive player the league has or ever will see pointless in the same series.

If the Islanders were so superhumanly talented that they didn't need a good goalie, then Chico Resch would have been able to win the cup in 1978-1979 on an Islanders team that lead the league in points, goals, pp goals,and pp%. A team that had the Art Ross, Hart, and Norris trophy winners as well as the leagues goal leader and 4 of the leagues top 5 players in +/-. Instead Chico is known as that homer announcer for the Devils with the bad rug, while any hockey fan and analyst worth their salt knows Billy Smith as the single most clutch playoff goaltender this league will ever see.

The only fraud around here is your credibility.

Anonymous said...

There's no doubt Billy had a great team in front of him but there's something you're not taking into account. Coaches go into the playoffs with whichever goalie is giving them the most confidence. Al Arbour definitely did that with Smith, and he was right to do so.

I watched a lot of those games though and repeatedly saw Smith keeping the door closed while games were still close. That gives teams the confidence because they go after it with more focus. The comments about him stealing the first few games of the '83 final are on the money as well. You didn't very often see the Oilers hanging their heads the way they did after he and the Isles' defence frustrated them.

Anonymous said...

BILLY BILLY BILLY