Why goalies can’t save themselves - Macleans.ca

Why goalies can’t save themselves

Goalies Don’t Improve. Tell your friends, writes Colby Cosh.


Shaun Best/Reuters

I have this theory about hockey that I’ve been advocating on Twitter and in personal conversations, after doing a lot of disorganized private research. But I’ve never put it down in print before. The theory goes like this: goalies don’t improve. Actually, I prefer to capitalize it, in order to impart the awful character of divine law. Goalies Don’t Improve.

It is a little more complicated than that, of course, but it is a merit in a controversial hypothesis to have a simple, shout-able basic form. What I’m really saying is that that NHL goaltenders approach their peak in quality, relative to the league, earlier than almost anybody thinks. And that in the overwhelming majority of cases, waiting around for a young goaltender who has established mere adequateness to advance and become an all-star contender is probably a waste of time.

Goalies who will ultimately be very good almost always prove it pretty early in their careers. But the converse is obviously not true: many goalies who make an impact at a young age are out of the NHL, or headed that way, by the time they are 30. (Anybody remember Jim Carey, Net Detective? He’s two years younger than Martin Brodeur! Still!) Analyzing goaltenders is difficult for subtle statistical reasons, but it is important to think clearly about the subject. With the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics approaching, Canadian fans have been alerted to our country’s relative weakness at the position—partly because some young prospects Didn’t Improve.

There are a few threads of evidence pointing towards the GDI hypothesis. But even rough formal study supports it. If you take the last 30 years or so of NHL save-percentage data, and just figure out everybody’s save percentage by age, you’ll be surprised by the early peak. Collectively, goalies seem to max out between the ages of 21 and 23 and then drop off more or less monotonically. (A chart compiled by stats whiz Gabe Desjardins got me thinking about this.)

This is true even though overall league save percentages have been climbing by close to a point a year for a while now. Goalies lose ground even faster if you adjust for that, pulling the performance-versus-age curve down on the right; and the GDI effect is still present when you compare goalies to their personal peak or their career-mean performance.

If you’re just a observer of the game who doesn’t dig math, I think that years of experience watching the NHL teaches the same thing. Many of the great goalies of the last three decades are guys who devastated the league as young men, like Martin Brodeur or Patrick Roy or Roberto Luongo. Some are players who were awesome somewhere else but got a late start in the NHL, like Dominik Hasek or Tim Thomas. (Almost as soon as some pro club gave Thomas a starting job, he was overall MVP of the top Finnish league—at a time when his Finn rivals were collectively preparing a mass invasion of the NHL.)

But which goalies fit the description “Started out meh, eventually became elite”? Someone on Twitter recently defied the GDI effect successfully, giving me an example I couldn’t explain away: Tomáš Vokoun, who was sincerely average through 2,500+ NHL shots and then levelled up like a video-game character. So it can happen.

But it’s rare. If there is a second example, it’s Dwayne Roloson. We know exactly how Roli did it: by radically reinventing his style, breaking down his whole method of playing goal and recreating it, in Minnesota. Roloson is an unusual, extremely intelligent man. His case may testify to the difficulty—as much as it does to the possibility—of such a thing.

If you pay attention, you will often hear sportswriters and hockey broadcasters assure you that goalies peak late and need time to “learn” the NHL. Every day they name some struggling “young” 25-year-old who might still leap to stardom. This sort of talk, I now think, is mostly nonsense. The position of hockey goalie really is one-dimensional compared to the others, and a 25-year-old should be conceived of as already facing age pressure. Reaction times, vision and flexibility are particularly important in goaltending, and they degrade early. The now-orthodox butterfly style destroys hips and knees, and it is not uncommon for junior goalies to have already logged enough hours to require surgery.

Experts have a powerful incentive to insist that being a goalie involves a panoply of learned arcana only available to professionals. But general managers (and national-team selectors) might want to be wary of goalies who have reached unrestricted-free-agent age (typically 27). Indeed, some statheads have already reached this conclusion on the ugly evidence of the contracts themselves, without studying the aging curve as such. Goalies Don’t Improve. Tell your friends.

