Recently two different publications, one by Hockey Night in Canada, the other by The Hockey News, have come out with historical goalie rankings. Both of them made what I consider to be a very serious error in underrating Dominik Hasek. I've been beating the drum for Hasek pretty much since day one in this space, not because I am a personal fan of him or any of his teams, but because it is impossible to get deep into goalie statistics without being impressed by the ridiculous level of dominance Hasek displayed in the 1990s.
So here we go again, another chance for me to throw out numbers supporting the great Czech netminder, trying to properly illustrate the unrighteousness of ranking the Dominator as the 5th best goalie of all-time, as THN does, or the 3rd best goalie since 1967 (a la HNIC).
In the calendar year of 1998, including the regular season, playoffs and Olympics, Dominik Hasek had the following stat line: 54-20-14, 1.75, .943, plus 16 shutouts. He averaged nearly 1 shutout every 5 games, playing mostly on a Buffalo Sabres team that was the worst team in the league at shot prevention in 1997-98 and 5th worst in 1998-99. The Sabres' win threshold over those two seasons was .917, meaning that they needed a very good goalie just to be a .500 team. To further stack the deck against the Dominator, the Sabres took more penalties than average in both seasons as well.
The league average save percentage in the regular season was around .906 in that period. In the 1998 playoffs, all goalies other than Hasek combined for an average of .912. Playoff averages usually rise slightly because teams only play their starting goalies. A difference of .006 suggests that the scoring environment was pretty similar between the regular season and playoffs. In the Olympics, the average save percentage was .904 (that's not including Kazakhstan, which got completely shelled in every game).
I'll take .906 as the league average and assume Hasek faced average shot quality, was not impacted by scorer bias and did not play a role in his team's shot prevention (or at least that the effects of all three ended up netting out to zero). Based on those assumptions, Hasek was about 120 goals above average in a 12 month span. Considering he did it in minutes equivalent to 90.3 full games, Hasek averaged 1.33 goals better than average per game for an entire year, during a time period when the average NHL team scored 2.60 goals per game.
That is why Hasek should be talked about among Gretzky, Orr, Lemieux and Howe when people are discussing the greatest peaks in hockey history. It's certainly not conventional wisdom to put Hasek up in the stratosphere with those legends, but there is a numerical case for it. It's possible that, like Hasek, Gretzky had some crazy calendar year that was better than any of his full seasons (maybe 1983, which included most of his ridiculous 51-game point streak), but his most impressive full season may have been 1984-85. Counting regular season, playoffs and the Canada Cup, the Great One scored 95 goals and 172 assists for 267 points and a +126 rating in 106 games.
That stat line probably looks way more impressive than Hasek's to most hockey fans, but a lot of that is probably because we have more intuitive sense about the level forwards produce at than the level goalies produce at. We know that 267 points is far beyond the curve for forwards, but while we realize that .943 is great, we may not have a sense of exactly how great (adjusted for scoring environment, it would be the equivalent of Patrick Roy in the '93 playoffs, or J.S. Giguere in the '03 postseason, for 90 games in a row). Depending on your assumptions about his ice time, the strength of his teammates, Gretzky's defensive ability and the production of an average forward, it's possible to argue that Hasek contributed more on a per-game basis than even the Great One.
For example, let's assume that Gretzky had average ice time, was average defensively and played with average linemates (two of those are clearly false, but bear with me). Since Hasek was being compared to the average goalie, let's use the average first-line forward as the baseline for Gretzky. In 1984-85 the average first-liner, excluding Gretzky himself, averaged 1.09 points per game, which equates to 116 points in 106 games. As a result, we can conclude that Gretzky scored 151 points above average, 1.42 points per game higher than the average forward. That is just slightly better than Hasek's mark even based on the prior assumptions and giving Gretzky sole credit for all of his points. Take into account the fact that he played on the same line as Jari Kurri and the same team as Paul Coffey, factor in Gretzky's heavy ice time, and maybe he doesn't beat the Dominator after all.
That's just a quick-and-dirty method, we could also use a metric that is designed to measure value such as GVT. Gretzky had a 59.1 GVT rating in the regular season and playoffs in 1984-85. Hasek averaged 54.0 GVT in 1997-98 and 1998-99, and added an additional 13.6 in the 1998 playoffs. Including the Olympics and looking just at that calendar year, Hasek probably had a GVT over 70. That means that both in total and on a per-game basis, Hasek's numbers in this period would easily beat not only Gretzky's best season but also the best seasons of Bobby Orr and Mario Lemieux (although, to be fair, GVT typically does rank the top goalies above the top skaters).
Having said all that, Gretzky's peak is extremely impressive because he was able to maintain it for such a long period of time (averaging 203 points per year over a six-season stretch, plus another 31 per year in the playoffs). Hasek was amazing throughout the '90s but I think most would agree that 1998 was his absolute peak, which means that he was probably both playing out of his mind while also having some luck in terms of having the puck hitting him. If you're rating careers then no doubt Gretzky wins, and if you're rating extended primes than there's a good case for the Great One as well. However, for one game, at the absolute height of their respective powers, I'd definitely think twice about it. At the very least I think Hasek down to the next goalie is a bigger gap than Gretzky to Lemieux.
Some people will probably tell you that Gretzky was on a different level than Hasek because the Great One was in a class of his own far ahead of the rest of the league, while Hasek was only just a bit better than Brodeur and Roy. Those people are flat-out wrong. This is what Hasek's main rivals were doing over the same 12 months, see if you think any of them are even close:
Roy: 32-32-6, 2.36, .910, 6 SO
Brodeur: 39-22-11, 2.12, .909, 8 SO
Belfour: 45-18-7, 1.87, .919, 6 SO
Joseph: 41-32-3, 2.38, .914, 9 SO
For an even better expression of the relevant difference, here are the goals against per 30 shots numbers for those four guys and Hasek:
Dominik Hasek: 1.71
Ed Belfour: 2.43
Curtis Joseph: 2.58
Patrick Roy: 2.70
Martin Brodeur: 2.73
Belfour may have been the second-best goalie that year, and he was still dusted by Hasek. Remember that Belfour was playing on the back-to-back President's Trophy-winning Dallas Stars, a terrific defensive team coached by Ken Hitchcock that also took fewer penalties than average. Even if you don't like save percentage or you think that there are other major factors in play like puckhandling, just compare those win/loss records for Belfour on the best team in the league (.875 win threshold) against Hasek on the overmatched Sabres and the underdog Czech Olympic team:
Belfour: 45-18-7, .693
Hasek: 54-20-14, .693
At the very least, I think it's fair to say that the number of players in league history that have had that big of an effect on winning can be counted on one hand.
In my mind it will be a travesty if Hasek is remembered as the third-best goalie of his generation, which is a perception that a lot of media-types are currently doing their best to entrench. In terms of actual performance, the Dominator really does stand alone.