While the NHL and IIHF reached an agreement to allow NHL players to participate in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the future of NHL participation in the Olympics remains in doubt. While frustrating for fans, it’s understandable why NHL owners would be concerned about their players participating in the Olympics. After all, it’s their money invested and they get minimal to no return on that investment, though you could certainly argue that growing the game via the Olympics should lead to financial gains in the future.
Another concern is that players could potentially suffer an injury during games that have no bearing on NHL success, while others might be concerned more about the wear and tear of playing the extra games that could lead to future injuries and hurt a team’s chances of competing for a Stanley Cup.
Related to this concern is how the Olympic break will affect the athletes participating once they return to the lineup. Will there be a letdown after the high of representing their country? Will fatigue set in with the extra games played? Will players play through an injury for an important Olympic game and return to their NHL team hobbled?
I was curious if there actually is any evidence that participating in the Olympics could have a negative impact on a player’s performance after the Games. I decided to look at goaltenders first, since they tend to supposedly benefit the most from the rhythm of routine that might be disrupted by the Olympics. I looked at the 2009-2010 season to see if there was an impact on the save percentages of the goaltenders who participated in the 2010 Olympics. I was definitely surprised at the result.
In all honesty, I didn’t expect there to be much of an impact. There are a number of reasons why the Olympics could negatively affect a player’s performance, but I’m not sure how legitimate any of them are. Fatigue is frequently brought up, but the most games that any of them played was seven, which doesn’t seem like it would make that big a difference. Perhaps the fatigue could set in from the events surrounding the games.
The idea of a letdown post-Olympics seemed plausible, but at the same time, many of the players returned from the Olympics to their team pushing for a spot in the playoffs or gearing up for a run at the Stanley Cup, which would seem to be enough motivation to forestall any emotional letdown.
Goaltenders tend to thrive on continuous starts and getting into a rhythm, so heading to the Olympics might disrupt that. But for the goaltenders I’m looking at, the Olympics provided a chance to continue their rhythm, playing games while the rest of the league had a break.
All told, I was skeptical that the Olympics would have a negative impact on a goaltender’s performance. That’s why I was surprised to see the statistics for the fifteen NHL goaltenders who participated in the Olympics. Only four of the fifteen had higher save percentages post-Olympics than they did pre-Olympics. The other eleven all had lower save percentages, though some saw only a small drop in performance.
The chart includes playoff games, both because it expands the sample size and because playoff performance is definitely relevant to this discussion. If playing in the Olympics hurts a goaltender’s playoff performance, that’s important to know.
Of the four players who posted a higher save percentage post-Olympics, Halak and Lundqvist were the only actual starters in the Olympics, as both Backstrom and Gustavsson were backups for their respective countries. Halak and Lundqvist both saw modest gains in save percentage.
Of those who saw a negative change, Greiss and Thomas returned to backup jobs in the NHL, so their numbers are from a smaller sample size. Meanwhile, Miller, Bryzgalov, Hiller, and Brodeur saw fairly minor declines in their save percentages post-Olympics, though it is still notable that so many saw a slight drop.
Up at the top of the chart, however, is where it gets interesting. The four goaltenders who saw the most precipitous drop in save percentage post-Olympics saw heavy duty for their respective teams. Vokoun played in 63 games for the Panthers, Luongo played 68 games for the Canucks, Nabokov played 71 games for the Sharks, and Kiprusoff played in 73 games for the Flames. Add in playoff games for Luongo and Nabokov and you get to 80 and 86 games, respectively.
All four were also starters for their international teams, with Nabokov playing the fewest games as he split time with Bryzgalov for Russia. The other three played five games each, with Luongo and Kiprusoff facing the added emotion of playing in a medal game and winning. Miller and Halak, the losing goaltenders in those medal games, did better post-Olympics than the goaltenders they lost to, which is interesting. Perhaps both felt they had something to prove.
The lowest post-Olympics save percentage belonged to Roberto Luongo, who ended up with the worst save percentage of his career in the 2009-10 season, other than his rookie season. He bettered (worsted?) it, however, during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, though it’s hard to tell how much stock to put into the 20 games he played given the small sample size and turmoil of the goaltending situation in Vancouver.
The counter-argument lies with Henrik Lundqvist, who played in 73 games for the Rangers and improved after the Olympics, posting a .924 save percentage and going 7-1-2 down the stretch as he attempted to carry the Rangers into the playoffs. They fell just short on the final day of the regular season, losing in the shootout to fall one point short. The Olympics did not seem to have a negative impact on his NHL performance.
Still, it does seem odd that all but four of the fifteen goaltenders saw a drop in save percentage, with the average weighted towards the negative. Four goaltenders saw a drop of 20 or more in their save percentage, compared to more modest gains from those who improved, excepting Gustavsson, who only played in 1 game during the Olympics and just 10 games after.
Is this enough to say that playing in the Olympics definitely tends to make goaltenders play worse upon their return to the NHL? Not quite. It’s still just from one season, meaning that the small sample size may be skewing results. It’s still an interesting trend, however, and it may make some fans nervous as the Sochi Olympics approach and international teams are selected.