Friday, April 11, 2008

Do Chokers Exist?

Goalies are very quick to get labelled based on their playoff performance, usually much more quickly than other players. It is not unusual to read, for instance, that Martin Gerber has a weak playoff record, despite only playing a career total of 241 minutes before 2008, most of it battling sickness. But are these labels really justified? Can every goalie be neatly divided into the camp of choker or clutch?

My view is that nobody is a choker. Play long enough, and everyone will end up simply playing at their skill level. To make it to the NHL, all goalies have been in dozens of pressure-filled situations. If there was a goalie that couldn't handle the pressure, he would wash out in junior or college or the minor leagues when his performance suffered under the pressure of playoffs or a playoff race or the knowledge that there were professional scouts in the stands. Much is made of how the game changes in the playoffs, but it doesn't change at all for goalies - the shots come in and you try to stop them, regardless of the number of penalties called or the amount of hitting.

For example, take Marty Turco. He had a good playoff year, then two bad ones in a row. People started questioning his playoff abilities. Then what happened last year? 1.29 GAA and .952 save percentage in a 7 game series. He wasn't a choker, he just was overdue for some good performances. Even the best goalies have bad playoffs and good playoffs; everyone remembers Patrick Roy in 1986, 1993, and 2001, but he also had 1987, 1991, and 1998. Just because one guy had a bad playoffs or two already doesn't mean he is mentally weak, it just means that most likely there are some good times still on the way. Turco has a spotty playoff record, and his first round opponent Giguere has a great one, but does that really have any bearing at all on what is going to happen between them over the next 2 weeks? After game one, it sure doesn't look like it.

To try to test my position, I am looking for goalies who had substantially worse records in the playoffs than in the regular season, over a significantly large number of games. This should not simply be a function of the weakness of their teams or the strength of their opponents, but a clear deterioration in their play. If you have any suggestions, or other evidence that relates to the topic of "clutchness", please post it in the comment thread.


Bruce said...

I am looking for goalies who had substantially worse records in the playoffs than in the regular season, over a significantly large number of games.

Interesting question. There's numerous examples of skaters with dismal playoff records -- e.g. Tkachuk, Bertuzzi, Yashin, Hossa, J.Thornton -- but goalies? Not so much.

In general goalies' performances improve a little bit in the playoffs. e.g. the "fraud" of your unfortunately-named website is 2.20/.913 in the regular season and 1.96/.919 in the post-season. Teams tend to tighten up defensively in the playoffs and goaltenders may also sharpen their focus a tad. (Any stats on these trends? They seem obvious to casual analysis, but whether the league-wide effect is 5% or 10%, I couldn't say.)

So the place to start is to find goalies who have performances that are even a little bit worse than their established rate. The guy you mentioned, Turco, is 2.15/.913 in RS and 2.18/.910 in PS. Like you said, two bad series, but he has recovered well with an enlarged sample size.

And sample size is certainly a problem. Playoff failure does not lend itself to reproducibility except over a long career. And goalies with a bad playoff rep don't tend to have long careers. :)

I racked my brain for examples of goalies who were (or could have been) considered underachievers in this respect. I remember Ed Belfour taking a hit early in his career, but he righted the ship dramatically by posting six consecutive Sv% of .920 or better, and by the end of his career his playoff record was substantially better (2.50/.906 RS, 2.17/.920PS). Definitely not a choker.

Sean Burke is one name that springs to mind. Burke's numbers dropped significantly in the post-season, from 2.96/.902 to 3.32/.888. But the sample size is really skewed, 820 GP against just 38.

Similarly, a current goalie, Manny Legace, drops from 2.31/.914 to 2.54/.888, but in a tiny sample size of just 11 playoff games. Unfair to label him a choker, esp. if you remember his transcendent performance in the 1993 WJC.

Another goalie with a suspect record was Reggie Lemelin, whose stats deteriorated slightly from 3.46/.884 to 3.58/.881. Three times his team went to the Finals, and two of those times (1986, 1990)he played himself out of the starting role. So ... maybe.

Another poor bugger who got saddled with a "can't win the Big One" rep was Glenn (Chico) Resch. Looking at his career stats however suggests that Resch was no choker: a GAA of 3.27 in season and 2.50 in the playoffs. (no Sv% from his days) Of course in his case his regular season GAA was bloated by a few years with the Rockies and Devils who never got close to the playoffs. So a better comparison would be just his years on the Islanders, in which his playoff GAA was superior to his RS one in 4 of 6 seasons.

Pete Peeters played on a number of strong clubs that never could get it done in the playoffs, and on the surface his GAA of 3.08 RS vs. 3.31 PS doesn't look good. So put him on the short list if you like.

Similarly, Daniel Bouchard had, like Peeters, a bit of a rep for blowing up in the playoffs. His GAA rose from 3.26 to 3.46.

One goalie who never did get it done in the playoffs was Tony Esposito, whose GAA rose from 2.92 to 3.07. Tony 0 is particularly remembered for blowing a 2-0 lead in Game 7 of the 1971 Stanley Cup Finals, in which a 90-foot slapshot by Jacques Lemaire started an unlikely Hab comeback. Did he choke? Or was it just a fluke, at the worst possible moment?

Going back further still, I look at the record of Glenn Hall, whose GAA soared from 2.49 RS to 2.78 PS, an increase of 12%. Not too good. OTOH, this guy won a Stanley Cup in 1961 and a Conn Smythe Trophy in 1968. Choker? Harsh.

I know there's another name or two rattling around in my head somewhere, but from the above there's not much to support choking goalies. I can cite you a few anecdotes, but the numbers don't really back it up other than to suggest random distribution due to drastically different sample sizes.

Anonymous said...

there are definitely players who seem to rise to the occaision more than others. as of recent events, jeremy roenick comes to mind. also claude lemieux, chris drury, even martin brodeur if you look at his play in game 7's, and not related to hockey but, derek jeter, michael jordan, and tom brady. sure over time stats will even out, but certain players seem to get it done with much greater frequency than others. just as it has been proven that the "pressure" or adrenaline that is present in big situations can negatively affect a players approach, it doesnt seem out of the question to beleive that this same situation can elevate ones play. everyone handles pressure differently, so tighten up and choke, others dont let it bother them and play the same, and a few turn it positively.