Guess what it was?

Today’s post is two topics, really, and I’ll discuss the more timely one first: the firing of Pierre Gauthier, the former general manager of the Montreal Canadiens. I think people may have overstated how bad of a GM he was; the Canadiens weren’t necessarily a terrible team this season as much as their record indicated, and he was also the architect of one of my favourite trades from a value perspective early in his tenure.

The Habs, until about halfway through the season (or, until Randy Cunneyworth’s system, or lack thereof, really started to take hold) they were a positive possession team, as indicated by this Behind The Net graph. Jacques Martin may not have been the best fit for the team, but, as with Bruce Boudreau, the team did noticeably worse both to the eye and on the stat sheet after his departure. Even so, Montreal’s goal differential wasn’t reflective of a 15th place team, but at minus-18, it’s still good for 9th in the Eastern Conference.

Again, not necessarily good, but it’s not like this isn’t a team in disrepair. Carey Price had a bit of a down year by his standards, posting a .916 overall save percentage and just a .918 at even strength, well below the .923 and .931 he put up last season. The second measure, the .918 even strength save percentage, boils around the league average after subjecting itself to a pretty significant regression to the mean.

Not to say that Price is a bad goaltender. That save percentage ought to trend upward next season, but the Habs’ tough season may mean that he’s going to make fewer bucks when he’s re-signed this summer as a restricted free agent, although he’ll certainly have a raise on the $2.75M he made this season and the one before.

And that’s significantly less than you’d think a star goaltender ought to be signed for, and comparative to the $3.75M the St. Louis Blues dished out to Jaroslav Halak in the summer of 2010. This is the trade of Gauthier’s that I really liked, early in his tenure, he shipped the popular Halak, coming off an absolutely dominant playoff run wherein he may have singlehandedly won Montreal two series’, to St. Louis.

"I scored four goals in a single game."

Had this trade backfired, it would probably be the number one thing that fans point to as an error by Gauthier, but it isn’t, in fact, it’s rarely brought up because it was such a great trade. Nevermind that there’s serious Vezina Trophy talk for Halak with the Blues this season, Gauthier made the deal to sign Carey Price for a cheaper cheque, and his even strength save percentage stat has been just a tenth of a percentage point lower than Halak’s, but Halak has had the benefit of 41 fewer starts, more rest, and more suitable backup goaltenders behind him.

Montreal got Lars Eller in the deal, a moderately tough-minutes third line forward who has managed to keep afloat in possession this season, and one of the bright spots on the season for Montreal with 16 goals on the year. Players of Eller’s defensive ilk seldom grow into 20-25 goal scorers, but the continued usage of Eller is a key to Montreal one day turning the corner. Would the Blues have given up the young Eller for Carey Price? I doubt it, given the type of run Halak was on.

Jaro Halak has taken a backseat to his backup Brian Elliott in the Vezina Trophy debate. Daniel Wagner floated the possibility back in December, which seems so long ago, but Elliotte Friedman also made a couple of good points on this week’s 30 Thoughts when looking at the situation in St. Louis.

To recap, Elliott leads the NHL in goals against average, save percentage, and is tied with Jonathan Quick in shutouts. His win percentage probably ranks up there, but I really don’t place enough weight on goaltender win percentage as an indicator of his talent. Nor do I really look at goals against average or shutouts with any tinge of importance. A good team will reduce the shots a goaltender sees, which leads to fewer goals, and that’s exactly what Elliott has had in St. Louis. As for save percentage, I put more weight on that statistic when a goaltender plays a lot more games, and that’s something neither Elliott nor Halak have done this season, as Ken Hitchcock has platooned his goalies to get maximum effectiveness out of both.

Anyway, here’s what Elliotte had to say:

13. The GMs vote for the Vezina. What are they going to do with the St. Louis goaltenders? As of Monday morning, the Blues are 17 goals better than second-place Los Angeles with a true tandem of Jaroslav Halak (43 appearances) and Brian Elliott (35). They’ve got 14 shutouts between them, most in the NHL since Tony Esposito’s 15 in 1969-70. The last shared victory was 1981 (Richard Sevigny, Denis Herron, Michel Larocque), as the league created the Jennings Trophy to eliminate this phenomenon.

