Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Curious Problem of the 1980s

Using the performance vs. backup approach described in a previous post, I wanted to see who was the best goalie in each decade. I calculated a total "goals better than backups" for each goalie, based on figuring out how much better each goalie was than their backups, and then multiplying that by the number of games played to get a total number of goals. So it was not only excellence that counted, but also longevity.

What I found was that for the most part, my answers for each ten year period followed along pretty closely with conventional wisdom, with one glaring exception.

1950s: 1. Al Rollins, 2. Jacques Plante, 3. Glenn Hall
1960s: 1. Johnny Bower, 2. Charlie Hodge, 3. Glenn Hall
1970s: 1. Tony Esposito, 2. Bernie Parent, 3. Ken Dryden
1980s: 1. Dan Bouchard, 2. Pete Peeters, 3. Chico Resch
1990s: 1. Dominik Hasek, 2. Patrick Roy, 3. Curtis Joseph
2000s: 1. Miikka Kiprusoff, 2. Dominik Hasek, 3. Roberto Luongo

For most of the decades, they go pretty much as expected. Probably the only real surprises to most would be the absences of Terry Sawchuk and Martin Brodeur, but neither would be particularly surprising to regular readers of this blog. That is until we come to the 1980s. Of the three goalies listed from the 1980s, I would not have predicted any of them to rank that highly. I think the expected names were Grant Fuhr, Billy Smith, Patrick Roy, or maybe Mike Liut, but none of them popped up.

The 1980s were in many ways a unique time for goaltenders. It was a time of dynasties, a time of expansion (both in terms of teams and a talent pool expanding to include European talent), and a time of rapid evolution in goaltending technique and equipment. I think there also was an absence of a true superstar goaltender, someone to take over the mantle from Esposito, Parent and Dryden, at least until Patrick Roy became established near the end of the decade. This is indicated by the fact that there were no repeat winners of the Vezina Trophy throughout the decade.

It unlikely that any other decade can match the 1980s for contrasting styles - Roy was leading the butterfly revolution against some of the old stand-up goalies, there were European goalies like Lindbergh coming over to add their own playing methods, athletic goalies such as Fuhr to challenge old limits of goalie capabilities, and goalies were also becoming more involved in terms of puckhandling, with Hextall leading the way. This makes it difficult to subjectively rate goalie play.

However, possibly the biggest factor was the lack of parity in the league. Some goalies played on powerhouse teams and received wide recognition for their team successes, while others were doomed to be overlooked because of their weak teammates. Looking at average GAA throughout the decade, there were 6 teams that allowed under 3.5 goals against on average: Montreal (3.14), Boston (3.30), Philadelphia (3.31), Buffalo (3.38), New York Islanders (3.40), and Washington (3.46). There was then a clear gap to the rest of the league, as the next best team was Calgary (3.73). There were 5 teams that allowed over a goal per game more than Montreal on average: Winnipeg (4.24), New Jersey (4.26), Pittsburgh (4.27), Los Angeles (4.33), and Toronto (4.43).

Is it likely that teams like Montreal and Philadelphia had better goaltenders than Toronto did? Probably, for the most part. However, that difference certainly can't be blamed entirely on the goaltending. During the decade, Toronto played 15 different goaltenders. Philadelphia used 13 different netminders, including 3 that also played in Toronto. The Leafs gave up 1.1 more goals per game. Obviously the key factor there was team defence, not goaltending.

I looked at save percentage statistics, but I soon came to the conclusion that it was a largely futile exercise. The top 6 1980s goalies in save percentage (minimum 3000 shots faced) all played on one of the 6 strong defensive teams mentioned above. At the bottom of the list were mostly the goalies from the league bottom feeders. If I used save percentage alone, I would claim that the best goalies of the decade were Patrick Roy, Kelly Hrudey, Ron Hextall, Bob Froese, Billy Smith, Andy Moog, Glen Hanlon, Reggie Lemelin, and Tom Barrasso. However, I don't believe these selections to be entirely correct.

Therefore, I turned to my method of comparing results against backup goalies. In the 1980s, platoons were quite common, so the method should be pretty accurate since sample size isn't as big of an issue. A lot of teams had goalies that virtually split time. What was very interesting was that a lot of times the goalies had very similar statistics. Andy Moog and Grant Fuhr in Edmonton, Patrick Roy and Brian Hayward in Montreal, Billy Smith and Kelly Hrudey in New York, this pattern was repeated in a number of cities, and is further evidence that the team is very influential in determining the success of a goaltender in the vast majority of cases.

