Monday, February 22, 2010

Why Does Experience Matter, Again?

Does anyone have any evidence that experience helps goalies in playoff games and/or international tournaments? Anyone? I don't think I've ever seen anything that backs up that oft-used coaches' sentiment/broadcaster cliche. Olympic veterans Martin Brodeur and Evgeni Nabokov have been shaky, while Olympic rookies like Jonas Hiller and Ryan Miller have been great. In recent playoffs, a lot of young guys have done well and a lot of veterans haven't. I think talent should be the only deciding factor in picking a goalie.

When you focus on experience, you just end up being biased for one player over another based on them having played more games, and what it ends up being is tyranny of the status quo. I'm reminded of Canada coach Mike Babcock's comments prior to the Olympics. He said about his goaltenders, "I don't think it's a big secret that nobody was really on fire coming into the tournament for us." In hindsight I should have known right then and there that he was planning to go with Brodeur as his starter, because that's a ridiculous statement. The pre-tournament play between the goalies wasn't even close, it was Luongo by far. Luongo got pulled in his last start against Minnesota, in a game where his team was completely dominated. Somehow that supposedly defined him as stumbling into the Olympics, even though he was 8-2-0, 2.22, .926 in his previous 11 starts, the last five in a row played on the road. In his last 10 starts in the rink where the Olympics are being held, Luongo was 8-1-1, 1.89, .937.

Martin Brodeur was also pulled in his last pre-Olympic tuneup, the difference is that in his prior 11 he was just 4-5-2, 2.78, .884. If you're not even going to give Luongo the title of the hottest goalie heading into the Olympics, then you're already committed to the veteran incumbent no matter how much you talk about evaluating the play of both goalies.

I'm going to assume that Luongo's in net for the rest of the Olympics after Brodeur cost Team Canada the game against the U.S.A. But who knows, if you want to ignore puckstopping talent and recent form and dwell on past glories there's no doubt you can make the case for throwing Brodeur back in net against Germany. Some people are already making it in the media, led by Brodeur's biggest fan and autobiography co-author Damien Cox. But if Brodeur's puckhandling is a negative, as it was last night, then I don't see any justification to play him over Luongo at all. Brodeur's non-save skills are what makes it close between them in the first place, because the track record makes it abundantly clear that Luongo is the better puckstopper.

I still see goalie puckhandling is one of the most overrated skills in hockey. Every good play has a small positive value and every bad play has a huge negative value. At the end of the day I just don't see much of a difference being made. Having said that, of course Brodeur had a bad night with the puck yesterday. On a good day he can definitely help the team. To do that, though, he needs to play under a lot more control. If Brodeur thinks the team is better with him swinging wildly at the puck out of midair rather than having the best defenceman in the NHL this season (Duncan Keith) pick up the puck out of the corner, then he's really overrating his own ability.

I'm still not convinced Team Canada will actually change their netminder, because I think they probably already decided at some point that Brodeur was going to be their guy throughout the tournament and didn't expect to be in this situation. Hopefully they make their choice based on merit, not based on experience. Rating goalies based on one game is a terrible idea, and Brodeur has a decent chance of rebounding if he was to get the call for further games. However, if you want to run an organization that rewards good play and not just seniority then you simply have to hand over the reins when one guy drops the ball that badly. Especially when your backup goalie is likely as good as or better than your starter to begin with.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Steve Mason a Potential Olympian?

I have to say I was a fan of the selections for the Canadian Olympic hockey team, but I'm not inspired with confidence after seeing Steve Mason named as the injury replacement on call ahead of other options like Cam Ward or Carey Price.

Ward and Price have both had their ups and downs, but at least they've had some ups. Mason's been flat-lining ever since the magic December 2008 that made him famous. His monthly save percentages in 2009 and 2010 are decidedly unimpressive:


Yikes. I get that he's the "goalie of the future" and has a world junior gold medal pedigree, but right now he shouldn't be anywhere near the Olympics. I'm assuming that it would have been Ward if not for injury, and that Mason was more or less the default option as the only remaining healthy goalie who attended the orientation camp last fall, but if Patrice Bergeron could make the team then there was no reason they couldn't go outside the training camp roster for their selections.

Who the fourth goalie is will have no effect on the games, of course, but it still reflects on the selection process. If they get that wrong, they might very well get it wrong on who will be the #1 or the #2. The correct answer to both of those questions, of course, is "Not Marc-Andre Fleury." Just compare them over last season and this one:

Roberto Luongo: .672 win %, 2.31 GAA, .920 Sv%
Martin Brodeur: .640 win %, 2.33 GAA, .916 Sv%
Marc-Andre Fleury: .640 win %, 2.66 GAA, .910 Sv%

Luongo vs. Brodeur is a fun debate, but realistically that choice probably won't have much of an effect on Canada's win probability over a short tournament. Just keep Fleury in the stands and it should be OK.

