Assessing Goaltenders Needn’t Be Voodoo

Accurately projecting how good a goaltender will be is not easy, even at the highest level where statistical analysis has never been better, video replays are available at the click of a button and a goalie’s career history is just a Google search away.

So why do some people still consider goaltending to be some form of voodoo?

ESPN’s Corey Pronman touched on the subject again this week with his piece ‘Why scouting goalies is so difficult, yet so important’, neatly encapsulating the issues teams face when trying to scout young netminders and appraise the talent they already have in their system.

Simply put, no one has figured out an accurate way to predict how good a goalie will be yet.

Assessing goaltenders is very different to assessing skaters. This fact isn’t new, nor should it come as a surprise to anyone. What’s alarming is that clubs don’t seem to have acted on this knowledge and actively sought to better equip themselves to fill the most important spot on their roster.

Part of the problem is such varied beliefs on how to judge a goaltender’s potential; with some adamant analytics are evolving to a point where they will soon be able to provide accurate projections, while others believe the statistics currently being used aren’t actually any good at providing accurate data for proper goaltender assessment, and thus any ‘evolution’ of them will still provide faulty results.

Then there are those who still refer to goaltending as the ‘v’ word – voodoo – and others who simply believe the time investment required to try and accurately determine a goaltenders worth actually makes the whole process uneconomical. An almost ‘go with the flow and see who pans out’ kind of attitude.

As a result we have scout reports that, as Pronman rightly hints toward, often focus on core fundamentals – which often centre around ‘buzz words’ like athleticism and competitiveness.

The problem with judging a player on ‘athleticism’, as an example, is that it is often misunderstood. Just because a netminder shows great ‘athleticism’ in making frequent big post to post saves doesn’t necessarily make him a great goalie, it could make him a goalie who has poor positioning and is often caught on his heels, thus needing to make big post to post movements to bale himself out.

When One Puck Short caught up with Olaf Kolzig last year, the Capitals legend referenced the importance of positioning to his game:

“I put myself into a position where we considered a shot wide was as good as a save. You might not get credit for it on the scoresheet, but proper positioning and good foot work put me in some good spots that forced players to miss the net.”

Kolzig’s 719 career NHL games suggest it was a tactic that worked for him. Jean-Sebastien Giguere was rarely described as athletic, but backstopped Anaheim to a Stanley Cup Final in 2003 and then a Cup win in 2007. A goalie who scrambles around his crease my appear athletic, because he is, but it’s as a result of more concerning flaws in his game.

Even Montreal’s Carey Price is lauded for his athleticism, but few talk about the way he can occasionally over commit on pad slides or when challenging the shooter – which force him to be unnecessarily ‘athletic’ in some situations.

Current Montreal Goaltending Coach Stephane Waite seems to have had the most success working with Price, tempering his more aggressive tendencies to help turn the Vancouver native in to an Olympic gold medallist and arguably the best netminder in the world (he is the reigning Hart Trophy and Vezina Trophy holder after all).

Likewise compete level can become a false term, as Justin Bourne touched on in his excellent piece on why ‘win and your in’ is a flawed method of managing goaltenders. They’re just words used to try and separate the wheat from the chaff in a pretty rudimentary way.

Scout reports rarely touch on traits such as how deep a netminder likes to sit – is he a crease dweller like Henrik Lundqvist or an aggressor like Jonathan Quick? – which can also be key.

Brian Elliott works with the St. Louis Blues defence in a way Ryan Miller struggled to, despite everyone considering Miller to be the far superior goaltender.

In very basic terms, Miller got used to facing plays off the rush in Buffalo (and was happy with that) while St. Louis have been excellent at limiting those opportunities in recent years. The two just didn’t mesh. Much like Elliott didn’t flourish playing behind Colorado’s wild defence, but has a style of play that suits the Blues. Some combinations work where people don’t expect them to because the parts involved fit together.

Mentions of ‘style’ bring us to another area of goaltending so often mislabelled, where a goalie is described as a ‘butterfly’ netminder despite it being 2015, a year in which every goalie uses the butterfly at some point.

It’s not a style, it’s a save selection. But again, in too many cases those writing the reports have not kept up with the times, don’t grasp that effectively every netminder is now a ‘hybrid’, using a range of tools and techniques to make themselves a more efficient puck stopper. Some are just more elegant than others, often belying their actual ability or superiority over a less ‘refined’ goaltender.

When there are inaccuracies in the early assessment of goaltender, we can sometimes see it lead to incompatible coaching, with netminders working with coaches who may harm their game rather than enhance it – again, Carey Price could be held up as an example of this.

Whichever area you wish to focus on, at almost every stage we come back to one, unavoidable element – those who are writing the ‘reports’.

Whether they be based on statistics, the ‘eye ball test’ or a bit of both, in almost every case you can suggest it is the wrong people making the judgement.

The position has changed so much, many veteran scouts (and even some old goaltenders) struggle to assess a young goaltender by modern standards and few, if any, clubs employ someone dedicated to finding the clubs next great goaltender.

Current assessments are almost becoming cliché, so frequently do we see “plays big, athletic” after a win or “plays small, passive” after a loss.

Development plays its part once a goalie is in the system, but without proper appraisal that too becomes flawed if the wrong guidance is in place – potentially driving a goalie down the wrong path or making a team try to force a square peg in to a round hole before declaring the netminder a failure when it doesn’t work.

There are undoubtedly variables and ‘moving parts’ that can influence a netminders ceiling, but there are people out there capable of allowing for such things, leading to much better evaluation of a goalies skills than we often see now.

Those people just need to be put in a position to use that knowledge to help clubs ‘draft smart’ and get the best out of their goaltenders.

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About Rob

Software engineer by day, Elite League Media man by night, Rob also blogs about cricket for One Stump Short, hockey for In Goal Magazine and video games for Outpost Delta as well as hosting the One Stump Short Podcast.

Posted on October 16, 2015, in Hockey, NHL and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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