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.