Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Are Swedish Goalies Overvalued?

In doing the research for my post on Jacob Markstrom, one of the things I did was run the numbers for all Swedish goalies who have played in the NHL over the past 25 years.  That chart didn't end up making the final cut, but it was interesting enough on its own that I want to post it in here in the context of a discussion on the recent performance of Swedish goalies in the NHL and what that might be able to tell us about the effectiveness of that country's goalie development model.

Here is the complete NHL performance of every goalie from Sweden since 1990, with league-average adjusted save percentages normalized to .914:

Two things stand out from that chart:

1. Sweden has really blossomed as a goalie producing country over the last decade (15 of the 23 Swedish goalies to ever play in the league have made their debut since the 2005 lockout).

2. The save percentage numbers are quite mediocre for the group as a whole, with the exception of the outstanding Henrik Lundqvist.

Since the Tommy Salo debacle at the 2002 Olympics that might have cost them a gold medal, Sweden has invested heavily in goaltender development across all ages, an effort that has paid dividends in terms of the number of Swedes that are guarding the crease in high level hockey, particularly in North American professional leagues.

Yet it has to be pointed out that Lundqvist and Pelle Lindbergh remain the only really good NHL starting goalies that the nation has ever produced (and given the apparent shot quality effects on goalies playing for the mid-'80s Philadelphia Flyers, one might even question how elite Lindbergh actually was, although that's another discussion for another time).

It's not uncommon in hockey for certain areas of the globe to be overlooked by scouts.  Sweden itself was one of those places in the early '90s, which allowed the Detroit Red Wings and Swedish scout Hakan Andersson to scoop up an abundance of elite skater talent that would later thrive in North America, headlined by the third-round steal of Nicklas Lidstrom.  Conversely, some spots may be in danger of being over-fished by eager NHL talent evaluators.  Sweden has been a hot area of late for teams looking for goaltending help, and there were lots of stories particularly in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics about how Sweden was among the countries surpassing Canada in terms of goalie development.  But if that is indeed true, we have yet not seen the evidence for it show up in the NHL.

I'm going to change the time frame being looked at to 2007-08 to present (to avoid having to make adjustments for every goalie given the relative stability of league average since that season), and look at the aggregate performance of goalies from Sweden against other countries around the world.  It turns out that so far, Sweden is not really surpassing anybody:

1. United States, .915
2. Rest of the world, .915
3. Russia*, .914
4. Finland, .913
5. Canada, .911
6. Sweden, .910

(*-Includes goalies born in the USSR)

Despite having arguably the best goalie in the league over that stretch making up about a third of their sample, Sweden still comes in behind all the other major goalie-producing nations.  That's because Swedish goalies not named Lundqvist have combined for a terrible .905 save percentage since 2007-08.

I have a few theories about what might be going on here.  First, it seems quite possible that North American talent scouts are overrating the strength of the Swedish Elite League.  The very high percentage of domestic-born goalies there makes it tough to compare the quality of goaltending against other leagues.  For example, here is the entire list of foreign-born goalies that played in the top division this past season, with their country of nationality and minutes played:

Julius Hudacek, Slovakia: 2,640 minutes
Justin Pogge, Canada: 1,642 minutes
Bernhard Starkbaum, Austria: 2,716 minutes
Mantas Armalis, Lithuania: 1,049 minutes
Niko Hovinen, Finland: 40 minutes

That's just five non-Swedes in a 12 team league, one of which didn't even manage to play a single full game.  Now, here's the top 5 in save percentage in 2014-15:

1. Hudacek, .930
2. Joel Lassinantti, .928
3. Pogge, .926
4. Starkbaum, .922
5. David Rautio, .921

Three of the foreign-born goalies show up in the top four in overall save percentage, which really isn't a good sign for the domestic crop of 'tenders.  Hudacek was really good in the Slovakian and Czech leagues, but he has been outright dominant in Sweden (.926, .930 and .930 in his last three full seasons).  Former world junior star Justin Pogge, the possessor of a career .902 AHL save percentage, is generally seen as a huge bust in North America (and in Toronto, in particular), and spent the previous two years playing in Italy and the Allsvenskan (the second-highest Swedish division).  Yet that didn't stop Pogge from having an excellent season in the Swedish top flight in 2014-15.  Starkbaum went straight from Austria to Sweden and is actually having a down year after putting up .936 and .933 in his first two years in the SEL.  In other words, this does not look like a league with much top goalie talent left.  I don't know how NHL scouts rate the strength of the league at this exact moment, but you don't have to go too far back to find teams signing undrafted late-bloomers like Viktor Fasth and Christopher Nilstorp based on their success in the SEL.   The evidence suggests teams should be very cautious about projecting goalie performance based on their play in Sweden.

Secondly, it may be possible that Sweden is producing goalies who look better as prospects than they turn out to be as elite pros.  The focus on goalie coaching at all levels of play has resulted in a breed of Swedish goalies that are all technically competent, but perhaps a lot of them are still missing a few of the ingredients to become an elite professional, attributes such as athleticism, anticipation, etc.  Goalies who have a strong technical base but lack that extra ability to see what is about to happen and don't quite have the explosiveness to nullify the threat even when they do are exactly the kind of netminders who we would expect to do well against lesser competition but struggle when facing the best shooters in the world.  It is also possible that there is something about adapting to the smaller rink size or different North American game that makes it tougher for Swedish goalies, although I have to confess I am a bit hesitant to rely on that explanation since it can often be used as an easy, catch-all cliché to cover other more important factors (and doesn't account for Swedish goalies also being outperformed by the rest of Europe).

