Monday, December 31, 2007

Mike Keenan Knows Very Little About Goaltending

It is often difficult to advance contrarian positions about hockey players that contradict insider perspectives in hockey. A common retort in many of the comments and emails I receive goes something like, "But (Player X) or (General Manager Y) said Brodeur was great - how can you disagree?" General managers vote on awards like the Vezina Trophy, and their collective wisdom helps shape fan perception of certain players. However, some of these insiders have shown by their actions that they know little more about how to evaluate goalies than an average fan. One of the worst offenders has been Mike Keenan, a celebrated coach who has made his living in hockey despite being clueless about goalies for over 20 years.

In Philadelphia, Keenan built a solid defensive system that made his goalies look good most of the time. However, he chose Pelle Lindbergh as his starter over Bob Froese in 1984-85, and in 1985 until Lindbergh was killed in an accident. Lindbergh wasn't a bad goalie, but he was easily outplayed by Froese. Over the two years, the Flyers were 44-12-3 with Froese in net and 46-19-7 with Lindbergh. Froese had 2.51 GAA and .910 save percentage, Lindbergh just 3.00 and .898. It should have been obvious from the 1983-84 season who was better (Froese 28-13-7, 3.14, .887 at the age of 25; Lindbergh: 16-13-3, 4.05, .860 at the age of 24), but apparently not to Keenan. After the tragedy with Lindbergh, Keenan had to turn to Froese, but he also used the mediocre Darren Jensen and the aging Glenn "Chico" Resch. Keenan still never liked Froese, despite his excellent save percentage numbers, and handed the starting job to rookie Ron Hextall for the 1986-87 season. Midway through the year, Froese was traded to the New York Rangers.

Hextall put up worse numbers than Froese had done in 1985-86 (3.00, .902), but he won 37 games behind behind the Flyers' strong defence and received the Vezina Trophy. After this charmed season, Hextall's numbers then fell off significantly in 1987-88 (3.51, .885).

Keenan moved on to Chicago in 1988. As usual, he spent his first year there tinkering with the goaltending, challenging the incumbent starter Darren Pang with two rookies, Ed Belfour and Jimmy Waite, as well as the newly acquired Alain Chevrier. The goalie shuffle would continue in Chicago for another season, as both Jacques Cloutier and Greg Millen were brought in via trade, but both played poorly and were soon out of the league.

Dominik Hasek arrived in the NHL for the 1990-91 season, but Keenan wasn't a fan and held Hasek to just 5 games that first season, even though Hasek performed well in his first taste of NHL action (3-0-1, 2.46, .914). However, Belfour became the starter ahead of Millen and Cloutier (who was traded mid-season), playing 74 games and winning the Vezina Trophy with a 43-19-7 record, a 2.47 GAA, and a .910 save percentage. Keenan earns partial credit here for at least going with Belfour, even if he probably could have done even better with the Dominator.

Keenan moved upstairs to the GM position for the 1991-92 season, but he still didn't realize what he had with the Dominator. Hasek again put up solid stats (10-4-1, 2.60, .893), but Keenan traded him in the offseason to Buffalo for Stephane Beauregard. Iron Mike decided that he would rather have Jimmy Waite as a backup than Dominik Hasek, even though in 1991-92, Waite played 17 games with a 3.69 GAA and an .844 save percentage.

Jimmy Waite is a great example of a goalie that Keenan completely mis-evaluated. Waite played 53 games for Chicago with Keenan as coach or GM, and nearly all of them were awful - 3.72 GAA and .853 save percentage. Yet Keenan thought he was good enough to stick around, and traded one of the greatest goalies of all-time (Hasek) to move Waite up on the depth chart.

Keenan was fired in Chicago after the 1992-93 season, and found work in New York, where he made his legend by winning the Stanley Cup. With Mike Richter in net, Keenan couldn't possibly screw it up in New York. However, his term on Broadway was very short, and they were still celebrating the Cup win when he decided to move on.

Iron Mike soon found himself brought into the St. Louis Blues organization as both coach & GM. There, Keenan inherited another stellar netminder in Curtis Joseph. However, he decided to sign Shayne Corson away from Edmonton, which cost the Blues two first round picks in compensation. To get the picks back, Keenan traded Joseph and Mike Grier to Edmonton. Corson scored just 20 goals in 88 games in St. Louis, while Curtis Joseph remained one of the league's best goalies for the next decade in Edmonton, Toronto, and Detroit.

To replace Cujo, Keenan signed the aging Grant Fuhr and kept the incumbent Jon Casey, who was also getting up in years, as the backup for the next two seasons. In a low-scoring era, Fuhr was below average (.902 save percentage), and Casey was downright awful (.864). Despite a blue-line that included Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger, the Blues never won anything under Keenan, often because they were let down by their goaltending. Even after Keenan's departure, St. Louis continued to ride Fuhr to disappointing results, until they finally replaced him with Roman Turek and were rewarded with the President's Trophy in 1999-00.

