Monday, July 28, 2008

Why Tony Esposito Lost in the Playoffs

Bring up Tony Esposito with an older hockey fan, and they'll probably think of two things: a few games from the 1972 Series, and Esposito losing in the playoffs. Esposito has the stigma of being a playoff underachiever. But was this really true?

Tony Esposito played in 14 playoff seasons in his NHL career. Guess how many times his team lost in the playoffs to a team with fewer regular season points than his own?

The answer is once. Only one time, to the Montreal Canadiens in 1971, mainly because of the outstanding play of their rookie goaltender Ken Dryden. That was, however, the same year of the single most defining moment of Esposito's career, when he let in a shot by Jacques Lemaire from the red line in game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. That helped spark a Canadiens comeback and Chicago ended up losing the Cup.

So Esposito is remembered by many as a bad playoff goalie because he gave up a weak goal in game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals in the only time in his career that his team lost to a weaker playoff opponent. That hardly seems fair.

There is another major reason for his reputation, as well, and that is that he spent most of his career in an expansion and WHA-diluted NHL full of stacked dynasty teams. During Esposito's time in Chicago, there were several great teams - Orr's Bruins, Clarke's Flyers, Lafleur's Habs, Trottier's Islanders, and Gretzky's Oilers. In the playoffs against those teams combined, Chicago was 7-34 during Esposito's career. Against everyone else they went 49-31.

So the Blackhawks held serve against their equals or inferiors but got stomped by the giants. Esposito certainly had more than his share of run-ins with the elite teams as well. In 9 of his first 11 years in Chicago, Esposito's team lost in the playoffs to the best or second best regular season team. In one stretch, Esposito even went 4 playoff seasons without winning a single game. That's not particularly impressive, however a big reason for this was that his average team had just 75 points, and the average opponent racked up 116. Esposito's teams never scored more than 3 goals in a game over that stretch, and an amazing 10 out of 16 times they scored 1 goal or less, meaning that in over half the games Esposito played he needed a shutout to win.

Yet just playing against a stronger opponent isn't completely an excuse if a goalie played very poorly. How does Esposito's individual performance stack up? This is a more difficult question to answer, especially since we don't have official save percentages from those years. Looking at the overall numbers, his GAA went up in the playoffs compared to the regular season, from 2.92 to 3.07. However, I don't believe his playoff performance was actually any worse. Again, the primary reason for the discrepancy was the relative strength of his teams and opponents.

On teams that finished in the top 5 in the league, Esposito had playoff numbers of 36-25, 2.85. Nothing extraordinary, but that winning percentage is well above his career regular season average and his GAA is also lower. On teams that finished outside of the top 5, Esposito was just 9-28, 3.42.

In addition, when he under the biggest spotlight in his career during the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union, Esposito clearly outplayed his teammate Ken Dryden and was right on par with another Hall of Famer in Vladislav Tretiak (series save percentages found here). Sure it is a small sample, but it goes against the belief that Esposito simply folded his tent in the meaningful games.

I am not claiming that Esposito was a great playoff goaltender, simply that he was not a choker. There isn't much evidence that Esposito was a huge difference-maker in the postseason, but it would have been hard to be in his era. Most of the time he and his teammates simply ran up against a juggernaut in the playoffs and were dispatched in a short series. Perhaps a better goalie could have stolen an extra game here or there, but there seems to be little reason to believe that would have significantly altered Chicago's playoff outcomes, other than in 1971.

So if you want to fault Tony Esposito for letting in 20 goals in 7 games against a high-scoring team with 8 future Hall of Famers in 1971, then go ahead. But to claim that makes him a playoff choker is not supported by the evidence. Playoff team success is borderline irrelevant in evaluating goalies, because it depends on so many different factors. It is probably more fair to exclude it entirely, and Tony Esposito is a good example of why that is the case.

17 comments:

Bruce said...

Most of the time he and his teammates simply ran up against a juggernaut in the playoffs and were dispatched in a short series.

Like 1970: Boston 99 points, Chicago 99 points.
Playoffs, Boston sweeps Chicago 4-0.

Or 1972: NY Rangers 109 points, Chicago 107 points. Playoffs, New York sweeps Chicago 4-0.

In fact the Hawks were swept an astonishing 9 times in Esposito's 14 playoff seasons, going down without a whimper year after year as soon as they met a decent team. Esposito did rack up some pretty impressive regular season stats and awards playing on a powerhouse team in an otherwise expansion division, but when the games started to matter neither he nor the Hawks proved to be all that good.

Playoff team success is borderline irrelevant in evaluating goalies

That's just silly. Playoff success (or lack thereof) is relevant in evaluating all players. It does depend on other factors, sure. But I never once remember a team in the playoffs saying, geez we're the better club, we just gotta figure out how to solve Esposito. Typically they solved him in Game One.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

In fact the Hawks were swept an astonishing 9 times in Esposito's 14 playoff seasons, going down without a whimper year after year as soon as they met a decent team. Esposito did rack up some pretty impressive regular season stats and awards playing on a powerhouse team in an otherwise expansion division, but when the games started to matter neither he nor the Hawks proved to be all that good.

