Saturday, April 28, 2007

Can Goalies Lead Their Teams to the Playoffs?

One of the biggest goalie debates prior to this season revolved around Roberto Luongo. His promoters pointed to his gaudy save statistics, but his detractors focused on the fact that his team never managed to qualify for the playoffs, and claimed that he could not therefore have been that outstanding. Is this a legitimate argument? Can a goalie singlehandedly drag his team into the postseason?

I looked at this by taking each team's starting goalie, and figuring out how many extra goals the team would have allowed if the starter was replaced by a bad goalie (.895), a league average goalie (.905), and an elite goalie (.915). All save percentage figures are shot-quality neutral (Hockey Numbers), to remove defensive effects.

The results indicate that Luongo has nothing to be ashamed about. By and large, goaltenders had very little impact in terms of deciding whether their teams were in or out.

Goaltending cost two teams a playoff spot: Toronto and Colorado. Both would have qualified easily (100+ pts) if they had even close to league-average goaltending.

One-third of the teams in the NHL would have been expected to miss the playoffs even with the best goalie in the league on their team. Having an elite goalie would have likely pushed only the Panthers and Hurricanes, in addition to the two teams mentioned above, into a playoff position. In fact, if Florida had kept Luongo and he played as well as he has this season, they would be expected to end up with 95 points, which means he would probably have finally made his playoff debut either way. This was because the Florida Panthers finally became decent at generating offence.

Even if they had a horrible goalie in net, most of the playoff teams would have still qualified. The exceptions would have been the New Jersey Devils, Atlanta Thrashers, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Vancouver Canucks, and Calgary Flames.

Only two teams relied very heavily on their goalie to make the playoffs. Both the New York Islanders and the Vancouver Canucks would likely have missed the playoffs if they received merely league-average goaltending from their starter. Instead, they both received outstanding play in net and thereby qualified for the postseason. The Canucks are not a great team, but they were good enough to take advantage of Luongo's abilities, something that his terrible teams in Florida were never able to do.

So in terms of playoff participation this year, Rick DiPietro and Roberto Luongo deserve the credit, and Andrew Raycroft and Peter Budaj (along with Jose Theodore) deserve the blame. For all the other starting goalies in the entire NHL, the question of playoffs or not was almost entirely out of their hands.

No comments: