Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Grant Fuhr and Effort

One of the things people like to say about goalies on dynasty teams is that they didn't try as hard when it didn't matter, and as a result their stats were understated. I think the evidence generally suggests that while there are some score effects from changing team strategies, goalies usually do try to keep the puck out of the net at all times. With only 30 starting jobs available goalie competition is fierce, which makes less likely that goalies would be willing to slack off while in the game. Even good teams have to fight to make the playoffs these days (see the '10-11 Chicago Blackhawks as an example), which means that there can be major team consequences for a netminder with a habit of trying to coast though a game here or there. Finally, in today's low-scoring environment there is not a lot of garbage time so goals against in blowouts simply will not have a material impact on a goalie's stats.

However, while those things may be true at the moment, they don't necessarily apply to results from several decades ago where the competitive balance and scoring level was much different than it is in today's salary capped NHL. I do think it is probably worth checking truly dominant teams to see whether there are some kind of unusual effects at play, since the incentives for players on those teams are not exactly the same as they are for everyone else.

For example, I suspect that some members of the 1980s Edmonton Oilers may not have been playing much of a 200 foot game during the second half of the regulation schedule during the peak of their dynasty simply because they were already dozens of points in front of everyone else in the standings. With 16 of 21 teams making the playoffs in those days, there was really nothing to left to do by that point in the season other than pad their offensive stats while trying to stay healthy and in good shape for another attempted Cup run.

From 1983-84 to 1987-88 (numbers from the Hockey Summary Project and Hockey Reference), there is a noticeable downward trend in Grant Fuhr's save percentages by month as the season wore on:

Oct: 1121 SA, .898
Nov: 1288 SA, .889
Dec: 1181 SA, .870
Jan: 1286 SA, .890
Feb: 1128 SA, .871
Mar: 1158 SA, .880
Apr: 232 SA, .871

It could be argued that Fuhr was experiencing fatigue, but that seems unlikely as a factor (other than potentially in 1987-88 when he played in 75 games) because he was usually used in a platoon scenario together with Andy Moog. On top of that, Fuhr's numbers jumped back up again to October levels as soon as the playoffs started.

To summarize:

Oct-Jan: 4876 SA, .887
Feb-Apr: 2518 SA, .875
Playoffs: 2268 SA, .899

By the end of January, the Oilers were always sitting very comfortably in the standings.

1983-84: 38-9-5, 41 pts ahead of 5th
1984-85: 36-9-6, 45 pts ahead of 5th
1985-86: 36-11-5, 40 pts ahead of 5th
1986-87: 34-14-11, 36 pts ahead of 5th
1987-88: 29-17-7, 26 pts ahead of 5th

The only season the Oilers were not ranked first overall in the league was 1987-88, where they sat in third place but were still far above the playoff cut line. In all five seasons the team had more wins at the end of January than the last place team in their division would finish with at the end of the season, meaning they could have lost every game they played after January 31 and still made the playoffs. In short, the Oilers had very little to play for as a team from February onwards in any of those seasons.

Looking at Andy Moog's monthly numbers, there is some reason to believe that the rest of the team was having a big impact on the late-season statistical slide:

Andy Moog, 1983-84 to 1987-88:
Oct-Jan: 3363 SA, .890
Feb-Apr: 1572 SA, .876
Playoffs: 343 SA, .866

Moog showed a very similar save percentage decline, suggesting that the Oilers as a group were less committed defensively once they had the division well locked up. Either that or Moog and Fuhr both had a similar lack of focus late in the season when the games became less meaningful. However, given that the two were mostly alternating starts, and were at least in some level of competition for the starting job come playoff time, I would guess that team defence may have been a more significant factor than the effort level of each individual goaltender.

I think there is a reasonable argument to be made that Grant Fuhr's true talent in terms of save percentage was understated by his regular season numbers in the mid-1980s. From 1983-84 to 1987-88, his overall regular season save percentage was .884, a decent mark given the league average of .876 over the same period of time. However, if his February to April numbers are excluded as not being representative of a team giving 100% defensive effort in front of him, with his playoff numbers substituted instead, Fuhr's save percentage would jump to .891, nearly doubling his advantage relative to league average. That rate would also rank Fuhr up near the top of the league over that period of time, rather than merely the upper middle of the pack.

It is still worth pointing out that Moog would be at .888 based on the same assumptions. That suggests that Edmonton's shot quality against was probably not nearly as bad as some suggest, at least when the team felt the game mattered and wanted to play defence, although Moog was an above-average goalie in his own right.

Other goalies may have suffered slightly from this effect as well during the unbalanced '80s, but it seems likely that it would have had the biggest impact in Edmonton given their prolific offence and incredible team success. Fuhr may still be a bit overrated by some fans who rate him as one of the main keys to the Oilers' championships, but this is at least some evidence that supports the contention that he had Hall of Fame talent in his prime.


Anonymous said...


Personally, I say that the idea that a "run and gun" team by definition leaves their minder out to dry is a myth. Baloney. If you are able to put together a sparkling record as a pure-offense team, think about it--it means that by virtue of sheer puck possession alone, your opposition isn't getting many chances.

There may be a few cases where marginal teams that attempt the run/gun style (i.e. late 90s Sabres, late 90s/early 00s Oilers) fail badly and leave their tender vulnerable to a lot of scoring chances against, but does anyone seriously believe that was the case with the dynastic Oilers, the best hockey teams of all time?

