Why I Could Care Less About (Goalie) Wins and Losses

I’m sure everyone here is sick of me preaching doom and gloom about the Oilers’ coming season. I’m equally sure that they’re sick of my rather pessimistic predictions about the Khabibulin contract. This article isn’t meant to continue those trends, but rather to make a general point that is inspired by one particular line of reasoning about Khabibulin: that he’s a winner.

It’s always seemed to me that a goaltender’s win-loss record is well beyond his control; it just makes sense. A logical extension of this is winning the Stanley Cup; since the goalie alone can’t determine wins and losses, it seems that winning and losing is a bad way of judging goaltender ability.

An extreme example of this occurred during the 2005-06 season. An NHL team had two goaltenders; goaltenders who had posted the following stats lines:

  • Starter: 24-9-7, 2.29 GAA, .919 SV%
  • Backup: 6-17-1, 3.00 GAA, .910 SV%

The backup obviously had poorer numbers, but that was still an exceptional save percentage. With this team out of a playoff spot, they elected to swap the backup to a competitor for draft picks; the fact that the backup was a pending free agent undoubtedly helped them to make that decision.

In any case, there were some serious doubts about the backup. Not only was his win/loss record shoddy, but despite being 36 years old he had but a single playoff round win to his name – and even there, his performance hadn’t been great (posting a .903 SV%).

The backup was Dwayne Roloson, of course, and here (in part) is what Tyler Dellow of mc79hockey.com had to say about the trade on the day it took place:

Now, from the Oilers perspective, they’re getting a guy who has just put up solid numbers for the last three years. I’ve included Roloson’s numbers in a table to the left. His relative save percentage has been outstanding for the past three seasons after a very mediocre start to his career-1019, 1024 and 1015. The last time I did the Oilers as a team, they were at 980-even if Roloson falls to league average, he’d be a significant improvement over what they were getting.

Some of the dumber commentary I’ve seen on this (like the Wild’s press release, and every second comment on Calgarypuck), makes a big deal about Roloson’s record compared to Fernandez. His significantly higher goals against average has also been mentioned. I wouldn’t read too much into it. Roloson has, for some reason, had the Wild play significantly worse in front of him. On my numbers, the expected even strength goals against per 60 (based on shot volume, distance and whether or not it was a rebound) for the Wild when Roloson was in net was 3.07; when Fernandez was in net, it was 2.63. That’s a pretty significant difference. The Roloson figure of 3.07 (which is designed to reflect the team in front of him as opposed to the goalie) is a worse figure than that put up by every team except Atlanta, the Islanders and the Penguins this sesaon. I’m not so sure that he’s had the Wild’s usual stellar play in front of him in games he’s played this season. I don’t generally pay attention to wins as a goalie stat but I’d assume that the Wild have given better offensive support to Fernandez.
Much has been made of Roloson playing for the Wild and the idea that he’s just putting up numbers playing behind a stifling defence. I’m not sure what to make of this myself-while it’s true that he put up worse than league average numbers prior to the last three years, he was consistently excellent in the minors and spent much of his NHL time playing for teams that weren’t particularly good defensively. As I noted, there are indications that they haven’t played particularly well in front of him this season and he’s still put up good numbers.

Comparing him to the trio we’ve been using all year, I have him as being 3 goals below his expected goals against at even strength this year, again, with expected goals against being determined by shot volume, rebounds and distance. He’s faced 536 ES shots as of my last update. That’s a hell of a lot better than the guys that the Oilers have been using-as of my last update, Jussi was -15 on 633 shots, Ty was -5 on 198 shots and Morrison was -3 on 248 shots. This indicates to me that Roloson has been significantly better this season than the guys he’ll be replacing.

My conclusion is that if he puts up the save percentage he has so far this season for the remaining 20 games and we assume he plays 80% of the games, I figure he makes the Oilers 12 goals better. That’s a ridiculously huge number, worth in the neighborhood of 4 points in the standings.

That’s a long quote, but it’s worth reading. It’s also illuminating because Tyler (even more so than me) has been accused of having a consistently pessimistic view of the Oilers. That isn’t true; he’s consistently judged goaltenders by the available market and by their save percentage over the past few seasons in relation to the rest of the league.

The same things that made Roloson appealing in 2005-06 are what he’s using to judge goaltenders now. As we saw, save percentage worked well then and I think it will continue to work well in the future. Honestly, a goaltender’s win/loss record – even a goaltender’s playoff record – holds very little weight with me if he’s been sub-par save percentage-wise.

Chris Osgood is, in many ways, the perfect example of this. People who watch the numbers agree with people who watch the games: he’s a fairly average tender playing for a great team. However, he’s won enough Stanley Cups that there’s now almost a ‘Cult of Osgood’; he was considered a leading candidate for the Conn Smythe trophy in the event of a Wings victory, and people talk about how he turns it on for the playoffs.

I just don’t buy it. He’s played well (not great, but well) behind a phenomenal team, but he isn’t one of the better goaltenders in the NHL.

In any case, the point here isn’t to bash Khabibulin (who had a remarkably good save percentage last season) but just to point out that winning and losing is beyond a goaltender’s control – and it’s wrong to judge him (for good or ill) based on the number of wins or losses he’s picked up along the way.

Final point: the NHL record for most losses is currently a record held by two goaltenders. Curtis Joseph is one of them, and the other is one Gump Worsley. Worsley owns the rather pedestrian career record of 335-352-150, along with a couple of other things (four Stanley Cup rings, two Vezina trophies). I realize I’m being as subtle as a sledgehammer here, but looking at the win/loss record alone tells you virtually nothing about a goaltender.

