Friday, July 3, 2009

Why Is Josh Harding 19-27-4?

Bruce from Oil Droppings asked me if I had any thoughts on Josh Harding's poor win/loss record. Given that there are trade rumours circling around Harding, an RFA, I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look. Over the last two seasons, Harding has put up some very nice save stats, but the team has had much more success with Niklas Backstrom in net.

Backstrom: 70-37-16, 2.32, .921
Harding: 14-24-3, 2.68, .916

At first glance, it doesn't make much sense that Harding's record would be that poor and Backstrom's would be that strong given that they were just .005 apart in save percentage.

The first thing I like to look at when evaluating backups is how they did in games they started vs. relief appearances. Apparently Jacques Lemaire has a quick hook, as Harding had quite a few of those over the last two seasons. A lot of goalies do worse when they come into games but not Josh Harding, who made the most of his relief opportunities:

Starts: 13-20-3, 2.83, .912, 32.0 SA/60
Relief: 1-4-0, 1.68, .944, 29.9 SA/60

This shows that Harding's relief appearances were skewing his numbers a bit, both by making his overall numbers look better and his win/loss numbers look worse. Harding faced fewer and likely easier shots when he came in as a substitute, and yet was tagged with 4 losses. In two of those losses, Harding only let in 1 goal and in the other 2 he was only beaten twice, so it's difficult to blame him too much for those games since the main reason he "lost" them was because Backstrom had already dug the team into a hole. In Harding's relief win, he came in against the Detroit Red Wings after Backstrom gave up 4 goals in 28 minutes, and stopped 26 of 27 shots as the Wild won in a shootout. Because of Harding's relief appearances, Backstrom likely got away with 5 fewer losses on his record than he would have otherwise had if he was made to finish what he started.

The second thing to look at with backup goalies is strength of opposition. Often backups play easier opponents. That was not the case for Josh Harding, however. His average opponent as a starter had 93 points, and 22 of his 36 starts were against playoff teams. As might be expected, Harding's record was much worse against stronger opponents, 7-13-2 against playoff qualifiers compared to 6-7-1 against non-playoff teams.

Harding's goal support was 2.48 per 60 minutes. Minnesota's overall goalscoring rate was 2.62 goals per 60, meaning that Backstrom had the advantage of about 2.66 goals per 60. This difference likely partially reflects the opposition each goalie faced. Once we take out Harding's relief appearances and adjust for his relatively difficult schedule, his record makes a lot more sense relative to Backstrom's.

We can estimate what each goalie's record should be by using the Pythagorean expected points formula, which is GF^2/(GF^2+GA^2) and then modified to reflect the loser points available in the new NHL. I calculated an expected winning percentage of .625 for Backstrom and .478 for Harding, compared to their actuals of .634 and .403 respectively. We see that Backstrom's record is not unusual, especially if we take into account the losses that Harding saved him. In contrast, Harding falls well short of his projection.

This means that either Harding was unlucky with the distribution of goals for and against while he was in net, or he played poorly at key times in the game.

Part of it was the distribution. Minnesota scored 49 goals in Harding's 13 wins, and just 30 goals in his 20 regulation losses. Harding had a record of 4-8-3 in one-goal games. That can likely be partially attributed to bad luck, as winning close games is something Minnesota usually does pretty well (Backstrom was 38-13-16 in one-goal games).

Minnesota is a team that is good at locking it down when leading after 2, and struggles to come back when trailing after 2, so their record after 2 periods is likely to be a good indicator. Here is Harding's record compared to Backstrom's record when leading/trailing after 2:

Leading after 2: Harding 10-0-1 (.955), Backstrom 49-1-4 (.944)
Trailing after 2: Harding 1-13-2 (.125), Backstrom 6-33-5 (.193)
Tied after 2: Harding 2-7-0 (.222), Backstrom 14-7-7 (.625)

There are two main differences: With Backstrom in net, Minnesota was in the lead a lot more often after 2 periods, which I think reflects the difference in performance between the two goalies. Secondly, Minnesota was way more likely to come out on top when the game was tied after two periods.

Those records are so disparate that I simply had to look into how both goalies and their teammates did in the third periods and overtimes when the game was tied:

Backstrom: 21 GF, 20 GA, 8.2% SH, .930 SV%
Harding: 4 GF, 12 GA, 4.7% SH, .874 SV%

Backstrom clearly outplayed Harding here, although he did also get more support. There were quite a few games where Minnesota didn't score, yet Backstrom kept it at zeroes to earn at least a loser point. Harding nearly always let in at least one third period goal, and most of the time his team didn't bail him out.

I wouldn't be too worried about Harding's record, if I was pursuing him for my team. This is such a small sample size that I doubt it tells us much about Harding's ability to play in close games. He was likely just unfortunate to have some poor results over a few high-leverage minutes while his teammates were simultaneously shooting blanks, resulting in a poor record. There were several times when Harding was terrific late in the third, holding down the fort as Minnesota was getting heavily outshot. If Harding had managed to extend a few more of those games to overtime or a shootout, and ended up with a record of something like 3-3-3 in third period ties, then his overall win/loss record as a starter would have been about right given the goals for and against in his games.

I would downgrade Harding a bit after taking into account his performance in games he entered the game as a backup. His career stats in starts are a bit worse than his overall stats, and are likely a better indicator of what can be expected from him in the future:

Harding, career: 2.49, .920
Harding, starter only: 2.64, .917

That means Niklas Backstrom is also probably a bit better than a quick comparison vs. backups would suggest.


Bruce said...

Thanks, CG, that's excellent analysis.

One thing that caught my eye was Harding's SA/60 total of 32.0 in starts and 29.9 in relief. At a guess, I would expect relief goalies to face lower shot rates as they usually enter games with their team trailing if not getting blown out, and the other guys are often looking to just shut 'er down and play out the string without running up the score. But I have never seen actual stats such as the one cited here to support that. Obviously one can't read much into one data point no matter how much it may support a pet theory, but have you done any other work which supports the same effect? Or counters it, for that matter?

If true, it might have an effect on a team that will yank the #1 having a bad night but will tend to leave the back-up to finish his own bad starts on the grounds that the whole point of having him in there was to rest the #1. Might have the overall effect of bringing #2 a little closer to #1.

Thanks for the push right up top. However, FYI in recent weeks I have joined Jonathan Willis's crew at The Copper & Blue.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

I'm pretty sure you're right, Bruce. I haven't run a ton of numbers to test it, but it seems to be pretty consistent in the numbers I have seen.

Most of the time goalies will face fewer shots when they enter the game, because most of the time they are entering blowout situations, and we know that shot rates drop in blowouts. The odd time a coach might switch goalies in a 4-4 tie or something, and that won't necessarily affect the shots against, but when the game is already decided then most of the time the winning team will mostly shut it down.