Monday, November 18, 2013

Why Canada Doesn't Have a Goaltending Problem at Sochi (If You Believe in Large Sample Sizes)

With the Sochi Olympics lurking on the horizon, the early season fortunes of goaltenders have caused a lot of glee or consternation among hockey fans around the world, depending on how their nation's puckstoppers have come out of the gate.  With respect to goaltending, however, it is important to remember that talent is revealed in the large sample size (see here for one of the definitive takes on that theme).  There has been a lot written lately about how Canada no longer has top-level elite goaltending, but in my opinion that was an overreaction to a shortened lockout season where it was purely coincidence that the country's best seemingly all had off-years.

It's easy to get distracted by the flashy new models, especially when they are off to scorching starts, but looking at only the established goalies with a track record of success Canada simply does not come up short at all relative to other nations.

Goalies with at least 4000 SA since 2010-11 (ranked by save percentage):

1. Henrik Lundqvist: .925 on 5313 SA
2. Pekka Rinne: .922 on 5388 SA
3. Roberto Luongo: .921 on 4359 SA
4. Mike Smith: .920 on 4217 SA
5. Carey Price: .919 on 5624 SA
6. Kari Lehtonen: .919 on 5286 SA
7. Antti Niemi: .918 on 5290 SA
8. Jonathan Quick: .918 on 4771 SA
9. Cam Ward: .918 on 5211 SA
10. Craig Anderson: .917 on 4587 SA
11. Marc-Andre Fleury: .916 on 4820 SA
12. Ryan Miller: .916 on 5590 SA
13. Jimmy Howard: .915 on 4923 SA
14. Jonas Hiller: .914 on 4493 SA
15. Niklas Backstrom: .914 on 4064 SA

The three goalies that seem likely to be named to Canada's roster are all in the top 5.  Luongo and Smith are both off to solid starts this season, while Price has been outstanding.  The three have them have combined for a .922 save percentage this season, which is very much in line with their historical numbers.  In fact, the trio have been very consistent, with the exception of one lockout-shortened 48 game season:

Luongo/Price/Smith Combined:

2013-14:  .922
2012-13:  .907
2011-12:  .922
2010-11:  .922

When framed like that, it looks pretty blatant that everyone was panicking over an obvious outlier.  The problem remains of picking one guy to be the starter, since when it comes to crunch time you can't combine stats and play with an average of three guys.  Even elite goalies have off games, and in short tournaments it's always better to have the hot hand rather than the superior talent (although the best goalies are also the ones with the best chance of running hot or, perhaps equally important, avoiding a very costly slump).  Overall, though, there is no question that Canada has proven goaltending talent that is at least competitive with the other top nations.

Obviously the parameters of the above list rule out a number of goalies who are likely in the running for Olympic spots (netminders such as Rask, Varlamov, Bobrovsky, Crawford, Schneider, Lehner, Holtby, Bernier, Reimer, etc.), and I'm certainly not saying that none of those youngsters deserve spots, but it is much more difficult to identify their true talent level because of the relatively small sample size they have behind them in their shorter careers.  Russia, in particular, seems to be facing a tough choice between Semyon Varlamov and Sergei Bobrovsky, both of whom narrowly missed the cutoff for this list but would have come in on the lower end anyway at .914 and .916 respectively, and the U.S. and Finland both have a number of quality contenders and limited spots, which will force some interesting roster decisions.  At the end of the day, though, I expect that this Olympics will be similar to the last one in that the top nations will all have capable goaltending and it will come down to which teams play the best overall that determines the final result.

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