Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Value of Opportunity

Imagine if you worked at a profession where at the highest level there was only room for the 60 best. To get to that top level, you had to work your way through a number of different entry levels, working on a lot of different teams where you contributed in a specialized role along with one or two others possessing the same skill set. Evaluation was partly based on individual performance, but much of the grade came from the success or failure of the team as a whole. I think in this scenario it is very easy to envision a very inefficient selection process, where politics, connections, and luck all play an important role in one's eventual success.

I think we would like to believe that the NHL is an efficient market for talent, and that the best will rise to the top. However, there is plenty of reason to believe that this is not the case. It is inconceivable that there are not dozens of goalies out there who are better than Andrew Raycroft or Dan Cloutier but who are not currently collecting an NHL paycheque and likely never will.

There are two main types of opportunity or lack thereof: the opportunity to play on a contending team, and the opportunity to play big minutes. Some goalies never got a chance to play on a winning team, so they never won anything. They are often judged harshly for that reason, even though their performance might have been very, very good.

Curtis Joseph never won anything, people say, so he wasn't a great goalie and shouldn't be in the Hall of Fame. Actually, his record in the first and second rounds of the NHL playoffs is quite good (and indeed very similar to Martin Brodeur's), the difference was that Cujo's teammates just weren't as good so they lost. Joseph's record of brilliant postseason games rivals anyone of his generation, yet he is somehow seen as "unclutch". There are plenty of examples of excellent goalies who get overlooked in the annals of hockey history because their teammates were a bunch of scrubs, such as Al Rollins, Gilles Meloche, pre-lockout Roberto Luongo and others.

But at least those guys got to play in the first place. Some goalies never really caught the break to allow them to displays their talents. Jamie Storr was a very talented goalie, touted as a can't miss prospect. He had some very good stretches in the NHL as well, posting above average save percentages more often than not (from 1996 to 1999 his stat line reads: .918, .925, .929, .916). But he struggled on the few occasions when he was given the chance to win the starter's role, and never broke through as a #1. Could it be argued that he didn't have the mental makeup to be an NHL starter? Maybe. But maybe he was just unlucky that his performance happened to be relatively poor in the decisive 20 or 30 games where the window of opportunity presented itself. What if a patient, rebuilding team had given him 50-60 starts for 3 years in a row? Is it likely that his talent would have revealed itself and led to a long and successful career? You can never know for sure in what-if scenarios, but I'd make that bet.

There are plenty of what-if questions. How many goalies in the Original Six era were like Johnny Bower, just waiting for a chance to show what they could do? What if overlooked goalies like Miikka Kiprusoff had played out the string in the minors or as backups on their original teams, rather than moving elsewhere and achieving greatness? Opportunity is very valuable. If Dominik Hasek could sit around as somebody else's backup in the middle of his prime then it could happen to anybody, and when there are only 60 jobs available in the world there isn't much opportunity to go around.

Whether or not you are a fan of Martin Brodeur, it is tough to deny that he had the opportunity to enter one of the best possible goaltending situations in the game. He broke in just as scoring began to decline on what would soon become the best defensive team in the league. His team had an aging veteran (Chris Terreri) as the #1 and nobody else to really challenge for the starting job. Thus Brodeur quickly received big minutes as a starting goalie in the NHL. He had a couple of stretches early in his career where he played quite well, especially the 1995 playoffs, and became entrenched as the starting goalie in the Swamp. Over a decade of stingy team defence later, he is seen as an all-time great. Would that have been the case if he was drafted by a team with an established All-Star goalie like Belfour or Roy playing most of the minutes, or perhaps if he went to an expansion team like San Jose and faced an avalanche of rubber every night? It probably would have been quite a different story.

As the most experienced starting goalie in the NHL, with over 56,000 minutes played, it shouldn't be too surprising that by now Brodeur has become a good goalie. But how much of a role did opportunity play in his success? Probably a significant one, which is why it is interesting to speculate about how many other goalies who would have had Hall of Fame careers if they broke into the NHL in 1993-94 playing for the New Jersey Devils.


Anonymous said...

You should work for Fox news.

Anonymous said...

Overall, a number of very good points, but Brodeur is/was simply tailor made for the Devils. His puck handling alone made beating the Devils trap nearly impossible. I don't think any other goalie would have won quite as many games

Anonymous said...

"I don't think any other goalie would have won quite as many games"

How about a goalie with a higher save percentage? :)

Anonymous said...

"How about a goalie with a higher save percentage? :)"

Not necessarily. The difference between a good .913 Sv% and an excellent .923 sv% is 10 more pucks stopped over 1000 shots faced. Within that difference of 10 goals how many of them would have been game winners for the opposition? Maybe all 10 or maybe none. There is no way to pinpoint that as you could make infinite assumptions on where/how those extra 10 goals were allocated across a full seasons schedule.
So while a goalie with a higher sv% MIGHT have done better, there can be no proof of that IMO.

Anonymous said...