Keenan moved to Vancouver, where he had Arturs Irbe and Kirk McLean. Irbe had a strong season in Vancouver in 1997-98 (2.73, .907), but he wasn't re-signed and moved on to Carolina where he had an even better one (2.22, .923). Pat Quinn was GM in Vancouver, and it is difficult to know how much input Keenan had on some of the goaltending decisions, however it is probably reasonable to assume that Quinn at least consulted with Keenan before making his moves. Midway through the season, Vancouver made a pretty good trade, swapping Martin Gelinas and Kirk McLean for Sean Burke, Geoff Sanderson, and Enrico Ciccone. However, the Canucks managed to mess it up again two months later, getting rid of Burke again in exchange for Garth Snow. Burke was admittedly not particularly outstanding in his brief stint in Vancouver, albeit on a weak team, but trading him for Snow was a blunder. Over the next 5 seasons, Sean Burke established himself as one of the best goalies in the game, posting excellent statistics (2.40, .917). During the same period, Garth Snow continued to be mediocre (2.74, .904), only outlasting Keenan in Vancouver by one season before leaving via free agency. Again, that one is probably more on Quinn than Keenan, but in any event, Iron Mike's choices for backup goalies in Vancouver, Corey Hirsch and Kevin Weekes, were terrible, combining for a 3-16-4 record with awful save statistics.

In 2000-01, Keenan coached the Bruins. He had a solid starter in Byron Dafoe (2.39 and .906 in '00-01), but throughout the course of the season Dafoe missed 35 games to injury. Keenan used four other goalies in backup and replacement duty, but they were mostly terrible, including Peter Skudra (.879), John Grahame (.867), and Kay Whitmore (.809)(!). Having such terrible goalies play big minutes was one of the major reasons the Bruins finished 9th in the East and missed the playoffs.

Keenan was fired as a result of the disappointing finish, but he found a new home in Florida, where he had an elite young goalie in Roberto Luongo. Keenan managed not to screw this situation up for three full seasons until just as he was on his way out the door, when he pulled the trigger on the now infamous trade with Vancouver (Luongo, Lukas Krajicek and a 6th round pick to Vancouver for Alex Auld, Todd Bertuzzi, and Bryan Allen). Shortly after, Keenan resigned as GM.

Keenan is now in Calgary, where he has another star goalie in Miikka Kiprusoff. Kiprusoff has been playing poorly this season, but whether that is influenced by Keenan, is because of poor team defence or just a slump is difficult to determine. It will be interesting to see how Keenan handles the situation. If he was also the GM, I would almost expect him to trade Kiprusoff for pennies on the dollar and bring in a goalie who is way past his prime (Ed Belfour, perhaps?) to take his spot.

Mike Keenan may be a good hockey coach in terms of motivation and team defensive play, but he should never be allowed to make personnel decisions about hockey goalies. His record in that department is absolutely terrible. Nearly every decision or trade he has made involving goalies has turned out bad, and some of them spectacularly so. Keenan traded Hasek, Joseph, and Luongo, and got almost nothing in return for all three of them (all the players acquired combined for just 227 games with their new teams). He also chose to play other goalies ahead of Bob Froese and Sean Burke, which probably contributed to them being traded away for little returns, and he played some brutal backups for far too many games (most notably Jimmy Waite and Jon Casey). Keenan is an extreme case, but the reality is that some scouts, GMs and coaches are not good at evaluating goalies, and whether or not they get paid by an NHL team or have a Vezina vote doesn't change that fact at all.


Anonymous said...

Finally someone I can agree with. As a longtime Blackhawk fan I saw Keenan screw up big time and get credit he didn't deserve. I also remember him running Cujo out of St. Louis, saying that he never got his team beyond the second round of playoffs. If Cujo had a decent team in front of him, he could have won the Cup, before or after Keenan came along to give his "expert" opinion. Keenan won a Cup, but only after bailing on his team in the finals and having Mark Messier step up and lead the team.

Anonymous said...

Ur on fucking crack. Grant fuhr was awesome for st louis first few years. He 96 he was the most shot on goaltender in league and led the nhl in shots and saves.

If he didnt get injured in the playoffs by kypreos the way he was playing and the teams the blues had they would of won the cup. Fuck jon casey went to double overtime in game 7 with the wings before the blues lost.

What if grant fuhr played that series? Blues in 5 or 6 and blues would of won the cup that year.

Cujo sucks. Hes moved around all the time and he could never win the big game. He had good teams on st louis cant get them over the hump. He goes to detroit after the wings win the cup and following year he cant make it past the first round. In the world cup tournament he had an oustanding game against sweden but in the finals against u.s. he layed and egg and was badly outplayed by richter.

Cujo could never win the big game. How dare you compare a champion like grant fuhr to cujo. Cujo sucks. He could never win the big game and he had many chances in his career to do it. Hasek took the wings to the cup. Cujo had the same team next year and he gets elimnated!

If cujo was on edmonton instead of fuhr in the 80's he would of found a way to play terribly especially in that wide open era and would of been a back up to andy moog!

Anonymous said...

Even with the leafs they made it to the third round and against the sabres he was god awful. That was one of the all time playoff collapses I seen where he was totally outplayed.

When the pressure is on the worse he plays!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I've got to agree, you're on crack man. Aside from pointing out how each of your arguments are erroneous I'd like to just note about your reliance on the most common misperception: Luongo. Luongo is a diva and wanted out of that city, his being adamantly vocal about that ensured that Keenan could get dick all for him and the ownership group told Keenan that he had to shop him.

Keenan has a cup ring, where's yours?

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