Monday, November 24, 2008

Brian Boucher Is Exposing The NHL's Most Overrated Goalie

Q: How do you win 10 out of 12 games despite a mediocre .891 save percentage?

A: Play for the San Jose Sharks.

Evgeni Nabokov is probably the most overrated goalie in the league. He didn't deserve his Vezina runner-up finish last season, and he doesn't deserve his status as one of the league's elite goalies (for example, Rotowire.com calls him "arguably the best goalie in the NHL"). This has become even more clear over the last couple of weeks, as Nabokov has missed several games with a knee injury and the Sharks haven't missed a beat with backup goalie Brian Boucher between the pipes.

Boucher has posted outstanding results since San Jose acquired him last season. He has gone 10-2-2 with a 1.85 GAA, .929 save percentage, and 3 shutouts. Unless Boucher has morphed into an elite goalie on the wrong side of 30, he has either been on a very lucky streak or he is playing on a strong team defence. It is probably true that Boucher has been at least somewhat lucky, and he may have been playing mostly weak opposition, but it would still be very unlikely for him to post similar results over 14 decisions on nearly every other team in the league.

Even without Boucher's success, there is still lots of evidence to argue that Nabokov is overrated. Nabokov's shot-quality adjusted save percentage numbers are very ordinary. Only one of his post-lockout seasons has been above league average (2006-07), and even that one was by a small margin.

Another problem with Nabokov is that he is erratic. His month-by-month save percentages are all over the place (e.g. last year his month-by-month line went .916, .929, .915, .890, .867, .941, .909). He almost seems to alternate between good and bad years throughout his career, and some of his seasons have been quite poor (2002-03 and 2005-06).

Nabokov makes some flashy saves and when he is on his game he can be pretty good. I can understand that there are people who caught the right sample of Sharks games could think Nabokov is a terrific goalie. However, every game counts, and over the long haul Nabokov's results are not elite.

What is interesting to me is that San Jose fans, who are not likely to be biased from a small viewing sample, seem to have a very different perspective of Nabokov than the numbers do. The opinions I have read may not be representative of all San Jose fans, but most of them that post or comment online appear to have the perception that their defence is weak and giveaway-prone, and that Nabokov has to make a lot of difficult stops. That conflicts with the shot quality numbers (San Jose has been consistently 5-7% better than average in shot quality against over the last 3 years), it conflicts with the giveaway numbers (looking at road giveaways only to remove scorer bias, San Jose ranked 3rd in the league in fewest giveaways in 2007-08), it conflicts with the results of Boucher and other Sharks goalies, and it conflicts with the shot prevention numbers (San Jose ranked 2nd in fewest shots allowed last year, and currently rank 2nd again this year). In this type of situation I think an objective analyst should at least be open to the possibility that the numbers aren't telling the whole story, but Nabokov is hardly the first high win total/low save percentage goalie to get lots of love from his local fanbase so for now I'll trust the evidence more than the hometown fans.

Nabokov is currently sidelined with an injury but is expected to return soon. If he gets nearly all of the starts the rest of the way and the Sharks continue to dominate, Nabokov could once again lead the league in wins. That may be difficult, since Boucher's success will likely result in San Jose throwing a few more starts his way, but it would be interesting to see a goalie win 45+ games with a sub-.900 save percentage, if nothing else as an interesting test case for Vezina voters.

In somewhat related news, Toronto fans seem to be souring on Vesa Toskala. This is not that surprising, since Toskala hasn't been anything special at all since the lockout, either in San Jose or Toronto. Here is a comparison of Toskala and Nabokov in San Jose:

Toskala, SJS: 65-28-10 (.680), 2.34, .914
Nabokov, SJS: 218-152-48 (.579), 2.38, .910

Now, here is Toskala so far in Toronto:

Toskala, TOR: 40-31-10 (.556), 2.86, .898

Makes one wonder how well Nabokov would do on a weaker team. I'm not sure he would do a whole let better than Toskala has. San Jose gets a lot of credit for their work in developing goalies, but I think much of it may simply be a result of the strong team and goalie-friendly climate in which they play.

29 comments:

Washington said...

The gold standard is still Brodeur and Luongo, but Nabokov is on that cusp of elite. He's been the benefactor of some solid regular season Sharks teams and I think his reputation has a large part to do with that. Good teams still need really good goaltenders.

Nabokov has always stumped me. Some nights he is spectacular, but sometimes he's a sieve, sometimes a little of both. And in the past, many of the goals he let by were ones that had no business going in. I don't see that much this season, as he's been getting beat legitimately and the Sharks have managed to come out on top of some wild offensive shootouts. But now, I think the SJ defense has settled down and have become more defensively responsible, so the true test is he manages when he returns. Also, they need him to carry them out of the 2nd Round.

