Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Underrated Allan Bester

I discussed recently how goalies are often evaluated based on a few memories. For some goalies it means they are forever remembered as winners. For others, it means that they are defined by one bad goal against. The latter group is often very underrated. For example, all our memories of ten years of league average save percentages and a previously stellar international career vanished in a flash as soon as that puck bounced in off of Tommy Salo's head.

Another example of this phenomenon is Allan Bester. Bester is remembered as a joke among many Toronto Maple Leafs fans. Take this quote off a Leaf blog, for example:

"Raycroft is the worst starting goalie I’ve seen play for the Leafs since Allan Bester. Remember him? He attempted suicide one night. No, really. He jumped in front of a bus! But it went between his legs." (Leaf Club)

This is of course a reference to the the overtime goal scored by Sergio Momesso in the 1990 playoffs at Maple Leaf Gardens. Momesso's shot beat Bester five-hole, a memory that Leaf fans will forever associate with the tiny (5'7, 155) netminder.

However, the numbers paint a very different picture of Allan Bester. According to the statistics, Bester outperformed his teammates in every league that he ever played in, and was easily the best goalie the Leafs had in the 1980s. Despite this, the Momesso goal was essentially the end of Bester's NHL career.

Bester broke into the league early as a 19 year old right out of junior, and had all of his NHL success in his early twenties. With fellow youngster Ken Wregget, Bester made up a promising goalie tandem for the Leafs in the mid-1980s. The 1988-89 season was probably the high point of Bester's career, as he finished in the top 10 in save percentage on a team that missed the playoffs. Bester was even named to Team Canada's world championship squad, although he was unable to participate because of injury.

In 1989-90 Bester had an off-year, and then he struggled in the playoffs. Everything started to unravel after that. He was displaced in the Leaf net in 1990-91 by rookie Peter Ing and then got traded to the Detroit Red Wings for a draft pick.

The Wings buried Bester in the AHL, but he played well in the minors. In 1992, the Adirondack Red Wings won the Calder Cup, and Bester was named playoff MVP. The next year he outplayed Chris Osgood, who was seen as Detroit's goalie of the future. Without an opportunity to move up in the Red Wings organization, Bester looked to catch on with one of the expansion teams. He was passed over in the expansion draft, but managed to catch on with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks as a free agent.

Unfortunately for Allan Bester, Anaheim had the best goaltending of any of the expansion teams, with the solid tandem of Guy Hebert and Ron Tugnutt. Bester was competing with Mikhail Shtalenkov for the #3 role in the organization, and despite similar IHL numbers the team decided to give the NHL opportunities to Shtalenkov. Bester continued to play in the IHL until he got one last cup of coffee at the NHL level as an injury replacement for the Dallas Stars in 1996. He acquitted himself well in a 10 game stint, but returned to the IHL where he remained until he retired in 1997-98 at the age of 33.

Having established the biography, let's look at the numbers. I compared Bester's numbers to his teammates for every season of his professional career, except when he only played a few games which would not be a representative sample.

Allan Bester solidly outplayed his teammates at the NHL level:

Bester: 4.00 GAA, .883 save %, .432 win %, 2.5 SO/70 GP
Others: 4.30 GAA, .869 save %, .370 win %, 0.5 SO/70 GP

Bester has a clear edge in every stat, including a large edge in shutouts. For goalies playing on bad teams, shutouts are often a fairly good indicator of dominance, since they aren't able to post the easy shutouts that goalies on winning teams often get. On the mid-'80s Leafs, the only way anybody was going to get a shutout was through an outstanding performance, and Bester had a very respectable 2.5 shutouts per 70 games played (I prefer to express shutout rates per 70 games because the per-game rates get pretty small). This was five times the rate of his teammates. The raw total was 7 shutouts in the equivalent of 178 full games, compared to his teammates' total of just 2 in 309.

Question to Maple Leaf fans of that era: Does one bad playoff goal make up for a winning percentage difference of .062 compared to Toronto's other goalies, the equivalent of a 5 extra wins over a full season?

