Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Relationship between High-Scoring Teams and "Money Goalies"

What do Billy Smith, Grant Fuhr, Terry Sawchuk, and Gerry Cheevers have in common? Most people will tell you they were winners, they were clutch, they knew how to make the big save, they led their teams to multiple Stanley Cups, right? They didn't care about their personal stats or meaningless games. Ever hear the story about Gerry Cheevers skating right out of his net and leaving it empty because he didn't want to get hit by a Bobby Hull slapshot in a meaningless regular season game? Similar stories are often told about all 4 of them - they didn't care if they let in an early goal but they really bore down when it mattered, and they were always there to make the big save for their team at the important points in the game.

But there is another very obvious link between those goalies, and that is that they all played for some of the greatest and most high-scoring teams of all-time. Teams that finished first overall for years in a row, often outscoring the rest of the league by dozens if not hundreds of goals. The '80s Oilers were the highest-scoring team in history, the Islanders dynasty was not too far behind and was much better defensively as well, the Gordie Howe Red Wings were a dominant offensive team that finished first overall in 8 out of 9 seasons, and '70s Bruins were the highest scoring team of all-time after era adjustments. All of these teams were first overall multiple times, and this was even when the goalies were supposedly not caring about their results and saving up for the postseason. So just imagine how good they should have been in the playoffs.

And yes, those teams were good in the playoffs, and so were the goalies, at least when they had Hall of Famers surrounding them. But what if they didn't? What happened then? Grant Fuhr was 26-29 in the playoffs without Wayne Gretzky (and 63-21 with him). Gerry Cheevers was 33-33 in the playoffs (WHA included) without Bobby Orr (and 27-13 with him). Terry Sawchuk was 20-15 with 3 Stanley Cups during his first five years in Detroit. For the rest of his long career, he was 34-33 in the playoffs with just 1 Cup win in the original six era. Billy Smith went 69-21 in a five-year stretch when the Islanders were at their peak, but for the rest of his career he wasn't even the #1 goalie, outplayed in the playoffs by Chico Resch and Kelly Hrudey and posting a 19-15 record on some very good teams. This, of course, raises the question: who was really the clutch player? Billy Smith, or Denis Potvin? Gerry Cheevers, or Bobby Orr?

Guys like Smith or Cheevers are the goalie equivalent of Claude Lemieux or Esa Tikkanen, players that weren't the best in the league but played for good teams and had playoff success. Lemieux or Tikkanen have little chance to make the Hall of Fame, but goalies are evaluated by a totally different (and in my view, ridiculous) standard. Gerry Cheevers never won a major individual award, never made a season-ending All-Star team, and never finished higher than 6th in GAA. But since he played a few seasons with the most talented hockey player in history on one of the highest scoring teams of all-time, he developed enough of a reputation to be voted into the Hall of Fame.

So if those guys were mostly created by their teams, what does an actual money goalie look like? I'd go with Turk Broda as a much better playoff performer than any of the 4 listed above. Broda only once played for a team that finished first in the league in the regular season. His teams rarely led the league in goals for or goals against. Yet he won 4 Stanley Cups, and his winning percentage went from .562 in the regular season to .606 in the playoffs. It doesn't look like Broda was just being carried along by his teams. I don't mean to say either that anyone who played on a great team is just along for the ride. Someone like Ken Dryden, for example, is difficult to fault since he won the Cup every single year that Montreal had a dominant team, the team lost when he wasn't in net, and he has the 1971 Cup run where he beat three better teams in the playoffs. He is certainly different than someone like, say, Fuhr, who only won anything in Edmonton and watched the Oilers win a lot of playoff games with Andy Moog or Bill Ranford in net.

The moral of the story is that perceptions are very biased. People see winners, and they like to make up explanations for their success. If a goalie wins a lot of games or Cups, the reasoning is that they must be doing something right, so they must be "clutch" and making the "big save" and so on. The simpler, and more accurate, explanation can often be found in the goals scored column, something that goalies can do almost nothing about. If we take that account, maybe we can finally stop calling goalies "clutch" just because they happened to be the guy in the net while their Hall of Fame teammates blew away the rest of the league.


Anonymous said...

you seem to attempt to degrade many of the great goalies to ever play the game. just for fun, would you mind listing your top 10 goalies of all time? that would make for interesting debate regardless of whether brodeur or sawchuk are in the top 5 or not.

Anonymous said...

I second that. Top5 with justifications...

Love the blog btw

Bruce said...

CG: I agree that a big scoring team can make a goalie look good. They can also hang him out to dry at times, but if the guy makes a handful of big stops and wins 5-4 it'll be the stops that get remembered, not the 4 GA.

On the other hand, some goalies win without a great deal of offensive support, and those guys deserve a lot of credit. Right?

Exhibit A: Martin Brodeur, who has played on a team which historically has had a mediocre offence, yet has racked up 538 regular season wins plus another 95 in the playoffs. Pretty awesome, what?

Here's some stats on that subject (regular season only). All are GF/GA figures expressed as a difference against league norms for that season:

1993-94: +34/-52
1994-95: -7/-22
1995-96: -43/-56
1996-97: -8/-57
1997-98: +9/-50
1998-99: +32/-20
1999-00: +26/-22
2000-01: +69/-31
2001-02: -10/-28
2002-03: -2/-52
2003-04: +2/-47
2005-06: -11/-24
2006-07: -26/-41
2007-08: -22/-31
Average: +3/-38

The Devils have scored at the league average rate in just 6 of Brodeur's 14 seasons. Fortunately, they have allowed at least 20 goals below the league average in every single one of those seasons. (This from a franchise that had never once achieved a defensive record 20 goals better than league norms even once in the 19 seasons before Brodeur's arrival.)