Teh SideShow said...

I am inclined to agree with you. I live in San Jose and am a sharks fan. I watch about 95% of the games each year and I personally think Nabi has cost us some playoff runs. He can not stop a break away and is terrible in the shoot out. I think when he is on he is a top goalie. But he goes through streaks ranging from 5-20 games where he is totally unpredictable. If San Jose got a true top goalie they could be one of the most elite teams in history.

overpass said...

I was wondering when the "Nabokov is overrated" article was coming. There seems to be a lot of evidence that he's pretty ordinary. If he continues to be considered an elite goalie you'll have to think about changing the name of your blog.

I wouldn't worry too much about the opinion of Shark fans in general. I don't think most hockey fans will do a good job of evaluating their hometown goalie visually. To evaluate goalies visually (the "you need to watch him every game" argument) a fan needs to know what he is looking for, watch the goalie critically and objectively, and watch enough other goalies to compare. I don't think there are many fans that fit that description (although there are some.)

The consensus of an online fan community on their team's goalie (and indeed on many other players on the team) will usually be positive if the team is winning and negative if the team is losing. They may also look at other stats like GAA and SV%, but wins are the big one. When watching the games, the majority of fans will simply take whatever they see of the goalie to be confirmation of their opinion which has been formed by team success and goalie stats.

I don't mean to say that nobody's opinion is worth anything when it comes to goalies. I'd listen to the visual evaluations of CG and some of the commenters here. But when it comes to fans in general, I don't think the consensus opinion of a fanbase is worth much.

Anonymous said...

"Nabokov is on that cusp of elite"?

Huh?

"Nabokov is hardly the first high win total/low save percentage goalie to get lots of love from his local fanbase so for now I'll trust the evidence more than the hometown fans." --- exactly.

Anonymous said...

"Nabokov is on that cusp of elite"?

Huh?

"Nabokov is hardly the first high win total/low save percentage goalie to get lots of love from his local fanbase so for now I'll trust the evidence more than the hometown fans." --- exactly.

Anonymous said...

Everything else being equal I'd still take Nabokov in net over Boucher simply because everytime Boucher goes out to handle the puck I cringe at what might happen. See Sharks vs. Nashville and Chicago for the really bad instances. Other times he'll inexplicably pass or bounce the puck off the boards past his own guy to the other team resulting in a quality chance against or the Sharks getting hemmed in their own zone for a shift or two.

Will said...

Nabokov certainly didn't look mediocre against the Stars in last year's playoffs. In fact, Nabby has been a consistent stalwart in the post-season, aside from 05-06. He's always been a big game goalie in the playoffs.

I don't think Nabby's looked as solid back when he first entered the league. But you have to remember that those were the Sutter years, were there was an emphasis on defense over offensive creativity.

O2-03 was an aberration. It wasn't just Nabby. None of the team was responding to Sutter. Hence the Sharks missing the playoffs. Still, when you look at his numbers, a 90.6% is nothing to cough at.

In 05-06, a lot of goalies struggled under the new rules and gear changes, including Brodeur, Khabibulin, Turco, DiPietro and Luongo.

Since Nabby's been injured, the Sharks have had three weeks to adjust the kinks as far as the quality chances allowed that were a little bit more prevalent in the beginning of this season. And it's shown with Boucher's numbers. The forwards are coming back and doing a great job at back-checking.

To the poster whose watched 95% of Sharks game--- I don't believe you. You would've noticed that Nabby has dramatically improved his records in shootouts since the first 1/3 of the 07-08 season.

I agree that Nabby's allowed a few softies early-on this season. But I'm confident he'll turn it around. And one of the big advantages that Nabby has over Boucher is calm demeanor and composure. You never see Nabby get flustered after giving up a goal. And other than Chris Osgood, his playoff experience is tops in the West.

Washington said...

Re: cusp of elite comment, I meant that he hasn't earned that moniker in my mind yet, especially not on the basis of this season's numbers. But I still think he's legitimately in the consideration of top goalies based on his work from the last few seasons. Close, but not there yet. That's why I used the word cusp.

About his playoff experience in the West, I'd still put him far behind other goalies like Kiprusoff and Giguere. Even if they may have less games played overall, they've been better big-game goalies and have more experience deeper in the later rounds than Nabokov.

Will said...

