Thursday, July 3, 2008

2008 San Jose Sharks - Good Defence or Good Goalie?

A comment on my last post got me interested enough in looking a little deeper at the team context Evgeni Nabokov played in this year. Commentor Rob S claimed I was mistaken that the Sharks were a top defensive unit, and a lot of Shark fans tend to echo that sentiment. I admit I haven't watched the Sharks play extensively during the regular season, but I saw most of their playoff games and thought they had a strong team defence. I would be interested, though, in hearing an explanation of exactly why they are not a top defensive team, because all their team statistics are outstanding:
  • The Sharks allowed the second fewest shots against in the league this year.
  • The Sharks had the best penalty killing percentage in the league at 85.8%.
  • According to Alan Ryder, the Sharks had the 6th best shot quality rating in the league. According to Hockey Numbers, they had the 4th best.
  • A group of 3 probably replacement-level backup goalies combined for 3-2-2, 2.63, .896.
  • Every single player on the San Jose Sharks averaged less than 25 shots against per 60 minutes of even-strength ice time. Twelve of their regular players averaged less than 22 shots against per 60 (source: Behind the Net)

I think the view that the Sharks defence isn't that good is coloured by two things: the no-name defencemen and the fact that the Sharks struggled early in the season. I don't care how famous the defencemen are, just how well they play defence, and the Sharks' defence put up pretty solid numbers. From Behind the Net, four of their regulars (Rivet, Ehrhoff, Vlasic, and Murray) allowed less than 2 goals against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play. Also, forwards play a very important role in team defence. The Sharks not only have some very good defensive forwards (7 of them were also sub-2.00 players at 5-on-5), but they also help their defencemen by keeping the puck at the other end of the ice (every single player on the team was on for more shots for than shots against at even strength).

As for their early season struggles, The Forechecker has some defensive stats from mid-December. At that time, he ranked the Sharks 5th in shots against and 11th in shot quality against. Not terrible, but admittedly not among the best in the league either. Back then Nabokov's save percentage was up around .920, so his performance to that point did rank among the league's best. As the season went on, however, the Sharks defensive effort improved substantially while Nabokov's success rate fell dramatically. The reduced level of goaltending was obscured by the fact that the Sharks starting winning games at a much higher rate:

Oct-Dec: .919 save %, 22-12-5
Jan-Apr: .899 save %, 24-9-3

Was Nabokov the Sharks' most valuable player and the key to their defensive results? I think he might very well have been their first half MVP, but in the second half and playoffs the Sharks won because of a great all-around game, and more often than not won despite, not because of, their goaltending.

I think an interesting comparison to Nabokov, and one that shows how perception and team factors often overshadow actual results, is Roberto Luongo. Like Nabokov, Luongo had a much better first half than second half this year. However, unlike Nabokov, Luongo took a lot of heat for his second half decline, and as a result finished 7th in Vezina Trophy voting. The reason was that the Canucks got worse in the second half of the season, and so Luongo's slip became more noticeable. Here are Luongo's splits:

Oct-Dec: 18-12-3, .928, 2.03
Jan-Apr: 17-17-6, .908, 2.69

Just like Nabokov, Luongo was very valuable to his team in the first half of the season. However, the Canucks slipped in the second half because of declining play and defensive injuries, and they starting give up a higher number and difficulty of shots. Luongo's performance got worse as well, and as the team's star player his poor results were magnified in the glare of the spotlight. So Luongo probably outplayed Nabokov in both the first and second halves of the season, but simply because the Canucks were going in the opposite direction of the Sharks Nabokov ended up with the credit while Luongo got the blame.

Were the Sharks an elite defensive unit in the first half of the season? Evidence suggests that they weren't. However, taking everything, including their torrid second half, into account I think it is fair to say that the Sharks were a top defensive team overall, and that they helped produce the GAA and wins numbers that vaulted Nabokov into Vezina consideration.


Anonymous said...

I think Luongo took a lot of heat because after leaving to see his newborn kid, on his return in the critical last 2 weeks of the regular season he finished with 1 win, 7 losses and only gained 2 points out of a possible 16, resulting in a failure to make the playoffs. Granted, you would probably defend him by saying his TEAM played poorly by only scoring 2 goals per game in that period. However, Luongos .841 save % is completely out of character and probably resulted in a loss of confidence in goaltending. It is sad so many people have no hesitation putting Luongo above Brodeur even though in that same time period, the devils only scored 1.625 goals a game and yet they finished with 4 wins (3 in shootout) and 5 losses (8 points out of 18).