In the AHL, Bester again outplayed his teammates:

Bester: .487 win %, 3.74 GAA, 1.4 SO/70 GP
Others: .456 win %, 4.05 GAA, 1.5 SO/70 GP

Bester's playing partners included Wregget, Tim Bernhardt, Rick St. Croix, Damian Rhodes, Scott King and Chris Osgood. Bester spent his prime age 27 and 28 years in the minors as a Red Wing, outplaying his teammates and being named the MVP of a Calder Cup winning team, yet only getting to play 31 minutes in the NHL.

One contributing factor to this was likely the overall improvement in league goaltending during the early- to mid-1990s. A new wave of goalies was entering the league, bringing with them the modern butterfly style and displacing many veterans who weren't able to keep up. Bester certainly wasn't the only goalie of his age that got caught up in a numbers game, but having said that he was still putting up numbers that were as good as or better than several young goalies who were headed for the NHL. It is possible that his declining performance in 1989-90 and 1990-91 showed that he no longer had the ability to compete at the NHL level, but his minor league performance suggests that it is also possible that he had an off-year and didn't get a chance to play his way back into form.

In the IHL, Bester was in his thirties but was still usually the best goalie on the team. Some of his partners were scrubs, but others were legit goalies (e.g. Shtalenkov, Essensa).

Bester: .630 win %, 3.22 GAA, 1.9 SO/70 GP
Others: .563 win %, 3.43 GAA, 1.6 SO/70 GP

Just as winning goalies shouldn't be judged based on one shining playoff run, losing goalies should not be judged based on one bad goal. Allan Bester was likely at least a league average goalie, and for a short time probably even better than that.

I'll leave you with one final stat: From 1983-84 to 1989-90, Allan Bester finished 13th in the NHL in save percentage among goalies with at least 150 GP, playing on one of the worst teams in the league. I'll post a section of the standings so we can see the goalies just above and below him:

11. Tom Barrasso, .883
12. Don Beaupre, .883
13. Allan Bester, .883
14. Mike Liut, .883
15. Billy Smith, .882
16. Grant Fuhr, .881
17. Kirk McLean, .881
18. Mike Vernon, .881
19. Pete Peeters, .881

In the 1980s those 9 goalies combined for 5 First Team All-Stars, 4 Second Team All-Stars, and 9 Stanley Cups. Every single one of them had long NHL careers. And yet nobody gave Bester another NHL shot.

I think the scouts got it wrong on this one. Bester may have been small and he may have let a few through the wickets, but the evidence suggests that he was a legitimate pro goalie and he deserved another shot at an NHL job after the age of 25. He should be remembered for what he was, the best Toronto Maple Leafs goalie of the 1980s.

15 comments:

Down Goes Brown said...

I was at the Momesso game, and it was brutal. But Bester is still one of my all-time favorites. How could you not love a tiny guy like that, diving around in his net like a soccer goalie?

Favorite Bester line, via Don Cherry: With that defense in front of him, Allan Bester sees more rubber than a skunk on the Transcanada highway.

1967ers said...

In 1989-90, Bester got into trouble with bone spurs in his heels and then had more problems with calcium deposits in his heels in 1990-91.

I think this had a lot to do with his play in '89-90 and it's definitely why he barely played in '90-91 at all. After that, he just got buried.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

Thanks for the injury info, 1967ers, that would certainly help explain the drop in his numbers.

eyebleaf said...

Never thought I'd read that headline.

Gamblor said...

In general, I think a lot of your analysis leaves much to be desired, but my opinion may be based on ignorance- i've only read a half-dozen or so of your articles.

In any event, a couple things:
1) You are right, Bester was definitely overrated. imo.
2) I think you are discounting the fact that backups generally play against less-skilled teams and thus it would be a disaster for a backup to have reasonably similar statistics to his starter. While Bester faced the Canucks, Capitals, and Devils of the world, Ken Wregget was facing the Oilers, Flyers, and Bruins of the day. Just saying.

Gamblor said...

Oh I forgot to mention- you are right that it is unbelievable that Bester's 80s SV% is where it is.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

In general, I think a lot of your analysis leaves much to be desired, but my opinion may be based on ignorance- i've only read a half-dozen or so of your articles.

Suggestions and criticisms are always welcome.

1) You are right, Bester was definitely overrated. imo.

Do you mean underrated?

While Bester faced the Canucks, Capitals, and Devils of the world, Ken Wregget was facing the Oilers, Flyers, and Bruins of the day. Just saying.