^ Good call. I forgot about Giguere, whose been to two Finals-- and who also doesn't get a lot of credit for the way he's played for the Ducks. A cup win is certainly more experience than Nabby.

On the other hand, I haven't been as impressed with Kipper. Aside from the 04 run, he's been at the losing side of first round losses since and isn't quite the same big-game goalie as before-- including last year's loss.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

This post is getting a lot of links from San Jose sites, so I just wanted to clarify a couple of things:

1. I never said Brian Boucher was better than Evgeni Nabokov. Boucher's great stats came in a small sample size and exclusively during a time when the team has been playing great. Nabokov is the better goalie, but Boucher's numbers simply reflect the positive impact the Sharks have on their goalies in terms. Same thing with Toskala on San Jose vs. Toronto, it is evidence that Nabokov's team-adjusted performance stats would not be nearly as good as his raw numbers.

2. The argument is that Nabokov is overrated, not that he is a terrible goalie. That is, the average observer thinks he is a better goalie than he actually is. I'd say that overall Nabokov is an average goalie, but with higher than normal variability in his performance from game to game and season to season. He is quite capable of dominating performances, but simply needs to put up a lot more of them to be ranked up with the elite goalies in the NHL.

Anonymous said...

Did any of you guys see Nabokov's performance last season? Despite Ron Wilson's continuous coaching blunders, Nabokov kept the Sharks in as long as he could. Another note: at the start of last season, Nabokov and Thornton were the only two Sharks that were carrying the team at the time.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=13FnJwlUCcg

Anonymous said...

First off, I live in San Jose and I am a huge Sharks fan. But, that doesn't mean I've always been on the Nabby bandwagon.

Last season, Nabokov had a career year. He carried an offensively retarded Sharks team for the first half of the year. Before 07-08, I had my doubts about him. I don't like his style (since he doesn't play butterfly and that is where the position is currently), but he gets it done. He's got good positioning and he's quick getting to where he needs to be to block shots. His rebound control is top notch as well. You also can't deny that he pulls circus saves out of his ass on a regular basis. He's had five hole and blocker side problems in the past, but he got over them last season. He lost the Vezina last year, IMO, because he needs a higher save percentage. He's a goalie that needs to face a lot of shots to stay sharp and totally focused, but that won't happen in San Jose on a regular basis. Thus hurting his save percentage. He won a lot of game giving up 2 goals on 20 or fewer shots last season. Which equals a .900 SP. But that should win a hockey game every night and that's all I need.

This season, he has started slow. He's had some bad games and he'll admit it. Luckily, the Sharks have found ways to win games. After Nabokov got hurt, the team really started clicking with the new system and have given up less chances. Boucher just happened to be the beneficiary of the new found defensive comfort in the system. But, I am sure glad Nabby is back. Watching Boucher in net gave me a headache. He nearly lost 3-4 games on his own, but got bailed out. He somehow managed to pull an all-star performance every three games or so out of his corn hole. But he has really made me appreciate Nabokov more. Nabby has really worked on his weaknesses and is a better goalie than he was earlier in his career. He's even getting better at shootouts. And he always plays his best in the biggest games. You can't blame the last 2 playoffs on Nabby at all. His play in international tournaments has been outstanding as well.

That being said, does Evgeni Nabokov deserve elite goaltender status? I don't know, but I'd lean towards no. Did he deserve to be a Vezina finalist last season? Absolutely. Is he the Pacific Division version of Chris Osgood? I have to say no, because no goalie is anywhere near as overrated as Chris Osgood.

Anonymous said...

Lots of ammo for you, CG :)

Ludicrous Speed said...

Last year, Nabokov was probably the best goaltender in the league. Nabokov had an outstanding playoffs last year (and made a couple of saves on Owen Nolan and Brad Richards that were absolutely spectacular and not the result of poor positioning), and he improved greatly throughout the season on shootouts.

But, a few years ago, he couldn't even beat out Vesa Toskola. And he has definitely struggled this year.

I should probably read up on some of the statistics you are using, as simply watching the game can be deceiving, but in the end I doubt that Nabokov is simply an "average" goalie at this point. I would argue he is in the top 20% most talented goalies in the NHL, doesn't get flustered, but does lose focus sometimes. But honestly, I can't really name very many goalies that doesn't happen too. Is there a goalie in the NHL that still performs well with low shot totals?

Washington said...

I do wonder if it was Nabokov in Toronto instead of Toskala how things would have turned out. I don't think it would have been very different. But during the 05-06 platoon year, I really think the Sharks played better in front of Vesa. Can't substantiate it with numbers, but Nabby seemed to play pretty well, but didn't get the goal support. Heck, I think the Sharks overcompensated to make Nolan Schaefer look good when he had to be called up and got a 6-1-1 record or something like that.