I did notice, however, that if you watch the documentary "On Home Ice" (available on Youtube), there is a shot of a whiteboard with the Canadian depth chart on it while Team Canada's management staff was discussing player choices. The goalies are listed in the following order:


I don't know if that means anything, but I sure hope not. I guess we'll find out in four days.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Kari Lehtonen Is a Star

This blog has long been a fan of Kari Lehtonen, who was dealt yesterday to the Dallas Stars for a prospect and a 4th round pick. I've made the case for Lehtonen in a couple of places, but the basic argument is that between his stints on the IR he has put together some pretty persuasive evidence of being a terrific puckstopper.

Even Strength Save Percentage Leaders Since the Lockout (min. 200 GP):

1. Tomas Vokoun: 282 GP, .935
2. Roberto Luongo: 328 GP, .930
3. Tim Thomas: 250 GP, .927
3. J.S. Giguere: 243 GP, .927
5. Miikka Kiprusoff: 353 GP, .926
5. Martin Brodeur: 314 GP, .926
7. Henrik Lundqvist: 316 GP, .925
7. Kari Lehtonen: 200 GP, .925
9. Ilya Bryzgalov: 238 GP, .924
9. Ryan Miller: 296 GP, .924

That is some heady company for Lehtonen to be keeping. However, it's not all positive for the young Finn. There are certainly question marks. The injuries, of course. Consistent rumours out of Atlanta questioning Lehtonen's motivation, conditioning and commitment. PK save % numbers that are nothing special and well below the rest of the above group. His shots against, which have been consistently higher than his playing partners, implying that his skill in terms of goal prevention may be slightly lower than his save percentage implies.

Dallas gave up one of their better prospects, which may indicate they have some long-term plans for Lehtonen. Changes of scenery can often be beneficial for athletes with elite potential but questionable work ethic. With Alex Auld and Marty Turco still in the mix in Dallas, Lehtonen will have to work hard to be able to play.

It's impossible to predict whether Lehtonen's injury woes are in the past or something that will continue to plague him throughout his NHL career. Nevertheless, if I was Dallas I'd probably rather bet my team's playoff chances on Lehtonen than on the apparently washed-up Marty Turco. It will be interesting to see how Lehtonen does in Dallas. I think he has a good chance of success.

I'll also be staying tuned to see the shots against numbers for Lehtonen as a Star, especially compared to Turco. We'll see what the gap is between a guy who has a track record of facing more shots than his teammates and one of the top puckhandlers in the league. That figure could shed more light on the boundaries of shot effects for NHL goalies.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Hogwash of "Big Saves"

Let's do a thought experiment where we imagine a goalie who is perfect and has the ability to stop every single shot he faces. That's because he is so athletic, or so big, or because he can read shooters' minds, or however else you want to imagine the hypothetical. His skills have only one limitation, they don't apply in shootouts because shootouts have nothing to do with the rest of the game of hockey. This goalie's skill is average in shootouts and as a result his team has the same 50% chance of winning a shootout as anybody else.

The goalie also happens to be an attention seeker and a thrill junkie, who loves pressure situations. He doesn't care at all about personal stats, only whether his team wins the game or not. His team is in a non-traditional hockey market and is struggling to sell tickets. As a result, the owner wants to have every game be as exciting as possible to boost the gate receipts.

The owner has discussed strategy with the goalie, and they have agreed that the goalie will adjust his effort to try to make every game as close as possible, but at the same time never intentionally throwing a game. They decide it is also best not to tell the team's coach of this plan, since the owner is thinking of firing him at the end of the season and doesn't want the media or the league to find out that his team is in effect shaving points.

Since he doesn't know he has a goalie with super powers, the coach does not use any all-out offensive strategies that might make sense in such a scenario (aggressive forechecking, playing with four or five forwards, using cherry-pickers, etc.). Instead he plays a typical offensive system, and the team is about average offensively.

What does the goalie do in this scenario? Obviously he can freely give up goals when his team is ahead by 2 goals or more, because he can then shut the door and preserve the one goal margin. What about if his team is leading by a single goal? If there is little time left in the game, then it is unlikely that his team will score again. A shootout brings a 50% chance of losing, so if the goalie intentionally gives up a goal late in the game when ahead by one there is an even money chance that he is costing his team a win. Earlier in the game it is more likely that the goalie's team will score again to retake the lead, but nothing is guaranteed since hockey is a low-scoring game.

