Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Luck of the Draw

I was looking at some historical results, and found something interesting about the career shutout record held by Terry Sawchuk. The main reason that Sawchuk holds the record (and that he held the career wins record up until Patrick Roy broke it) appears to be that Jack Adams was a better goalie evaluator than Dick Irvin.

Terry Sawchuk and Jacques Plante were both born in 1929. Sawchuk became a Red Wings prospect, while Plante's rights were held by Montreal. Sawchuk had Harry Lumley ahead of him in the organization, but Jack Adams realized that both of them were good goalies and that he could maximize value by trading Lumley, who was coming off of a Stanley Cup winning season. As a result, Terry Sawchuk found himself starting in the NHL at the tender age of 21 for the best team in the league.

Jacques Plante, on the other hand, found himself stuck behind Gerry McNeil, a middling goaltender who rose to the starting job because Bill Durnan retired. McNeil looked good for a few seasons behind the Montreal Canadiens' strong defence, but after Plante took his job McNeil would find himself essentially out of the NHL at the age of 28. Plante first got NHL playing time during the 1952-53 season, but Montreal continued to give McNeil the vast majority of the starts even though Plante put up outstanding numbers: 2-0-1, 1.33 in 1952-53 and 7-5-5, 1.59 in 1953-54. Not only that, but Plante was stealing playoff starts from McNeil as well and dominating with his opportunities. Plante went 3-1 with a 1.75 GAA in the 1953 playoffs, and 5-3, 1.88 in 1954 where he finally won the starting job from McNeil for good. However, by the time he had taken over the reins, Plante was already 26 years old.

Before the age of 26, Terry Sawchuk already had 199 wins and 57 shutouts in the regular season, as well as 28 playoff wins and 3 Stanley Cups. It was this starting advantage that allowed him to edge out Plante in most of the regular season career categories, as over the rest of their careers most observers would agree that Plante was the better goaltender. From age 26 on, Terry Sawchuk's career stats were 248-249-107, 2.82, 46 SO (and 26-33, 3.05, 3 SO in the playoffs). If Sawchuk had those results as his career numbers, he'd probably be remembered together with guys like Harry Lumley or Gump Worsley, rather than Plante and Glenn Hall.

Montreal should have followed Detroit's lead by dumping McNeil and starting Plante in 1951-52. Even if Plante had simply matched McNeil's numbers from 1951 to 1954, he would have far surpassed Sawchuk with 524 wins and would have equalled Sawchuk's mark of 103 shutouts. In all likelihood Plante would have beaten the shutout record as well, and would probably be unanimously rated ahead of Sawchuk in the all-time debates.

This is one of the problems with the frequent focus on career totals to evaluate goalies - some goalies break in earlier than others, often through no special abilities of their own but merely by the luck of the draw in terms of who was above them in the organization, whether or not the coach or GM recognized their talent, or whether or not they were on a hot streak or a slump in training camp when the team was looking to evaluate its goaltenders. In general better goalies will break in earlier, but this is not always the case. There is some luck involved in career length too, based on a goalie's health, league expansion, the strength of other goalies on the team in the pre-free agency era, etc. These reasons suggest we should place more weighting on a goalie's peak than on his entire career, as this helps us avoid being overly influenced by some of those extraneous factors that can have a big effect on a goalie's legacy despite reflecting little of their actual skill or abilities.


Anonymous said...

When he broke in, Brodeur's competition in the NJ crease was TERRIBLE. No wonder he was soon given the starting job, even when his ability to stop the puck wasn't consistently excellent.

Bill Morran said...

How dare you say those things about Chris Terreri.

Anonymous said...

Chris Terreri was no Craig Billington!!

Anonymous said...

not really a good point, i doubt anyone ever confused claude louiselle for wayne gretzky, or trevor kidd for patrick roy. only when the talent between 2 people is comparable would it be hard not to see which guy should be starting. if a guy isnt starting, usually there is a reason.

Bill Morran said...

It's a very good point when comparing original six goalies. So few goalies made it, you always had a pretty damn good goalie in front of you.

People confuse Glen Anderson, Grant Fuhr, and Jari Kurri for HOFers. Shocking, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

moron, i mean moran, are you kidding? last time i check those guys WERE hall of famers. just cuz you cyber geeks think you have some insider persective on the game of hockey that the majority of fans are missing out on, doesnt actually mean you do.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous - do you understand sarcasm?

What are you, 14 yrs old? Before you start with the criticisms, learn to spell at least.

Anonymous said...

haha yea anonymouos

what are you, an english teacher?

Anonymous said...

No, not an English teacher.

Look: "8th Grade Math Helps Hockey" !!