Monday, October 5, 2009

Winning Means the Rest Doesn't Count

Goalies are rated far too much based on their team success. One reason for this is that we all have limited memories, which causes certain moments to be more easily recalled while the rest is forgotten. For some goalies that's a good thing, because we can clearly recall them doing things like stopping Pavel Bure on a penalty shot in the Finals or making a save with 2 seconds left in game 7 to help their team win the Cup. For others we remember only the weak moments that they would rather forget. As a result, goalies who have not experienced team success often see a few of their worst performances get scrutinized to the near-exclusion of all else, while similar performances by other goalies get ignored because they have a ring.

Patrick Roy was a terrific playoff goalie, but he had his fair share of weak performances. If you play 17 playoff seasons you are naturally going to have a few that are forgettable, of course, but some of Roy's flops were actually quite spectacular (losing his job in 1987 and 1988, his problems against the Bourque/Neely Bruins, a few first-round upsets against much weaker opponents, and of course the famous game 7 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals). Yet his fans will often talk about 4 Cups and 3 Conn Smythes, as if that's all that happened. Again, Roy's playoff record is strong by any measure, but it obviously looks even stronger when you only focus on the best of the best.

For other goalies more of a focus is put on their negatives than their positives. Glenn Hall is generally considered a playoff underachiever and is blamed by many for the Hawks' relative lack of playoff success in the 1960s, despite a strong effort in helping his team win the 1961 Cup and even though Chicago was outshot in nearly every playoff series that decade. Another one would be Curtis Joseph, who often led his team past better teams with excellent performances in the early rounds, but usually gets blamed because of his teams' failure to perform well deeper in the playoffs.

If we adjust for era and opponents and compare the playoff numbers for Roy and Joseph, Roy is something like a .916 playoff goalie while Joseph is at .909. Adjust for power plays against and the gap might be even smaller. That's a significant difference over a decent sample size, certainly enough to conclude that Roy was better, but the actual gap is just one goal every 143 shots. You have to be pretty good at subjective evaluation to notice a difference of one extra goal saved every five games.

If we rely on our memories, however, then the differences are usually exaggerated. If I think of Roy and Joseph I might recall Roy's performances in the Stanley Cup Finals in 1993 and 2001, while what comes to mind for Joseph is how he played in the Conference Finals in 1999 and 2002. Based on that my memory is going to tell me that Roy was a lot better, because I'm effectively comparing a .934 goalie against an .890 goalie. That's the equivalent of Tim Thomas vs. Vesa Toskala in 2008-09. That is a gap that you can easily see with your eyes, and the result is substantially overrating the difference between playoff Roy and playoff Joseph.

There are a few goalies in the league today who benefit from the "only memorable playoff successes count" method of goalie evaluation. Marc-Andre Fleury is an obvious one, with his big save on Lidstrom still fresh in everyone's memories. Yet perhaps the goalie who benefits the most is Cam Ward. Many fans overlook his mostly mediocre regular season play (essentially everything up until December of 2008) in favour of the 6 playoff series of above average play that have built Ward something of a reputation as a money goalie. Some are claiming that Ward is one of the top 5 goalies in the NHL and deserves a chance to become Canada's starter in 2010, neither of which is supported by his history. Almost nobody took Ward to task for his performance in the Pittsburgh series despite getting shelled in four straight games. That's the power of reputation: If you're considered "clutch", then you can get blown out and the fans blame the rest of the team. If you're considered unclutch, then the fans blame you.

Ward just signed a contract extension for $37.8 million over 6 years. That's more than he deserves based on his past record, but Ward has shown some real improvement over the last few seasons (his EV SV% numbers have gone .899-.917-.926). Ward probably got rushed to the NHL before he was ready, and when he caught lightning in a bottle in the 2006 playoffs his team unwisely decided to throw him even further over his head by handing him the starting job a couple years before he deserved it. His performance over the last two seasons is likely more indicative of what he can be expected to do until the end of his this contract. Still, we don't have a lot to go on to be able to assess Ward's true skill level. Is he still improving? Was last season a good year or a typical year? All that remains to be seen.

In the new NHL, teams are paying players for their projected performance instead of their past performance, which is what I'm sure Carolina was thinking when they inked Ward to his big deal. If his 2008-09 numbers represent his true skill, then Ward is a top-10 goalie in the league. I'm not a big fan of paying out $5-6M+ on goalies, unless it is to an elite goalie with an established track record, because there always seems to be Craig Anderson-types available who have the potential to give you 90% of the performance for 20% of the cost and you don't want to get stuck paying big money to a goalie giving you average performance. However, if Ward is legitimately a .925 puckstopper at EV than it shouldn't be too bad of a contract for Carolina. If it turns out he's more of a .917 guy then that's a big overpayment.