14. The last goalie to win the Vezina with fewer than 50 appearances was Patrick Roy in 1989 (48). Saw some suggestions on Twitter that Elliott should win it, after he whitewashed Phoenix for his eighth shutout of the year. Tough thing is: he won’t play 40 games. How many goalies have won the Vezina without playing at least 40? Zero – unless it was shared. (Bill Durnan was closest, hitting that exact number in 1945-46. Of course, it was a 50-game season then.)

"I faced four shots in a single game."

If you sit down and tally up the number of shots each goaltender faces, you won’t see that Elliott or Halak have had to make as many stops as the next guys. In something called ‘win threshold‘, we can calculate the minimum save percentage a team needs to make the NHL playoffs. I calculated the Blues’ number at .904, tied for seventh in the NHL with the New Jersey Devils (who have gotten replacement-level goaltending this season from Martin Brodeur, but that’s a topic for another day) despite the team’s 2.54 goals per game, they also only give up 26.4 shots (or did yesterday when I downloaded the data) the lowest number in the league.

Situations like Halak and Elliott, who have both been elite this season sharing the torch, is for what the William M. Jennings Award was created for, awarded to the team that allows the fewest goals. As for importance to their team? Jonathan Quick and Henrik Lundqvist are superior, and, as Los Angeles’ win threshold is seventh-lowest in the NHL at .920, I think the Kings’ stalwart deserves a nod for more than just the Vezina. He’s been arguably the most consistent, tested and successful goaltender in the NHL this season.

Elliott and Halak have been as fine a two-headed monster as we’ve seen, but we haven’t seen enough of either to convince me that one of them is individually the best goaltender in the NHL.

Comments (7)

  1. It’s pretty clear that Jonathan Quick has been THE most important player to their team this season. The utter lack of goal support for Quick as well as his exceptional play are more then enough reason to have him in the driver’s seat for the Vezina.
    Personally I like Lundqvist for the award but I wouldn’t be upset if Quick won.

    If Elliot does then I think we’re setting a precedent that we don’t want to have on the books. My thinking is that if another goalie in the future posts similar numbers but suffers a season ending injury after 40 games he would have to be considered a Vezina candidate because he played so well before his injury.

    It’s not fair that a goalie that hasn’t had to should the load of a number one should even be considered for the award. Hell if we want to give love to part time goalies then Corey Schneider can make a case for the Vezina as his numbers are nearly as strong as Elliot’s and using the logic that shots against is a determining factor then Schneider should be running away with this award, after all the Blues allow a paltry 26.4 shots per game while the Canucks give up 31.1 shots per game.

    Or in other words 5 extra shots per game, or the difference between the number of goals that Elliot has allowed (52) and the amount that Schneider has allowed (57) on the season.

  2. Gauthier’s unwarranted firing of Martin basically derailed a season that was, to adepts of analytics at least, extremely promising. They were a fantastic 5-on-5 club, with a truly awesome penalty kill. They had two problems — a propensity to lose games by narrow margins, and a PP that couldn’t finish (their 5-on-4 shooting percentage, at the time, was worse than all but LA’s shooting percentage *at 5-on-5*) but was generating plenty of shots and chances. Their luck was bound to turn, something that Gauthier did not recognize and as a result he made a panic move and sent the season into the ditch. That, in and of itself, should be a firing offense. He’s getting crucified for other moves, but his work as Habs GM before this season has been respectable, with the notable exception of giving away Sergei Kostitsyn for effectively nothing.

    The absurdity of Randy Cunneyworth’s system has been enough to convince me that coaching can have a massive impact on puck possession, at least on the negative side of the ledger. . At the time of Martin’s firing. Montreal was a more-than-respectable team in score-close Fenwick, hovering inside the top-10, IIRC, and easily above-water. The Habs are now one of the very worst teams in the league *for the whole season*, which means that Cunneyworth’s tenure was even worst than that. Putting them on a side-by-side line graph, the effect is eye-popping. Randy Cunneyworth’s style routinely trades off possession for position and employs a simplistic, chip-and-chase scheme with no transition to speak of; to the eye, it seems counter-productive especially when the opposing team learns to cut off the extremely predictable zone clearances, and the numbers bear it out. Add to that a matchup and zone start game that is either highly questionable or completely lackadaisal… Cunneyworth is getting a lot of sympathy for the language thing, and there are apparently people who think he’ll get a chance elsewhere. For that team’s sake, let’s hope he has a massive improvement as a coach between now and then.