I know it is difficult to take such a small sample size, a two week streak where fluctuations are expected to result in winning and losing streaks, however these two weeks were a do or die situation for Luongo and the Vancover team, and it "just" so happened to overlap with a large personal event in Luongo's life (the birth of his child). Although stats are accurate to portray teams, I recognize that there are some factors in sports in the players, teams, and games that can not be numerically accounted for. Brodeur's most important goalie stat of save percentage is not the only thing he contributes to his team. His mental stability and the confidence he instills in his teamates often gives his team more chances to win games. Luongo has only made the playoffs once in his 6/7 year career does not bring the same mental control to his game, and has never developed enough familiarity with success to deserve such high accolades. Vancover had made the playoffs 6 of the past 7 seasons, yet with the "best goalie in the NHL" (to some) they have their worst post lockout season.

Furthermore, a team like florida who lost Luongo has finished equal or better to Luongo's best season in his career there. Luongo may have a good save percentage all the time, but maybe its because of his big bulky pads and butterfly style. He may stop a lot of shots, but he must be consitently letting in goals at the wrong times because he always loses. Guys like Nabokov who play on "better teams" (even though from 2000 - 2007 the canucks averaged more points per season than the sharks). In a system where many claim "good teams make good goalies", Luongo's presence on both NHL teams has made no difference or actually been worse to the prior (vancover), or future (florida) seasons of his teams.

Sorry for the rant, but Luongo doesn't come close to deserving vezina consideration. Nabokov developed a confidence in his team over the past 7 seasons and provided his team with the same consitent game, which with a good team built around him, resulted in a great finish. I can't wait to see what Vancouver brings to the table next year, same with the Sharks and Devils.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

Goalie fan: I don't think anybody would rank Luongo ahead of Brodeur for this past season. I agree that Luongo did play quite poorly in April and May. Just like Nabokov, Luongo was excellent for half the year and OK in the other half, which I don't think makes either of them a top Vezina contender.

In a system where many claim "good teams make good goalies", Luongo's presence on both NHL teams has made no difference or actually been worse to the prior (Vancover), or future (florida) seasons of his teams.

Actually, he made a big difference. We can't directly compare records from before and after the lockout because of the shootout, so I am going to convert Florida's results into a straight win/loss record. For pre-lockout records I'll assume a .500 shootout record for tied games. I'll also include how many goals the team scored and how many shots they allowed per game to give a sense of how well the rest of the team was playing:

2002-03: 31-51, 176 goals, 32.6 shots/game
2003-04: 36-46, 188 goals, 34.0 shots/game
2005-06: 37-45, 240 goals, 34.3 shots/game
2006-07: 35-47, 247 goals, 28.9 shots/game
2007-08: 38-44, 216 goals, 33.2 shots/game

In the season after they traded Luongo, Florida scored more goals than ever and improved their defence, and still won 2 less games than the '05-06 Panthers would have won if half their ties ended up as shootout wins. If there was a shootout in 2003-04, Florida would probably have won more games that year than they did in '06-07, even though the team scored 59 fewer goals and allowed over 5 extra shots per game. Why? The '03-04 squad had the best goalie in the league on their team.

He may stop a lot of shots, but he must be consitently letting in goals at the wrong times because he always loses.

When your team doesn't score, almost every goal you let in is at the "wrong time", and Luongo has never in his career played on a team that scored more goals than league average.

Luongo has actually helped win a lot of games for his team. His career winning percentage is .477. The total winning percentage of his goalie teammates is .347, even though they as a group were close to .500 in over 57,000 minutes played on other teams, which shows both the effect of Luongo and how bad some his teammates were.

Nabokov developed a confidence in his team over the past 7 seasons and provided his team with the same consitent game, which with a good team built around him, resulted in a great finish.

I don't think Evgeni Nabokov and "consistent" really go together. I just showed how he was great in the first 3 months and mediocre in the last 4, and it was the same last year: hot start, average finish. Over the past few seasons as well he has been anywhere from one of the league's best to one of the league's worst.

Question for you: Do you think it is possible for a goalie to have "mental stability" and instill confidence in his teammates and still be on a losing team? If so, then how do we know it was really the goalie's fault that the team was bad? Roy, Brodeur and Hasek have all missed the playoffs in their careers. Was this because they lost their mental stability, or because their teams lost confidence in them? Or could it just have been that everyone else didn't play as well, scored fewer goals, allowed more chances against, etc.?