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Why goalies can’t save themselves

  1. Moneypuck! There’s a movie there somewheres. Who gets to play Cosh?

    • Jack Black.

    • Travis Yost.

    • Joaquin Phoenix

      • Oliver Platt — he has that studied disheveled thing down pat.

  2. One of the reasons goalies don’t seem to improve is the utter ruthlessness with which they are “encouraged to seek employment elsewhere” if they underperform. For the skating positions, coaches & GMs are willing to tolerate a lot of mistakes if the player shows potential for developing into even an average NHLer. Not so for a goalie. A kid can play brilliant, but let in a few too many stinkers, and he’s cut. Goalies pretty much have to hit the ground running.

    • I was wondering about this as well. I played hockey when I was young and I have a bunch of nieces, nephews and cousins playing hockey now and goalies have it much harder all the time, not just when they get to pros. One of my cousins is a goalie – he is 13 or 14 now – and I have noticed the coaches are much more ruthless with goalies than any other position. It almost like you have to be born a goalie or you are not going to make it as one.

    • Everyone’s looking for the next Marty Brodeur. If they don’t measure up quickly, they are gone. Then again, how good would Marty have been if he had spent his career in Florida or Columbus? Likewise, how good would Reimer be if the Leafs’ defence was any good at clearing rebounds?

    • Need to account for this: “league save percentages have been climbing by close to a point a year for a while now.” Roy last lead the league in save percentage at age 26.

      • Maybe…but he didn’t just gradually get better. He jumped between age 30 and 31. And his .925 at age 36 was good for second in the league that year, and his .923 at age 31 was good for fourth.

        • He was a top 5 SV% goalie every year from ages 22-26. How does being 4th at 31 indicate an improvement? Here’s the data, rank in ( ). Roy supports Cosh’s thesis very, very well:

          1986-87 NHL .892 (5)
          1987-88 NHL .900 (1)
          1988-89 NHL .908 (1)
          1989-90 NHL .912 (1)
          1990-91 NHL .906 (2)
          1991-92 NHL .914 (1)
          1992-93 NHL .894 (8)
          1993-94 NHL .918 (3)
          1995-96 NHL .908 (10)
          1996-97 NHL .923 (4)
          1997-98 NHL .916 (7)
          1998-99 NHL .917 (8)
          1999-00 NHL .914 (10)
          2001-02 NHL .925 (2)
          2002-03 NHL .920 (6)

          • Hmm…hadn’t realized how quickly the game changed those years.

            I see your point…although I think you can make a case that while Roy did not reclaim his spot atop the save% charts, I don’t think you can make the case that he did not improve in his 30’s. His raw number improvements in the 5 years before he turned 31 and the 5 years after…I have to believe there is more there than league-wide averages changing.

      • Cosh’s assertion was that goalie save percentage starts to drop *even accounting for the annual increase in overall save percentage*.

        “Collectively, goalies seem to max out between the ages of 21 and 23
        and then drop off more or less monotonically…This is true even though overall league save percentages have been climbing by close to a point a year for a while now.”

        Did I misread that? Roy still bucks that trend. Did they allow bigger goalie equipment around then?

        • The overall decline in raw Sv% is subtle enough that quite a few individual goalies will defy it (and certainly Roy’s career, overall, matches the period of stupefying pad expansion). The point is that if you correct for the league, which Moffatt very sensibly does by just looking at Roy’s rank, nearly none will improve.

    • There was a lot more goals in the league back then when Roy started. Would have to adjust the numbers by league-wide goals per game.

  3. Despite his start this season you could also make a case for Craig Anderson.

  4. Hmm, interesting. I’m too lazy to look up his stats, but would Sean Burke be another exception to this rule? My recollection is that he went from pretty good to lights out sometime well into his 30s with Phoenix. And maybe Craig Anderson?

