Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Between the Lockouts Cohort

A look at goalie Hall of Famers listed by birthday reveals a repeated clustering effect, as I pointed out in my last post. I want to take a more detailed look at one group that seems to have been particularly disadvantaged by environmental factors in terms of their Hall of Fame chances, the group of goalies that entered the NHL during the Dead Puck Era (which has been given differing endpoints by different people, but for now I'll use the period between the lockouts as a convenient definition).

On the surface, breaking into the NHL at a time when scoring was low seems to be a great opportunity for a goalie to put up some great numbers. However, this "between the lockouts cohort" was a group of goalies that faced increased competition from a larger talent pool, consisting of both better North American athletes choosing to play goal as well as a new influx of talent from Europe, making it much more difficult to stand out from the pack. They also had to deal with a quartet of first-ballot Hall of Famers that not only dominated the league's awards, but also hogged the starting jobs on the league best teams for much of the pre-lockout period.

Once those greats faded off into the sunset, and the new crop began looking for their own shot at backstopping a contending team to glory, the salary cap changed the way great teams were built. Instead of bringing in a hired gun veteran All-Star netminder to complete a championship team, as every Cup winning team did between the lockouts other than the Devils and the '98 Red Wings, many of the league's best teams have decided to invest their precious payroll dollars in maintaining depth in their group of skaters rather than spending big money on the goaltending position, or have decided to develop goalies internally rather than take the risk of shelling out big money on the free agent market.

As a result, a fairly mediocre collection of goalies have won the Cup since the lockout, while many of the league's most tenured netminders currently ply their trades for non-contending teams. Once again, the universe seems to have stacked the deck against the between the lockouts group.

The overall result was that this group did not win much individual award recognition or experience much team success, increasing the chances that few of them will be remembered long after their careers come to an end.

To be considered part of the group that I'm talking about, a goalie's first season as a starter has to have come between 1994-95 and 2003-04 inclusive. Since 2005 there have been a number of goalies with promising starts to their career who could attract Hall of Fame attention, either because of their play/awards recognition (e.g. Lundqvist, Thomas, Miller) or playoff success (e.g. Ward, Fleury).

Between the Lockouts Goalies, Sorted by Career Games Played:

Nikolai Khabibulin73031443.908396.917
Roberto Luongo65329654.919171.919
Tomas Vokoun61525843.91731.922
Jose Theodore56725430.909191.911
Evgeni Nabokov56329350.912407.913
Dwayne Roloson54520428.910181.915
Marty Turco53627341.910214.914
Tommy Salo52621037.90550.909
J.S. Giguere51823134.913336.925
Miikka Kiprusoff50526337.913256.921

These ten goalies have combined for just 2 Stanley Cup rings and 2 Vezinas, with none of them managing to win both. Not only does the group have only two Vezinas, but it came awfully close to not having any at all. Jose Theodore tied Patrick Roy with 105 points in the 2002 voting, winning only via the first place votes tiebreaker. If just one of the GMs with Theodore first and Roy second had switched their vote, Roy would have taken home that award. As if to reinforce the narrowness of Theodore's victory, the Habs netminder lost out on the First Team All-Star honour to Roy.

As for Kiprusoff's Vezina in 2006, here are his stats up until the Olympic break compared to Dominik Hasek's:

Kiprusoff: 29-14-7, 2.23, .915, 6 SO
Hasek: 28-10-4, 2.09, .925, 5 SO

At that point in the season Hasek may have had the edge, despite playing for a stronger team, but then he went and pulled his groin at the Olympics and left the door open for Kiprusoff to run away with it. Kipper did have a fantastic second half that year, and may have won regardless, but I think it's safe to say that without the injury Hasek would have been a strong contender for the 2006 Vezina.

On the other hand, I think this group lost out on several awards that it rightfully should have won, including Turco in 2003 and Luongo in both 2004 and 2007. But with respect to what did happen, it's not too hard to envision a scenario where they would have been completely shut out.

