Thursday, December 6, 2007

Is Brodeur....Underrated?

Jonah Keri has written an article about the 10 most underappreciated active pro athletes. Coming in first place was Martin Brodeur. Either this was Opposite Day at ESPN, or it shows how clueless ESPN has become about hockey, given that one of their columnists ranked one of the most overrated goalies of all-time as the most unappreciated athlete in sports.

I've already summarized the arguments against Brodeur, so I'm not going to do that here. The comments thread to the article, however, illustrates again how the Brodeur debate essentially falls into two camps, which, despite what Internet message board flame wars would have you believe, aren't actually divided by their personal like or dislike of Brodeur. The difference is simply in their philosophies of evaluating goaltending play, which clash head-on in the case of Martin Brodeur.

The first camp associates team success with the individual goaltender, and the second camp believes goalie play is heavily dependent on the rest of the team. Those in the first group see Brodeur as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, goalie ever, because of his wins, shutouts, and Cups. None of those things mean anything at all to those in the second camp, who look at his save percentages and the strength of his teams and conclude that Brodeur is actually quite ordinary. The reason this perception gap is so large is that Brodeur has been the beneficiary of the most favourable goaltending environment in the NHL since Ken Dryden.

So we have probably an irreconcilable debate about Brodeur, at least until everyone comes to some agreement on the evaluative criteria. Nevertheless, when you take a deeper look at goaltending numbers, it becomes quite clear that the "team dependency" side has much stronger ground to stand on. If you still need convincing, though, check out these 12 examples for starters, and since this is basically the founding philosophy for this blog there is lots more written on this topic available on this site.

7 comments:

J WRO said...

Given the fact that hockey is a TEAM sport, why would those in the second camp not understand Brodeurs value? Does a goalie have to play behind a poor team, face 40 point blank shots every game, and virtually steal every win the team gets to be considered a great goalie as your arguments seem to suggest?

All goalies play throughout history is really a reflection of how their particular team is made up offensively and defensivly, which again goes back to the fact that it IS a team game.

Does Brodeur benefit from a team whose GM puts defense ahead of offense? Yes. Has playing 70+ games a year helped his wins and shutout totals? Yes. But in the end every GM in the league wants a goalie who can make a big save in a important situation, and Brodeur has been able to do that for 14 years. If not the Devils would have been like the other 29 NHL teams that have used a multitude of goaltenders in that same time frame.

So in the end all you have really succeeded in proving is that Brodeurs stats are a product of his team, just as every other goaltenders stats have been throughtout the history of the game. One would not expect any less in a team sport.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

Good comment. I don't take it as a criticism at all. If I have succeeded in proving that Brodeur's stats are a product of his team, just as any other goaltender's, then I feel I have succeeded in the goal of this blog. I am afraid, however, that there are still many hockey fans who would strongly disagree with you and me on this topic. For example, just this past week a popular hockey blogger wrote that, "In the NHL success is all about goaltending, goaltending and goaltending."

The problem that many have with accepting the premise is what logically follows is that there is little difference between most starting-caliber goalies in the laegue, and the so-called best are often merely the ones on the best teams. My primary goal in this space is only to point out the strong team dependency of goalie statistics. I am not trying to unreasonably drag Brodeur through the muck, but merely to point out that once you factor in team strength he is much closer to ordinary than legendary, and that the difference between him and contemporaries like Kolzig and Joseph is far, far exaggerated and may even be non-existent. I would select a different target if there were one more inviting (and have from time to time set my focus on certain goalies from the past); however, Brodeur is particularly advantaged by his team situation (at least until this season) and correspondingly overhyped because of it. Most goalies operate at a very similar level of performance, and it is the rest of the team that helps anoint certain ones as great and certain ones as mediocre.

So you are correct that all commonly available goalie stats are the product of the team. However, that doesn't mean we have to stop there. We just have to dig deeper into the statistics to try to find ways to peel back some of the team effects and come closer to isolating the underlying performance. I have tried to do this in several ways, as have many others before me, whether it is by adjusting save percentage for the quality of shots faced, normalizing goalies to league averages, comparing performance vs. backups, looking at team scoring rates and defensive statistics, etc. Sometimes I have failed, but I hope that a few times I have managed to succeed in shedding a new bit of new light on some aspect or another of goaltending play.

Finally, no, it does not require playing on a terrible team and facing a lot of difficult shots for a goalie to be anointed the league's best. It is possible to be the best goalie on the best team, just as it is possible to be the worst goalie on the worst team. What matters is the performance given the particular team situation. For example, Brodeur faced the league's fewest and easiest shots for many years in New Jersey. With that advantage, he should have been at the top or near the top in save percentage virtually every season in his career. The fact that he was outside of the top 10 nearly as often as he was in it is still the main piece of evidence that his individual performances were generally not elite. So it isn't the context alone that is important; it is the performance given the context that should be decisive.

sunnymehta.com said...

Contrarian Goaltender,

Your reply to JWRO is fantastic, and I agree with pretty much everything you said.

What's interesting about the line of thought that "the NHL is all about goaltending, goaltending, goaltending" is that it's kind of a paradox.

I say that because, on the one hand, it's true. It's true that a goaltender can impact a hockey game to a degree which no other single position player can.

But on the other hand, it's false because in actual reality goaltenders don't make much meaningful impact in the NHL since the difference in skill between most of them is so small.

However, in theory goaltenders have the opportunity to significantly alter outcomes - and they still do at the very extreme outliers. For example, Luongo when he played for Florida. Or even at the beginning of this season Lundqvist for the Rangers. And on the other extreme, take a look at Tampa Bay's goaltending this season. If only they'd had an average goalie in net they'd probably be many points higher in the standings.

That is the paradox, and you're right, I don't think most people quite understand it.

Stewie said...

Where is your proof that Brodeur faced the leagues lowest and easiest shot totals throughout some of his earlier seasons in Jersey? Where you at every single game and remembered every scoring chance that occured on him? Please, show some proof to back up that completely false comment.

Anonymous said...

Stewie, check the "shot quality" stats as developed by Alan Ryder & others.

Anonymous said...

Talk about bad timing. In his old age, playing on awful teams, he's proven his worth. This website should go the way of Jim Carey. Is this you, Jim?

Or timewarp it back ten years, where the arguement makes sense.

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