  • Hippy

    @DanMan – Agreed.

    I've seen research that shows most people outside of the local area don't give a crap about us one way or the other. Its our inbred insecurities that cause us to take everything and interpret it as another shot against either the city or the team.

  • Hippy

    @ Jonathan Willis:

    Fair point. I agree that goalie 'A' would be the better choice, you want the guy that is going to give you a chance to win in the 3rd period.

    But that being said if the 2 games are exactly identical and the only variable is goalie a and goalie b then it sort of renders your arguement for save percentage somewhat moot.

    Though I think all the stats are valid, I'm not sure if any one stat should outweigh the other w/l vs save percentage or even GAA. They all have their merit.

  • Hippy

    BigE57 wrote:

    But that being said if the 2 games are exactly identical and the only variable is goalie a and goalie b then it sort of renders your arguement for save percentage somewhat moot.

    How? Identical results, identical save percentages – exactly what you'd want to see.

  • Hippy

    Jonathan Willis wrote:

    In summary: does it really matter when the goals were scored? And if it does, wouldn’t Goalie A be a better choice, since Goalie B has sapped his team’s confidence by allowing 3 goals early on?

    So why do you pick goalie 'A' then? Based on stats or percentages it shouldn't matter who you take flip a coin or draw straws, but I agree when you say that you don't want the guy who sapped his teams confidence by allowing the eaarly goals.

    In that sense save percentage doesn't really matter, as is the case with Joseph (your example) or Fuhr (mine) those guys were in demand because they more often than not would make the save late in the game to preserve a lead or give their team a chance to win by not giving up the next goal.

    Just like wins and losses or GAA, save percentage is so subjective, I think you've used Josh Harding as an example before with his .929 save percentage last season it looks as though he may be a decent goalie but his record at 3-9-1 IMO indicates that he faced fewer quality shots based on Jacques Lemaire style of play and that when he did face tough shots he faltered resulting in the sub par record.

    By the way, thanks for the response…the debate is quite enjoyable even though I am nowhere near the stats afficianado that you are.

  • Hippy

    BigE57 wrote:

    Just like wins and losses or GAA, save percentage is so subjective, I think you’ve used Josh Harding as an example before with his .929 save percentage last season it looks as though he may be a decent goalie but his record at 3-9-1 IMO indicates that he faced fewer quality shots based on Jacques Lemaire style of play and that when he did face tough shots he faltered resulting in the sub par record.

    I think the Dwayne Roloson example above pretty much discredits this, don't you? I mean, the situations are identical and all he did was come in and carry the team to the SCF.

  • Hippy

    @ Jonathan Willis:

    I think Big E's point was the timing was impeccable, whether at the beginning, middle, or end of the game, his point was that a winner is a winner.

    That being said, I still agree that it's not about how well a goalie played at any particular point in the game, but rather who scores more goals at the end of the game… since that's how you win hockey games…

  • Hippy

    @ David S:

    John Kerr of The Boys on the Bus said something like this before as well:

    I was born and raised in sunny Southern Alberta. I have been a lifelong fan of both the Oilers and the Eskimos, and I have had always a vitriolic hatred of the Flames and Stampeders. It has been my personal preference and choice as an adult to live and to work in Calgary after living in Vancouver for a few years to attend university. I like all three cities, with Vancouver having by far the most agreeable climate, and perhaps also being the coolest and most cosmopolitan destination; Calgary is certainly the most driven and focused of the three cities, possessing an almost-Darwinian competitive atmosphere centered around youth and success; Edmonton to me has been always a bit of a rough and rugged blue collar town with a lot of heart and soul and culture.

    My brother lives in Edmonton. I live in Calgary. I really don't think it would make much difference to either of us if we changed cities.

    Maybe players are scared off by the intelligent and hyper-engaged fan base and media in Edmonton that is perhaps too willing to hold everyone accountable at all times.

    Maybe Kevin Lowe et al have earned themselves a reputation as hard-asses or cheapskates or both.

    Maybe Edmonton is not as attractive a destination as some other places, but if someone were to offer me millions of dollars to play a game I supposedly love, I'd be happy to live almost anywhere on the planet to do so. And if one of my options was a small and quiet city with a rich tradition of winning championships, it would be likely at or near the top of my list.

    Maybe Edmonton and its Oilers need to stop trying so hard and stop trying to pretend to be something they are not.

    Maybe the city, the Edmonton Oilers, and the fans need to all embrace that it is a small market with a relatively quiet and perhaps less glamorous lifestyle, and seek out players who are looking for that very thing.

    The Green Bay Packers do not seem to have a problem attracting free agents, trading for great players, staying competitive, and continuing perennially to be a marquee flagship franchise and occasional champion in what is arguably the most successful and competitive professional sports league in the world.

    Maybe the Edmonton Oilers should take a page out of the Green Bay Packers franchise playbook and embrace the mystique of legends playing their game on the frozen tundra.

    I think it's an Edmonton thing where we've become a big city with a little town demeanour and we've somehow become ashamed of being a little town with a big city attitude.

  • Hippy

    Jonathan Willis wrote:

    I think the Dwayne Roloson example above pretty much discredits this, don’t you? I mean, the situations are identical and all he did was come in and carry the team to the SCF.

    I can agree with that to a certain extent becuase Roli was instrumental in taking the Oil to finals and he had his share of timely 5 alarm saves on the way. As much as Roli deserves credit for that cup run I think it had as much to do with the rest of the players going all in with the systems being played and I think that is supported by the fact that the Oilers managed to push the series to 7 games with a goalie I'm not sure any fan, writer or coach had much faith in.