Yes his teams lost, that is clear. Where I disagree is when you automatically assume that means Esposito must have played poorly.

If Esposito was costing Chicago games, how would that show itself? Was he not making the key save at the key time? Doubtful, as Chicago was a respectable 20-20 in one-goal games (including 9-8 in OT). Their problem wasn't winning the close ones, it was getting blown out (36-45 record in games decided by 2 goals or more).

Or was the problem that he was incapable of raising his game and stonewalling the opposition to bail out his teammates? Between 1970 and 1995, only Ken Dryden had more playoff shutouts than Tony Esposito. And three of Espo's shutouts had 1-0 scorelines.

From 1976 to 1981, Tony Esposito had a 3-20 record in the playoffs. Yet he played every game except one. If it was him choking the games away, Chicago's coaching staff was criminally incompetent to not switch goalies. Apparently Esposito gave them the best chance to win.

And that makes sense, because he far outperformed his backup goalies. Esposito's career GAA was 2.89, his teammates' was 3.37. On teams that were top 5 in the league, Esposito averaged 2.32 while his backups were at 2.85. On weaker Chicago squads, Esposito averaged 3.25 and had a .511 win %, while his backups were at just 3.97 and .371. In the playoffs, Esposito averaged 3.07 while his backups were at 3.84.

So why did Chicago lose? They played better teams, and they struggled to score goals. In 47% of their games they scored 2 goals or less. Almost every time they lost a series, scoring was the major reason - Chicago only lost two series where they averaged over 3 goals per game.

Playoff success (or lack thereof) is relevant in evaluating all players.

Playoff success, of course. Playoff team success, not so much. It is easy to blame the losing goalie and praise the winner, but I think that "analysis" is wrong far more often than right. If you play well, you should be praised for it. Whether or not that results in your team winning is outside of your control.

Bruce said...

//when the games started to matter neither he nor the Hawks proved to be all that good//

Yes his teams lost, that is clear. Where I disagree is when you automatically assume that means Esposito must have played poorly.


Automatically assume, my ass. I watched most of those games. The Hawks always caved, and Esposito caved right along with them.

Almost every time they lost a series, scoring was the major reason -

OK, I'll bite. Let's figure Chicago's GF/G and Esposito's GAA from the regular season, and compare that to their GF/GA averages in the series that they lost.

1970 season: 3.29 GF, 2.17 GAA;
Lost series: 2.50 GF, 5.00 GA
***
1971 season: 3.55 GF, 2.27 GAA
Lost series: 2.57 GF, 2.86 GA
***
1972 season: 3.28 GF, 1.77 GAA
Lost series: 2.25 GF, 4.25 GA
***
1973 season: 3.64 GF, 2.51 GAA
Lost series: 3.83 GF, 5.50 GA
***
1974 season: 3.49 GF, 2.04 GAA
Lost series: 3.33 GF, 4.67 GA
***
1975 season: 3.35 GF, 2.74 GAA
Lost series: 2.00 GF, 4.00 GA
***
1976 season: 3.18 GF, 2.97 GAA
Lost series: 0.75 GF, 3.25 GA
***
1977 season: 3.00 GF, 3.45 GAA
Lost series: 1.50 GF, 3.50 GA
***
1978 season: 2.88 GF, 2.63 GAA
Lost series: 2.25 GF, 4.75 GA
***
1979 season: 3.05 GF, 3.27 GAA
Lost series: 0.75 GF, 3.50 GA
***
1980 season: 3.01 GF, 2.97 GAA
Lost series: 1.75 GF, 4.00 GA
***
1981 season: 3.80 GF, 3.75 GAA
Lost series: 3.00 GF, 5.00 GA
***
1982 season: 4.15 GF, 4.52 GAA
Lost series: 2.60 GF, 3.60 GA
***
1983 season: 4.23 GF, 3.46 GAA
Lost series: 2.75 GF, 6.25 GA
***


The last two seasons Murray Bannerman played more playoff games than Espo so that GA in the last, lost series cannot necessarily be ascribed to Tony O. So we'll spare him the ignominy of the team's 6.25 GAA against the Oilers in '83, cuz I remember for a fact it was Bannerman who mostly got lit up.

In the 12 season 1970-81 Esposito played virtually all the playoff games. In those 12 seasons the Hawks outscored their season average only once in their 12 losing series, but the team GA was worse than Espo's average in 12 out of 12 seasons. Worse. Every year.

So let's sum and compare. This isn't an exact science, cuz I am simply treating all the 12 regular seasons average GF equally whether the Hawks played 76 games or 80, and am simply taking an average of Espo's averages rather than working out the exact numbers. And in the playoffs I am just working off the scores of the games and have not taken into account empty net goals against, or given extra credit for minutes played in OT games, or figured out what tiny bit the backups might have done. Nor have I figured in the basic fact that league-wide goal scoring drops in the playoffs, so one would normally expect both GF and GA numbers to drop. Given those minor limitations, here are the results:

Offence: 3.29 GF/G in regular season, 2.34 GF/G in losing series, for a net drop of -0.95/G, or 29%.

Defence: Espo's average GAA 2.71 in regular season; team GAA of 4.19 in losing series for a net drop of +1.48 GA/G, or 54%. Fifty-four percent!

