Monday, November 14, 2011

A New Perspective on Goaltenders: Part One

Last week, Peter Keating of ESPN Insider wrote an interesting article that sited a study on a new way to evaluate goaltenders. Similar to how it is difficult to evaluate a quarterback because of the quality of his wide receivers and running backs, it is not easy to determine the success of a goalie because of a team's defensemen. Michael Schuckers created a system that issued a Defense Independent Goalie Rating (DIGR) to each goaltender. The study examined every shot that each goaltender faced during the 2010-2011 season. Factors that were considered included from where the shot was taken, the type of shot, and the quality of the opposing team.

Comparison of the Top Ten
NHL Rankings                                                      DIGR Rankings
1. Tim Thomas  0.938 SVP, 35 W/57 GP                1. Tim Thomas  0.9312 SVP
2. Pekka Rinne  0.930 SVP, 33 W/64 GP               2. Cory Schneider  0.9285 SVP
3. Cory Schneider  0.929 SVP, 16 W/25 GP            3. Roberto Luongo  0.9269 SVP
4. Roberto Luongo  0.928 SVP, 38 W/60 GP         4. Jonas Hiller  0.9269 SVP
5. Jonas Hiller  0.924 SVP, 26 W/49 GP                 5. Ilya Bryzgalov  0.9234 SVP
6. Semyon Varlamov  0.924 SVP, 11 W/27 GP        6. Cam Ward  0.9232 SVP
7. Carey Price  0.923 SVP, 38 W/72 GP                  7. Marc-Andre Fleury  0.9227 SVP
8. Henrik Lundqvist  0.923 SVP, 36 W/68 GP        8. Devan Dubnyk  0.9224 SVP
9. Cam Ward  0.923 SVP, 37 W/74 GP                   9. Corey Crawford  0.9219 SVP
10. Tomas Vokoun  0.922 SVP, 22 W/57 GP          10. Carey Price  0.9218 SVP

The top five goaltenders are more or less the same. Tim Thomas still reigns supreme on both lists. Although the Bruins have excellent defense, Thomas was, and continues to be, very much the MVP of this team. If he had played at this level in 2010, he would not have taken the number two position and may very well have again beaten Luongo in the battle of the goaltenders.

Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo were still the best goalie tandem in the NHL no matter which system of evaluation. I remember watching Schneider in his first game of last season while Luongo was going through a funk and knew the Canucks had something special. This guy is going to have an incredible career in the NHL, with or without the Canucks. I'm sure teams are watching Schneider and will be jumping at the chance to get him should he ever become a free agent while the Canucks are still locked in with Luongo.

Jonas Hiller also remained in the top five and rightfully so. He seemed to have faltered a bit during the beginning of last season, but he wasn't the only one underperforming. The Ducks took a slow start but once they began to become a cohesive unit, Hiller was outstanding. On a team that boasts 70-plus point scorers Perry, Selanne, Getzlaf, and Ryan along with the top scoring D-man in the league with Visnovsky, one would think that a top goaltender would be irrelevant. However, Hiller was, and is an integral part of the success of the Ducks.

One name that is noticeably NOT on the DIGR list is Pekka Rinne. He was rated second in the NHL with a 0.930 save percentage and 35 wins of 57 games. On the DIGR rankings, he took the 12th slot with a 0.9204 save percentage, which was still higher than the average goalie who would get a 0.9160. For most of last season, the experts had been singing Rinne's praises, especially on how the Predators would never have made it to a postseason had it not been for the team's goaltending. Although I whole-heartedly agree with this evaluation considering that Rinne has often made remarkable saves that kept the Preds in the game with their weak offense, it is undeniable the type of defense that Trotz has built for that team. One cannot undermine the value of Weber and Suter for that team. However, this DIGR study does make one question if the Predators might have rethought signing Rinne to a $7 million a year contract over the next seven years while Thomas is only making $6 million? But perhaps this is steal considering Luongo's $10 million salary.

One name that broke the top 5 on the DIGR list but was not even included in the top 10 of the NHL is Ilya Bryzgalov. Although most of the experts, whomever you would like to consider them to be, would consider him a top goaltender, he has never been one of the sexy names of the NHL. Perhaps this is a factor of playing for a struggling franchise such as the Coyotes. Many of the same experts never gave the Coyotes much of a chance when they did make the playoffs, but Bryzgalov is never left out of the conversation when there is a discussion of the team. Maybe it's a factor of being a bottom two in a division, albeit the Pacific which is arguably the most competitive division in the league. Reexamining the DIGR ratings against the new contract that Bryzgalov just signed during the offseason with the Flyers, it seems the Flyers have a deal. For a franchise that hasn't had a winning goaltender for almost as long as the Chicago Bears haven't had a winning quarterback, Bryzgalov is every penny and more of the $5.67 million a year. This is even a steal for a 0.9234 SVP which can be matched with a team that has star D-men Carle, Meszaros, Pronger, and Timmonen with snipers Giroux, Briere, rookie Coutrier, and up-and-coming JVR, it is highly likely that the Flyers will go deep into the postseason... unless there really is a goalie curse in Philly...

