Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Value of Opportunity

Imagine if you worked at a profession where at the highest level there was only room for the 60 best. To get to that top level, you had to work your way through a number of different entry levels, working on a lot of different teams where you contributed in a specialized role along with one or two others possessing the same skill set. Evaluation was partly based on individual performance, but much of the grade came from the success or failure of the team as a whole. I think in this scenario it is very easy to envision a very inefficient selection process, where politics, connections, and luck all play an important role in one's eventual success.

I think we would like to believe that the NHL is an efficient market for talent, and that the best will rise to the top. However, there is plenty of reason to believe that this is not the case. It is inconceivable that there are not dozens of goalies out there who are better than Andrew Raycroft or Dan Cloutier but who are not currently collecting an NHL paycheque and likely never will.

There are two main types of opportunity or lack thereof: the opportunity to play on a contending team, and the opportunity to play big minutes. Some goalies never got a chance to play on a winning team, so they never won anything. They are often judged harshly for that reason, even though their performance might have been very, very good.

Curtis Joseph never won anything, people say, so he wasn't a great goalie and shouldn't be in the Hall of Fame. Actually, his record in the first and second rounds of the NHL playoffs is quite good (and indeed very similar to Martin Brodeur's), the difference was that Cujo's teammates just weren't as good so they lost. Joseph's record of brilliant postseason games rivals anyone of his generation, yet he is somehow seen as "unclutch". There are plenty of examples of excellent goalies who get overlooked in the annals of hockey history because their teammates were a bunch of scrubs, such as Al Rollins, Gilles Meloche, pre-lockout Roberto Luongo and others.

But at least those guys got to play in the first place. Some goalies never really caught the break to allow them to displays their talents. Jamie Storr was a very talented goalie, touted as a can't miss prospect. He had some very good stretches in the NHL as well, posting above average save percentages more often than not (from 1996 to 1999 his stat line reads: .918, .925, .929, .916). But he struggled on the few occasions when he was given the chance to win the starter's role, and never broke through as a #1. Could it be argued that he didn't have the mental makeup to be an NHL starter? Maybe. But maybe he was just unlucky that his performance happened to be relatively poor in the decisive 20 or 30 games where the window of opportunity presented itself. What if a patient, rebuilding team had given him 50-60 starts for 3 years in a row? Is it likely that his talent would have revealed itself and led to a long and successful career? You can never know for sure in what-if scenarios, but I'd make that bet.

There are plenty of what-if questions. How many goalies in the Original Six era were like Johnny Bower, just waiting for a chance to show what they could do? What if overlooked goalies like Miikka Kiprusoff had played out the string in the minors or as backups on their original teams, rather than moving elsewhere and achieving greatness? Opportunity is very valuable. If Dominik Hasek could sit around as somebody else's backup in the middle of his prime then it could happen to anybody, and when there are only 60 jobs available in the world there isn't much opportunity to go around.

Whether or not you are a fan of Martin Brodeur, it is tough to deny that he had the opportunity to enter one of the best possible goaltending situations in the game. He broke in just as scoring began to decline on what would soon become the best defensive team in the league. His team had an aging veteran (Chris Terreri) as the #1 and nobody else to really challenge for the starting job. Thus Brodeur quickly received big minutes as a starting goalie in the NHL. He had a couple of stretches early in his career where he played quite well, especially the 1995 playoffs, and became entrenched as the starting goalie in the Swamp. Over a decade of stingy team defence later, he is seen as an all-time great. Would that have been the case if he was drafted by a team with an established All-Star goalie like Belfour or Roy playing most of the minutes, or perhaps if he went to an expansion team like San Jose and faced an avalanche of rubber every night? It probably would have been quite a different story.

As the most experienced starting goalie in the NHL, with over 56,000 minutes played, it shouldn't be too surprising that by now Brodeur has become a good goalie. But how much of a role did opportunity play in his success? Probably a significant one, which is why it is interesting to speculate about how many other goalies who would have had Hall of Fame careers if they broke into the NHL in 1993-94 playing for the New Jersey Devils.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Subjective Factors in Goaltending

How much weight should we give to subjective factors? Can scouts really evaluate the difference between two goalies? Are public perceptions of goalies often right? Do we properly value non-save skills in goalies?

These are important questions, especially for someone like Martin Brodeur who receives more glowing hagiography about his intangibles and his goaltending artistry than anyone since Roy. A lot of the feedback I get is along the lines of, "Haven't you ever seen him play?" The problem with putting a lot of weight into these reports, however, is that these effects are almost never observed in the data, and in a number of cases seems to suggest the complete opposite.

For example, here are a few common debate points, along with the numerical reality:

Brodeur never gives the puck away (According to NHL RTSS stats, he gives the puck away more than the opposing goalie at the other end of the ice in 2005-06, 2006-07, as well as so far in 2007-08).

Brodeur prevents shots (his backup goalies have faced essentially the same shot levels as he has).

Brodeur makes shooters miss more frequently through good positioning (He has been well below average in terms of making shooters miss this year (60th among goalies) and last (45th), source: Behind the Net)

Brodeur makes the big saves at the key times (Little evidence of that, and the playoff overtime performance sample suggests, if anything, the complete opposite).

Brodeur controls his rebounds very well...this one is probably true, but it is difficult to measure and is impacted by shot quality against and defensive play in front of the goaltender.

So there are several oft-repeated refrains in support of Brodeur. Other goalies have received similar treatment - e.g. Grant Fuhr and the "big save at the key time", or Patrick Roy's ability to "carry a team on his back". Both of these claims are just as doubtful as some of the ones listed above.

I think we have to clearly separate what is aesthetically pleasing, skillful and enjoyable to watch from what actually wins hockey games. There is very little margin in goaltending to begin with. The difference between good goalies is often something like one save in 50, a difference so small it is practically unobservable by the human eye. It can then become tempting to latch onto some other factor, like perhaps puckhandling ability, past playoff performance, or some other factor to break the tie, but this results in overweighting a single skill and ignoring the larger picture since by far the most important part of a goalie's job description is of course stopping the puck.

Two of the worst puckhandling goalies I have ever seen are Patrick Roy and Dominik Hasek. Both of them were responsible for many terrible giveaways, sometimes at the worst possible moments. Yet they both stopped a much greater percentage of shots than Brodeur did, which is why at the end of the day they were both significantly better goalies. Good puckhandling goalies are fun to watch, but the evidence is that their skills don't really make much of a difference in terms of winning or losing the game.

Another issue is clutch play, and more specifically whether it exists. Studies in other sports have found evidence of clutch play to be very slight or non-existent, and that generally players perform up to their level of ability in the clutch. Good players or players that have a lot of chances to succeed with the spotlight shining on them gain reputations as being clutch, when in reality their performance at the most important times is no better than the rest of the time.

So it is difficult to reconcile the subjective viewpoints with the objective record. I probably tend to weight the measurables more highly than some, which creates a difference of opinion. I believe that a skill, to be valuable, has to have an impact on winning hockey games, and if it does have an impact on winning games then that will sooner or later show up in some kind of observable way. But the existence of discrepancies between what is observed and what is measured ensures that debates will continue to rage, especially regarding Mr. Brodeur.