Tuesday, January 18, 2011

How The Game of Hockey Taught Me That Goalie Wins Don't Matter

There was a personal story posted over at Lighthouse Hockey by "Mikb" (who is also an occasional commenter here) that I wanted to use as a starting point in a discussion on the impact of hockey experience on goalie evaluation. Here's an excerpt of what he wrote, reproduced with his permission:

I was on a very successful team for a number of years – I was the MVP of a tournament we won, won a few leagues with the guys, good times – and then a lot of the guys I’d started with began to leave… jobs, age, moving away, etc. etc. The guys who were left were pretty good too, but we wound up losing four seasons in a row (we play three seasons per year, usually)…. tough OT losses, one loss in a nine-round shootout. These are single-eliminations, too, at least until the best-of-three final. ANYTHING can happen in a single game like that.

Well – those new guys kicked me off their team. Another team gladly snapped me up, and for the first year (three more seasons) it was the same thing… in fact, I think we got shut out each of the games.

If I had to guess, I’d say I had about a 1.50 GAA with nothing to show for it except a big fat scapegoating. Then just this Tuesday night, my new team and I finally won. It was easily my WORST game out of the whole lot – two horrible goals against in the first five minutes, and my guys pulled [me] out of it with a big final period.

So – it annoys me when I hear stuff like “not clutch,” “learning how to win,” and “playoff choker.” I didn’t forget how to win for three years, and just remember this week. I wasn’t choking. I wasn’t “big when they needed it.” Hell, if I HAD been even barely competent early on, I wouldn’t have needed to make ANY big saves, we would have been winning 3-0, there would have been no OT heroics and no shootout saves.

I think a lot of that is probably very familiar to long-time goalies, the vast majority of whom would have their own anecdotes about either taking heat for losing on a bad team or having to do little more than show up to win behind a powerhouse.

When I was much younger, I remember disagreeing with an older goalie who stated that a goalie is mostly just as good as the team in front of him, but as much as anything else it was my experience that changed my outlook. I don't think it was ever more clear to me that I was just one small part of an overall team effort than in one particular game where in my estimation I played about as well as I could possibly play and my team still lost 4-0. On a different day maybe I would have been a bit luckier, maybe they wouldn't have made a few of the shots that they made and we could have at least still squeaked a tie out of it, that's the variability of goaltending and that's always the hope that goalies cling to for the next outing. But on that day I was in peak form and it didn't matter one bit, we still got crushed.

The other thing that I concluded from both personal experience and subjective observation is that it is ridiculous to describe people in absolutes, and that you are doomed to failure if you expect to be able to perfectly predict performances based on past results. Like Mikb points out, labels are easily applied but mostly meaningless; I see them as the product of bias and lazy thinking. Some individuals may have tendencies, even more so at lower levels of play, but people are complicated and randomness happens. Every athlete knows that they are not consistent every time out, regardless of their best intentions.

There was one particular big game I played in where I was just completely out of form. I had been playing well leading up to it, and I wasn't that nervous and didn't feel any different than usual before the game, right up until the point where I realized that I could barely catch a puck in warmups. That's when I started to get a bit concerned (perhaps another example in support of Kent Wilson's argument that confidence is an effect, not a cause?) I spilled rebounds on most of the shots against that day, but luckily my defence was outstanding and we ended up with a shutout win.

Other times in that exact same scenario I've been calm and confident. I don't think I'm a choker or a clutch player, but it's entirely possible that next time out I might choke and the game after that my play will be supremely clutch. I'm not a robot with only one setting, and I don't believe anyone else is either. I've been described before as trying to "erase the human element" by discounting clutch play, but I hardly see how it is any more of an acknowledgement of the human element to have a perspective of players as video game characters who perform exactly the same way in every clutch situation based on the value of their "poise" rating. Good days, bad days and luck are all big parts of that human element, and are likely all big reasons why it is difficult to find evidence of clutch skill in the data.

I want to make it clear that I am not saying that we can extrapolate every beer league observation and apply it to the pros. Their level of talent and preparation is on a completely different level and they are playing for much, much higher stakes. At the end of the day, though, they're still people, and they are still playing the same sport with the same basic rules as the peewees down at the local rink.

That's why I struggle to understand how anyone could play a large number of games as a hockey goaltender on a variety of different teams without coming to the conclusion that rating goalies based on wins and team success is a foolish endeavour. I think it must simply be the case that conventional hockey wisdom is at fault, and that the cliches and coaching points that people hear at the rink, on TV and around the game have taken root to such a degree that people let them overshadow their own observations.

Sometimes the problem areas of sports logic stick out most clearly when they are compared to an analogous setting in a different area (which, as someone who is a bit of a stickler for logical consistency, I like to do every now and then). It's a rare individual indeed who wouldn't scream and yell and cry martyr when he gets blamed individually for the failings of others at work or school, but for some reason that same guy goes home and sits down in front of his TV and heaps scorn on the quarterback or the goalie when his team loses. It doesn't make a lot of sense, especially if that guy had sports experiences of his own the prior weekend that should have further reinforced the point. It really does seem that hockey groupthink has a powerful impact on many observers.