    • What about Mike Smith? A “good prospect” who flamed out in Tampa before becoming pretty much lights out in Phoenix. Goalie save percentages are misleading. A goalie with a .900 save percentage facing 30 shots a game is giving up a full goal more than one with the same percentage who only faces 20 shots per game. Also, teams that close off the “home plate” area in front of the net and allow their goalies to see unobstructed shots from less dangerous areas are going to have goalies with gaudy numbers, regardless of their actual skill set. Just remember that Andrew Raycroft tied Ed Belfour’s Leafs’ record for wins in a season the same year he was being roundly criticized as one of the “worst” Leafs goalies in living memory. He had to be doing something right, the team in front of him wasn’t very good (didn’t make the playoffs as far as I remember). Felix Potvin carried the Leafs to two conference finals and had some of the best goalie stats among Leaf goalies in the last 30 years, but when he was sent to weaker teams his numbers sucked, as you would expect.

      • Mike Smith’s save percentage is .911 this calendar year (it takes ten seconds to check this). That’s below average, not “pretty much lights out”.
        If you do a systematic search for evidence of team effects on an individual’s save percentage, you will have a lot of trouble finding it. So how much more likely it is that Raycroft and Potvin simply Didn’t Improve? You’re trying to refute my theory by citing… examples totally consistent with it?

        • Still, there’s something to be said for the number of shots Smith has faced.

          Smith has been on the ice for a total of about 130 minutes LESS than Luongo this season, but he’s faced 80 MORE shots than Luongo. I don’t know if it’s “meaningful”, but it is worth pointing out that as of today Smith has made more saves than anyone else in the league (having also faced more shots than anyone else in the league).

          Then again, he’s also given up more goals than anyone else in the league. :-)

        • In his first 6 seasons Smith’s save percentage was .906 with 11 shutouts. Since arriving in Phoenix he has had a save percentage of .921 and 13 shutouts. At the rate he’s going this year, after 3 years in Phoenix he will have easily surpassed both the shot totals and save totals of his first 6 years (he is only 400 shots against behind right now and has almost the same number of saves). Either Smith has gotten better (he is facing way more shots and making way more saves — by definition “pretty much lights out” — not “absolutely lights out” which you imply I said) or there is something unmeasureable going on — which was the point I was trying to make above. Using Your metrics, Smith has improved as he has gotten older. Simply looking at year over year variations doesn’t tell the whole story. Even St. Patrick was sucking when he got traded from Montreal and then he “miraculously” became the best goalie on the planet again, leading Colorado to the Stanley Cup and winning the Conn Smythe trophy. By your logic, that simply couldn’t have happened.

          • The implication is that Mike Smith has Improved since joining the ‘Yotes. If that’s so, why is his save percentage last season and this season (regular season) about .910, BELOW his career average?

          • There are many variables in a given season that account for variations in goalie stats, including possibly effects of illness or injury on the goalie himself or his teammates. Teammates change, defence pairings change etc. Even at .910 Smith IS improved over the .906 he recorded for his first 6 seasons. He also has faced almost as many shots since joining the Coyotes as he faced through those first 6 seasons, so in that sense the sample sizes are comparable. The outlier is Smith’s first season with the Coyotes when he faced over 2200 shots and had a .930 save percentage. This one season raises his career average to .913. Unless the rosters are exactly the same for ALL teams and the illnesses, injuries and other absences are also identical then making year to year comparisons is comparing apples to oranges. if you are looking at trends over time (by which you can measure improvement, stability, or decline), Smith has clearly improved since entering the NHL. He may have peaked, but all athletes peak — or maybe it has something to do with the sheer number of shots faced this year and last or unmeasureable effects like changes to the team make up or a defence that allows more second or third chances.