Here are the top 10 goalies from the 1980s, in terms of performance against their backups (with adjusted percentage better than teammates, adjusted GAA, and adjusted teammate GAA):

1. Dan Bouchard, 15.1%, 2.86, 3.29
2. Bob Froese, 14.0%, 2.50, 2.85
3. Allan Bester, 12.6%, 3.22, 3.63
4. Kelly Hrudey, 11.3%, 2.81, 3.13
5. Mario Lessard, 11.1%, 3.17, 3.52
6. Pete Peeters, 10.8%, 2.47, 2.74
7. Chico Resch, 10.6%, 3.05, 3.38
8. Andy Moog, 9.8%, 2.84, 3.12
9. Tom Barrasso, 8.4%, 2.75, 2.98
10. Rollie Melanson, 7.4%, 2.95, 3.17

Was Dan Bouchard really the best goalie of the 1980s? Many people would probably respond to that question with, "Who?" Bouchard played 8 seasons for the Atlanta Flames, mostly in the 1970s, and then was traded to the Quebec Nordiques where he spent 5 years before finishing up his career in Winnipeg. Bouchard's save percentage from 1982-1986 was just .873, slightly below league average, but his teams were weak. Bouchard also ranks 6th out of all goalies in the 1970s, so that is more evidence that he was a good goalie. Probably a major reason why Bouchard isn't well remembered is that his career playoff win/loss record is 13-30.

Pete Peeters is another surprise. I was expecting Peeters to be revealed as a team creation, someone who was only successful because of the dominant Philadelphia, Washington and Boston defences he played behind. I think they were definitely all significant contributors to his success, but the evidence remains that Peeters outplayed the other goalies on his teams.

Allan Bester is the kind of goalie that is easy to overlook because he played for terrible teams, but he had an .885 save percentage on the 1980s Toronto Maple Leafs, which is certainly deserving of respect.

On the other side of the scale, here are some goalies who did not do significantly better than their backups did:

Grant Fuhr, 1.1%, 2.99, 3.03
Don Beaupre, 1.1%, 3.00, 3.03
Greg Millen, 1.1%, 3.17, 3.20
Bob Sauve, 1.0%, 2.81, 2.84
Richard Brodeur, 0.5%, 3.08, 3.10
Brian Hayward, 0.5%, 2.97, 2.98
Glen Hanlon, 0.2%, 2.94, 2.94
Greg Stefan, -0.1%, 3.17, 3.16
Gilles Meloche, -0.2%, 2.90, 2.89
Tony Esposito, -1.0%, 3.02, 3.00
Billy Smith, -1.4%, 2.70, 2.67
Patrick Roy, -1.6%, 2.39, 2.35
Pat Riggin, -1.7%, 2.75, 2.71
Clint Malarchuk, -4.1%, 2.81, 2.69
Don Edwards, -8.1%, 2.89, 2.66

It now becomes difficult to know where to rate someone like Roy, who put up outstanding numbers in terms of GAA, wins, and save percentage, but wasn't even able to outplay the other goalies on his team. I don't think he played poorly, but he obviously received tremendous support from his teammates, and I think it is fair to conclude that a lot of other goalies could have put up similar results in that team situation. Look at, for example, Brian Hayward. In 1985-86, with Winnipeg, Hayward was 13-28-5, 4.79, .842. In 1986-87, in Montreal, Hayward outplayed Patrick Roy and led the league in goals against average with 2.81 (Hayward's record was 19-13-4 with an .894 save percentage). That the same goaltender could have a drop of nearly 2 full goals per game in GAA just by switching teams illustrates the nature of the competitive climate of the time, and makes Roy, Smith, Fuhr, etc. appear to be more lucky than good.

Playoff results are normally important in ranking goalies, but the team factors again loom very large. Grant Fuhr, Kelly Hrudey, Billy Smith, Mike Vernon, and Patrick Roy all had very good records, but most of their playoff games were on very good teams. The Islanders and Oilers were dominant in the playoffs pretty much no matter who they had in net. For the weaker teams, the team effects were even stronger since the opponents were tougher. I see it as unfair to penalize goalies for getting shelled while their teams were being dominated by better teams like the Oilers, Islanders, Flames, or Flyers. Therefore, I'm taking playoff performance into account, but not weighting it very heavily.

