For the record, I have nothing against Ondrej Pavelec.

The league average save percentage for a goaltender at even strength is 92.1%, and yet I feel like I constantly have to defend my assertion that a goaltender who only posts a save percentage slightly above that number is anything other than unspectacular.

In question is Winnipeg’s Ondrej Pavelec. “Oh sure, almost from the drop of the first puck back in October through the recent dominant homestand,” writes the Winnipeg Free Press’ Ed Tait,

“the players have repeated over and over again that goaltender Ondrej Pavelec has kept them in games they had no business being in, stolen more than a few and generally done what all star puckstoppers do: absolutely carry a team.”

When watching the Jets play the Vancouver Canucks the other night, colour commentator John Garrett, an ex-jock with a penchant for alerting the world that he has no interest in learning anything more about the game outside of his strict comfort zone, suggested that the only reason the Jets were even in the playoff race this late in the season was due to their goaltender.

This team, this Winnipeg Jets team, benefitting from playing in the lesser of two conferences, in the lesser of six NHL divisions, as a top-half possession team in the Eastern Conference. They aren’t a perfect group by any means in their skating core, but they’re a team that manages to keep the play mostly at the other end of the ice, putting the onus on the other team’s goaltender.

Pavelec, to his credit, has recorded quality starts in 32 of his 57 appearances this season. A quality start is a method of game-to-game goaltender evaluation from Hockey Prospectus that credits a goaltender for a game wherein he saved 91.3% of total shots faced, or allowed two or fewer goals and stopped 88.5% of all shots. A good goaltender will record a quality start in about 55% of his games, and the most reliable will be 60% and upwards. So by this metric, Pavelec has been pretty good.

He's young and talented, but there's a perception surrounding Pavelec that he's more vital to the Jets' success than the numbers suggest.

But the other side of this is a total calamity. Remarkably inconsistent, Pavelec has also been punished with a “blow up”, a statistic created with much less scientific vigour than the quality start but serves as it’s cousin for a couple of amateur statisticians in myself and Thomas Drance, a friend who created the stat. Basically, a blow-up is a game where you cost your team a chance to win, allowing more than 15% of shots against, or allowing five or more goals without facing 40 shots against.

This is basically what Pavelec did on Friday night, and he has also done on nine other astonishing occasions in his starts, bringing his BU% (blow up percentage) to 17%, when we’ve noticed that the most reliable of keepers keep it to within 10-12%, although that has yet to be tested this season because for some reason, the website has better things to do than act on the whim of two bloggers in their early 20s.

Part of the reason why Ondrej Pavelec is so highly regarded is for making “the big save” and keeping his team in games. Against Calgary on Friday, down 3-2 and 4-2 in respective periods throughout the game, commentator Dennis Beyak mentioned “mark down that one” or something to that effect when discussing quality stops from Pavelec. He’s a goalie who is so athletic but overplays the shooter so much that he’s left out of position on a lot of attempts, however, he has the wild ability to apparate back into his net and occasionally make a highlight-reel save out of it. The term “Pavelectric” is no misnomer; I would call him one of the more exciting goalies in the game because it’s always an adventure in his crease.

Rob Vollman, who created the quality start statistic for Hockey Prospectus, even tweeted Friday morning “hate it when announcers say goalie ‘had no chance.’ He was out there, he had pads on – he had a chance!”. Often, when a goalie bites on a good passing play, a broadcaster will say this exact thing, missing the point about goalies: their job isn’t necessarily to not allow bad goals, it’s to stop as many pucks as possible.

Unless you’re watching the goalie from the start of the play, you can’t see how he moves or reacts to a different situation. The goalie shouldn’t be trying to make a save any harder on himself unless he’s playing road hockey and wanting to impress his friends. My caveat with goaltending is the same caveat that Bill James found with fielders in baseball, writing in the very first Baseball Abstract in 1977 that “the hitter is the center of attention”

“If he hits a smash down the third base line and the third baseman makes a diving stop and throws the runner out, then we notice and applaud the third baseman. But until the smash is hit, who is watching the third baseman? If he anticipates, if he adjusts for the hitter and moves over just two steps, then the same smash is a routine backhand-stop, and nobody applauds.”

“A fielder’s visible fielding range, which is his ability to move to the ball after it is hit, is vastly less important than his invisible fielding range, which is a matter of adjusting his position a step or two before the ball is hit.”

Granted, I played a lot more time at third base than I ever did in net, although I still make a name for myself in Wednesday night floor hockey rec league with the Terrace Whisky Wolves, a team name that pays homage to the hometown of many of our players. Whether I was facing a heavy hitter at third base playing ball or when I see a good shooter wind up for a shot, I’m always scared to bits but trust where I’ve positioned myself to make the right play.

In Bill James’ analysis about third basemen, one could easily replace the baseball terms with appropriate hockey terms. Our eyes, naturally attracted to the puck, recognize exactly where it hit the goalie. If it hits the goalie in the chest, it’s not because the goalie had positioned himself and read the play correctly, it’s because the shooter got a lousy shot away. If the goalie makes a reaction save with his glove or pad, it’s a big save off a good scoring chance and deserves to be applauded. And if the puck goes in, it’s pretty lousy defence, allowing the shooter in so close, and good on the shooter for capitalizing on the opportunity.

Notable: Carey Price isn't perfect this season. Sorry, Montreal fans. I was surprised too.

Unfortunately, shot analysis in public hasn’t gone anywhere beyond estimated shot location. Any passes leading up to the attempt, any screens, the speed of the shot, none of those are recorded, so all we have left to analyze goaltenders with is “did he make the save?” “How many times did he make the save?” and “How many attempts did he have to make the save?”

If Pavelec’s invisible movement is worse than his visible movement, it will force a lot of fans of the Jets and casuals who catch the highlights to notice only the good of his game and pin the rest on bad defence. By looking at his numbers, how often he made saves, you aren’t seeing much separation between him and Columbus backup Curtis Sanford, who has an even strength save percentage of .924, a fifth of a percentage point ahead of Pavelec.

A couple of other notes…

  • Carey Price has similar numbers to Ondrej Pavelec, for some bizarre reason. It’s more than likely a one season blip, but Price’s .915 even strength save percentage is well below the NHL average and is 34th among goalies with 20 or more starts. He has also been prone to the blow up, with 10 such starts out of 58 this season.
  • Marc-André Fleury, who is 31st in even strength save percentage, fares very well in the blow up column, having just four such starts out of 53 this season, giving his team a chance to compete in 49 occasions this season. He fares very well by this metric, even if his save percentage numbers are low. Part of the reason why Pittsburgh is such a good team is because reliability and consistency, not the odd amazing game, are beneficial in an 82-game season.
  • Cory Schneider is better than Roberto Luongo in both quality start percentage (73% to 61%) and blown-up percentage (9% to 11%), but he has fewer than half the starts of Luongo, who posts a slightly better even strength save percentage (.927 to .926). There are two very quality goaltenders in Vancouver.

[For some good further reading, check out Vic Ferrari's old "The 'Shot Quality' Fantasy" over at Irreverent Oilers Fans, which is probably the closest thing hockey fans have to the Bill James baseball abstracts]