Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Ed Belfour: Biggest Star To Europe Yet

Before the lockout, all the best hockey players in the world came to play in the NHL. From the point of view of a fan, this is the best possible situation. It guarantees the best possible level of player in the NHL hockey that will be available. Since the lockout, this situation is beginning to erode. More and more talented NHL calibre players are choosing to play in Europe. This is happening in part due to the growth of the European market and due to the artificial salary restrictions places on some NHL players that allow them to earn more money in European leagues.

James Mirtle has been compiling a list of these players departing for Europe. Most are not frontline players. Some are young and potential laden such as Stanislav Chistov and Mark Giordano and have the potential to become very good NHLers if given the chance. Others such as Alexei Yashin and Nils Ekman are proven quantities who would be given considerable icetime on an NHL team if they had signed with one. Others still, such as Aleksey Morozov and Sergei Zinovjev appear to have chosen to play the rest of their careers in Europe instead of returning to the NHL where they could be very successful.

The biggest name to add to this list is future Hall of Fame goaltender Ed Belfour. He has signed a contract to play with Leksands IF in the Swedish Second Division. I usually write a career summary post when future Hall of Famers retire. I am not going to do this yet with Belfour, because he is not retiring (though his NHL career may be done).

Belfour is one of the better goalies in NHL history. He is a two time Vezina Trophy winner. He has won the Stanley Cup once. He is third all time in career wins for a goaltender. It is a shame to see his career end this way. He still has NHL hockey left in him.

Last season, Ed Belfour was the Florida Panthers starting goalie. He won 27 games, posting a 2.77 GAA and a .902 saves percentage behind the often shaky Florida defence. He is a still one of the 30 best goalies in the NHL (though likely on the low end of that group) and could be a starter somewhere. At worst, he could be a solid backup who plays a significant portion of his team's games.

The problem is that under the NHL CBA system any player 35 or older who signs a multi-year deal will have their salary count against the salary cap whether they play or not. This has prevented teams from signing players like Belfour to longer than one year deals. With a salary cap in place, teams cannot afford to carry extra players on one-way contracts. This forces them to decide early in the summer who will be their goaltenders in the season and to stick with those selections unless the goalie plays significantly worse than expected or injuries occur. There are only so many spots that open up in a summer and some teams lock in goalies who are not the best available for various reasons (they are already under contract, they produced them in their system, they expect the starter to play the vast majority of the games so they found a minimum wage backup...) and inevitably some talented goalies will get left out once all the positions have filled. When a goalie has to go through free agency annually (as he is over 35) the chances that eventually he gets left without a team increase.

Ed Belfour is clearly better than many goalies who have NHL jobs. He is likely better than some goalies who will start on NHL teams this year (Columbus, Phoenix, Tampa Bay), but he did not get an NHL. In part this is likely due to the fact that Belfour wants to play and was less than willing to accept a role as a backup. In part this is because Belfour is coming off a season where he played well with a small contract and feels he is due for a raise. At any rate, he is one talented NHL capable goalie who will not be playing in the NHL this season. The NHL is worse off because of it.

This CBA has been a very good thing for European hockey leagues. It has given them a chance to sign talented NHL players who they would not have signed under previous CBAs. The NHL has not intended this. The last thing they want is to give their competition an edge to help them become world class rival leagues to the NHL. This hasn't happened yet, but as more and more players chose to play overseas instead of in the NHL it could happen.

Here is TSN's story on Ed Belfour signing in Sweden.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Hockey In August: The 2007 Junior Summit Series

As a diehard hockey fan, my ideal situation would be for there to be meaningful hockey games being played all the time. 24 hours a day, 365 day a year. It would be nice if every time I felt like turning on the TV there was a meaningful hockey game to watch. However, the players involved are not machines so I know this is not possible. The more games forced upon players, the better chance that they burn out and stop playing. For this reason, I think the 2007 Junior Summit Series is a bad idea.

The idea of the series is simple. 35 years ago, in 1972, Canada and the Soviet Union played their historic Summit Series. This is one of the great moments in Canadian hockey history. It was a hard fought eight game series that Canada came from behind to win 4-3-1 on last minute game winning goals by Paul Henderson in the final three games of the series. In an effort to smooth relations between Russia and the NHL (currently there is no player transfer agreement between Russia and the NHL) a reprise of the Summit Series was suggested. The original suggestion was for NHLers to be involved. When this idea died, the current series played by juniors was conceived.

