Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Jacques Lemaire Gets You Paid

The Minnesota Wild signed Niklas Backstrom to a 4 year, $24 million contract. I first saw the news on James Mirtle's site, and I'd say he does a pretty good job outlining the reasons why Minnesota should have ushered in the Josh Harding era, if you aren't familiar with them already.

If I was GM in Minnesota, I would trade my goalies in the last year of their contracts, if anyone was willing to bite. If not, I would kick every last one of them out the door rather than pay for their inflated numbers.

Having said that, Backstrom is a decent goalie and Minnesota should be fine with him for the next four years. It just doesn't make sense in a salary capped league, while facing economic uncertainties that may lower the cap in future years, to pay a lot of money for good but not elite goaltending if you have a terrific defensive team already. Minnesota has had an exellent save percentage for years, and they haven't managed to make the leap to the upper echelon of teams in the NHL. It's going to be even harder now with less money to spend on the guys up front. The Wild would be much better off finding and signing the next Marian Gaborik to upgrade their 26th-ranked offence than overpaying Niklas Backstrom.

6 comments:

Passive Voice said...

absolutely insane.
i feel like there's a lot of potential for inflating a goalie's numbers (that is, the barely-important/really-unimportant ones like GAA and Ws) in a good system and then flipping him (basically mimicking billy beane and his closers). it's possible that it wouldn't work as well in the nhl (that people would say "system goalie!"), but then again...there's at least one gm that thinks backstrom's worth serious coin.

overpass said...

It looks like Bryan Murray has fallen victim to the scheme you suggest, trading a useful player in Vermette for the Hitchcock-inflated numbers of Pascal Leclaire.

Anonymous said...

If it's all about Lemaire's system, how do you explain the fact that Backstrom is the 2nd best (save pctg) penalty-killing no. 1 goalie in the league with Lundqvist? Short-handed play has nothing to do with what kind of systems coaches utilise in normal 5-on-5 play.

sunnymehta.com said...

1) Shot quality metrics, while far from perfect, do seem to point towards the fact that Minnesota suppresses their opponents’ shot quality. However, Minnesota’s other defensive numbers are a little strange for a supposed Jacques Lemaire defensive juggernaut. For example, they’ve been averaging a pretty crappy 29-30 shots against per 60 minutes at ES over the past couple seasons. Compare that to the Devils in their prime giving up like 22-23 shots a game total. I realize it was a different “era”, but still, hard to say the Wild are completely choking off teams in the neutral zone when they’re giving up six more shots a game than the San Jose’s of the world.

2) It’d be nice to see save percentage numbers for MIN goalies broken down by game state (i.e. – ES, PP, PK). If I remember correctly, Minnesota is perennially amongst the leaders in lowest PK minutes, which aides a goalie’s total save percentage. It’d be nice to compare apples to apples with regards to Backstrom versus previous MIN goalies.

3) We’re still only talking about a sample size of a few years here. It’s certainly possible that the Wild have actually just had good goaltenders, as opposed to the save percentage being completely team driven. Again, it does definitely seem as though Minnesota stifles shot quality, but I find it strange that they give up so many shots, get outshot at ES, and the goaltender isn’t in good part responsible for bailing them out.

All in all though, I agree with you that $6M is a waste of money on Backstrom. While I think it’s certainly possible he’s better than average, the Wild can pay a LOT less for an average goalie without affecting their GA in too detrimental a way imo. And they can use the money to get desperately needed offense, which I think would have a net positive gain on their overall goal differential.

(On a side note, it'd be interesting to look into why the Devils under Lemaire had a much lower SA/60 and lower Sv% than the Wild under Lemaire. Pure speculation here, but maybe it's an indication of a slightly different strategic approach/system? Those Devils teams were obviously known for their play from blue line to blue line. Maybe that led to fewer shots, but perhaps of different quality than what we're seeing with the Wild? Perhaps the Wild are giving up the blue line a little more readily, giving up a few more shots by design, but keeping teams to the perimeter? To my eye, the Devils played a little more like that under Julien. And Julien's teams' defensive numbers are kinda similar to the current Wild. Again, that's pure speculation.)

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

If it's all about Lemaire's system, how do you explain the fact that Backstrom is the 2nd best (save pctg) penalty-killing no. 1 goalie in the league with Lundqvist? Short-handed play has nothing to do with what kind of systems coaches utilise in normal 5-on-5 play.

Nothing to do with 5-on-5 systems, yes, but there are of course 4-on-5 systems of play. Teams have different abilities and use different tactics while killing penalties. The range in shot quality from the best to the worst is about the same as it is at even strength.

Hockey Numbers has Minnesota in the top 5 in the league in lowest shot quality against on the penalty kill. They also tend to take fewer penalties (this year they have 225 power plays against, compared to a league average of 267), which means fewer 5 on 3s and probably also that their top penalty killers are more rested every time they are called upon.

Still, I agree that Backstrom has good shorthanded numbers, even taking all that into account. I am not saying Backstrom is a bad goalie, he is an above average goalie. I could even see that he might be worth something like $5-$6 million a year to a team that gives up a lot of high-quality shots and currently has both terrible goaltending and lots of available cap space. The point is that it is hard to see him providing that kind of value on the Minnesota Wild.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

I realize it was a different “era”, but still, hard to say the Wild are completely choking off teams in the neutral zone when they’re giving up six more shots a game than the San Jose’s of the world.

In the new NHL you can't choke off the neutral zone to the same degree that was possible before. The main thing driving shots against numbers is time spent in the offensive zone (see Detroit and San Jose). You're a New Jersey fan, right? You've probably noticed the difference between Brodeur's shots against per game last year (27.0) and this year (25.4). The main difference is that this year's Devils are a much better puck posession team.

Minnesota does not have a great offence, so they tend to get outshot. They make up for it by doing a great job in defensive zone coverage, which makes it easier for their goalie even with ordinary shots against numbers.

While I think it’s certainly possible he’s better than average, the Wild can pay a LOT less for an average goalie without affecting their GA in too detrimental a way imo.

Yes, this is the main point. I think Backstrom is a probably an above-average goalie. He had some really great success in the Finnish elite league, his save percentages are still above average when you adjust for team defence, and he has also faced fewer shots against than the other goalies on his team, if you're into that kind of thing.

Still, you only want to shell out the big money to the very cream of the crop for goaltending, and I don't think Backstrom falls in there based on what he has done so far.

On a side note, it'd be interesting to look into why the Devils under Lemaire had a much lower SA/60 and lower Sv% than the Wild under Lemaire.

The Devils didn't have a lower save percentage, when you adjust for era.

Lemaire Devils: .912 Sv%, .901 LgAvg (+1.2%)

Lemaire Wild: .917 Sv%, .907 LgAvg (+1.1%)

New Jersey did have a lower shots against number (25.9 SA/60 compared to 28.7 SA/60), and the average shots against numbers for both periods were both around 29. I'd say the difference was probably that New Jersey had better defensive talent and probably better offensive talent, and that since the neutral-zone trap wasn't so commonplace around the league back then other teams were less adept at dealing with it, resulting in more success for New Jersey. Brodeur also has some effect on those numbers, as there is some evidence that his impact might be around a shot per game.