Thursday, May 10, 2007

Ryan Miller and the Grant Fuhr Defence

"In the regular season the high flying Oilers often left the goaltenders to fend for themselves. This devalued (Grant) Fuhr's career numbers, but those who saw him play in the playoffs know he was one of the top goalies of his era. He has 5 Stanley Cup rings to prove it. He was the goalie who might have let in a lot of goals because of the Oilers philosophy of simply outscoring the opposition instead of shutting them down, but he was also the goalie who would always make the big save when the team really needed it."

Grant Fuhr profile at

"Miller plays a very Grant Fuhr-esque game...plays for a high scoring team that plays a high risk game resulting in a lot of quality scoring chances against, but almost always makes the big saves to win the game."

A Sabres fan, posting on HFboards

Ryan Miller is another goalie that inspires controversy. He was elected as an All-Star Game starter this year, although many disagreed with the choice. Some name him as the reason for Buffalo's success, while others say that he is very overrated. Even Buffalo fans seem to fluctuate back and forth, although in these playoffs he is winning most of them over by stepping up his play.

One of the main arguments for the pro-Miller side is that he permits the Sabres to use their "run-and-gun" offence. The Sabres take chances offensively, they say, so Miller gets called on to make big saves the other way to keep them in the game. This could be called the "Grant Fuhr defence" - that an excellent offensive team still needs good goaltending to win, and even if their goalie's stats aren't great, the shots he faces are tougher and the fact that they win is proof that he made the big saves his team needed.

The problem with the Grant Fuhr defence is that it is often a false perception. Fans see a team that scores goals, and assume that it must be trading off defence for increased offence. This is certainly not always the case. This year, for example, the Detroit Red Wings took the most shots and allowed the least shots in the league. One dimensional teams do not usually win anything; good players and good teams are often just as good defensively as they are offensively.

As the President's Trophy winners, Buffalo is certainly a good team, so just how good is their defence? Evidence suggests that they are actually very good. According to Ken Krzywicki, they were third in the league in terms of shot quality against in 2005-06. According to Chris Boersma, they ranked first in the NHL in terms of lowest shot quality against at even strength this season. The Sabres give up an average number of shots, but limit most of them to the perimeter. The unsung heroes are their defencemen, led by Henrik Tallinder and Brian Campbell. They are effective at moving the puck and limiting chances, and all are plus players at even strength. The key to Sabre goal prevention is their blue line corps; despite the Sabres' offensive strength, Buffalo is actually a relatively easy place to play goal.

Perhaps a more serious problem with the Grant Fuhr defence is that it is totally illogical. How is it tougher to play for a dominant offensive team? It is much tougher to play against that team. Let us say there are two teams, one that has Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, and Glenn Anderson. The other is an average team, say the mid-'80's Winnipeg Jets. The game is a back-and-forth, wide open contest. Both goalies face 30 shots. Which goalie do you think faced harder shots? The goalie facing the Hall of Famers, or the goalie facing the Winnipeg Jets? Sure, the Oilers probably would give up some good scoring chances, but as one of the greatest offensive teams ever they would have more dangerous scoring chances and have better shooters taking the shots. The playoff stats for Grant Fuhr from 1986-1989 from seemed to prove this point: with Fuhr in net, Edmonton outshot their opponents by an average of 2 shots per game, and scored on 13% of their shots in the usually more tightly played playoffs, at a time when the regular season scoring rate was around 12%. If the Oilers were winning by only one goal, it would not be because the Edmonton goalie was making the big, clutch saves, it would be because the Winnipeg goalie was outplaying him.

It is the same with the Sabres. How many teams in the league can skate and score with the Sabres, the highest scoring team in the league? If the game is played wide open, Buffalo is usually going to create more dangerous chances than their opponents. They also have great shooters, as the Sabres scored on 12.3% of their shots this year, the best rate in the NHL. They may allow some scoring chances against, but with their skill and scoring depth they can more than easily make up for a few goals against. It does not seem at all reasonable to credit the goalie for success when a team's biggest strength is offence. They are like pitchers on a team of sluggers, and their win totals are similarly inflated. The Grant Fuhr defence appears to be just a biased argument designed to justify crediting a goalie for playing on a winning team.

Ryan Miller had 40 wins this season. He faced 30.7 shots a game, about average in the offensive Eastern Conference, but as previously mentioned those shots he faced were easier to deal with than average. His save percentage was a middling .911. Miller is not yet an elite goalie. His overall performance was no better than average, and the wins were mostly because of the scoring exploits of his teammates. In fact, he might have been better last season. However, with the Sabres' excellent regular season and second straight deep playoff run, he is developing a reputation as a winner.

Game 6 of the Buffalo-Islanders series was a typical example of the Grant Fuhr phenomenon at work. Buffalo led 4-1 after two periods, but gave up 2 late goals as the Islanders looked to fight back and tie it up. Miller made a sprawling glove save on his back in the last minute (Youtube). That is the kind of save that helps build a reputation as a clutch goalie. Of course, if he did not have the luxury of a team in front of him that scored 4 goals, it would have likely been a much different story. Such is the enviable position of playing for an offensive powerhouse. I like to think that somewhere Grant Fuhr was watching and smiling.

Conference Finals Game 1 update: The Sabres defence looked pretty shaky last night. That likely had a lot to do with the strength of the Senators, but it will be interesting to see if their performance will improve, or if Ottawa will continue to outplay Buffalo. Miller was decent, but if the Senators maintain an edge in play I don't think he will be able to make the difference.

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