Can't wait for one of these for Turco. That man is an enigma. I hope Mike Smith doesn't stay languished in TB either.

Will said...

I think one of the real problems I have with this analysis is that the author completely throws out Nabby's pre-lockout numbers as if they don't exist. He throws out Nabby's 06 Olympic performance and Nabby's 08 World Championship experience-- guess who led Russia to a gold medal by posting 2 shutouts in 5 games? Just an overrated goaltender... However, when an overrated goaltender performs exceptionally well in front of a Sharks defense or a Russian team defense, then you have to start wondering just how overrated or just how much he truly benefits from the defense he plays behind.

A slight nod is made to his alternating bad and good years-- of course, 06-07 and 07-08 negates this theory, and 02-03, when you actually look in-depth to the reasons you discover that there were a few injuries to the Sharks that year, and a coaching change obviously screwed with the defensive mentality of the club. Author attempts to use 10-game sample size in 08-09 to lend credence to his theory of Nabby's alternating bad and good years, which is just laughable. If that were the case, I would've been ready to dismiss Brodeur's numbers last season during the month of October- an 88.5% save. Instead Brodeur rebounds the rest of the year and wins a very-deserving Vezina.

Author assumes of course that Nabby will stay the course and continue with a sub-90.0 save % to end the season, which he uses to assume his point that Nabby is an overrated goalie.

I do hand some credit to his use of statistics to suggest that San Jose's shot quality numbers aren't as terrible as people suggest they are. However, there really is no substitute for actually watching Sharks games (especially where shot selection is low). It takes more than an average goalie to hold the fort when a team is trying to maintain a one-goal lead. Last year, Nabby happened to lead the NHL in one-goal game victories. And while quality chances can sometimes dictate the type of shots a goalie faces, it provides no measure as to whether the shot comes off a turnover. Watching the Sharks last year, I noticed especially in the first half, that the Sharks had a lot of difficulty clearing pucks out of the zone, which often lead to turnovers. This chances are more threatening to a goalie, qualitively, because the goalie has less chance to set up for the shot. Scoring chances also don't reflect when those shots come when the other team has a man-advantage or on a shorthanded chance.

You know, it's funny. Prior to 07-08, nobody was speaking of Nabokov in the same sentence as Brodeur. But people who've been watching Sharks game have known for quite awhile now that since he entered the league, he's always been in arguably the top 5 goalies in the NHL. So it's interesting timing with this analysis...

But here's the real statistical kicker... rebound control. Nabokov has always had impeccable rebound control. Toskala... not so much. Of course, you won't find that in the stats-- have to watch the games. On a team like the Sharks were they have a goalie and a system committed to clearing the puck out to prevent second and third shots, you have situations where the shot total drives down, thus scoring chances drive down, and save % has less room for recovery. Roberto Luongo, while in Florida, was able to boost his save % substantially because of his playing style that permitted teams to take second and third chances on him. Of course, scoring chances go up, save % goes up.

Anonymous said...

"However, there really is no substitute for actually watching Sharks games (especially where shot selection is low). "

"But people who've been watching Sharks game have known for quite awhile now that since he entered the league, he's always been in arguably the top 5 goalies in the NHL."

Uhh... so you've also watched 90+% of all OTHER teams' games to come to that conclusion.

Oh brother... how did the SJ hockey "fans" get to this site?

You SJ'ers dismiss CG's stats & instead substitute your "learned" Californian hockey observations. Most of you likely have never played hockey, & have only a rudimentary understanding of the sport... sorry, those are the facts. Nothing personal.

Back up your observations with actual facts, & I may change my opinion....

Will said...

Respond to the handful of other points I made and maybe I'll reconsider my opinion.

-signed cowabunga surfer dude riding a 40-foot wave in the winter

Anonymous said...

Other than by responding that Nabby has not shown consistent, season-long excellence (or even above-avergeness), what's left to say?

The #'s speak for themselves, as CG has shown over & over here (not just this post but others). At this moment I don't feel like repeating it all again, alas.

Hanng Ten!!

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

Please, let's not disparage Shark fans as a group, there have been some very good comments posted in response to my post.

I agree with most of the assessments of Nabokov's talent. We have all seen a few playoff games and international appearances that show he is a talented goalie. I just don't think he is a particularly solid goalie, and his career results seem to bear that out pretty well. To express it succinctly: At the end of the day Nabokov lets in more pucks than the highlight reels suggest, and the main reason he wins games is because of his strong teammates. That is true of many goalies before him and doesn't by any means suggest that Nabby is a bad goalie, just that there is little evidence to suggest that he is elite (and therefore he is overrated by most).

