Friday, December 21, 2007

On Games Played

One of the differences of opinion I have with many other hockey spectators is with respect to the importance of games played for a goaltender. I maintain that in almost all cases there is no significant difference between a goalie who plays 50 games and a goalie who plays 80 games, other than the coaching and team management philosophy that led to those results. Goalies should be durable enough to play the lion's share of their team's games, but extra starts beyond that are mostly just an opportunity for certain goalies to pad their stats, simply because their coaches like to ride their starters, they have established reputations, their teams are up against the cap or because their backups are weak.

I have not seen any evidence that goalie performance deteriorates with more minutes played. Remember the talk about how Brodeur was tired in the playoffs last season? Over the last 6 seasons, Brodeur has the following line in regular season games held in April: 22-3-1, 1.87, .928. I also once did a long post about Grant Fuhr and the 1987-88 season, where he went from 44 games played to 75 games played because of the absence of Andy Moog, and put up an identical save percentage and a virtually identical winning percentage. His performance was exactly the same, just with more of it, and that won him the Vezina. Evgeni Nabokov played 56% of the minutes in San Jose last year, and did pretty well. This year he has played 98% of the minutes and his performance is very similar. Did he work on his durability over the summer? Of course not, his backup went from Vesa Toskala to a guy who put up an .888 save percentage in the AHL last season. Not surprisingly, Nabokov's coach gave him more starts.

Virtually every goalie in the NHL is capable of logging big minutes and playing well. To get to that level, they would have been the starters in minor hockey, junior or college hockey, and in most cases the minor leagues as well. I looked at the 30 current starting goalies in the NHL to see how many of them were experienced goalies (more than 5 full years in the league) without multiple good seasons with 65+ games played. Here is the complete list:

Martin Biron, Rick DiPietro, Johan Hedberg, Manny Legace, Dwayne Roloson, J.S. Giguere

I'd say there is enough evidence that Biron, DiPietro, Roloson and Giguere are capable of playing big minutes. Giguere and DiPietro have both fallen just short of my arbitrary 65 game cutoff a number of times, and Biron and Roloson have both spent most of their careers as backups or platoon goalies, although they have been quite good in the full seasons they have played (Roloson has played in 108 of 136 games since being traded to Edmonton, Biron's career best save percentage was during his 72 game season in 2001-02 and he's been great carrying the load in Philly).

So I'm not sure that Johan Hedberg and Manny Legace can handle big minutes as starting goalies, but other than that I'm pretty sure every current experienced NHL starting goalie is capable of handling a lot of games.

But Brodeur has done it year after year for over a decade, you say. Yes, he has. So have guys like Olaf Kolzig, without nearly the same level of attention. There are two main reasons why guys see their games played reduced: their backups get better, or their performance drops off. Brodeur's games played dropped when New Jersey had Mike Dunham from 1996-98. His playing time increased again when Dunham was replaced by weaker backups, even though Brodeur's performance dropped from .927 in 1997-98 to .906 in 1998-99, and then .910, .906, and .906 over the next 3 seasons. Brodeur's advantage, however, was his low shots against, so his low GAA and high win totals helped mask the fact that his performance wasn't as good. A goalie on a weaker team who had that kind of deterioration in save efficiency might have dropped below .900 in save percentage, and his coach would probably be looking to give somebody else a shot. Brodeur had an established reputation, was on a team that inflated his perceived performance level, faced fewer and easier shots than other goalies, and played with poor backups. And yes, he is very durable. So it is not surprising at all that he ended up playing a lot of games.

But surely it must be valuable to have a goalie log a lot of minutes at an above average level of play? Yes, of course, since any team would rather have above average play than mediocre play, and if the goalie is better than any other option on the team then they are better off with him in the nets as much as possible. But what about a goalie who plays fewer games, but at a higher level of performance? Is that better or worse than a Brodeur-type who is always in the net?

Well, let's take some hypotheticals here. Let's compare a .910 goalie who plays every single game in a season for his team, against a .925 goalie who, because of various personal and injury issues, isn't capable of such a demanding schedule. Let's assume that his backup goalies are terrible (.890), and that his team is about average in terms of shot prevention (30 shots per game). How many games does the second goalie have to play for his team to be ahead of the first team? The answer is just 42 games. And if his team has a quality backup, say one capable of performing at about league average (.905), the goalie needs to play in just 21 games to break even with his more durable counterpart.

Save percentages can often be misleading, because it can look like there isn't much difference between .910 and .920. In fact, a .920 goalie is much better than a .910 goalie. The higher the save percentage, the harder it is to maintain. I am of course speaking about performances over a fairly large sample size, where we can more accurately ascertain the true level of play of the goalie.

Durability is good, because you obviously want your best goaltender on the ice instead of in the press box more often than not. However, whether a goalie plays 50 games or 82 games is really not that meaningful. I'd rather have a truly excellent goalie playing in half of my games than a minutes muncher giving me league average performance in every single one of them, even if the second guy is going to end up with more wins and shutouts and Vezina Trophy votes. Alas, truly excellent goalies are rare, so teams have to make do with what they can find, so from a team management perspective it might make your job easier to find an average/above average goalie and play the heck out of him, and then cheap out on your backup. That does not, however, mean that your goalie magically becomes one of the league's best or most valuable just because he plays every night. The best goalies are the ones with the best rate stats, not the best counting stats.


Anonymous said...

The fact you need to setup a blog with a title that attacks a goalie, who by no means has ever bragged about what he has accomplished, says a lot about you Contrarian.

You also have no experience in NHL-level hockey. This puts your credibility somewhere in between nonexistent and jack shit.

Hey, just because you're jealous, hateful, etc, of Brodeur, doesn’t make you pathetic at all. No, on the contrary. You're a genius, pure and simple.

I'm surprised you haven't been picked up by any major league hockey teams to work for. You have scout, or even management, written all over you.

When you average 8 posts a month of your dribbling take on statistics, lame opinions, and general asshatery, it almost seems to suggest you have no life. Or if you did, it would consist of fanatically obsessing over a sport and its players. Both of which you will never truly be apart of.

Oh, look at the time! I have to go now, so I can you know, live my life. Have fun with yours.

Anonymous said...

ur pretty sure that most goalies blah blah blah...this is all just your point of view and pretty much just a waste of time for me to read and you to write. your hatred for this guy who u never hear a peep out of ...wait is this patrick roy? now i get it i cant see any other reason why somone would be so pissed unless all their career records were in the process of being over turned. either that or your just a huge nerd.. hmm

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Lio Morgan said...