So for you to ascribe the Hawks' failure in the playoffs to a lack of offence tells only half the story. Less than half, actually. Their customary excellent defence and goaltending went south, every spring.

In the playoffs, Esposito averaged 3.07 while his backups were at 3.84.

Give me a break. Esposito's backups didn't play barely at all until the very end of his career, when the afore-mentioned Murray Bannerman wasn't his backup at all, but #1, just at the time when average scoring around the league was at an all-time high. So that skews the "back-ups" averages way outside of any legitimate comparison.

Playoff success, of course. Playoff team success, not so much. It is easy to blame the losing goalie and praise the winner

It is easy to blame the losing players and praise the winners. By no means do I single out goalies in this exercise. If a supposed team leader has a crummy individual record, then team success is very unlikely. That applies whether it's Keith Tkachuk, Alexei Yashin, Todd Bertuzzi, Wade Redden, or Tony Esposito.

Goalies are team players and they play an important part of the success of the team. I'm not saying it's 100% or 75% or whatever stupid figure the talking heads might spew, and I agree with your basic premise that goaltending can be overrated. But at the same time I'm not going to accept the extreme of that premise that the goalie is only as good as the team he plays for and therefore is exonerated of blame and denied credit for the team's performance, because that collectively does the goalies a disservice. Damn right they can be difference makers, in either a positive or negative sense.

And sorry, I don't see much positive at all in Tony Esposito's post-season record.

Anonymous said...

comparing reg season GAA to playoff GAA --- have to remember that the opposition in the playoffs is better than reg season... i.e. playing the Seals in the reg season is easier than playing the Bruins/Habs in the playoffs.

so its not a surprise that the playoff GAA is higher than reg season GAA?

Bruce said...

have to remember that the opposition in the playoffs is better than reg season... so its not a surprise that the playoff GAA is higher than reg season

Anonymous: seems logical, except the historical record doesn't support it. As I alluded above, hockey tends to tighten up a little in the playoffs and goal production tends to drop league-wide.

Check out the career regular season vs. playoff GAA for the following goalies, with reduction (-) or increase (+) shown as a percentage. I have chosen the top 25 in career playoff GP:

Goaltender = Season | Playoff |(+/-)
------------------------------------------
Patrick Roy = 2.54 | 2.30 | -9%
Martin Brodeur = 2.20 | 1.96 | -11%
Ed Belfour = 2.50 | 2.17 | -13%
Grant Fuhr = 3.38 | 2.92 | -14%
Mike Vernon = 2.98 | 2.68 | -10%
Curtis Joseph = 2.78 | 2.42 | -13%
Andy Moog = 3.13 | 3.04 | -3%
Billy Smith = 3.17 | 2.73 | -14%
Dominik Hasek = 2.20 | 2.02 | -8%
Tom Barrasso = 3.24 | 3.01 | -7%
Glenn Hall = 2.49 | 2.78 | +12% !
Jacques Plante = 2.38 | 2.14 | -10%
Ken Dryden = 2.24 | 2.40 | +7%
Chris Osgood = 2.43 | 2.11 | -13%
Terry Sawchuk = 2.51 | 2.54 | +1%
Turk Broda = 2.53 | 1.98 | -22% !!
Tony Esposito = 2.92 | 3.07 | +5%
Ron Hextall = 2.97 | 3.04 | +2%
Gerry Cheevers = 2.89 | 2.69 | -7%
Kelly Hrudey = 3.43 | 3.29 | -4%
Harry Lumley = 2.75 | 2.49 | -9%
Mike Richter = 2.89 | 2.68 | -7%
Johnny Bower = 2.51 | 2.47 | -2%
Don Beaupre = 3.45 | 3.35 | (-3%)
Felix Potvin = 2.76 | 2.64 | -4%
-----


... for an average reduction (improvement) of 0.17 better in the post-season. Just 5 of the 25 saw their GAA deteriorate in the post-season; the other 20 saw an average improvement of a full quarter of a goal per game. Of the top 10 goalies in career playoff GP, all 10 showed an improvement in the post-season by an average of 0.30 GA/G, or slightly better than 10%.

In the strange case of Tony Esposito he had an excellent record in early round series in which Chicago toppled inferior opponents, but as detailed above his record in series that Chicago lost was flat-out terrible. In his first five seasons Chicago had a powerhouse: .659 Win% over the five regular seasons, a little behind Boston (.720) and right there with Montreal (.665) and the Rangers (.653); the Hawks posted a superb GF/GA record of +3.45/-2.34 per game, and allowed more than 100 goals fewer than each of the other big three. Esposito won three Vezina Trophies while posting a 2.16 GAA in those regular seasons, but was just 2.80 in the postseason, including preliminary round successes. In the five playoff series that powerhouse Chicago team allowed 118 GA in 27 GP, for a team GAA of an atrocious 4.37/GP. Espo's numbers in those series were likely slightly lower (for reasons cited above, such as empty-netters and overtime minutes) but surely his average was north of 4.00 in those critical series.

After that five-year window the Hawks were just another team without serious Stanley Cup aspirations. But during their dominant years what was on paper a very strong club performed poorly in the clutch on offence, on defence, and in goal.

