Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Between the Lockouts Cohort

A look at goalie Hall of Famers listed by birthday reveals a repeated clustering effect, as I pointed out in my last post. I want to take a more detailed look at one group that seems to have been particularly disadvantaged by environmental factors in terms of their Hall of Fame chances, the group of goalies that entered the NHL during the Dead Puck Era (which has been given differing endpoints by different people, but for now I'll use the period between the lockouts as a convenient definition).

On the surface, breaking into the NHL at a time when scoring was low seems to be a great opportunity for a goalie to put up some great numbers. However, this "between the lockouts cohort" was a group of goalies that faced increased competition from a larger talent pool, consisting of both better North American athletes choosing to play goal as well as a new influx of talent from Europe, making it much more difficult to stand out from the pack. They also had to deal with a quartet of first-ballot Hall of Famers that not only dominated the league's awards, but also hogged the starting jobs on the league best teams for much of the pre-lockout period.

Once those greats faded off into the sunset, and the new crop began looking for their own shot at backstopping a contending team to glory, the salary cap changed the way great teams were built. Instead of bringing in a hired gun veteran All-Star netminder to complete a championship team, as every Cup winning team did between the lockouts other than the Devils and the '98 Red Wings, many of the league's best teams have decided to invest their precious payroll dollars in maintaining depth in their group of skaters rather than spending big money on the goaltending position, or have decided to develop goalies internally rather than take the risk of shelling out big money on the free agent market.

As a result, a fairly mediocre collection of goalies have won the Cup since the lockout, while many of the league's most tenured netminders currently ply their trades for non-contending teams. Once again, the universe seems to have stacked the deck against the between the lockouts group.

The overall result was that this group did not win much individual award recognition or experience much team success, increasing the chances that few of them will be remembered long after their careers come to an end.

To be considered part of the group that I'm talking about, a goalie's first season as a starter has to have come between 1994-95 and 2003-04 inclusive. Since 2005 there have been a number of goalies with promising starts to their career who could attract Hall of Fame attention, either because of their play/awards recognition (e.g. Lundqvist, Thomas, Miller) or playoff success (e.g. Ward, Fleury).

Between the Lockouts Goalies, Sorted by Career Games Played:

Nikolai Khabibulin73031443.908396.917
Roberto Luongo65329654.919171.919
Tomas Vokoun61525843.91731.922
Jose Theodore56725430.909191.911
Evgeni Nabokov56329350.912407.913
Dwayne Roloson54520428.910181.915
Marty Turco53627341.910214.914
Tommy Salo52621037.90550.909
J.S. Giguere51823134.913336.925
Miikka Kiprusoff50526337.913256.921

These ten goalies have combined for just 2 Stanley Cup rings and 2 Vezinas, with none of them managing to win both. Not only does the group have only two Vezinas, but it came awfully close to not having any at all. Jose Theodore tied Patrick Roy with 105 points in the 2002 voting, winning only via the first place votes tiebreaker. If just one of the GMs with Theodore first and Roy second had switched their vote, Roy would have taken home that award. As if to reinforce the narrowness of Theodore's victory, the Habs netminder lost out on the First Team All-Star honour to Roy.

As for Kiprusoff's Vezina in 2006, here are his stats up until the Olympic break compared to Dominik Hasek's:

Kiprusoff: 29-14-7, 2.23, .915, 6 SO
Hasek: 28-10-4, 2.09, .925, 5 SO

At that point in the season Hasek may have had the edge, despite playing for a stronger team, but then he went and pulled his groin at the Olympics and left the door open for Kiprusoff to run away with it. Kipper did have a fantastic second half that year, and may have won regardless, but I think it's safe to say that without the injury Hasek would have been a strong contender for the 2006 Vezina.

On the other hand, I think this group lost out on several awards that it rightfully should have won, including Turco in 2003 and Luongo in both 2004 and 2007. But with respect to what did happen, it's not too hard to envision a scenario where they would have been completely shut out.

Khabibulin and Giguere are the only goalies in the group with Cup rings. Those two as well as Kiprusoff and Roloson are likely considered by many to be good playoff goalies based on all of them having a signature deep postseason run to their credit. However, if you look at their playoff careers other than that one year none of them have a distinguished record of success, except for Giguere, who won the Cup and Conn Smythe in separate postseasons.

Yet even Giguere has had his share of bad games and more than a typical share of being relegated to the backup role by a teammate. Without '03, Giguere is 18-11 but with a pedestrian .907 save percentage in the playoffs. Without their runs in '04 Khabibulin is 23-24, .911 and Kiprusoff is 10-17, .915, and without '06 Roloson is 6-7, .892.

Evgeni Nabokov has had some postseason opportunities on strong teams, but although he leads this group in playoff wins he is considered by many to be a playoff disappointment. I'm not sure it's really fair to suggest Nabokov didn't play up to his usual standards in the playoffs. I doubt he performed all that differently, the main difference was likely that the higher level of postseason opposition removed much of the team advantages that helped boost his traditional stats in the regular season.

Nabokov is the only one of these goalies that has repeatedly started in the playoffs on legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. Giguere and Khabibulin had great teams when they won but not too much help outside of that. Turco played for a couple of very strong teams in Dallas and Nashville was a really good team in 2007 with Vokoun, although it was never easy to make it through the tough Western Conference. Other than that, there haven't been many teams with any of these goalies in net that would have been found among the Stanley Cup odds leaders on the eve of the playoffs. Luongo, Roloson and Vokoun have all missed the playoffs far more often than they have made it, despite strong regular season play. All 10 have a playoff save percentage as high or higher than their regular season mark. The cause of the general lack of playoff team success seems to be primarily the result of a lack of support, rather than poor clutch performance by these goalies as a group.

With Nabokov's attempted move to Detroit blocked by Garth Snow and Turco relegated to the bench in Chicago, the only goalies from this group that appear to be in a good position to make some playoff noise this spring are Luongo and Roloson. Because of his age and the strong group of teammates around him, Luongo has a great chance to add to his playoff portfolio over the next 5 seasons. It seems unlikely that any of the others will be in a similar position, although of course deadline deals or free agency could significantly alter their prospects.

Right now, I don't think any of the between the lockout group are sure Hall of Famers. I think Luongo is very much on track to get there some day, and would be close to a sure thing already if he was fairly evaluated for his performance in Florida or if there wasn't such a focus on team success for goalies. Other than that I'm not sure anyone else will come close.

The top contenders either have the individual hardware but lack the career totals (Giguere, Kiprusoff, Theodore), or have the career numbers but lack the awards (Luongo, Vokoun, Nabokov, Khabibulin). In another time and place, most of these goalies might well have racked up lots of hardware and wins and team success and fame and "money goalie" accolades. Yet with the hand they were dealt, most of them appear fated to be remembered as little more than good goalies that played in the shadows of Hall of Famers.


Anonymous said...

How come you haven't really mentioned Tim Thomas at all this season? We are almost 2/3rds through the year and he is on pace to have the greatest regular season of all time. Do you think he is benefiting too much from his team or what?

Jonathan said...

He has some time to "regress to the mean" yet, but he'll probably finish somewhere around .930 or .935 IMO. That's not going to happen to someone who just has great teammates. said...