Thursday, January 8, 2009

And The Vezina Goes To...Whoever Never Had to Face Gordie Howe

I have done a bit of research into the Original Six lately, which has become a point of interest for me because of the close relationship between team strength and goalie stats in that very unbalanced league. I mentioned before that goalies on the best teams never had to play against their own Hall of Fame shooters. Here is a some evidence that proves this point. From 1946-47 to 1955-56, Toronto, Montreal and Detroit were the three best defensive teams almost every single season. That makes it easy to divide the league in two with a strong group and a weak group. I looked at the results of games when the strong teams played the weak teams, and here are the goals against averages for each team against the Bruins, Hawks and Rangers combined:

1. Detroit 2.22
2. Montreal 2.22
3. Toronto 2.25

That is stunningly similar for a 10 year sample size. Based on those results, I think it is reasonable to conclude that the overall goal prevention ability of each of those three teams (team defence and goaltending combined) was roughly equal. Here's how they did against each other:

1. Detroit 2.15
2. Montreal 2.30
3. Toronto 2.44

As we can see, the overall difference between the teams came entirely from their results against each other. Now we don't have save percentages for those seasons, and we can't necessarily rule out the possibility that, say, Detroit's defence was worse than Toronto's but they made up for it with superior goaltending. Still, it makes one wonder whether Terry Sawchuk's biggest advantage was really his goaltending skill, or merely his good fortune to avoid having Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay spoil his shutout bids.

This is certainly something to keep in mind for older goalies, but a similar effect can still show up in more recent years as well whenever there is a single dominant team in the league, or a few teams that are a level above everyone else. A goalie on a great team often has great playoff stats because he never had to face his own team. It is also a potential flaw with using playoff results adjusted compared to league average. Grant Fuhr's league-adjusted playoff stats, for instance, probably look relatively better than they should since his Oilers were out there wrecking everyone else's. I bet Fuhr's numbers would be a lot closer to average if I took out all of the playoff games involving Gretzky's Oilers and then recalculated the year-by-year league averages. I'd like to see a similar calculation for guys like Billy Smith or Chris Osgood as well.


Bruce said...

More interesting results, CG. Looks like a lot o' work, too.

While your conclusions seem plausible on the surface, I would be more convinced if we had similar data for GF for those three clubs in games against the two identified groups (bottom feeders, other top teams). If, say, Lumley & Sawchuk held Toronto and Montreal further below their per-game offensive averages than the Leaf and Hab goalies limited their counterparts in the same group of games, maybe it tells us Detroit played well in the biggest games. Seven consecutive Prince of Wales Tropphies would suggest that's not impossible.

As for Grant Fuhr not having to face the Oilers, that's true. He did, however, have to play behind them every game. And whereas their offensive prowess would be diluted by ~85-90% in a league-wide playoff average (closer to 95% in the regular season), the defensive lapses that resulted from their wide-open style were a fact of life for Grant every single night, with a 100% impact on his own stats. The Oilers played high-event hockey at both ends of the ice, fuelled by their faith in their goaltender(s) to slam the door. Their high-risk game was sufficiently different from others that it would be foolhardy to expect "normal" stats from their goalies.

Interesting food for thought nonetheless. Some excellent posts here of late.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

I compiled all the stats for those seasons so I have the goals scored stats as well.

Detroit: 3.40 GPG
Montreal: 3.03 GPG (-0.37)
Toronto: 2.86 GPG (-0.54)

Detroit: 2.56 GPG
Montreal: 2.27 GPG (-0.29)
Toronto: 2.06 GPG (-0.50)

The gap was a little bit closer, but not by much.

Looks like a lot o' work, too.

Not really, ever since Hockey Reference came along it is a ton easier to compile whatever stats you want.

Bruce said...

The gap was a little bit closer, but not by much.

Actually, as a percentage the gap was a little greater. Taking Detroit's own output as 100%, the Habs were at 89.1% against the weak sisters and 88.7% against the top guns; and the Leafs were at 84.1% and 80.5%. Of course all figures are compiled against two other teams not just one, but at first blush it would appear the Wings had slightly better defensive results against the other league powers than might be expected. Still, it's clear their advantage over the other two was much more in the offensive end of the rink.

And you're right about, it's an awesome resource.

overpass said...

For Original 6 goalies, I like to compare their GAA to a baseline of the average GF/G of the other five teams in the league, for exactly this reason. It can definitely make a difference, especially for players on a dynasty team. Terry Sawchuk and Jacques Plante look less impressive when you realize that their peaks came when they never had to face a significant percentage of the best hockey talent in the world - because it was playing in front of them.

It may not be as large an effect as team defence, but it's a lot easier to quantify, and I don't think there's any reason not to do so.

I bet Fuhr's numbers would be a lot closer to average if I took out all of the playoff games involving Gretzky's Oilers and then recalculated the year-by-year league averages. I'd like to see a similar calculation for guys like Billy Smith or Chris Osgood as well.

This sounds like a step towards what is probably the best way of handling this situation of differing opposition in the playoffs - calculating an adjustment baseline based on the actual playoff opponents. I think you'd find that ranking goalies from, say, the Calgary Flames and the St. Louis Blues using the same average baseline in the playoffs is deceiving, considering the strength of opposition that each club faced in the playoffs.