Finally, and I think perhaps most compellingly, Sweden may be focusing a bit too much on goalie size.  Here's the listed height of all Swedish goalies that have debuted in the NHL since 2009-10:

Johan Backlund:  6'2"
Jhonas Enroth:  5'10"
Jonas Gustavsson:  6'3"
Henrik Karlsson:  6'6"
Jacob Markstrom:  6'6"
Robin Lehner:  6'5"
Anders Lindback:  6'6"
Anders Nilsson:  6'5"
Christopher Nilstorp:  6'3"
Viktor Fasth:  6'0"
Niklas Svedberg:  6'0"
Eddie Lack:  6'4"
Anton Forsberg:  6'2"

In addition, highly rated AHL prospects Magnus Hellberg and Oscar Dansk are 6'6" and 6'3" respectively.  Joacim Eriksson and Johan Gustafsson have also had substantial AHL playing time this season and are both listed at 6'2".

Obviously the trend across the league is toward taller goalies, with the IIHF measuring the average height of goalies in the NHL last year at 186 cm (6'2").  It's not surprising that the above list includes some tall guys based on that fact, but it's still very noteworthy that 10 out of 13 are 6'2" or taller (14 out of 17 if we include the AHLers).

There have been 19 goalies with a listed height of 6'4" or taller that have faced 500 or more shots against in the NHL since 2009-10.  Here's the breakdown of that group by nationality:

Canada 7
Sweden 7
Finland 2
Czech Rep 1
Switzerland 1

It's amazing that over one in three of those goalies are from Sweden, considering the still relatively small fraction of the overall goalie population represented by Tre Kronor.  Yet the overall performance stats show that while lots of tall Swedish guys have been given extended NHL looks, they haven't been able to keep up with their counterparts from the rest of the world even when leveling the playing field based on size:

Canadian goalies, 6'4" or taller, combined:  29,213 SA, .910
Swedish goalies, 6'4" or taller, combined:  14,377 SA, .906
Other nationality, 6'4" or taller, combined:  25,180 SA, .916

There seems to be little doubt that Sweden is aggressively selecting for height, which raises the entirely reasonable question of whether they might be filtering out a few Enroths at the expense of a bunch of Lindbacks, thus reducing the overall effectiveness of the entire group.  I also wonder whether NHL scouts in Europe are looking at young Swedish behemoths and optimistically projecting the next Pekka Rinne or Kari Lehtonen when they might really be looking at the next Jeff Deslauriers or Alex Auld.

One bright spot for Swedish goaltending is the play of their goalies in the AHL this season, where Markstrom (.932), Forsberg (.927) and Hellberg (.915) have all posted solid statistics, although 2012 31st overall pick Dansk struggled (.880), albeit in his first taste of pro hockey.  It remains to be seen how those goalies will translate their games to the NHL level.  Markstrom hasn't done it yet at age 25, and Hellberg is about to turn 24, which means that both should be on the cusp of gaining NHL jobs.  Forsberg (22) and Dansk (21) have a bit more time in front of them to polish their games at the professional level.

If I wanted to come up with some kind of excuse for Swedish netminders, I could point out that the real revamping of their goaltender development system took place around 2002 (if you want to learn more about Sweden's training methods, here's a very good InGoal magazine interview of  development guru Thomas Magnusson).  That means that the guys who would have fully benefited from the new and improved coaching at all levels would be in their early twenties today.  It's possible that we just haven't yet seen the best of what Sweden has to offer.  However, even if I was going to grant them that, I would also think it would then be reasonable to expect Sweden's goalie prospects to really start breaking out the near future to make up for the overall underperformance to date.

I'm not at all saying that teams should shy away from Swedish goalies, or that we should expect a guy like Magnus Hellberg to be a bust simply because of the country on his passport.  I still think it's very possible that some of the current prospects pan out, and I'm far from willing to write off some of the guys who have seen the careers go off the rails a bit lately (Markstrom and Lehner, especially).  What Magnusson and those working with him have done with goalie coaching remains very impressive, and it's not surprising at all that other countries still see Sweden as a model of how to set up a proper system of development.

However, the evidence suggests there still might be room for improvement.  I think Sweden very probably has more than a bit of a size fetish in their goaltending development model, and that NHL teams might be overrating the quality of the Swedish Elite League in projecting how goaltenders there are likely to perform in North America.  If I was a team searching for overlooked, diamond-in-the-rough goalies, I'd be much more likely to send scouts to U.S. college hockey rinks or places like Switzerland or Denmark than to travel the well-worn paths to Gävle or Örnsköldsvik.  In other words, the next time you hear about the next big (both literally and figuratively) thing in Swedish goaltending, it would be prudent to wait until you see how he does against the highest levels of competition over here before wagering too heavily on him becoming a future NHL star.