Khabibulin and Giguere are the only goalies in the group with Cup rings. Those two as well as Kiprusoff and Roloson are likely considered by many to be good playoff goalies based on all of them having a signature deep postseason run to their credit. However, if you look at their playoff careers other than that one year none of them have a distinguished record of success, except for Giguere, who won the Cup and Conn Smythe in separate postseasons.

Yet even Giguere has had his share of bad games and more than a typical share of being relegated to the backup role by a teammate. Without '03, Giguere is 18-11 but with a pedestrian .907 save percentage in the playoffs. Without their runs in '04 Khabibulin is 23-24, .911 and Kiprusoff is 10-17, .915, and without '06 Roloson is 6-7, .892.

Evgeni Nabokov has had some postseason opportunities on strong teams, but although he leads this group in playoff wins he is considered by many to be a playoff disappointment. I'm not sure it's really fair to suggest Nabokov didn't play up to his usual standards in the playoffs. I doubt he performed all that differently, the main difference was likely that the higher level of postseason opposition removed much of the team advantages that helped boost his traditional stats in the regular season.

Nabokov is the only one of these goalies that has repeatedly started in the playoffs on legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. Giguere and Khabibulin had great teams when they won but not too much help outside of that. Turco played for a couple of very strong teams in Dallas and Nashville was a really good team in 2007 with Vokoun, although it was never easy to make it through the tough Western Conference. Other than that, there haven't been many teams with any of these goalies in net that would have been found among the Stanley Cup odds leaders on the eve of the playoffs. Luongo, Roloson and Vokoun have all missed the playoffs far more often than they have made it, despite strong regular season play. All 10 have a playoff save percentage as high or higher than their regular season mark. The cause of the general lack of playoff team success seems to be primarily the result of a lack of support, rather than poor clutch performance by these goalies as a group.

With Nabokov's attempted move to Detroit blocked by Garth Snow and Turco relegated to the bench in Chicago, the only goalies from this group that appear to be in a good position to make some playoff noise this spring are Luongo and Roloson. Because of his age and the strong group of teammates around him, Luongo has a great chance to add to his playoff portfolio over the next 5 seasons. It seems unlikely that any of the others will be in a similar position, although of course deadline deals or free agency could significantly alter their prospects.

Right now, I don't think any of the between the lockout group are sure Hall of Famers. I think Luongo is very much on track to get there some day, and would be close to a sure thing already if he was fairly evaluated for his performance in Florida or if there wasn't such a focus on team success for goalies. Other than that I'm not sure anyone else will come close.

The top contenders either have the individual hardware but lack the career totals (Giguere, Kiprusoff, Theodore), or have the career numbers but lack the awards (Luongo, Vokoun, Nabokov, Khabibulin). In another time and place, most of these goalies might well have racked up lots of hardware and wins and team success and fame and "money goalie" accolades. Yet with the hand they were dealt, most of them appear fated to be remembered as little more than good goalies that played in the shadows of Hall of Famers.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Hall of Famers Come In Fours

Looking through the list of goalies in the Hall of Fame sorted by birthday, there seems to be a repeating pattern. Several goalies will be inducted that were all born over a short time period. That will be followed by an extended dry spell, before another cluster of similarly-aged candidates gets enshrined. This is followed by another gap, and the cycle repeats.

This doesn't particularly apply to the oldest goalies in the Hall of Fame (Hugh Lehman, Georges Vezina, Hap Holmes, Clint Benedict and George Hainsworth), all of whom were born between 1885 and 1895. Then again, things were quite different back then in hockey's early days, with several different professional leagues, teams folding and moving all the time, and some goalies having very atypical career curves, often playing many years of amateur hockey before breaking into the professional at an advanced age.

The first group of Hall of Fame goalies who spent the large majority of their careers in the National Hockey League were born around the turn of the 20th century: Roy Worters (1900), Alec Connell (1902), Tiny Thompson (1903), and Charlie Gardiner (1904). After those four, it took a decade to produce the next Hall of Famer (Turk Broda in 1914).