Marc-Andre Fleury is another name that surprised me as to not make the NHL top ten. Last season, he ranked 15th in the NHL but ranked 7th on the DIGR. This 2009 Stanley Cup winner was been stellar between the pipes with 36 wins in 65 games played last year. The Pens may have missed Crosby and Malkin for the last stretch, but Fleury had stepped up and was making the big plays that the team needed in order to make it through to the postseason. This year, the Pens continue in their winning ways and Fleury has been a huge part of it.

One last name that was not included in the NHL top ten or even top 15 but ranked 9th on the DIGR is Corey Crawford. Perhaps he has flown under the radar because he was a rookie goaltender, and the media were, and are, still enamored of 2010 Stanley Cup Blackhawks (now Sharks) goalie Antti Niemi. During the postseason after that Cup win, no one could believe that the Hawks were letting Niemi go. The media were about as astonished over this move as when Gretzky was traded to the Kings (okay, this is a blatant exaggeration, but you get the idea), and all the experts were already giving up on the Hawks going to a postseason in 2011. However, looking at these DIGR ratings, this was an ingenious move. The Hawks already knew they were looking at salary cap problems once they won the Cup, and they were unwilling to release players like Kane, Toews, Keith, Seabrook, Sharp, and Pisani (okay, that was a joke). However, they probably knew that Niemi was a piece that could be replaced since he had not been the starting goaltender for a part of the season, and they were developing Crawford. According to DIGR, his save percentage was 0.9219. He ranked 17th in the NHL with a 0.917 SVP with 33 wins of 57 games played. On the other hand, Niemi ranked 26th on the DIGR with a 0.9138 SVP, but he took the 13th slot in the NHL with a 0.920 SVP and 35 wins in 65 games played. If we take the DIGR numbers, Crawford comes out on top as the better goaltender. He is able to stop more pucks no matter the defense. Looking at his numbers, it is no wonder the Hawks are taking the West by storm to start the 2011 season.

On the other hand, there are names that are highly valued on the NHL list but not on the DIGR list, like Rinne as discussed above. One name that stands out in my mind is Henrik Lundqvist. He's one of the other sexy names in the NHL. The Rangers had their struggles throughout the season and barely made the playoffs. However, their one saving grace was often Lundqvist. He led the league in shutouts with 11. Although all the praise has gone to Lundqvist, DIGR forces one to take a second look. According to DIGR, Lundqvist ranked 13th with a 0.9180 SVP, a bit of a dip from his NHL 0.923 SVP. I'm a huge fan of King Henrik, so it pains me to say this but looks like he needs to give a bit of a shout out to his D-men. And this is true, considering the Rangers lacked true fire power (which made this offseason's move to acquire Brad Richards a must for the team), their wins had to come from star defensemen like Girardi, Staal, and Eminger. Rookie Michael Sauer also played a large role for the D. While a great puck-handler in his own right, he does attribute some of his success to the Rangers defense.

One other name that ranks high on the NHL list but lower on DIGR is Vokoun. He ranked in the tenth slot but only 15th on DIGR with a 0.9177 SVP. To me, Vokoun sneaked onto the NHL list since Florida has such a struggling team, so no one really talked about them. The have missed the playoffs for at least the last five years and was only able to get 72 points last season. Vokoun had always been a player to watch when discussing the Panthers, but his value was perhaps only slightly inflated. Some of that success can be attributed to the D. During the offseason, the Panthers have been aggressive in shaking up the team and have acquired Campbell and Jovanovski to bolster their D, and they have let Vokoun go and acquired Jose Theodore from the Minnesota Wild. Apparently, the Panthers must have felt that Vokoun was no longer part of their path to the Cup.

Along the same lines, Semyon Varlamov, who spent last year with the Capitals, ranked 6th in the NHL with a 0.924 save percentage and 11 wins of 27 games. According to DIGR, he would have been placed at 19th with 0.9170. It should be noted that Varlamov was not a starting goaltender for the Caps, but the Avs have placed him in that position for this season. It is difficult to assess Varlamov since he only played in 27 games, but it seems that the Caps defense is a large part of his success. The top D stars Green, Alzner, and Erskine attributed to Varlamov's high value in the NHL as opposed to DIGR. However, the Avalanche certainly made the improvements they needed when snagging him. In what I considered the least impressive trade of last season, the Avs sent Craig Anderson to Ottawa and received Brian Elliott. Anderson slightly dipped in DIGR with a 0.9121 save percentage which is slightly worse than the average goalie who would have a 0.9182. In the NHL, he ranked 28th with a 0.913 save percentage and 24 wins in 51 games. Elliott ranked 47th on DIGR with a 0.900 save percentage, which was worse than the average goalie who would have a 0.9160. In the NHL, Elliott ranked 43rd with a 0.893 save percentage and 15 wins in 55 games. In both cases, the defense is a factor in the success of the goalies. For the Avalanche, inking Valamov during the offseason was definitely a push in the right direction... and of course selecting Landeskog 2nd overall in the draft definitely didn't hurt either.

Link to study:
Link to NHL rankings:

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