Junior players already have a full schedule of hockey. They play 72 regular season games followed by league playoffs and the Memorial Cup (for those players on winning teams). Travel is hard and done in many long bus trips. At Christmas time, the World Junior Championships are played. When we throw in this Summit Series, some junior stars will play over 100 hockey games this year. All of this is expected of our best junior hockey players while they try to finish high school. It creates a situation where a kid has done nothing in his life except play hockey and he hasn't even hit the NHL yet. Talented players will burn out.

Even without this Junior Summit Series, we have seen talented junior players who burned out and did not have the successful careers they probably could have had. Alexandre Daigle is a prime example. He made a fortune from his first contract in Ottawa and when hockey stopped being fun for him, he left to try other things. Eventually he came back to the NHL, but it was too late and he never lived up to his potential. Who knows what he could have become if he had not been forced into so much hockey at a young age.

The NHL CBA has created a situation where an increasing percentage of salaries are paid to young players. We get a situation where a player has done nothing but play hockey his whole life and is wealthy enough that he has no need to ever work again in his life. Even if he is in his mid 20's and has lots of hockey left in his body, why should he?

This summer we are seeing three future Hall of Fame players who are asking themselves these questions. All are still NHL capable players, but they are considering giving it up because its time to try other things in their lives.

Scott Niedermayer won the Conn Smythe Trophy this year and was the Norris Trophy runner up. He is one of the ten best hockey players in the world. However, he is likely going to retire instead of continuing to play.

Teemu Selanne was a 94 point scorer who led his Stanley Cup winning team in points. He too will likely retire.

Peter Forsberg won the Hart Trophy as recently as 2003, but after struggling through an injury plagued season, where he still managed 55 points in 57 games, he is looking at following the lead of Roger Clemens in baseball. Clemens has learned that you can have a longer vacation between seasons if you are a good enough player. There is no need to sign a contract until after the season has begun. This gets you a longer vacation to rest your body and spend time with your family and it saves you the trouble of training camp and the first month or two of meaningless regular season games. Forsberg is likely going to follow that lead and eventually sign as a free agent somewhere in November or December, but until then he is taking an extended vacation from hockey.

As more and more hockey is forced upon young players and a younger and younger age and more and more money is thrown at them once they hit the NHL, the likelihood of some talented players giving it up when they have plenty of good hockey left in them increases. This is a shame for the fan. Some of the best players in the NHL will be absent from the league because they have been burned out of hockey and want to do something else with their lives. This problem increases as player's age and injuries mount and players begin to have young families. It is exacerbated by the CBA rules that severely limit long term contracts for players 35 years and older (thus often forcing them to move to a new city annually which is very hard on young families). In early 2006, I predicted that the CBA would lead to hockey legends retiring younger than they otherwise would have and we are beginning to see that. Couple that with increased loads of hockey games for young players at the junior level and increased percentages of salaries going to young players (which makes young players set for life and ruffles egos when they may be forced into a paycut later on) and we will see more and more talented players burn out and younger ages. This is bad for hockey in general.

At any rate, the series is currently underway. Game one was played today in Russia with Canada winning 4-2. The Canadians were led by two points each from Brad Marchand (a Boston prospect) and Sam Gagner (an Edmonton prospect). They will play three more games in Russia this week on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. The players then come to Canada for four games on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday next week. It is an exciting opportunity to see the highly touted prospects playing against one another.

Sure I would like it if there was a meaningful hockey game on TV at all times everyday of the year, but I realize this is not possible. If the tradeoff is between a few less games and retaining NHL stars for more productive years in the NHL, I will happily settle for fewer games.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

My Top 50 List

The Hockey News Top 50 player list is out and I want to respond to it (as I did last year) by listing my top 50 list. I believe these are the 50 players I would most want to build a winning hockey team right now. As The Hockey News did, I will consider Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne likely retired and thus not include them on the list. I have also included comments for the top 10 players and any players omitted in The Hockey News list.

1. Sidney Crosby The top scorer and MVP in the NHL last year and likely still improving. How good can he get?

2. Joe Thornton Over the last two years, the best player in the NHL.

3. Nicklas Lidstrom One of the all time great defencemen in hockey. The only guys with more career Norris Trophies are Bobby Orr and Doug Harvey.