A goalie who plays about 4,000 mins in a season faces about 2,000 shots. 2,000 x (.923-.913) = 20 goals. That's a lot of goals... about 1 every 3.5 games, if we assume the goalies are playing 70 games.

There must be a high correlation between winning games & (a high) save pct.

All other things being equal, I'd rather have the goalie who stops the highest pct of shots. Brodeur gets far too much credit for "winning", as the author of this blog has proven over & over.

Anonymous said...

Wins matter I'm afraid. If a goalie needs a minimum save percentage in order for those wins to be more deserving in your mind, so be it. I'll take a goalie who has been a rock in net for 15 years any day of the week, and in turn I'll cut him a break on his "low" save percentage.

We could say that the winners of the Norris Trophy for best "Defenseman" are all undeserving because the Norris Trophy is typically awarded to the defenseman with the most points "offensevly" which suggests nothing of thier ability to play defense.
But that would be a post to make in the "Norris Trophy is a Fraud" blog I suppose.

Anonymous said...

If the 1990's Dominek Hasek played goal for NJ, he'd have more wins per season than Brodeur, because he had a higher save pct.

Has Brodeur been a "rock"? Have you read the numerous studies on this site?

I'll never understand why people think that because a goalie has an avg-above avg save pct playing for a great defensive team & therefore gets a lot of wins, that he is somehow brilliant. No, he's just avg to above-avg.

That's like saying Glen Sather was the best coach/GM of the 80's but then suddenly became much less proficient when he went to the NYR. Uh... no... his Edm players were great.

Brodeur is remarkable in terms of how many minutes he can play. But even this is somewhat of a benefit of playing in front of a team that gives him a slack workload.

Anonymous said...

He has been a "rock" in terms of durability. It's gotta be a little easier on Lou Lamoriello every offseason that for the past 13 years his goaltending situation is not an issue and he can focus on the offense/defense with one less thing to worry about.

Also, what I never hear is that although the Devils have always been an excellent defensive team, it has come at the expense of offense. What superstars have the Devils had offensively? And most of the halfway decent scorers usually leave for greener pastures once they can become a free agent.

What that means is that unlike some high power teams that can give up 3-4 goals on a regular basis and still win because of thier offense, the Devils (and thus Brodeur)have much less margin for error. Brodeur goes into each game knowing if he gives up more than two goals a game there is a very good chance they won't get a win most nights. That's a lot of pressure to have to endure for your whole career and one of the things that goes overlooked by those who choose to put Brodeur down and one reason why many other goalies could not do what he's done for as long as he has with the Devils.

This most recent post is about "opportunity", well other Devils goalies under Lou's same defensive minded system prior to Brodeur had thier opportunity to be the #1 guy, but could not hang onto that role.

Brodeur came in at a fortunate time, but to assume any other goalie (better save % or not) would still be the goalie today is rediculous. He may not be the best pure puck stopper to ever hit the ice, but if you claim he only gets the wins he does simply because he faces fewer shots, then you've not seen him play much. And he's been brilliant this year with less than average defenders in front of him.

Anonymous said...

Actually, although NJ has not usually been among the very highest scoring teams, their GF/GA ratio has often been among the best.

So, that means if their GF is not at or near the top, then their GA should be. (simple math)

But then we see that Brodeur's save pct has often been merely average or above average (but not at the very top). So, if the team's (& therefore Brodeur's) GA has often been excellent, but his save pct hasn't been 'excellent', that must mean he faces fewer shots than the average goalie. And the stats show this.

Logically, a goalie that saves a higher pct of shots than Brodeur would have an even better GA, & NJ would be an even better team as a result.

Check out "shot quality adjusted save pct", where Brodeur looks even worse. Allan Ryder (& others?) have determined approximate difficulties of each & every shot faced by goalies, according to situation & location. Very advanced.

On the other hand, as has been pointed out by the author of this blog, Brodeur has been having a very good year (07-08 & last yr) compared to other years.

Feel free to step in, blog author! haha

Anonymous said...

You are brilliant maybe you should use your knowledge to help lower gas prices

Anonymous said...

Have you even watched Brodeur play the past 2 seasons? He's flat out carried his offensively inept team with guys playing in front of him named Oduya, Mottau, White, Greene, Martin, Vishnevski, and Brookbank to name a few.

He has NO defense and NO offense, yet the Devils still make the playoffs year after year only because of him. If he hasn't proved he's an elite goalie from the past two seasons than you guys are flat out insane, and really need a sanity check.

He should hands down win the Vezina again this season, making it 2 in a row, and 4 overall to go along with his 3 cups and gold medal. He should also be a Hart finalist and finish the top goalie again in that nomination.

Anonymous said...

Actually, if you've read the articles you'd see that the author concludes that Brodeur has had very good yrs the past 2 seasons... but if you look at his whole career objectively, he is very over-rated. He's been below-avg or just "good", yet hailed as the best.

Why do people take such offense... odd.