Friday, September 12, 2008

The Unknown Who Outplayed Sawchuk in His Prime

We've had a heated debate lately in the comments about wins and a goaltender's contribution to a winning team. I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at one of my more interesting findings since I started doing this blog, because it is another case of matching a goalie with a poor record against a goalie with a great record and trying to identify whether the second guy is actually better or not.

Most hockey fans know who Terry Sawchuk was, but few of them know who Al Rollins was. I have posted about Rollins before because he came out very well in my studies comparing goalies to their backups, and I wanted to revisit his case. I have received a fair amount of feedback about that type of study, and a number of concerns have been raised. However, this is one of those situations where a comparison is very easy to make since we can avoid the major drawbacks of the method. Both Sawchuk and Rollins were preceded by Harry Lumley and succeeded by Glenn Hall, two Hall of Fame goalies, so by restricting the comparison to how just those two other goalies did on both teams we are truly comparing apples to apples. Also I took only full seasons played for all the goalies in the sample to avoid any potential strength of schedule advantages for part-time backup goalies. I isolated a time frame (1947-48 to 1957-58) that was both a period of futility for Chicago and a period of excellence for Detroit, so it makes a good point of comparison with fairly constant team effects. I believe this is therefore a good test of which goalie was a bigger difference maker. I have six full seasons for Sawchuk in Detroit, five full seasons for Rollins in Chicago, five full seasons of Lumley/Hall in Detroit and three full seasons of Lumley/Hall in Chicago, which gives us a good bit of data to work with.

So what do the numbers say? Here are how our two goalies made out:

Al Rollins in Chicago: 81-171-56, 17 SO, 3.03, .354 win %
Terry Sawchuk in Detroit: 224-107-77, 59 SO, 2.11, .643 win %

Looks pretty decisive in favour of Sawchuk, doesn't it? That is, until we bring in a bit of context:

Lumley & Hall in Detroit: 165-97-61, 36 SO, 2.30, .605 win %
Lumley & Hall in Chicago: 53-124-26, 12 SO, 3.39, .325 win %

Now we just have to compare the numbers to see which goalie was more dominant compared to his peers, Rollins or Sawchuk.

Rollins: -0.36 GAA, +.029 win %
Sawchuk: -0.19 GAA, +.038 win %

In that comparison, I'd take Rollins. His GAA outperformance is almost twice as large as Sawchuk's. This was partly because he faced more shots per game, however Rollins allowed 11% fewer goals per game than Lumley/Hall, while Sawchuk allowed 8% fewer. Sawchuk did win a higher percentage of games, but Sawchuk had slightly higher goal support than his peers (2.96 per game for Sawchuk, 2.92 for Lumley/Hall) while Rollins had lesser goal support (2.25 compared to 2.34 for Lumley/Hall). In addition, the farther a team gets away from .500, the more difficult it is to be a difference-maker. For example, on a team that scores 8 goals a game or 0 goals a game, a great goalie will have the same record as a terrible one. But on an average team that plays a lot of one-goal games, a great goalie will have more chances to change the result. The other goalies were farther under .500 in Chicago than they were above .500 in Detroit, so Rollins' opportunity to impact the results was probably not as great as Sawchuk's. Even being conservative, I don't think we can say Sawchuk was any better than Rollins in that period. On the other hand, the Red Wings were certainly better than the Black Hawks.

I think Terry Sawchuk's peak is overrated, and his numbers had a good deal to do with the team he was playing on. Sawchuk was more of a consistently good goalie than somebody who was ever really dominant, except maybe in 1950-51 and 1951-52. Other than those two seasons he was never the best goalie in the league. Rollins, on the other hand, only had six full seasons as a starting goalie, but not much of a playoff career (such was the reality of playing on Chicago, although Rollins was a Stanley Cup winner with Toronto in 1950-51). He had to deal with the difficult goalie competition of the Original Six era, and was likely overlooked in his post-Chicago days because of the lack of team success in his early career. Rollins is famous for winning a Hart Trophy in 1954, an award decision that likely was as much a make-up decision for his 1952-53 season and playoffs as an award that was earned in that season, but otherwise he attracted very little recognition and was never named a season-end All-Star. Rollins isn't an all-time great, but merely a goalie who made the most of a less than ideal team situation and for a brief period of time played as well as one of the most celebrated goalies of all-time in his prime.

10 comments:

Bruce said...

CG: Funny you should mention that. I was this |<-->| far from invoking the name of Al Rollins earlier today on one of these other threads, in particular his 1954-55 season where he led the league in losses and GA by a wide margin and won the league MVP.

Even I am not old enough to have seen Rollins, though I saw quite a bit of Sawchuk's late career. Any suggestion Rollins was actually better than Sawchuk in his peak years seems a little rich. I agree Sawchuk was somewhat overrated, he had those 5 great seasons to start his career and his reputation was sealed after that even though his performance suffered. My own feeling is that Detroit of the early '50s was a lot better than Chicago from the net right on out.