        • Actually, Felix Potvin’s worst years statistically were coincide with his time with the Islanders, who were god-awful. He was slightly BETTER on bad Vancouver teams and much BETTER statistically during his first two years, on play-off teams, in Los Angeles. His last year in Los Angeles was worse, but in limited playing time, and his save percentage in his last season in Boston was also above his career percentage of .905. However, according to your thesis these numbers are impossible. Once he hit your theoretical wall at age 25 we should see a steady decline in average save percentage over time,but we don’t. So my example is not, as you say, totally consistent with your theory. It goes towards my point that goalies on good teams will tend to have consistently better save percentages than goalies on bad teams and it is not all due to the goalies. Some goalies DO improve over time, as do defencemen, centres and wingers. Those that last will eventually plateau and then either slowly decline or fall off a cliff, depending on how quickly their bodies eventually break down. They don’t ALL hit a wall between age 25 and 27 and then fall apart. Most might, but they don’t last.
          Andrew Raycroft was a classic flash-in-the pan with one great year followed by flame-out as teams figured him out. The weird part is still the 37-25-9 record and 2.99 GAA with a .894 save percentage with the Leafs in 06-07. Those numbers don’t add up which again goes to the point that save percentage can’t explain everything. Then again, Raycroft’s only save percentages over .900 with more than 10 games played were as a rookie in 03-04 and then as a veteran back-up with Vancouver and Dallas in 09-10 and 10-11. Not co-incidentally, I think, those were all play-off teams.
          I mentioned a baseball analogy in an earlier post. Were Mark Burleigh and R.A. Dickey statistically worse last year simply because they went over the cliff? Or did playing in Rogers Centre with the crappiest middle infield defense in the American League for most of the year have an effect? Dickey also pitched hurt until August when all of a sudden he got good again, as also not coincidentally Ryan Goins took over at second base solidifying the middle infield defence. Burleigh also pitched “better” once Reyes was healthy and Goins came up. What happens around them affects pitchers’ ERAs the same way what happens around them affects goalies’ save percentages and goals against averages year to year. The issue is complex. If it wasn’t we’d all be pro GMs instead of wannabes.

          • The issue is complex, but not so complex that you can’t jump up and down and ignore the league context of individual stats. Felix Potvin saving .910 at age 21, in a league which is .885 overall, very obviously has very little to do with Felix Potvin putting up a .903 in Boston at age 32, in a league which is at .911. You simply refuse to be aware of this, and are therefore wasting a lot of verbiage. (Plus, R.A. Dickey had a bad back which was discussed constantly throughout 2013 and which was verifiably affecting his pitching motion. Pro GMs in most sports, I think, at least pick up a newspaper occasionally.)

  5. Another notion that might be considered “controversial” by some is that we’re WAAAY too worried about “our country’s relative weakness at the position”.

    Choosing the goalies for the Olympics is always extremely important, arguably more so than any other position. That I get. However, where do we get this notion (/panic?) that Canada is so terribly weak in goal these days?

    If you look at the current top 10 goalies in the NHL by GAA today, 8 of the top 10 are Canadian. By Save%, 9 of the top 13 goalies in the league today are Canadian (there’s a three way tie for 10th, which is why I included more players here). Of the 8 goalies with 3 shutouts in the NHL this season, 6 are Canadian.

    None of which diminishes the importance of the Team Canada goalie decision, nor does it mitigate the fact that other countries have much better goalies than they did back in the day, but still. It seems to me that there’ll be a strong argument to be made that whoever ends up as Canada’s third goalie is nonetheless good enough to be the 1st goalie for 80% of the teams in the Olympics. It’s hardly a crisis.

    • Some this anxiety comes down to parity in the league, or even the absence of a perennial Canadian contender or dynasty. For as long a i’ve been watching we went with Fuhr because Edmonton kept on winning and Sather was both club and national coach. Roy seemed the natural dominant goalie after[ many would say it should have been earlier] and then Brodeur when the Devils started to dominate the game for a period. Belfour and Joseph were in the wings and things looked good.
      The new guys might well pan out, but along with the rise in top notch foreign goalies i can see why we are somewhat concerned…nothing is a lock now.

      • All true, and good points. That said, look at who you’ve mentioned. Fuhr, Roy and Brodeur. Even if we’ve come down from previous heights, those pervious heights used to involve virtually always sending arguably the reigning “greatest goalie ever to play hockey”, or a strong contender for that crown. It’s kinda like saying that we’ve got problems at centre in 2014 because our #1 centre is Sidney Crosby, and not Wayne Gretzky.