Anonymous said...

Nice work Bruce....
This just goes to show that you can make someone look good or bad all depending on what numbers you choose to interpret and how you go about interpreting and presenting them.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

Bruce, thanks for the discussion. You watched the games and I didn't, so I'm sure you have extra insight that I don't. I am neither a Chicago fan nor an Esposito fan, I just saw him as a potential case of a misapplied "playoff choker" label. You said that you don't see much positive in Esposito's record, and perhaps I am absolving him of too much blame. I am certainly not trying to claim Esposito was a great playoff goalie. However, I don't see too much negative either, certainly nothing worthy of calling him a lousy playoff goalie or anything like that.

I think we agree that the Hawks were a lousy team for Esposito's later career, so let's ignore that period and focus on when the Hawks were contenders in the early 1970s. There is one major factor that I think you aren't fully taking into account, and that is the competitive environment in the post-Original Six era. There were some historically great teams and a lot of lousy expansion teams. Powerhouses like Boston, Montreal and Philadelphia pounded everyone, and lousy expansion teams like Minnesota, Vancouver and California got pounded by everyone. Chicago was more or less caught in the middle - good enough to dominate the weaker competition but not good enough to win.

You posted some goalie season vs. playoff stats, but unfortunately most of them are irrelevant for this discussion. When the main issue is the competitive landscape of the 1970s, then stats from the 1980s and 1990s aren't very helpful. There were three guys on your list who played as starting goalies in the 1970s: Ken Dryden (2.24/2.40/+7%), Gerry Cheevers (2.89/2.69/-7%) and Tony Esposito (2.92/3.07/+5%).

From 1970 to 1974, the average regular season goals per game was 3.12. In the playoffs, it was 2.91. So scoring did go down slightly. However, one reason it did was that there were fewer weak expansion teams in the playoffs. In 1973-74, for example, there were 6.3 goals per game in games involving playoff teams, and 6.5 goals per game in games involving non-playoff teams. Also, in the playoffs the very best teams (which were generally also the best defensive teams) played a disproportionate share of the games, because they pounded their competition in the early rounds.

From 1970 to 1974, there were 35 playoff series. There were two series where teams had equal points - in the remaining 33 series the favoured team went 24-9. Chicago pulled 2 of those upsets, and were only upset once. In addition, most of the upsets were either in series between expansion teams where neither of them had a realistic chance at the Cup anyway, or were by closely-matched teams. In those five playoff years, there were only 3 series involving at least one Cup contender where a team beat an opponent that was more than 5 points better than them in the regular season. Here is the complete list:

1971: Montreal (97) over Boston (121)
1971: Montreal (97) over Chicago (107)
1973: Chicago (93) over N.Y. Rangers (102)

Another team that was stuck in the middle was the New York Rangers, who are actually a very good comparable for Chicago. From 1970 to 1974, the Rangers had 222 wins and 506 points. Chicago had 223 wins and 511 points. Who did better in the playoffs? Chicago did, going 35-26, while the Rangers were 31-27. Chicago also won 2 out of 3 head-to-head meetings, even though the Rangers had home-ice advantage in all 3 series. So I guess the Rangers must have been huge chokers as well, who "caved" every time they played a decent team?

But wasn't Chicago blown out in many of those series? Sure, but so was New York. Let's look at how those two teams did in the series that they lost against Boston, Montreal and Philadelphia from 1969 to 1974. Both teams played in 4 series, winning 7 games and losing 16. The Rangers averaged 2.4 goals per game and allowed 3.5. Chicago scored 3.1 goals per game and allowed 4.4. As you pointed out, Esposito had a very high GAA in those games. For this period, the problem was not goalscoring - it was admittedly goal prevention, which includes Esposito. However, Boston and Montreal had explosive offences, averaging over 4 goals per game in that period, which was about 30% better than league average. A 4.40 GAA against those teams was about the same as 3.40 against an average team. It would be interesting to see the shot totals to see whether Chicago was badly outplayed or just had weak goaltending. There is no question that Tony Esposito had some bad games in the playoffs, but the guys lighting him up were Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Frank Mahovlich, and Yvan Cournoyer. Quality of comp matters.

I think the record simply shows that, although both Chicago and New York had good teams in that period they were really just pretenders to the throne. They had a lot of wins from beating up on the expansion teams, but Montreal and Boston were always better. I think you can fault Esposito for some of his individual statistics, because he had an unusually high number of bad games (5, 6, 7+ goals against) in the playoffs. However, in terms of winning or losing a lot of the time those were simply extra goals against in blowout losses (you know, the kind of goals that guys like Gerry Cheevers or Grant Fuhr are never faulted for because they "only care about winning"). Chicago did just fine in close games and in OT, even against better opponents. In terms of team success, I don't think Esposito can really be faulted - Chicago beat everybody they were supposed to and even pulled off a couple of upsets. Esposito's major failing was that he let in a lot of goals against the Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs. He is hardly the only member of that club.

Bruce said...

Bruce, thanks for the discussion.

No problem, it's been interesting.

You watched the games and I didn't, so I'm sure you have extra insight that I don't.