If he wants his team to pick up two points in every game, the goalie can't risk giving up any lead at all. There are some situations where the gambling odds might be pretty favourable, such as playing at home against a weak opponent where his team goes up 1-0 early in the first period. But give up enough goals in those scenarios and eventually there will be a game that will remain tied and be lost in a shootout.

By similar logic, the goalie can't give up a goal when the game is tied. In fact, that is considerably more crucial than allowing a goal when his team is ahead. A tie game is at least guaranteed to earn a loser point from going to a shootout, but if the team is trailing they need a goal just to force a shootout and face the prospect of a regulation loss if they aren't able to score again.

So this goalie, even if he is really daring, will probably never allow the first goal against and will most often just wait until his team scores 2 or 3 goals before he starts letting some in. He might for fun let in a goal or two early in the game against a bad team, or let the other team tie it up at 1-1 or 2-2 early in the game if he's pretty sure his teammates can score again. Despite giving up as many goals as he can he'll still probably lead the league in GAA and have a very high save percentage.

Now let's revise the scenario to make it a little more realistic. Some goals in hockey are just unstoppable by any goalie because they come on deflections, screens, lucky bounces, great setups, or shots that are simply too fast and too perfectly placed for anyone to stop. Let's assume that on average there is one goal against per game the goalie can't do anything about. These goals occur randomly and without any regularity. Sometimes the goalie goes several games in a row without allowing any, and sometimes he lets in 2 or 3 of them in the same game. How does that change his strategy, given his objective of not trying when his team is very likely to win yet still winning every game possible?

The answer is that now the goalie will essentially have to try to stop everything unless his team is up by 2 goals or more. Even if they are ahead by 2, he could end up blowing the lead by messing around and giving up a goal for fun which is then followed immediately by another one on an unlucky bounce. Similarly, he wouldn't want to intentionally let the other team tie the game because there is always the chance they will then take the lead on an unstoppable shot.

If his team scores 0, 1 or 2 goals in the game (which happens 47% of the time on average) the goalie will likely try to stop every shot he faces. If the team scores 3 or 4 goals (which happens 38% of the time on average), the goalie might let in one or two intentionally. About 14% of the time the team will score 5+ goals, and in that case the goalie can let in some goals for fun.

Multiply out the probabilities of the team's goal support with the expected intentional goals the goalie might allow, and the average would be about one intentional goal against per game. So if a goalie was trying to win every game while simultaneously never trying to stop the puck when he didn't have to, his goals against would be about one goal higher than it would otherwise be. That is, a save percentage of close to .000 when it doesn't matter would equal a GAA increase of about one.

I think it's pretty clear that under any even remotely realistic assumptions about how much a goalie is going to be goofing off when his team has the game in hand that the GAA effect is going to be very minimal, unless the goalie is playing on some kind of dynasty that is always blowing out the opposition. And even then it's certainly no positive trait in my book that a goalie doesn't care whether or not he gets scored on, even if his team is well in front.

It remains possible that there may be slight differences in team performance because of differences in goalie success in high-leverage situations. But I'm not convinced that is either significant or based on repeatable skill. If it exists it will create a slight difference between goalies with similar performance levels, but there is simply no way that a goalie like Marc-Andre Fleury (.907 career save percentage) is doing more to help his team win than a Tomas Vokoun (.917), regardless of career win/loss records.

I think the basic problem behind this common misconception is that people consistently overestimate the level of control a goalie has over his own play and the number of goals against. Vic Ferrari writes constantly about how hockey is a game of luck, and that's really true. Yet fans have heard lots of stuff about how goaltending is such a mental game, so they think that a goalie in the proper mental state can just decide to make himself unbeatable. Either that or or they give too much credence to one of those overplayed stories where Patrick Roy or somebody stood up in the dressing room and said, "Get me one more goal, boys, because I'm not letting in another one." He probably said that almost every time they were tied after two periods in the playoffs, and needless to say his team did not always win the game.

Sometimes the shooters make their shots, that's a fundamental basic truth of goaltending. It's not always the goalie's fault that the puck hits the back of the net. Anyone who wants to be a goalie or who wants to properly evaluate goaltending needs to be aware of that simple fact, or you're evaluating the luck-soaked result instead of the skill-based process.

If there exist some goals that are unstoppable and a goalie can't predict his team's future offence, which are two basic assumptions that obviously hold in hockey, there really is very little opportunity for a goalie to mess with the scoreline without costing his team. And that is why attempts to explain away poor individual save statistics with references to a goalie's win total are just biased nonsense.

Long story short, the next time you hear an announcer say something like, "It's not how many saves you make, it's when you make them", what he's actually telling you is, "I have no idea how to separate the contribution of a goalie from the contribution of the rest of the team."