The only reasonable explanation is that Fuhr was a mediocre goalie, period. Any attempts to explain that away, are just bull.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

What's a reasonable explanation for both Fuhr and Moog's stats nosediving late in the season then? As I pointed out in the post, I agree with you that the Oilers' shot quality against was not nearly as bad as a lot of hockey fans will claim, but at the same time it still looks to be quite possible that Fuhr's stats were somewhat understated.

Look at his numbers, especially including the playoffs, even when doing nothing to account for the Feb-Apr dip they are well above average (from '84 to '88 Fuhr put up an .887 on almost 10,000 shots while the average was .876). I think you're going too far in your criticism if you want to label him mediocre during the dynasty years.

Agent Orange said...

Can we say for sure that puck possession lowers the percentage of quality shots against? (% quality shots = (# quality shots)/(total number of shots).

I understand and agree that a puck possession team lowers the number of shots against. I would however argue that a team with Paul Coffey on the back-end frequently played with a defenseman out of position.

If a puck possession team reduces the number of shots against from 30 to 20 but only reduces the number of quality shots from 5 to 4 wouldn't this make it harder to put up good save rate numbers? It would improve GAA/Wins/Shutout but hurt SV%. All the numbers here are completely off the top and don't relate to anyone specific. They are intended as a drastic example just for discussion.

I'm not saying this is the case for Fuhr or that it happens often but I think its what people mean when they say its hard to play goal for a run/gun team.

I can understand that arguement that if you are scoring 8 goals a game and only allowing 20 shots you don't need a great goalie to win. But it doesn't mean that the goalie in net isn't great.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

I don't think there is any clear relationship because there's not a simple formula. One team could be dominant in terms of puck possession because they have a few Forsberg/Jagr type forwards who just own the puck, while another could be fantastic at forcing turnovers in the neutral and defensive zones. When looking at save percentage, it is obviously the percentage of scoring chances that is important, not the absolute number of them.

I think when people talk about a run and gun team, they talk about a team with a lot of scoring chances on both ends, not necessarily a team that heavily outshoots the opposition. I've heard people try to make the case that a high save percentage is tougher in both cases, but again I don't think there is a hard and fast rule.

The theory for it being tougher to play goal on a strong puck possession team is that the team that is being outplayed will get more chances on the rush, will have a higher percentage of their chances come on special teams, and will have more of their chances be created by top players since they are less likely to be dominated than the weaker lines.

Does that actually happen? Probably to some degree, but I'm not sure the effect is that large. For example, take the world junior final between Russia and Sweden, which was as lopsided a game as you're going to see in terms of puck possession. Russia actually had a higher percentage of shots come from defencemen (35%) than Sweden did (22%), even though the difference in zone time was massive. For shots taken by forwards, if you look at the share coming from each line you see that Russia's top six had a greater share of the offence, but it wasn't a huge effect, and it would have been at least somewhat skewed by the 4-on-4 overtime.

Line 1: RUS 36%, SWE 24%
Line 2: RUS 36%, SWE 36%
Line 3: RUS 0%, SWE 27%
Line 4: RUS 27%, SWE 13%

Counterbalancing any of these effects is the fact that better teams spend more time in the lead and have score effects going for them. Team discipline is another big factor given how dangerous PP chances are, and yet we've seen great teams that gooned it up and great teams that rarely went to the box.

Looking at them as an individual case, the Oilers took a bunch of penalties and cheated for offence and had Paul Coffey and played in a high-scoring division. On the other hand, they had really good players and played a much tigher game in the playoffs.

I think the numbers in this post do strongly suggest that there were some Tuesday nights in Winnipeg in March where the team left Fuhr out to dry, and watching some of those games probably gave a lot of fans the impression that the team didn't care about playing defence. However, in the important games I doubt the Oilers were allowing below-average shot quality against.

striatic said...

"Baloney. If you are able to put together a sparkling record as a pure-offense team, think about it--it means that by virtue of sheer puck possession alone, your opposition isn't getting many chances.

wow. i presume you've never watched any Oilers games from the 1980s if you believe this.

the Oilers were never a "puck possession" team in the contemporary sense.

Henrik and Daniel Sedin are the prototypical puck possession type players, cycling the puck in the corners and along the boards without coughing it up, and making strong passes from awkward positions to generate scoring chances.

By contrast, the Gretzky/Kurri tandem was nothing like that. Lots of speed through the neutral zone, beating the other team in transition and getting excellent scoring opportunities on odd-man rushes.

The 1980s Oilers gave up a ton of breakaways. I wish there was a stat for this, but Fuhr went one on one with shooters as a matter of routine. No matter how much your time your team eats up through puck possession, you give up breakaways liberally, your goalie's save percentage is going to get killed.

I think Moog was the better of the tandem and the longevity of his career speaks to that, but the reason people think of Fuhr is so good is that he was able to make saves in situations [breakaways, odd man rushes] that allowed the Oilers to play a high speed, aggressive offense as opposed to a high possession time, probing offense.

The quality of chances is important too, and unfortunately difficult to represent statistically. We need stats like 'breakaways against', '3 on 1s against', 2 on 1s against', '3 on 2s against' and so on, and to aggregate those into some sort of 'chance quality' metric to compare against save percentage.

If people say Brodeur is a fraud because he played behind a very conservative, quality chance denying defense, Fuhr should get more respect for playing behind a defense that was anything but that.

Host Pay Per Head said...

well I think that is a wrong perception and opinion about the goalies, in a team everyone has its responsibility and goalies has a big one and they try as hard as they can

Anonymous said...

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