Thanks, that is a fair assumption.

I am neither a Chicago fan nor an Esposito fan,

Me neither, pro nor con.

I just saw him as a potential case of a misapplied "playoff choker" label.

“Choker” is a strong word, but his HHoF credentials were largely acquired during the regular season, racking up shutouts and easy wins against inferior opponents on a very strong team, and later in his career simply racking up counting numbers by being durable and playing a lot of games (9 years in a row 1972-81 among the top 3 goalies in GP, including four years as #1 and four at #2 in the league). Since these are the very types of things you continuously cite in your arguments that Marty Brodeur is overrated, I find it curious that you have made a case for Esposito more than once. Marty B outstrips Tony O in even these, his strong points, and has a huge amount of playoff success compared to Tony’s 0.

You said that you don't see much positive in Esposito's record, and perhaps I am absolving him of too much blame.

Well, when you say things like this:
So if you want to fault Tony Esposito for letting in 20 goals in 7 games against a high-scoring team with 8 future Hall of Famers in 1971, then go ahead. But to claim that makes him a playoff choker is not supported by the evidence.
... in which you cite the only season in his first six where Chicago didn’t allow at least 4.00 goals per game in its losing series, displays a curious blind spot towards said evidence.

let's ignore that period and focus on when the Hawks were contenders in the early 1970s.

Sure. That was the window of opportunity for Chicago in the Esposito years.

There is one major factor that I think you aren't fully taking into account, and that is the competitive environment in the post-Original Six era. There were some historically great teams and a lot of lousy expansion teams. Powerhouses like Boston, Montreal and Philadelphia pounded everyone, and lousy expansion teams like Minnesota, Vancouver and California got pounded by everyone. Chicago was more or less caught in the middle - good enough to dominate the weaker competition but not good enough to win.

Sure I took it into account. There were four powerhouses in that era: Boston, Montreal, Chicago, New York, with Philly a late bloomer towards the end of the period. All four Original Six team pounded on expansion teams as well as the Red Wings and Leafs who fell back into the pack.

You posted some goalie season vs. playoff stats, but unfortunately most of them are irrelevant for this discussion. When the main issue is the competitive landscape of the 1970s, then stats from the 1980s and 1990s aren't very helpful.

The point (in response to Anonymous #62) was that historically things tighten up in the playoffs, which as you have shown also includes the 1970s.

There were three guys on your list who played as starting goalies in the 1970s: Ken Dryden (2.24/2.40/+7%), Gerry Cheevers (2.89/2.69/-7%) and Tony Esposito (2.92/3.07/+5%).

“My” list was the top 25 goalies for playoff GP, which largely consists of guys from the expansion era. But to focus specifically on the early 1970s, let’s add a few guys to the list, again in order of all-time GP:

12. Ken Dryden = 2.24 | 2.40 | +7%
17. Tony Esposito = 2.92 | 3.07 | +5%
19. Gerry Cheevers = 2.89 | 2.69 | -7%
26. Bernie Parent = 2.55 | 2.43 | -5%
34. Ed Giacomin = 2.82 | 2.81 | -0.3%
45. Rogie Vachon = 2.99 | 2.77 | -7%
62. Cesare Maniago = 3.27 | 2.67 | -18%
63. Gerry Desjardins = 3.29 | 3.46 = +5%
70. Gilles Gilbert = 3.27 | 3.03 | -7%
70. Roger Crozier = 3.04 | 2.75 = -10%


... which includes 10 guys from that era who played in at least 30 playoff games. Note: these are career GAA stats, not filtered down to just the period in question as I only have so much time for this! But the trend is still pretty clearly that most goalies perform a little better by this metric in the post season.

From 1970 to 1974, the average regular season goals per game was 3.12. In the playoffs, it was 2.91. So scoring did go down slightly.

Yup, about 7%. Seems pretty consistent with the norm.

However, one reason it did was that there were fewer weak expansion teams in the playoffs. In 1973-74, for example, there were 6.3 goals per game in games involving playoff teams, and 6.5 goals per game in games involving non-playoff teams. Also, in the playoffs the very best teams (which were generally also the best defensive teams) played a disproportionate share of the games, because they pounded their competition in the early rounds.

Yes and yes. The better defensive teams generally make the playoffs, and do well in them. It was ever thus.

Another team that was stuck in the middle was the New York Rangers, who are actually a very good comparable for Chicago. From 1970 to 1974, the Rangers had 222 wins and 506 points. Chicago had 223 wins and 511 points. Who did better in the playoffs? Chicago did, going 35-26, while the Rangers were 31-27. Chicago also won 2 out of 3 head-to-head meetings, even though the Rangers had home-ice advantage in all 3 series. So I guess the Rangers must have been huge chokers as well, who "caved" every time they played a decent team?

Agreed the Rangers and Black Hawks were extremely good comparables. Both “underachieved” in the playoffs through those years, winning 0 Cups while their fellow powerhouses Boston and Montreal won two each and Philly snuck in for the last one.