Broda was quickly followed by Brimsek the following year and Bill Durnan the year after that to create the trio of goaltending legends that dominated the NHL in the 1940s. In the decade after Durnan, Chuck Rayner (1920), Johnny Bower (1924) and Harry Lumley (1926) were born. Lumley and especially Bower made most of their Hall of Fame cases after the previous "Big Three" had retired.

Perhaps the best goalie cohort of all was the 1929-1931 group, which includes Terry Sawchuk, Jacques Plante, Gump Worsley and Glenn Hall. In the wake of that dominating quartet there was a gap of eight years until the next Hall of Famer, and even then the next two inductees born (Ed Giacomin in 1939 and Gerry Cheevers in 1940) are both among the weakest goalies enshrined, with Hall of Fame cases largely built on taking advantage of an unbalanced league.

It took 12 years after Hall until the next no-doubt first-ballot Hall of Fame netminder came into the world in the person of Tony Esposito in 1943. Once again, he was quickly followed by a couple of others: Bernie Parent in 1945 and Ken Dryden in 1947, with Billy Smith arriving not far behind in 1950.

The next decade (1951 to 1961) didn't see any goaltenders born who would eventually be considered Hall of Famers, and that is probably not likely to change either with the games played leaders from that period including Mike Liut, Greg Millen, Andy Moog, Kelly Hrudey and Don Beaupre.

With 1962 came Grant Fuhr to break the drought, but 1965 was the real money year for goaltending ability, producing three first-ballot Hall of Famers in Dominik Hasek, Patrick Roy and Ed Belfour. All goalies born in 1965 combined to play a 4,687 games in the NHL, well ahead of any other year on record, and Tom Barrasso may still have an outside chance at making it four Hall of Famers from one birth year.

Yet again the feast and famine pattern looks like it will continue, with Curtis Joseph the only goalie born from 1966 to 1971 that is likely to be even seriously discussed by the Hall of Fame committee, and although some goalies have significant portions of their careers remaining the only guaranteed Hall of Famer born since 1971 remains Martin Brodeur.

What is causing all this? Is it merely that the random allotment of goaltending ability just happened to result in some groupings close together? That's likely part of it, but it's not particularly probable that a similar pattern would have repeated itself essentially four times in a row.

Factors that may have had some impact are the level of league scoring, the size and level of parity in the league, and changing league rules or revolutions in goalie training or techniques. Certain periods seemed to be set up better than others to create Hall of Famers, either because lower scoring levels led to lower GAAs and higher shutout totals or because an unbalanced league made it easier to rack up wins on the top teams.

Beyond that, it seems apparent that opportunity would have played a significant role, especially in smaller leagues with only 6 or 12 starting jobs available. In reality it was likely even more restrictive than that, given the required level of team success typically needed to produce a Hall of Fame career. With two or three teams dominating the standings year after year throughout much of the NHL's history, goalies usually either had to be fortunate enough to be signed by those elite clubs, or else they had to play well enough for long enough on one of the league's bottom-feeders that they were eventually given the chance to don the sweater of a Cup contender.

I'd say that the most likely explanation is that a few elite goalies have a tendency to monopolize awards and gravitate towards the best starting jobs in the league, making it that much harder for the guys coming after them to put together the trophy case and team success that the Hall of Fame has historically required for entry.

I don't rate goalies based on traditional accomplishments like Vezina Trophies, postseason All-Star selections and Stanley Cups, but many people do, including apparently most of the Hall of Fame voting committee. In that type of evaluation method, I think it is important to consider the strength of a goalie's teammates and the quality of goaltending peers he was competing against, and to consider not just how many times a goalie won an award but also how many times he got close to winning. After all, the best goalie in a particular season and the best goalie in the league are not always the same thing. There are additional useful ways to verify how well a goalie was rated by his contemporaries, if you consider that to be an important piece of information, such as looking at observer accounts and other primary sources, salary/trade history, international selections, coach and player polls, etc.

That said, I still maintain that a careful analysis of historical statistical performance remains the best method to properly evaluate the accomplishments of a netminder, with care taken to adjust for team factors during the parts of the league history that were more unbalanced than others.