I doubt that was the case, or if it was at least partially true it isn't enough to make up the gap between Bester and the others.

I checked 1986-87, a season where Wregget and Bester split starts and Wregget was the #1 goalie in the playoffs. Bester actually faced slightly stronger opposition that year, although the numbers were almost identical.

Anonymous said...

Tell me about this infamous Sergio Momesso goal. I didn't follow hockey then (was a little kid). How at fault was Bester and how at fault was the team in front of him?

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

Anonymous: I'm not a Leaf fan, so I didn't see the goal at the time either, but from what Toronto fans say it was entirely on Allan Bester. I looked for the video as part of putting together this post but I didn't manage to find it.

Anonymous said...

But weren't the Leafs of that era very defensively weak teams that allowed many choice scoring chances against?

Chris Dube said...

The Momesso goal was the play all the post 93 bandwaggon jumpers never got to see. I saw it on tv and it was not his fault. To anyone here professed to see the goal you might want to see it again. Bester was SCREENED on the goal.

Allan Bester said...

Nice writeup.

James Morehouse said...

To put this into perspective, consider this. In the mid to late 1980's, a typcial season would see the Leafs garner 48 points, and still make the playoffs some years under the previous format. Now I think anyone can appreciate with a point total like that, you did not have the likes of Oiler dynasty teams in front of you. Even Grant Fuhr one time, when asked about his high GAA, casually joked and deflected the question, saying all that mattered was that his team scored one more goal than the other. And of course, he was right. This was an era when many teams scored upwards of 400 goals in any one season. Compare that to today, and do the math to see what a nominal team GAA might be. So while an average in the high 3's might sound poor by today's standards, it was actually very respectable. At a time when goalies did not fill the net with equipment, but rather had to rely on positioning, anticipation and reflex to succeed, stopping 9 shots out of every 10 faced was something to be downright proud of. I, for one, am old enough to recall watching Bester play during those years on HNIC, and he was fun to watch. He had a low stance which made him prone between the legs and sometimes high over the shoulder, but it also allowed him to quickly move laterally into position. I still say he made saves that no other goalie of his time would have dreamt of making. There really should be a compilation made of his most impressive work. There were some Saturday nights, in particular, where he put on a clinic. Don was right. He truly did see more rubber than a dead skunk on the TCH. So he let one between his legs. They probably would not have even made the playoffs without him. Bester, as the name implies, you were the Bestest.

chris stramacchia said...

Being a former Junior goaltender we all have our favorites and they not necessarily play for our favorite team(s). Toronto Maple Leafs have never been a favorite of mine but must say they have had the best goalies in the league! Alan Bester happened to be one of the best and favorite of mine. All goalies can relate to being shell shocked. Alan Bester and any Leafs goalie can atest to that. The Leafs could kill a great goalie within 3yrs. Then send them off to pasture and talk smack about the week ones that were let in. Mike Palmeteer, Rick St.Crouix, Alan Bester, Felix Potvin just to name a few of Toronto's goalies are today still and always will be the best and deserve nothing but respect to what they brought to the game. With the past history it just shows how much politics are at these levels. Its who you know. One mistake and your black balled. There's goalies in the NHL that have no business putting a jersey on. How they got there who knows (Politics). The ones that deserve to be there and happen to be on a bad team like the Leafs get lost in the pile. Its too bad, Alan Bester was by far the best of that era.

Anonymous said...

I know this post is 4 years old but I have a very vivid memory of the Momesso goal. It was a lazy 1-on-1 rush by Momesso, both teams changing on the fly. As he entered the blue line he cut to the middle and the Leaf defender stayed in front of him. It did not appear to be a dangerous rush. About 2 feet in the zone near the centre of the ice he lets go a medium-speed wrist shot and it surprises Bester and goes 5-hole. Replays show that the defenders skates were right in front of Bester's view of the puck, but it was such a long shot (the defender was only a couple of feet in front of Momesso) he should have been able to pick up the flight of the puck.

I'd say the goal was 95% Bester's fault. An NHL goalie (even at 1990 standards) will make that save at least 19 out of 20 times. Adding to the pain was how crucial the game was. We were down 2-0 in the series and needed to win both home games to have a shot. That goal made it 3-0 and pretty much sealed the season shut.