But wasn't Chicago blown out in many of those series? Sure, but so was New York. Let's look at how those two teams did in the series that they lost against Boston, Montreal and Philadelphia from 1969 to 1974. Both teams played in 4 series, winning 7 games and losing 16. The Rangers averaged 2.4 goals per game and allowed 3.5. Chicago scored 3.1 goals per game and allowed 4.4. As you pointed out, Esposito had a very high GAA in those games. For this period, the problem was not goalscoring - it was admittedly goal prevention, which includes Esposito.

Surprising, given the Black Hawks had by far the best defensive club in the league during those years. They gave up just 909 GA over those 5 seasons, with the Rangers well back at 1017 and the Habs and Bruins further still in arrears.

Indeed, Chicago was sort of the New Jersey Devils of that period, a perennial airtight defensive unit featuring a workhorse goaltender, a Big Three on the blueline (Stapleton, White, Magnuson), and a fine record of winning the games they were “supposed” to win. Obviously there are differences – Jersey didn’t have a Hull or a Mikita, but stayed in the upper echelon of the league for much longer. They also won a few playoff series they weren’t supposed to, winning four series starting on the road in 1995 and winning the Conference Final in Game 7 on the road in both 2000 and 2003, both times in tight one-goal games. And they and their “overrated” goalie won three Stanley Cups.

However, Boston and Montreal had explosive offences, averaging over 4 goals per game in that period, which was about 30% better than league average. A 4.40 GAA against those teams was about the same as 3.40 against an average team.

Either of which is a pretty lousy GAA, especially for a team built around defence and goaltending. One more look at those five losing series, comparing the winner’s average GF/G and Chicago’s average GA/G from the respective regular seasons:

1970: Boston 3.64 GF; Chicago 2.23 GA;
4 games, 20 goals, 5.0 G/G

1971: Montreal 3.73 GF; Chicago 2.36 GA;
7 games, 20 goals, 2.86 G/G

1972: New York 4.06 GF; Chicago 2.13;
4 games, 17 goals, 4.25 G/G

1973: Montreal 4.22 GF; Chicago 2.88 GA;
6 games, 33 goals, 5.50 G/G

1974: Boston 4.47 GF; Chicago 2.10 GA;
6 games, 28 goals, 4.67 G/G


... so four of the five series, the opponent scored more than their season average, despite playing against a team with an excellent defensive record.

It would be interesting to see the shot totals to see whether Chicago was badly outplayed or just had weak goaltending. There is no question that Tony Esposito had some bad games in the playoffs, but the guys lighting him up were Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Frank Mahovlich, and Yvan Cournoyer. Quality of comp matters.

Yes it does.

I think the record simply shows that, although both Chicago and New York had good teams in that period they were really just pretenders to the throne. They had a lot of wins from beating up on the expansion teams, but Montreal and Boston were always better.

Well, Chicago finished first overall in 1969-70 and had home ice against the Bruins; and were demonstrably better than Montreal in 1970-71 pretty much right up to the moment of Lemaire’s 90-footer; but when the chips were down Montreal and Boston were indeed better.

In terms of team success, I don't think Esposito can really be faulted - Chicago beat everybody they were supposed to and even pulled off a couple of upsets.

The Lemaire goal that turned Game 7 -- and the subsequent inability to make the big save to protect what was still a 2-1 lead, while his counterpart was putting up a stone wall at the far end -- would be the elephant in the room. They didn’t beat everyone they were supposed to. If the Hawks had won just that one Cup during that period, that would have been about right for the strength of their team. Without a solitary Cup to show for it, that post-expansion Hawks club and their Hall of Fame goalie can in my view fairly be considered underachievers.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

Since these are the very types of things you continuously cite in your arguments that Marty Brodeur is overrated, I find it curious that you have made a case for Esposito more than once. Marty B outstrips Tony O in even these, his strong points, and has a huge amount of playoff success compared to Tony’s 0.

Touche. The primary reason that I have ranked Esposito highly was that he came off very well in some of my studies involving performance against backup goalies. However, having looked deeper into the numbers as a result of this post, I think that he may simply have been playing with some very poor backup goalies. And I don't doubt that Chicago was a strong defensive team during the regular season. It is unfortunate that Esposito's career basically falls exactly into the period where we don't have detailed shot data (1968-1983). If Chicago allowed substantially fewer shots than average and Esposito had unimpressive save percentages, which it sounds like he may have had, then he wasn't that great.

Sure I took it into account. There were four powerhouses in that era: Boston, Montreal, Chicago, New York, with Philly a late bloomer towards the end of the period. All four Original Six team pounded on expansion teams as well as the Red Wings and Leafs who fell back into the pack.

My justification for Esposito was that Chicago was a level below Boston and Montreal, while your claim was that they were on the same level. Hockey-reference.com is a pretty good source, so I figured I'd look at regular season records from the period, as well as how Chicago did against the Bruins and the Habs in the regular season to see who was right.