Will: I am quite interested to know how Shark fans see a top 5 goalie in Nabokov. Here is how he ranks in save percentage over his career by season (minimum 2000 minutes played):

2000-01: 9th
2001-02: 7th
2002-03: 24th
2003-04: 6th
2005-06: 32nd
2006-07: 12th
2007-08: 19th

I would think a "top-5" goalie would at least once in his entire career finish in the top 5 in save percentage. Apparently not.

Re: rebound control:

Shots per game (2001-02 to 2006-07):
Toskala 27.2
Nabokov 27.7

I'll agree that Nabokov probably has better rebound control than Toskala, but the evidence I have seen and collected on this topic shows that rebound control is almost certainly not a major factor in determining shot totals against.

Finally, I just have to respond to this one:

Roberto Luongo, while in Florida, was able to boost his save % substantially because of his playing style that permitted teams to take second and third chances on him. Of course, scoring chances go up, save % goes up.

Sorry, but that is hogwash. As the quality of scoring chances go up (and second and third chances are almost always high-quality chances), save percentage goes DOWN. This is true objectively and subjectively. The league-wide scoring percentage on rebound shots is 20-25%. No goalie has ever fattened up his save percentage by facing lots of rebounds in the NHL.

Anonymous said...

But what if a goalie intentionally lets out rebounds that he knows he can save easily? Wouldn't his save pct. be inflated then?

Is that how hockey works?

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. The Sharks Oilers game that I'm watching right now is really indicative of your whole theory. The game is tied 1 - 1 and the Sharks are hugely outshooting the Oilers. I don't know if Edmonton's had another shot yet, but for most of the first period at least he had been scored on on the only shot he took.

It's kind of hard to say, though, until you actually send Nabokov to another team. All the stats show the product of the team and the goalie, so it's hard to say which is which. Part of it could be that the team's states are inflated by the goalie being good. I know you accounted for that in a few places, but it could still play a role.

I wonder if they could trade Nabokov for Backstrom and a draft pick. Hopefully the Wild can be fooled as easily as we Shark fans are!

Anyway, I'm happy to see the Sharks do well.

Anonymous said...

It's too bad it's not recorded when a goal is scored by way of deflection off one's own defensemen. Since Nabokov has come back from injury he's had 2 pucks deflect off Blake and in, 1 that ping ponged off Roenick then Boyle and in, and 1 off Ehrhoff. I'm fairly convinced that the best way to score on the Sharks is to aim at there defensemen's sticks or skates.

blurt said...

Nabokov lets in a few too many so his team has to make up for it at the other end. Sounds good to me. I'd take that over a goalie who is nigh invincible so his team plays for shootouts until they make the playoffs when they collapse easily in OT.

Anonymous said...

wow, a clueless wonders starts a pile of poop and the sheep follow.
Nabokov is not an elite goalie but he is far from being the most overrated goalie in NHL. And let's be fair, this year he gave up a total of 5 soft goals if you want to look at it objectively.
and that edmonton guy really needs to explain how the hell is sharks outshooting the oil confirm the "theory" this blog is presenting?
Regardless. . this has got to be one of the most ridiculously uninformed blogs I've read this year.

Anonymous said...

While I can't argue with the stats, I can give a good explanation as to why Sharks fans are so high on him. Over the last couple years Nabokov has kept the Sharks in many games they had no business even being remotely involved in. He makes the saves when the team needs them most(excluding that recent Detroit debacle.) He also is good enough when they don't need him to win the game single handedly. I can't think of a game in recent history that Nabby lost the Sharks while I can think of quite a few that he won them, in which they should have given up 6 or 7 goals.

Anonymous said...

toskala sucks and will be one of the worst goalies to ever play for my leafs. shit even raycroft was better than him

Anonymous said...

ya BOOSH sure is benefiting from the sharks system losing 4 games in a row. pretty sure nabby wouldnt let in a goal form the redline in the 3rd period that costs the sharks the game. boucher was just on a hot streak and now he has gone cold. he is always out of position. there is no way that you can say that nabby is benefitial of the sharks system. watch him play before making these articles. he makes huge saves witht he game on the line. see game 6 of the stars sharks game last season. best save of the decade.

Anonymous said...

LOL! A Sharks fan wrote RE: nabokov: "He makes the saves when the team needs them most"

RIGHT! Like in the playoffs!