        So, things have definitely tightened up, which is inevitable in a sprot with such a long history of relative dominance by one country, but I’d still say that we’re in the lead vis a vis most, if not all other nations, even when it comes to goaltending. Other countries may have a lock for #1, and a few countries arguably have a better #1 than our #1 will be. However, I don’t think very many other countries have the “problem” of having to choose from 5 or 6 guys who could justifiably be placed on their national Olympic team.

        Say we took Crawford, Harding and Fleury, three guys that fail to make many people’s top 3. While there may arguably be several nations that have a goalie that is better than any of those three, is there another nation that would have a GROUP of three goalies that strong?

        • Only the USA.[ i think. Even if Thomas is gone for good]

          But i think you’re probably right, we will do fine in that department – maybe bite a few more fingernails then we used.

  6. The stats seem to fit the theory, but there has to be more going into the making of a great goalie then that…temperment, judgement and ability to bounce back and deal with the mental part of the game are surely driven by experience.
    Who would you have sent to Nagano other then Roy?[Fuhr was pretty well done or gone]

    Who would you have sent instead of Brodeur when he won the gold, no spring chicken even then?

    I’m not saying send Brodeur along with a good traction bed and a family sized bottle of pain killers to Sochi. Nor would i make Luongo #1 despite his experience, cuz i don’t trust him. But that sorta makes my point. Experience isn’t an automatic lock on getting the Sochi job, nor youth an absolute barrier, but there’s more evidence for experience being a key ingredient in the mix then pure raw youthful talent.
    Based on your theory who should be up on deck? This time your theory fits. Price would be my guy, but it isn’t just because he’s young.

    • What I would say is that at the very least there is a counterweight, by all appearances a heavy one, to the desire for “experience”. Price-Luongo would be a reasonable choice for a tandem, since Luongo’s numbers are still good. Reimer is probably also worth considering since his one really duff year did coincide with an injury.

      • Agree about Price-Luongo. Based on current performance, you have to give Josh Harding a pretty serious look as at least the #3. I’d take Harding over Reimer any day.

        • No love for Fleury?

          His GAA and Save% are basically identical to Price’s, and he’s won 4 more games and lost 2 fewer (with a better team than Price, of course) plus he’s been to the Olympics and won a Stanley Cup if one gives credit for those sorts of things.

          I think that Price should probably make the team, but I’m not entirely convinced that HE’s not the #3, especially with him being the youngest of the Fleury/Harding/Crawford/Price group by 3 years.

          • Fleury’s horrible performance in the last 2 playoffs likely trumps his regular season numbers. When his team has needed him in the playoffs he’s been a disaster. Not what you want in your Olympic goalie.

          • Very true.

            That said, Luongo, Price, Crawford… they don’t exactly have stellar playoff records either.

            As always, I guess it comes down to the “hot now” vs. “consistent over time” debate.

          • I hear what you’re saying LKO but you have to give Luongo credit for his performance in the 2010 Olympics. It’s amazing how people only tend to focus on Luongo’s “negatives” and ignore his accomplishments. 2010 Olympics was THE highest pressure situation a Canadian goalie could possibly be in. And Luongo came through. He won every game he played in. A lot of people forget that, very shortly before Crosby’s gold-medal game winning goal (earlier on in that same shift), Scott Neidermayer gave away the puck to Joe Pavelski in Canada’s end, Pavelski did a quick 180 and fired the puck blind at Luongo — that could have been game, tournament and gold medal over for Canada. Luongo made the save, and then Crosby went on to score about half a minute later.

          • Oh, I’m on the Luongo bandwagon, to the extent that there is one. I’m not saying I’m THRILLED that he’s our best bet, but for me, he’s the only goalie that I feel should DEFINITELY be on the team.

          • Edited this comment. Got Fleury and Luongo mixed up in my reply, lol.