Regular Season, 1970-1974:
1. Boston, 254 wins, 559 points
2. Montreal, 223 wins, 516 points
3. Chicago, 223 wins, 511 points
4. N.Y. Rangers, 222 wins, 506 points

Chicago record vs. MTL & BOS:
1970: 7-7-2, 43 GF, 36 GA
1971: 6-5-1, 34 GF, 39 GA
1972: 2-6-4, 29 GF, 40 GA
1973: 6-4-0, 35 GF, 35 GA
1974: 4-2-4, 34 GF, 27 GA

Total: 25-24-11, 175 GF, 177 GA

You win, Bruce. Chicago way underachieved in the playoffs. They were about as good as the Habs in the regular season, both overall and head-to-head, yet they were repeatedly crushed in the playoffs. And that magnitude of underachieving, especially on the goal prevention side, has to include a significant contribution from the goaltender. I'll stand by my rationalizations for Esposito's later career, but he should have done better from 1970 to 1974.

Bruce said...

Touche. The primary reason that I have ranked Esposito highly was that he came off very well in some of my studies involving performance against backup goalies.
However, having looked deeper into the numbers as a result of this post, I think that he may simply have been playing with some very poor backup goalies.


Partly. Don't forget the factor I mentioned above that Espo's "backups" played much more at the end of his career when league-wide scoring was way up.

I do understand what you're trying to do with the comparison to backups, but the method is fraught with danger IMO, esp. in the case where the #1 plays a ton and the backup barely gets a sniff. So much depends on how the coach deploys the second guy, and how the team responds to him. And until he finally gets a chance to play regularly, typically on another team, you don't find out whether he's Mike Veisor or Dominik Hasek.

And I don't doubt that Chicago was a strong defensive team during the regular season.

Very, very strong. They were a puck possession club that always boasted at least three top drawer defencemen (White, Stapleton, Magnuson, Doug Jarrett early, Phil Russell late in the 5-year run).

It is unfortunate that Esposito's career basically falls exactly into the period where we don't have detailed shot data (1968-1983). If Chicago allowed substantially fewer shots than average and Esposito had unimpressive save percentages, which it sounds like he may have had, then he wasn't that great.

We weren't subjected to too many Western Conference games where the Hawks lorded it over the expansion newcomers, even in the playoffs, but my imperfect recollection is the Hawks were very effective at limiting shots against. As you say, it would be nice if shots data were available; I wonder if any of the SIHR people might be working on this?

My justification for Esposito was that Chicago was a level below Boston and Montreal, while your claim was that they were on the same level.

Pretty close, for sure. Boston was a little better, the other three were on a virtual par.

Hockey-reference.com is a pretty good source, so I figured I'd look at regular season records from the period, as well as how Chicago did against the Bruins and the Habs in the regular season to see who was right.

Good thinking, and good sleuthing. I thought of scanning the game scores for this, but you were way ahead of me and actually did it.

You win, Bruce.

Thank you, CG!

that magnitude of underachieving, especially on the goal prevention side, has to include a significant contribution from the goaltender.

Agreed. What was originally just a strong impression on my part has solidified into a very strong case after this re-examination of the statistical evidence.

I'll stand by my rationalizations for Esposito's later career, but he should have done better from 1970 to 1974.

Now here's the funny part. Dividing his career into two parts, the 5 years on a powerhouse and the subsequent decade on a middle-of-the-road team:

1969-74: 2.16 | 2.80 | +30% !!!
1974-84: 3.31 | 3.43 | +4%
----------------------------------
1969-84: 2.92 | 3.07 | +5%


Turns out that +5% playoff-over-regular-season figure I arrived at for his career understates Esposito's poor performance. This is because he played only 1/3 of his regular season games on that defensive powerhouse club, but 57% of his playoff games. So the "bad" Hawks had a much greater impact on his career GAA in the regular season than they did in the playoffs. But his play deteriorated in the post-season in both sections of his career.

Anonymous said...

"I do understand what you're trying to do with the comparison to backups, but the method is fraught with danger IMO, esp. in the case where the #1 plays a ton and the backup barely gets a sniff. So much depends on how the coach deploys the second guy, and how the team responds to him. And until he finally gets a chance to play regularly, typically on another team, you don't find out whether he's Mike Veisor or Dominik Hasek."

Spot on. I never felt this was a really solid method of evaluating the starter by comparing the backup. It may work when the goalies share more time as you will then see both goalies going against good as well as poor teams. But typically when you have a backup that gets into 10 or fewer games per year, the accuracy of comparing the backups stats wains as the coaches decision on when and how to utilize the backup can be better suited to his strengths. Such as a strong performance against a particular opponent for example.

Anonymous said...

There are some pre-1983 save pct stats in the last Klein & Reif book... not "official" stats, but dug up by a guy from Regina who apparently read through old issues of various newspapers.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

There are some pre-1983 save pct stats in the last Klein & Reif book

Yeah, I have those. I looked up the stats for Esposito from the only seasons we have data: 1971, 1975 and 1976.

In 1971, Tony Esposito had a .920 save percentage, which was 3rd in the league. He faced 28.4 shots per game when the league average was 31.7. His backup, Gerry Desjardins, put up a .916 save percentage in 1,218 minutes.

In 1975, Tony Esposito had a .905 save percentage, 9th in the league. He faced 28.9 shots (league average: 30.7). Mike Veisor played 462 minutes, and had an .843 save percentage, facing 29.7 shots per game.

In 1976, Tony Esposito had a .906 save percentage (7th), facing 31.0 shots (30.4 average). Gilles Villemure played 798 minutes and posted an .862 against the same 31.0 shots per game.

