Tuesday, June 26, 2012

On The Goalie Market And Why It's So Strange

NHL stat junkies love talking about goalies.  Who wouldn't?  Goaltending is an enigma wrapped in a riddle nestled in a mystery.  Every year it seems like some goaltender comes out of nowhere to put up a fantastic season.  The next year, it feels like more often than not, that same goaltender reverts to being human.  Still, there's a lot that stat guys don't know about goaltenders, and that ignorance is precisely where NHL GMs often get themselves into a lot of trouble.

The goalie market this offseason already took a strange turn when Tomas Vokoun was traded to Pittsburgh and signed there.  Most people anticipated he'd want to try his hand at being a starter again, with Toronto and Tampa Bay bandied as likely destinations.  Instead he went to back up Pittsburgh #1 and noted Swiss cheese lookalike Marc-Andre Fleury.  Josh Harding was also thought to have starter potential this off-season, but he re-signed with Minnesota.  This left many teams groping about for options - Tampa dealt for Nashville backup Anders Lindback, and Columbus traded for Philadelphia's young #2 Sergei Bobrovsky.  Both moves were roundly criticized by stat mavens - neither player has particularly distinguished themselves in their short time in the NHL.  Why would you trade three draft picks for this sort of goalie - can't he be found anywhere?  That's the usual claim among the Corsi-and-charts crowd.

Then came the Ondrej Pavelec signing - bloggers' chortles over the goalie trades shifted to gales of laughter at this goalie signing, as a below-average 'tender was locked up for 5 years and nearly $4M per year.  There were rumors that Pavelec would go to the KHL, and Jets' GM Kevin Chevaldayoff seemed to have little choice - either sign Pavelec to a huge amount or perhaps go wanting.  Still, 'going wanting' can be disastrous, especially in a weird market like the one for goalies. Here's why the goalie market is so weird now:

A:  Goaltending is the most important 'easily' controllable portion of building a team

The St. Louis Blues allowed 2190 shots last season and the Carolina Hurricanes allowed 2653, representing the least and most shots allowed, respectively.  If we assume that each team had a .910 save percentage, the Hurricanes would've allowed 42 more goals than the Blues.  However, remember that shots against involves an entire team's worth of play.  Carolina may need to change over several players to get to league average in shots allowed.  Let's look at goaltending - the range of team save percentages last year was .932 (Blues) to .893 (Lightning). If we give two teams a .932 SV% and an .893 SV% and the NHL median in shots allowed, the difference is 96 goals.  The league average goals allowed was 224 - Tampa Bay would've had to have the lowest shots allowed just to have an average goals allowed at an .893 save percentage.  In other words, goaltending is an enormous factor in determining who the good and bad teams are - with well-below-average goaltending, your chances at the playoffs are based on shooting luck and OT/shootout luck.  It's not possible to be 'good' enough in today's NHL to overcome horrendous goaltending.

B:  Goaltending is really difficult to evaluate year to year

However, that's the problem - while goaltending is vital to a team's success, it's also largely unpredictable.  Take Dwayne Roloson, the goalie for the Lightning - he managed a .914 save percentage in the regular season in 2010-11, right around the average.  In 2011-12, he had an .886 save percentage, worst in the league among goaltenders with more than 20 games.  On the flip side, Brian Elliott had the 8th worst save percentage in 2010-11, then rebounded with the best in the league this season.  These are anecdotal, but still - it's as if Brian Elliott went from being one of the worst players in the league to one of the best.  That simply doesn't happen with forwards or defensemen.  We've seen the ups and downs of goalies like M.A. Fleury, Cam Ward, and Ryan Miller as well.  Who's betting on Jonathan Quick repeating his brilliant 11-12 this coming season?  I'm not.  It's still quite possible that he's an average to above-average goalie.

C:  Every team needs a backup goalie

The Colts of the NFL could've gotten by with me as their backup quarterback for years - Peyton Manning played every game, and played every important snap.  In the NHL, however, teams need a guy who can play at least 20% of the games, and one who can play them capably to boot.  Not only that, they'd like to have a backup to the backup - someone in the minor leagues who they think is capable of playing in the NHL if one of their guys gets hurt.  Let's say another team thinks this third guy is capable of playing in the NHL and wants to make a trade - what's the incentive?  Again, look at item A - having bad goaltending can completely sink a team.  Teams would want to avoid that at any cost.  Then look at B - it's really hard to identify who the good goalies are.  That makes coming up with a fair trading price for a backup goalie difficult.  Hence the prices for Bobrovsky and Lindback - the price was, essentially, 'Hey, you can probably play in the NHL, or maybe not'.  Still, even with people claiming Tampa and Columbus paid too high a price, it takes confidence on the part of Nashville and Philadelphia to find a replacement backup to make that kind of a deal.  Furthermore, these kinds of deals are difficult to make in season - teams usually stick with what they've got in net once the puck drops.  It doesn't make much sense to deal a guy for draft picks when he's not costing a team significant money and he could play a potentially vital role.

D:  Lots of goalies peak late

Looking around the NHL free agent market illustrates this point nicely - Ty Conklin, Chris Mason, Johan Hedberg, Scott Clemmensen, and Dwayne Roloson are all available as unrestricted free agents.  Conklin didn't establish himself as an NHL backup until he was 27, Mason was also 27, ditto Hedberg, Clemmensen was 31, and Roloson played his first NHL game at the age of 27.  This means that there are lots of goalies kicking around in the AHL who will become NHL regulars - it's just that they and NHL teams really have no clue who they are.  We've seen players like Niklas Backstrom and Tim Thomas come from overseas and establish themselves as starters as older players.  This causes even more difficulty for teams trying to obtain goalies as the bulk of available goaltenders are over 30 and it's unclear for how long they can maintain their current level of play, which is itself difficult to evaluate anyway because of the uncertainty inherent in evaluating goaltenders.

E:  The free agent market this year is barren

Most years there is a player kicking around who hasn't gotten a fair shot in the NHL who has been a capable NHL backup - Craig Anderson before he came to the Avalanche is a good example.  Josh Harding would've been a good example, had he not re-signed with Minnesota.   This year, there are literally no 'proven' starting goaltenders on the free agent market, unless we count Martin Brodeur, which I don't.  It's all career backups or present backups.

All of these things combine to why the Jets decided to break the bank for a heretofore below-average goalie - they are deluded that he is an average goalie and that he's capable of being better than average.  Thing is, with the sheer unpredictability of goaltending, they could turn out to be right.

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