          • Fleury’s recent playoff performances are DEFINITELY a huge worry, and I struggle to balance that against the other competing factors in his favour (such as his 2013 reg. season work, the fact that he’s been to the Olympics before, and the fact that he has a Stanley Cup ring).

            It’s all about balancing “recent” vs. “career” in some senses. On the one hand, Fleury’s recent playoff work has been bad. On the other hand, he’s having a good 2013, he’s never won less than 35 games in an NHL season, and he once won 16 games in the playoffs to help win the Stanley Cup for his team.

          • Intangibles…Fleury seems prone to the same kind of meltdown syndrome Luongo used to have. Having said that Luongo seems to have put that behind him, perhaps Fluery can do the same?
            Which is where it becomes a mental guessing game. Do goalies all recover form being a tad fragile? Price seems to be in the yes category.

          • I suppose I’m just a little less confident in Price than some. To my mind, if the argument is that Fleury’s playoff performances are suspect, yet maybe his regular season so far makes up for that, well, how is the same argument not applied to Price (arguably even more strongly)?

            After all, since Price entered the league his playoff record is 9-17, while Fleury’s is 30-24, with Fleury having 7 wins in the last three years to Price’s 4. Fleury also has 6 playoff shutouts in his career, including 1 last year, to Price’s 3.

          • I’m just going on gut, and not much of that. As i’ve said from the start, if we had a Brodeur at prime, or if Luongo hadn’t scorched his reputation in that dreadful perfomance against Boston, i doubt we would be talking about Price as number one.
            I see very little of Fleury, but is it a good sign his team barely gave him a sniff in last years playoff run?

      • Fair enough. But i have to wonder whether there might be a niggle of doubt in some minds[ team mates, coaches] with an untried guy like Reimer out there. Boston is hard to erase, although winning again helps alot.

        • I’m a Leafs fan, but even so I don’t think Reimer makes a good choice, given the competition.

          That said, that has very little to do with his being “untried”, or even with the Boston Massacre (which was as much his D’s fault as Reimer’s, imho). Frankly, I don’t think our third goalie gets a second of ice time in Sochi, and if he does we’re in big enough trouble that it arguably doesn’t matter if it’s Remier or someone else.

          For me, the question to ask when looking at Reimer and other candidates for the third spot (if one is convinced about who one wants for the top 2) is “How likely is it that this goalie will be Team Canada’s #1 goalie in 2018?”. To me, that third spot should be for the young guy getting ready for the NEXT Olympics (of course, Colby’s argument above throws a bit of a wrench in to that rationale). Reimer’s the youngest “contender” I think, so giving the third spot to a young guy is an argument in his favour, especially if one is convinced that Price should be #1 or #2. Maybe it’s because I’m a Leafs fan, but frankly, I still see PRICE in that “young third goalie getting Olympic experience for next time around” role, so in that instance I’d have Price far ahead of Reimer, however, I might well have Fleury, or even Crawford or Hardy, BEFORE Price.

          • There is something to that – having your future # 1 hopeful in third spot – if you can idenitify him already.
            I think we do have a bit of a problem compared to other years – the old established guy is either too old[ Broduer] or too flaky[ Luongo] I’m not at all sure that making Crawford or Fleury or Hardy[ funny that draws a blank with me. But then i’m not following closely this year for some reason] is an adequate fill in for Roy or Brodeur or Balfour in their prime
            If you were to wind back a decade Reimer’s name probably wouldn’t even pop up. Are we starting to scrape the barrel or is everyone else that much closer in the mirror?
            Perhaps CC point is most relevant here, if we don’t have the great oldies and reliables any more, perhaps we should go with the guy with the best stats over the last little while?