I also note your 11-year study is perfectly timed to begin with Lumley's good years in Detroit but not his so-so ones that preceded them; and to include Hall's one tough season in Chicago before he began to turn it on. I would have picked the exact same seasons myself if I wanted to make that particular case.

Bruce said...

Oops, make that his 1953-54 season.

66 GP, 12-47-7, 3.23

He did record 5 shutouts, and on that dreadful club (133 GF, 242 GA) he probably earned them. He probably earned a lot of sympathy and some consideration for a Purple Heart. MVP? Not so much.

Scott said...

As a point of clarification, I assume you mean that Rollins outplayed Sawchuk in Sawchuk's prime and not Rollins outplayed Sawchuk in Rollins' prime (although if the first is true I'd imagine the second is too). Just want to make sure that's where you're coming from.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

As a point of clarification, I assume you mean that Rollins outplayed Sawchuk in Sawchuk's prime and not Rollins outplayed Sawchuk in Rollins' prime (although if the first is true I'd imagine the second is too). Just want to make sure that's where you're coming from.

Yes, sorry about that, I meant Rollins outplayed Sawchuk in Sawchuk's prime, I struggled a bit with the syntax and obviously left it unclear. Rollins' prime was basically his entire NHL career.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

I also note your 11-year study is perfectly timed to begin with Lumley's good years in Detroit but not his so-so ones that preceded them; and to include Hall's one tough season in Chicago before he began to turn it on.

Lumley's "so-so" years came in the pre-Gordie Howe era with the Red Wings' best players enlisted in the army. And I was not aware that Glenn Hall's 24-39-7, 2.86, 7 SO in 1957-58 was a "tough season" while his 28-29-13, 2.97, 1 SO was "turning it on".

I picked the seasons before I collected the numbers, but I knew I was still going to get the "you cherry-picked the seasons" argument. I picked that time period because for 11 straight years Detroit was an excellent team, Chicago was a terrible team, and Detroit finished ahead of Chicago every single season. Extend it by a season in either direction and one or more of those things stops being true.

It is possible that tweaking the numbers a bit evens the gap or even puts Sawchuk slightly ahead. Whatever, I'm not standing too strongly by my claim that Rollins was better than Sawchuk. Evidence suggests that he may have been, but we don't have as much data as we would have liked and I never saw them play. My more general point and the reason for the post is to show that it is quite possible for a goalie with an 81-171-56 record to have just as big of a contribution to his team as one who goes 224-107-77.

He did record 5 shutouts, and on that dreadful club (133 GF, 242 GA) he probably earned them. He probably earned a lot of sympathy and some consideration for a Purple Heart. MVP? Not so much.

I'm not sure Rollins deserved the MVP that season either over Gordie Howe or Rocket Richard. However, the award was likely at least in part a make-up decision for Rollins' spectacular season in 1952-53. Rollins finished 2nd in MVP voting in 1952-53, he just had the misfortune of going up against Howe's record-breaking 95 point season.

Even if my goalie comparisons are misleading and the seasons are cherry-picked and Sawchuk was actually better than Rollins in the early 1950s, there is simply no way that Sawchuk was better in 1952-53. Just look at Chicago's results before and after Rollins showed up that season, and his effect is obvious.

Anonymous said...

It would be nice to see some SV% stats for these oldsters... I'm sure the NHL could compile & release them, but I'm not holding my breath...

Meanwhile, Edward Yuen has compiled some stats:

http://slapshot.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/01/17/the-boston-bruins-six-decades-of-bad-goaltending/

Anonymous said...

Off-topic, but here are some unofficial Bernie Parent svpct stats:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernie_Parent



These may be from a Flyer fan who has a site up somewhere... also contributes to HAG & Hockey Summary Project, I think.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

I have Edward Yuen's stats, if anyone wants to look at them just send me an email.

They only go back to 1954-55, but there is a bit of info available for the Sawchuk-Rollins comparison. In 1954-55, Terry Sawchuk had a .926 save percentage, while Al Rollins had an .893. In 1955-56, both Rollins and Sawchuk were at .913 (Sawchuk was in Boston at that point). In 1956-57, Sawchuk was at .921 while Rollins was at .901.

Remember, though, that the team effects were huge, and you can't compare those save percentage numbers directly without considering where they were coming from. In Glenn Hall's two seasons replacing Sawchuk he was at .922 and .927. In Hall's first two seasons in Chicago he was at .909 and .897.

Anonymous said...

Another link, although I suspect that the older stats are mock-ups:

http://www.whatifsports.com/nhl-l/historical_teams.asp

E.g. who knew that Howe had 307 shots in 52-53? :)

Anonymous said...

"Where did you get the NHL goalie save pct #'s for pre-1982-83? The NHL has only released save pct stats for 1982-83 & subsequent yrs."

commissioner@whatifsports.com:

They are extrapolated from a combination of matching them up to similar goalies from post-1982, team defensive stats and points allowed.

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There's the answer.