"TCG's other big problem is that he completely ignores the human element of sport, and approaches all statistical problems from the assumption that players perform the same regardless of game situation, again without ever really grappling with the problem. It is essentially a hockey version of Moneyball, Billy Beane's now comical baseball analysis which included the theory that there is no such thing as clutch hitting...I find attempts to erase the human element of sport under a pile of statistics not only patently false, but also vaguely disgusting." (HFBoards)
I just wanted to post a few words about my outlook on clutch play. The poster above is essentially correct in my base assumption regarding clutch performance in hockey players. However, I don't think it's fair to say I've never grappled with the problem. I simply think that the high degree of uncertainty means that it does not make sense to use clutch performance as an evaluative tool for goalies. Here are the six primary reasons:
1. Most of hockey is played with the score close. Allowing a goal against in a close game results in a significant downgrade in a team's win probability, and therefore most of a goalie's workload should be considered to be a clutch situation. From that, it follows that a goalie's overall performance should closely approximate his clutch performance, since most of the sample comes from situations with a high penalty for allowing a goal against.
2. If we define clutch situations more narrowly, we run into small sample size issues. For example, if we were to evaluate goalies based entirely on their performance in third periods in the playoffs, then we only have several hundred shots to work with even for experienced netminders. A more common split is to simply discuss regular season performance and playoff performance separately, but for the most part over a larger sample size the two results converge, or are generally within a typical margin of error for the size of the sample. Playoff results are also fraught with additional perils, including extreme opposition effects, a different style of play, and greater playing-to-the-score effects.
3. The best way to evaluate a method or statistic is to see how well it predicts the future. If we want to include clutch play in our predictions for active netminders, then sample size is even more of a concern. It is a simple fact of random chance and the variability of athletic endeavours that some goalies are going to start their playoff careers hot while others start their playoff careers cold, regardless of their level of talent, preparation or mental fortitude. Without a large sample size to work with, we're essentially guessing at this point whether someone like Cam Ward has a true ability to raise his game in important situations or whether he had a couple of well-timed hot streaks. If he continues to play on a marginally talented team that frequently misses the playoffs, we may never know with a high degree of confidence which viewpoint is correct.
4. Players and teams have the option of changing their style of play, their matchups, their shoot/pass tendencies, and their offensive/defensive bias to match the game situation. Goalies do not have those same strategic options. This suggests that changes in results or percentages in response to the game situation are primarily driven by players, not goalies.
5. Nearly every goalie who has been identified as clutch by subjective evaluators played on a dominant team. That correlation certainly suggests that many observers are conflating team effects with goaltender performance. It is possible that they are correct, but it does not seem very probable, given that on the whole team strength is a much better predictor of playoff success than goalie strength. If there were goalies who played on weak teams who did not have significant team success yet were universally praised as clutch, then I would have more confidence in the ability of observers to rate "clutchness".
6. Subjective evaluations of goalies often strongly emphasize a goalie's performance in important situations, his team success, and whether or not someone believes he is a "winner". It is conventional hockey wisdom that you need a clutch goalie to win and that the best goalies win the most games. Therefore, it seems extremely likely that there should be a selection bias against goalies who can't perform under pressure, that scouts will pick out the most clutch goalies to advance to higher levels of play. If a goalie who is in truth a "choker" or a "loser" does make it all the way to the best league in the world, then that would reflect somewhat poorly on the ability of observers to subjectively evaluate clutch play.
In summary, I'm not a clutch play disbeliever, merely a clutch play skeptic. I have done studies of clutch performance because I think it is a worthwhile topic to investigate, but I don't think the evidence suggests it is particularly significant or that it is accurately estimated by observers. I'm certainly not saying that sports psychologists are quacks, or that all athletes perform at exactly the same level in every situation. Players are indeed human, and there are too many top-level athletes who failed under pressure to discount the human element entirely. However, I think we need to focus primarily on the most significant data, and I see NHL goaltending as an area where major clutch differences are structurally unlikely (see points 1, 4 and 6 above). We also have to be very careful about poor logic when switching back and forth from the general case to the specific case, e.g. some athletes choke, Goalie A choked in a big game, therefore Goalie A is a choker who will always choke.
Let's assume there is some small variance in clutch skill among NHL goalies. Precisely measuring that skill will be very difficult, whether you are evaluating players subjectively, objectively, or using both methods. Either way you are going to make mistakes, because chance happens and the future is unknown. If you want to be like a television broadcaster and subjectively praise players for their mental toughness and because "all they do is win", then you are going to hype some guys who simply went on a hot streak and have nothing but regression to the mean in their future. You're also going to dump on some players for their lack of fortitude who, unbeknownst to you, are going to tear up the league in future playoff seasons.
On the other hand, if you view the world the way I do, you run the risk of failing to correctly praise a player as clutch, or at least you won't do so until their careers are mostly over and they have proven that they have that ability. You will also continue to predict great things for players who have good overall records but have poor clutch performances in their early careers. Some of these players might continue to perform poorly under pressure, but many of them will see their future pressure performances improve to match their overall ability.
If someone thinks that this perspective is promoting an agenda or in some way ignoring evidence, I'd like to point out that I took the same approach on shot prevention effects. I always thought there was a small effect, but I thought it was likely fairly insignificant and I wasn't going to commit to anything at all until I had evidence of what it was.
Was I wrong to state that goalies have no effect on shots against? Absolutely, as I think there is some very good evidence that goalies can affect the number of shots against, and the observed variance among NHL goalies seems to be about 1 shot above or below average. However, there are tons of people (including Martin Brodeur himself) who are demonstrably wrong on the other side of the equation because they overestimate the effect. Guessing too high is just as wrong as guessing too low. And by doing some in-depth research on the issue from my devil's advocate position and debating others who disagreed with me, I think we've come to greater learning than we otherwise would have if I'd merely accepted the consensus opinion or came to some quick subjective estimate and left it there.
Similarly, it's highly probable that I would be wrong to state that there is absolutely no difference in clutch skill among NHL goalies. However, in the presence of uncertainty that's still the position I am generally going to take, because I don't know exactly where to draw the line and I think that most people are drawing theirs too far on the opposite side of the true marker. That makes us both wrong, but my bet is that I'm closer to being right.
It's doubtful we'll ever develop perfect metrics or track them perfectly, and even if we do there are still going to be some limitations like being constrained by sample size. In the great clutch debate, that means it is likely always going to come down to picking which error you want to make. I'd rather assume a player is not clutch and wait for proof that they are, then assume that they are and wait for proof that they aren't. I think the general correlation between regular season and playoff performance, and the observed regression to the mean of many players who at one point or another were considered playoff over- or underachievers makes my position the one that is less likely to make mistakes. I am quite aware that there will probably still be mistakes, but I'm willing to accept the trade-off. And if we can ever prove the magnitude of clutch skill for NHL goalies, then I will update my position accordingly.