So Esposito did post a pretty high save percentage in 1971, although his decent backup also had very good stats. Then again, 1971 was a bit of an off-year - Esposito was named First Team All-Star in both 1970 and 1972, but received no honours in 1971. In 1972, Esposito led the league in GAA by almost a third of a goal, so he would have certainly led in save percentage as well.

I think by the mid-70s the Hawks were no longer a very good team, but those numbers confirm my suspicions that Esposito's backups, particularly Mike Veisor, were sieves. Perhaps the talent-diluted WHA era resulted in a big drop in goaltending replacement level? That would make goalies from Esposito's era look better in comparison to their teammates.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

Partly. Don't forget the factor I mentioned above that Espo's "backups" played much more at the end of his career when league-wide scoring was way up.

That doesn't matter with the way I usually go about it. I didn't do it in my earlier quick number-crunching on Esposito, but I weight each season equally to avoid this issue. It is a similar issue with Martin Brodeur - the raw totals make it look like he substantially outplayed his backups, but really it is just the effect of Chris Terreri logging a lot of minutes in 1994 during a still relatively high-scoring era.

I do understand what you're trying to do with the comparison to backups, but the method is fraught with danger IMO, esp. in the case where the #1 plays a ton and the backup barely gets a sniff. So much depends on how the coach deploys the second guy, and how the team responds to him. And until he finally gets a chance to play regularly, typically on another team, you don't find out whether he's Mike Veisor or Dominik Hasek.

Of course there are caveats with the method. I use it as sort of an acid test/first look - did that guy outperform his teammates? - then combine it with other methods, like save percentage analysis. Sometimes there are valid reasons why the performance vs. backups is not representative (e.g. your example of the backup being Dominik Hasek). In recent years there has usually been enough turnover of goalies and backups to get some meaningful data, but the 1970s were an especially difficult period because we have limited save percentage data, low parity, and a lot of goalies, both starters and backups, who played all or nearly all of their careers in one city.

But typically when you have a backup that gets into 10 or fewer games per year, the accuracy of comparing the backups stats wains as the coaches decision on when and how to utilize the backup can be better suited to his strengths. Such as a strong performance against a particular opponent for example.

Do you think the difference in how teams use their backup in terms of strength of opposition is more significant than the difference in shot quality against? Why would there be substantial variance in how teams use their backup goalies? I know New Jersey tends to run their backups out against the bottom feeders, which makes sense, but do you think Luongo gets benched when the Red Wings are in town? Or that the Rangers aren't going to play Lundqvist against key division rivals? Are there any teams in the league that save up their backups to play against Detroit, San Jose and Anaheim? If there aren't, then isn't everyone in pretty well the same boat?

There may be differences in how teams use goalies, but I think the differences in how teams play defence is probably at least as significant, if not much more so.

Secondly, of course a single season of 5 games by a backup goalie is not a big enough sample size. Looking at 5-10 years of a goalie against his teammates is much more valuable, and that is what I try to do wherever possible. Even Martin Brodeur's rarely-used backups have over 10,000 minutes of playing time during his career - I'm sure there's something useful in that sample somewhere.

Bruce said...

I know New Jersey tends to run their backups out against the bottom feeders, which makes sense, but do you think Luongo gets benched when the Red Wings are in town?

Off the top of my head, a team like Vancouver has a (much!) tougher road schedule than a club on the eastern seaboard like Jersey. Maybe the coach chooses a strategy of always playing the back-up in the second of back-to-backs. Or the coach of a mediocre team like Vancouver ;-) might even look at a given pair of road games on consecutive nights and go for the split, starting his #1 in the game he thinks his team has the best chance to win, and throwing the other guy to the wolves/hoping for a miracle in the other game.

Anonymous said...

Don't backups almost always face fewer shots/game than the starter? I think that while a team might tighten up a bit defensively when they have the backup in net, & therefore allow fewer shots, it's also likely that the backups are put in net against the weaker teams. Seems that way, anyway.

Anonymous said...

Could the poster Bruce please help explain something for me please. Upon his passing my dad left me a library of games from the 70's both ragular season and playoffs that feutures all the great's of the era, Esposito, Dryden, Cheevers, Parent etc and if you "watched" those games back then and came to the conclusion that Esposito was facing the same amount and same quality of shots the others were then you are out of your mind. Esposito was under seige in ever game I have seen including the early 70's....almost everything put towards him was a quality shot while every game I have with Dryden in it shows him standing around for 10 minutes before a shot from the blueline came through. You watched in this era??? You talk about the Blackhawks having great defense in the 70's are you nuts? Esposito was the defense he was the only reason they were competitive and has the defensive numbers they did. I read your posts and went back and re watched again just to make sure I wasn'st seeing things and you need to find some tape and do the same my friend because Esposito was totally under attack with great quality scoring chances far more than any of the other great 70's goalies; my God the number of times you hear "save Esposito, save again by Esposito, another one by Esposito, score! on like the 3rd or 4th shot (yeah great defense)you can interpret numbers in any way shape or form but if you watched like you said then you are either ignoring what you see or have memory issues and need to watch again.