  7. So, this seems as good a place as any to begin a conversation about who our 3 goalies will be.

    Whether he’ll be #1 or not, I think Luongo’s totally on the team. He has international/Olympic experience and a pretty good record so far this season (16-8, .922 save% and 2.18 GAA). So, if we concede that spot to Luongo (feel free to argue) there’s two spots left. I give you my top candidates for those two spots (in NO ORDER):

    Carey Price: 16-10, .936, 1.96
    Corey Crawford: 17-6, .907, 2.47
    Marc Andre Fleury: 20-8, .924. 2.00
    Josh Harding: 18-5, .939, 1.51

    It seems to me that a good strategy is to take a vet (Luongo), a second goalie who’s ready to take the reigns at this level of international competition NOW, and then you give the third spot to a younger guy with good upside so that he can get some Olympics experience to bring to the table in 2018.

    I get why Habs fans would be shocked to have Price not make the team (ESPECIALLY if the powers that be somehow leave P.K. behind as well!) but the numbers above, combined with Fleury’s Stanley Cup ring and (off ice) Olympics experience make me think that Luongo-Fleury-Harding wouldn’t be a crazy idea, yet I hear remarkably little conversation about either Fleury or Hardy.

    That said, I think that today I’d go Luongo-Fleury-Price (ignore the order there, it has no deep meaning), if only because Price is 3 years younger than Harding/Fleury (and while he might not get BETTER between now and 2018, he’s nonetheless arguably three years further away from breaking down).


    • Like most things, I know just a little about NHL goalies so I checked with the young fella ( he`s almost always right about this type of stuff ) and he agrees with you on Luongo and Price but has Mike Smith as the third.

      • I know that Smith has faced a lot more shots than any other goalie this year, and has made more saves than anyone else so far, but still…

        It just feels off for Canada to select, as one of our three Olympic goalies, the goalie that has given up the most goals in the NHL this season.

        • I can see that.
          However, maybe the goalie that is used to being constantly pummeled would do well in a series where his opponents have no second, third, and certainly no fourth lines.

  8. BTW another goalie (now freshly retired) who is a classic example of the phenomenon described by Cosh is Mikka Kiprusoff. He definitely had his best years in the NHL early on. One of the reasons sometimes given for this phenomenon is the simple matter of “the shooters and the coaches haven’t figured him out yet”. Kiprusoff’s shining moment was the Flames’ Stanley Cup run against Tampa Bay, which went seven games before the Flames lost game 7 by a goal. He remained good throughout his career, but was never the consistent game-stealer in his later years that he was his first 3-4 years in the league. I agree there are many, many other examples. How many times have we seen an unknown goalie called up for the late season or playoffs and absolutely stymie the other team(s)? Of course, a young Kenny Dryden back in the early 1970s is but one example. In recent years we’ve had Mason, Bobrovsky, etc. etc.

    • . . . and the very latest example, Martin Jones of the LA Kings.

  9. We should sound a cautionary note about save percentage. I agree it’s as good a stat as any for measuring a goalie’s ability and performance. But it’s far from perfect. Quality of shots is a huge variable, for example. If you’re a goalie playing for a team that has terrible team defence, that’s doing a terrible job of clearing traffic in front of you, blocking shots, intercepting passes and so on, then opposing shooters are going to get juicy shooting opportunities, resulting in goals (for example, cross-ice feeds over to wide-open shooters firing one-timers into de facto open nets). Your save percentage will suffer as a result, and that’s not necessarily a fair reflection of your abilities or your contribution as a goalie.

    • “Quality of shots is a huge variable [independent of volume of shots]” is an assertion that’s been tested often and never yet successfully proven. If you can find a statistically significant team effect on an individual goalie’s save percentage, that would be much bigger news amongst the fancy-stats people than my hypothesis is.

      • Colby, I take your point, but . . . I highly doubt that those tests and proofs that you talk about are sophisticated, detailed and reliable enough to necessarily drill down to what I’m specifically talking about. I’m not just talking about, for example, save percentage matched against whether the goalie is playing for a winning or good team. I doubt that any stats exist, or reliable research out there exists, to show exactly what the effect of team defence in the defensive zone is on a goalie’s save percentage. Sure, you can talk about winning vs. losing teams, but there are so many different kinds of losing teams, and so many different ways of losing. You can have a team with fairly decent team defence, but it’s a loser because of an impotent offence (e.g., Calgary Flames of recent vintage). I just don’t think the stats out there are detailed and specific enough to prove or disprove what I was positing. But, at the risk of butchering Shakespeare, I am convinced that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the save percentage stat.