    FYI: Montreal’s goal-differential minus shootouts and empty nets is actually -7. They are -6 in empty-netters, and -5 in shootouts.

    On Eller: I really like the trade as well. He’s a moderately tough-minutes defensive 3rd-line guy now, but I do think the ceiling is much higher than that. I think he can turn into a 20-25 goals guy if he gets significant power play time (he has managed 2 PP goals on 40 seconds per game of PP time). NHL-level wingers would also help; between sheltering Desharnais between the team’s top wingers, trying to provide Plekanec with wingers who can withstand his tough-minutes work, and the team’s once-enviable winger depth being decimated by injury then selling off, Eller has had very little to work with.

  3. The only problem I have with Eller: dumb penalties. If he can learn to take less of them he will be a fine NHLer

  4. “Carey Price had a bit of a down year by his standards, posting a .916 overall save percentage and just a .918 at even strength”

    Here’s the problem I have with this: Save percentage is systemic. It’s a coaching stat more than an individual stat. Those numbers don’t indicate a “down year,” they indicate that the circumstances around Price changed. The Canadiens went from packing the house under Martin to, uh, doing nothing of note to insulate the tender under Cunneyworth. Packing the house is a strategy designed to reduce shot quality (shot quality definitely exists, no matter what Arctic Ice hockey says). Since the same coaches have teams that dominate the save percentage ranks, year after year, reducing shot quality is a strategy that obviously works, regardless of whether statistics are advanced at present enough to represent that numerically.

    This is why “Dave Tippet’s goaltender” invariably outperforms “guy who used to play for Tippett last year” by that metric–no matter what these two players’ names are or how good they may or may not be.

  5. I don’t understand why stats like shut outs and GAA get thrown under the bus, but SV% is somehow the defining goalie stat. As mentioned, a great defensive team will limit the number of tough shots faced and lower scoring chances and therefore lower GAA, but if the goalie is facing less dangerous shots, his SV% is just as likely to rise as his GAA is to drop.

    Either way, I think it’s time to start looking at the Vezina as more of a team defense award. You need a talented goal tender no doubt, but I dont think just one guy is enough anymore.

    • Save percentage is the stat that measures the thing the goalkeeper has the most control over, especially at even strength. No one stat is perfect, but this one is pretty good. It just needs context, like you observe. And the league didn’t even bother recording saves and sv% until 1982, so context and reliable statistical measures are exactly what’s wanting here.

      Obviously, a guy facing 23 shots per game has it easier than a guy facing 33 shots a game. That’s why teams with blah goalkeeping limit shots in the first place. But that’s also why people look askance at a guy sporting a 2.00 GAA while facing 23 shots, versus a guy with a 3.00 while facing 33. That second guy is probably playing better, even if he doesn’t have as many shutouts or a gaudy GAA. His save % is slightly lower than the first guy, but close enough to really make barely a difference. (It’s about a goal every eleven games at 23 shots per.)

      To gain that context, people isolate not only sv% at evens, but also with the score within +/- 1 goal, to account for teams with big leads going into a shell while the trailer pulls their goalie and throws every possible puck at the net.

      The way I see it, measurements like this aren’t as useful for parsing who among ten good goalies is best. It’s very useful for figuring out which good team could use a goalie upgrade, however. And that makes sense… bad goaltending will kill your team more easily than great goaltending will save the day.

  6. Why is it that during the tv telecast of the game they always keep track of scoring chances in the game, yet when talking about a goalie’s ability, no one ever seems to talk about scoring chances.

    For an example the Blues one game allowed 21 shots on net, but gave up 14 scoring chances (a handfull of odd man rushes). Meanwhile another goalie could’ve had 34 saves, but the opposition only created 12 scoring chances.. (this has happened, but that other goalie is considered better because he saved easier shots?)

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