Just to name the most recent examples of doing a lot with a little, the Devils finished third in the Eastern Conference this year with 99 points, despite finishing second from the bottom in the East with just 198 real goals. And in 2006-07 the Devils finished second in the Eastern Conference with 107 points despite finishing dead last in the East in offence with just 206 real goals.

Seems to me their "fraudulent" netminder must be doing a pretty good job winning all those games on such a low-scoring team.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

Bruce, you are obviously ignoring team defence. When your team is usually the best defensive team in the league and allows the fewest shots and takes the fewest penalties, that has a large and obvious impact on goaltending play. Having said that, though, those advantages haven't been as strong in the last couple of years, and yes, over the last 2 and a half years Brodeur has done a pretty good job.

Well, he has in the regular season anyway. The above post focused on the playoffs and their impact on the reputations of goaltenders, and you tell me: how has Brodeur done in the last few postseasons when he has had weaker teams around him?

Furthermore, New Jersey's offence has not been mediocre. There is a difference between a weak offence and an offence that plays a low-scoring style of play. Look at what New Jersey managed to do from 1999-2001, especially in 2000-01 when they led the league in scoring. Most of those same guys were around in 2003-04, they were just under a shorter leash offensively. The Devils have consistently outshot their opponents, and they did so again this season. This is the fifth season in a row that the Devils have scored fewer goals in the first period than in either the second or third period, which implies that they play a closed game until they either have opportunities to attack or are forced to by necessity. Last year New Jersey's so-called "mediocre" offence tied the game up in the last minute seven times, which resulted in 4 additional wins for Martin Brodeur. This year, they had the second best record in the league when trailing after two periods. None of these are signs of a poor offensive team, merely a team that plays a defence-first style of play.

Bruce said...

CG: Thanks for the response. Thanks also for the excellent blog which, despite its unfortunate but attention-grabbing title, provides lots of interesting information, analsysis, and insight into the black art of goaltending. A former netminder myself, I've just taken some time to read way back through the archives while researching posts to an extended Brodeur vs. Avery thread on Mirtle's site recently.

To say that I don't always agree with your conclusions is an understatement, but certainly they are always fodder for discussion. I look forward to engaging you in same from time to time, starting with the post about "choking goalies?" a few threads down. I also have some thoughts about your comments immediately above which will take a little time to process, but watch this space.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

Thanks, Bruce, I welcome your comments. I know our views are quite different on a lot of things, but I always appreciate an intelligent counterpoint to what I write, especially somebody who can bring numbers and evidence to the table.

Anonymous said...

so are you willing to at least list your top 5 or 10? you seem to have ignored previous requests, and while your sight attacks many goalies, you have yet to state which are the best which takes away credibility from these claims because any pesismistic person can find enough flaws in anything.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

Fair enough. See my most recent post.

Anonymous said...

There is a certainly a connection between "clutch" goalies and playing on a great team, but to say that the title of clutch is undeserved for these guys because they played on some of the greatest teams in history is unfair.

If the "hall of fame skaters" were responsible for these goalies clutch status how come the islanders couldn't win a cup in 1979 with Chico Resch despite finishing 1st in the entire league with Bossy, Potvin, Trottier and Gillies? While the Islanders dynasty was phenomenal both offensively and defensively Billy Smith's performance in the 83 finals validates his status as one of if not the best clutch goalie in history.

As good as those Detroit teams were with Gordie Howe, Sawchuk's shutout total and the fact he won a cup away from the red wings speaks for itself.

It's hard to defend Grant Fuhr because of the frivolous amount of goals edmonton scored and the fact that Randford was able to step in and win in the 90 playoffs, but the utter lack of defense that team played during Fuhr's years there in addition to his overall performance in the playoffs of those years makes his clutch status legitamite.

Im not going to defend Gerry Cheevers. He is the only guy of the four you mentioned who went along for the ride on a loaded team. He did nothing to prove he was exceptional in the playoffs winning two stanley cups on a team with enough talent to rival the Islanders, Canadiens and Oilers dynasties in cup victories.

To Bruce the problem with stats are that they only matter in the right context. The fact that new jersey regularly does not produce highly in the offensive department is because they play a defensive cough trap style more then a lack of offense. They don't score alot of goals because they don't have to. By keeping shot totals low and forcing low risk scoring chances it makes the game easier for the the guy in net (brodeur). No one is dening that brodeur isn't talented, but to say that he is the greatest of all time based off of his wins and shutout totals in addition to his impressive gaa and save percentage numbers is ludicrous. The wins and shutouts leader should be the guy who plays the most games who is brodeur. He needed to play more games then Roy and Sawchuk respectively to reach those totals. Despite winning 3 cups he was never awarded the conn smythe while Roy won it 3 times. In 49 more playoff games then Billy Smith, brodeur only managed ll more victories. In my view brodeur doesn't make the top 10 over Sawchuk, Plante, Hall, Esposito, Dryen Smith, Fuhr, Belfour, Hasek, or Roy in no perticular order.

ReggieP said...

About Grant Fuhr 26-29 after gretzky left his 4 playoff series he lost were all to stanly cup champions. He wasnt getting eliminated in the first round or getting upset by inferior opponents like roy did in colorado when he lost to minnesota or other goalies.

Fuhr helped sabres past the first round in 10 years by beating the bruins. Then lost too montreal round after and montreal won the cup. His 4 years in st louis he lost to the red wings twice and the stars once and all those teams on the cup. Again he wasnt playing an underdog team and getting eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. His best chance at the cup came in 96 but he was kyprosized and that was it for him.