      • Shots could be sorted by the area they were taken from. Shots from the slot or the front of the crease are harder to save than point shots or wide angle. We know they’re tracking time on ice of every player – tracking shot location is easier than that.

        • Still, terribly complicated. A weak shot from the front of the crease that hits the goalie in the chest is a lot easier to stop (/stops itself) than a bullet fired from the point right in the top corner.

    • Having played and coached as a goalkeeper (yes different sport I know – football/soccer) I think you are partially right by measuring ability as more than shots saved.
      Good goalkeepers rarely come from good teams at junior level in football because they wouldn’t see the ball in a competitive situation. Good keepers usually play on poorer teams that allow their opponents more shots on goal and so develop their skills and reaction abilities.
      Then when keepers make the position on senior teams they are matched up with good players in every position, so their shots faced stats drop, but the expectations to deal with those that make it through grows higher and the pressure increases. This requires someone who can train goalkeepers, something that is lacking in a lot of team sports.

      The trick then is to ensure the keeper faces a large number of challenging shots/crosses in training under as much pressure as possible so that their sharpness is maintained. If you manage this goalkeepers in football will be amongst the longest lived of all your squad.

      So maybe the problem with ice hockey goalies is that you get them from the more trying junior levels and fail to keep training them in a manner that keeps them as focused as they were then. A suggestion could be to rotate goalies and send them back to a crappy farm team, so their shots faced average is increased when they appear to be getting stale.

    • Quality of shots was certainly a factor back in the 1980s. Grant Fuhr was simply the best goalie of the 80s. But his save % and GAA were middling at best. The Oilers played fire-wagon hockey and he faced a lot more breakways and 2-on-1s than anyone else. But he made the big saves that counted and had the uncanny ability to shut the door when the Oil needed it most. However, in the past decade or so, playing style between the teams is so similar that I don’t think quality of shots faced varies all that much from goalie to goalie. There is also more parity among all teams. The modern hockey era is much more stats-monkey friendly than the 1980s were.

      • The other related phenomenon in recent years is the uber-science of positional goaltending, where you get these goalies who have been coached like crazy since they were in peewee hockey, so positionally they’re incredibly solid. Ryan Miller is a classic example. Positionally, he basically makes no mistakes, so that, especially if you’re shooting at him from outside the perimeter, you’re virtually certain not to score on him. Then piled on top of that, you have these physically huge goalies who have become the norm (Reto Barra in Calgary being the latest example). Mike Vernon looks like some quaint historical artifact in comparison.

      • I disagree, I think quality of shots varies greatly. Teams with a couple of great defensemen who play half the game allow a lower quality of shots, IMO. Teams that play a style with the center remaining low in his own zone, same thing.

  10. I would say their reflexes do not improve. But in some cases their technique may improve, as you’ve said with Roloson.
    Goaltending, unlike the other positions, has a huge “reflex” component, much more than any other position. Most of it is how you react to the puck, not what you do with the puck.
    Since reflexes and hand-eye coordination likely peak in early adulthood, I think Cosh may be right.

    • Equipment rule changes can also be a factor.

  11. Hey Colby;

    Could this explain the Oilers trading Smid in a deal that included getting Brossoit?

    • I think Flames fans have already worked out the explanation: Smid’s not much use. Heavy shot-blocking seems to have destroyed his mobility, and he never did have many other assets as a player (aside from all the shot-blocking).

  12. Goalies in any sport are expected to perform a ‘step above’ their teammates in any situation that presents itself during a game. Who wouldn’t feel pressure under those circumstances? Colby, if you weren’t so blinded by your opinion that ‘goalies don’t improve’ you might actually see that they have generally been playing better than their teammates all along. Goals are scored after the rest of the team messes up. It’s the other team members who have more room for improvement that you have seemingly glossed over.