In summary, there is little evidence that there were any dominant goaltenders in the 1980s. As a result, it is mostly team effects that determine which goalies endure in the public memory and which ones are forgotten. To try to identify the true standouts, I'm relying heavily on their comparative performance against teammates. The imprecise nature of the 1980s situation makes it difficult to come to a definitive ranking, and I'm not sure we'll ever arrive at one. Nevertheless, it is an interesting area of discussion, and I'll at least take a shot at it:

Rankings of 1980s goalies:
1. Dan Bouchard
2. Pete Peeters
3. Mike Liut
4. Kelly Hrudey
5. Bob Froese
6. Chico Resch
7. Reggie Lemelin
8. Andy Moog
9. Tom Barrasso
10. Allan Bester

9 comments:

Some Guy said...

I think the "performance vs back-up" analysis is very flawed. You're basically taking something that's hard to quantify - i.e. a starting goaltender's overall ability - by comparing him to something that is just as hard to quantify: his backup's overall ability. But every goalie has a different backup, therefore the yardstick used for comparison is not constant. Andy Moog, for example, was a legitimate starting goaltender even when he was backup to Grant Fuhr. Ranking goalies according to how much better than their backups they are or were is not an indication of how good they are or were compared to everyone else.

It is also important to keep in mind that some backups and weaker links in goaltending tandems get games against weaker teams hand-picked for them. I don't have old schedules in front of me, but maybe Hayward's numbers were comparable to Roy's because Roy got the lion's share of the starts against offences like Edmonton's. After all, if he's hardly better than Hayward in the late 80's, how does he suddenly become the second-best goalie in the league in the 90s according to your own analysis? He may have peaked then but he the difference wasn't so great that he was "more lucky than good" in the 80s and 2nd-best in the 90s.

The statement "That the same goaltender could have a drop of nearly 2 full goals per game in GAA just by switching teams illustrates the nature of the competitive climate of the time, and makes Roy, Smith, Fuhr, etc. appear to be more lucky than good" is also somewhat misleading, as goaltenders sometimes see their GAA rise or fall significantly from year to year even when playing for the same team over that span (look at Hrudey's numbers in LA as a quick example). Sometimes players just have bad seasons, and sometimes they play above their heads. Look at Patrick Roy's GAA from 91-92 to 93-94: 67 GP 2.36 GAA in '92, 62 GP 3.20 GAA in '93, 68 GP 2.50 GAA. His SV% in that time went 0.914-0.894-0.918, indicating that he actually played worse (not to mention that the middle year was Montreal's last Stanley Cup year, so there was nothing wrong with his team). A rise and drop of 0.84 GAA and 0.7 GAA doesn't approach your example of nearly 2 GAA difference for Hayward, but it does draw light to the fact that significant changes occur regardless of switching teams. Another good example is Evgeny Nabokov's suddenly-brutal numbers in 2005-06 despite never changing teams.

The case that goalies can be made by (or at least can heavily benefit from) a good team and system is a valid one, but the method of comparison to his backup is practically useless. After all, even Dominic Hasek was someone's backup for a long time.

some guy said...

I started reading from this last post and then read some old ones, so I take back my "practically useless" comment as it's a bit out of line; you have been considering the quality of the backup goaltender to some extent, and you have been using this tool in combination with others, whereas it initially seemed to me that you were using this analysis pretty much exclusively to define goaltender strength. Sorry.

I still think it's pretty misleading though. Teams often don't even play the same with different goaltenders in net, and shot quality varies tremendously as well. Sometimes you just have to go back and watch the footage, and you see things like Grant Fuhr facing rediculous numbers of odd-man rushes, thus making the shots he faces arguably more difficult than those faced by many other 'tenders. The Oil were happy to trade chances with their offence, and while I don't recall if it was the same with his backups, there are recent examples of teams playing different styles with different goalies in net. One would be Ottawa playing with Hasek vs playing with Emery in the fall of 2005. With Hasek they were more offensive as they were confident trading chances with Hasek in goal behind them, whereas with Emery in goal they were more conservative (another testament to how solid Hasek was even as a relatively old player).

I agree that the notion that Fuhr was more valuable than Gretzky is laughable though, but I don't argue too much with his Vezina win. He was quite incredible.

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