I think it is pretty likely that Ward has become and will continue to be at the very least a solid NHL goalie, but I'm not at all convinced that he is some incredible pressure performer. If you look at his playoff performances throughout his career (junior, AHL, NHL), the only time that his playoff results look way out of line compared to his regular season numbers is his surprise Cup run in 2006. He did do pretty well in the playoffs in junior, but in the 2005 AHL playoffs he had one good series and one not-so-good one (.895 save percentage in a second-round loss to a lower-seeded team). Ward's international record is also fairly spotty, albeit in a very small sample, with a .901 combined save percentage in world championship games against the other top hockey nations (USA, Russia, Sweden, Finland).

To me Ward's performance in 2006, given what he did directly before and after it, is less a sign of his clutch ability than evidence of what kind of a charmed run the Hurricanes were fortunate enough to go on for the entire 2005-06 season. Referring back to the recent topic of percentages, I'm not sure a team has ever seen their shooting percentage jump more from one season to the next then those Hurricanes did when they improved from 7.2% in 2003-04 to 11.2% in 2005-06. No wonder the team went from dead last in goals and out of the playoffs to the 3rd best offence and the 4th best record in the league.

Winning once or twice does not mean that the rest shouldn't count. If you want to evaluate goalies on their playoff or international play, then first of all be aware of the sample size issues. Secondly, evaluate them based on their individual success, not their team success. And finally, be sure to take their entire performance into account, not just the very best or the very worst.


Anonymous said...

give it up. yet another subverted attempt to defend the most overrated goalie in the game outside nabakov and lundqvst, roberto luongo

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

This post was actually about Cam Ward, and never mentioned Roberto Luongo. And it boggles my mind how anybody could consider Luongo more overrated than Ward. I'll agree with you about Nabokov, though, of course.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you that he's fairly overrated, but Cam Ward deserves respect for holding it all together and not having a rookie meltdown when it mattered most (Price, Bryzgalov, Emery, etc. all did). Yeah, he had a great team in front of him in the '06 playoffs, but he deserves some credit.

quoipourquoi said...

Maybe it's just me, but I think of Joseph as the goalie that upset Dallas and Colorado in 1997 and 1998, respectively.

Roy did have some bad playoffs, as do all goalies, but you're exaggerating it a bit when you factor the negative factors into the whole equation from which people have declared him to be a "winner." Looking at the six best goalies of his era (Roy, Hasek, Brodeur, Belfour, Joseph, and Osgood), even when you weigh his playoff blowups against his triumphs, he still looks better than his peers.

Of the six, only Roy saw his winning percentage (as calculated by pre-1983 standards) jump up in the playoffs. He goes from a .612 to a .616 (Hasek from a .601 to a .570, Brodeur from a .599 to a .557, Belfour from a .582 to a .564, Joseph from a .548 to a .488, Osgood from a .612 to a .602).

He's also the only one to have his odds of winning a game in the playoffs increase when the game goes to overtime. Roy's winning percentage jumps from .616 to .690 (Hasek goes from .570 to .517, Brodeur from .557 to .375, Belfour to .564 to .524, Joseph from .488 to .464, Osgood from .602 to .400).

It's not just memories that support Patrick Roy's reputation. For him to be the only elite goaltender of his generation to have his winning percentage increase both from the regular season to the playoffs and from regulation in the playoffs to overtime (especially when he has the largest sample size in both categories), he would either have to have been on teams that stepped up their game to monumental levels in the years he did not win the Cup relative to everyone else's teams (because the 1986 Montreal Canadiens had horrible playoff offense- there are articles in Sports Illustrated acknowledging this, the 1993 Montreal Canadiens stayed consistent to their regular season offense, and both Avalanche championship teams underperformed offensively), or the good times in his playoff career were so good that they more than outweigh the bad parts.

It should also be noted that the Canadiens won four straight games against the Bruins with Roy in net in 1987. He only got to play a single game against Quebec before losing his starting job to an equally strong regular season goalie that year in Hayward. In 1988, he won three straight games against Hartford, lost one, and then Hayward took his job again. Both years, he lost the starting job after a SINGLE loss. They wouldn't even let him play every game in the opening round of 1989, and he was undefeated and coming off of a statistically dominant regular season in which he seemingly didn't lose at home.

Montreal did not put faith in Roy until Hayward lost his single start against Boston in 1989 (Roy won all four starts against the Bruins that year). If 1987 and 1988 are the big valleys in Roy's career, some of the blame has to be placed on the coaches for waiting for Hayward to drop the ball completely in order for Roy to be the number one goalie, because they had such a yank-first/questions-later mentality, he never got to establish a rhythm.