So, if you are one of those types who think that stats are meaningless and Cup rings are the litmus test for a goalie and that Chris Osgood is a fully deserving Hall of Famer but Grant Fuhr was the best you ever saw, I can only recommend that you strap on the pads and get into a game and focus on your own observations. If you are honest with yourself and if you take the time to compare your experiences against some of the premises that you have long accepted as uncontested fact, I think you just might come around to a different way of thinking on the matter.


RyanV said...

I think you're right, of course, but I don't think this is a strong argument.

As far as I can tell, there are lots of current and former NHL goalies who genuinely believe that clutch skill matters, only count the "big saves", and consider goalie wins to be a useful stat. Do you find their subjective experiences of goaltending to be a convincing argument?

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

I don't think this argument is as strong as an evidence-based one either (that's why I generally stick to those types of arguments), but my assertion is simply that it is quite possible to reject the conventional wisdom based on subjective experience.

You are correct that there are lots of current goalies who buy into the wins myth. My problem with some of them is that they like to portray the debate as experience vs. stats nerds, claiming the high ground of experience and asserting that anyone who played the game couldn't fail to make the same conclusions they do. I disagree with that entirely.

I think the reality is that most people will believe stuff that other people tell them, and will often ignore data that suggests otherwise, even from their own experience. More detail about that is given in the groupthink link in the post.

That's why I said that you absolutely have to compare your experience against your long-established premises in my concluding sentence. It's maybe naive to expect that some will do this, but the experiences are really right there staring you in the face. If you don't learn something from losing a game to a clearly worse goalie on a much better team, or winning a game against a much better goalie on a mediocre team, then you are ignoring the evidence staring you right in the face.

nightfly said...

Thanks for doing my anecdote justice, CG.

I also agree that an anecdote isn't hard evidence - and especially at my level of "hockey." But offering such evidence in the discussion I was having was sort of like offering headphones to people with earplugs on... they didn't think they needed to hear anything at all. So I tried a bit of direct observation instead.

My time with that team actually owed a great deal to the narrative of "big game goalie" and "clutch saves" to begin with... we were the bottom seed, playing with a very short bench, and beat the first, second, and fourth seeds to win. The semi and the final went to penalties and I stopped all seven shooters. Boom, "big game goalie" is born, I get to play on a freakin' awesome team for three years.

Felt good, of course, but I know for a fact that the real MVP of that tournament was one of our defensemen, who was dominant in every possible situation. When we didn't have him, much the same team was shut out three straight in a tournament a couple of years later. (And as one guy sagely observed on that occasion - "Mike, if you'd have done your job right, we'd have had three scoreless ties." Laughter's the best treatment for a bruising like that.)

Point is, I've seen the narrative in action from both sides. It's helped me and it's hurt me. How much of it was rooted in performance, in teamwork, and in dumb blind luck? The further away those days get, the less certain I am.

I know other people still believe passionately in the narrative, some of them goalies of far more skill and accomplishment than I'll ever have. Good for them. As a thought process, it's probably very helpful - you want the guy who wants to be big in the clutch, you want him to look forward to being tested, believing that he will pass and be the hero. And it does happen often enough. If he fails, you want him to be a stand-up guy and shoulder his share of the responsibility. But pass or fail, the keeper's influence is only one of many, and not always the strongest.

And as far as true believers in "big saves" go - it's easier to believe THAT when you've made them. When you get beat, it's a lot easier to put it down to bad luck - as CS Lewis observed, we tend to put our worst moments down to everything else, but our good moments we put down to ourselves.

Joshua said...

man, this reads like an entry in my personal diary. not that I have one.

In a best out of 2 championship ( with sudden death tie breaker) I had the same experience. We beat an undefeated team in the first game 1-0, which ended in a full on brawl ( I had to claim my chest protector afterwards). Game two, we lost 7-0. Then in OT, I made 3 or 4 quality saves before we scored on a fluke goal line shot, and won the championship. Not much rhyme or reason to the events.

Nice to know that others have had a similar experience.

great goalie blog, also came across this other article that goaltenders may appreciate.


Anonymous said...

Fuhr, Gretzky, Fleury, Rheaume...we've all see our fair share of players who have had addictions issues.

Fuhr was probably doing blue flake cocaine between periods just to stay awake...

Get yourself sorted, there's no need to turn to narcotics or alcohol to numb your pain!

Anonymous said...

A bit OT, but will you be putting together a "Best Goaltender in 2010" column. Thanks.


Host Pay Per Head said...

hahaha I did learn that "lesson" long ago when I was a child and my father told me exactly that!

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