4. Chris Pronger The NHL's most talented villain given his playoff suspensions and the way he left Edmonton. He should be the reigning two time Conn Smythe Trophy winner, but in both cases he was snubbed.

5. Roberto Luongo His reputation has grown with a great season in Vancouver. His first season with a top defence in front of him and his first playoff berth. He should win several Vezinas before he is done.

6. Alexander Ovechkin A fine young star who should have a great career. He regressed a bit offensively (to mere 92 points - how many 2nd year players can drop to that total?) and showed some defensive faults at times. The THN ranking of 2nd best player in hockey is too high, but he could get there someday soon.

7. Martin Brodeur A Hall of Fame goalie who just played what is arguably his best season ever. Now that he is in his mid 30's will he start to slow down?

8. Vincent LeCavalier He has tons of talent. Nice to see him put it together with a Richard Trophy winning season.

9. Jaromir Jagr When you can play through injuries that (among other things) keep you out of the All Star Game and still have a 96 point season, you must be good.

10. Dany Heatley The best goal scorer in the game since the lockout. His arrival has coincided with Daniel Alfredsson's best offensive years also.

11. Miikka Kiprusoff
12. Marian Hossa
13. Jarome Iginla
14. Martin St Louis
15. Ilya Kovalchuk
16. Zdeno Chara
17. Joe Sakic
18. Daniel Alfredsson
19. Marian Gaborik
20. Sergei Zubov
Over the past two seasons he has been the best defenceman beyond the big three (Lidstrom, Pronger, Niedermayer). Not sure how THN could omit him. The biggest concern is he is 37 years old and may start to decline.

21. Jason Spezza
22. Pavel Datsyuk
23. Henrik Lundqvist
24. Brad Richards
25. Henrik Zetterberg
26. Patrik Elias
27. Jay Bouwmeester
A talented young defenceman who is overlooked because he is in Florida (well outside the hockey mainstream). He has developed into one of the best in the game.

28. Jean Sebastien Giguere
29. Simon Gagne
30. Evgeni Malkin
31. Eric Staal
32. Rick Nash
33. Olli Jokinen
What must he do to make the THN list? Back to back seasons of 89 and 91 points didn't do it.

34. Marty Turco
35. Marc Savard
A talented setup man who will be among the league leaders in assists and put up 90+ points the last two seasons. Not good enough for THN?

36. Wade Redden The star defenceman who leads the Ottawa Senators blueline. Has consistently put up top seasons for several years. THN not impressed.

37. Rick DiPietro
38. Tomas Kaberle
39. Daniel Briere
40. Kimmo Timonen
The THN list had too few defencemen. Here is another overlooked one who didn't get the press he deserved in Nashville. Let's see if he gets noticed in Philadelphia.

41. Patrick Marleau Probably the best number two centreman in hockey (behind Joe Thornton). Consistently scores at point per game rate or better. Not good enough for THN.

42. Lubomir Visnovsky Another overlooked defenceman. He is coming off of 67 and 58 point seasons but cannot crack the THN list.

43. Martin Havlat
44. Ryan Smyth
45. Dion Phaneuf
46. Tomas Vokoun
One of the best goaltenders in the league, overlooked because he has played off the beaten track in Nashville and now Florida.

47. Dan Boyle
48. Rod Brind'Amour
49. Sergei Gonchar
50. Paul Stastny
Runner up to the rookie of the year who could make a big leap forward this season.

Ten players are missing on my list who appear on The Hockey News list. They are Chris Drury, Scott Gomez, Mathieu Schneider (signing a big new contract does not make you a better player), Brendan Shanahan (who regressed offensively and made the THN list), Ryan Miller (not as good a goalie as those I picked who benefits statistically from a top team in front of him), Dominik Hasek (too big an injury risk but otherwise a top 50 player), Jonathan Cheechoo (Richard Trophy winner in 2006 in what may have been a bit of a fluke), Daniel Sedin (has not shown himself to be good enough yet), Zach Parise (may breakthrough this year but hasn't yet) and Niklas Backstrom (41 games behind a top defence is not enough to make the top 50).

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Hockey News Top 50 List

The annual Hockey News Top 50 players list has been released and can be found here. Here is this year's list along with the player's rating on last year's list and my comments on each player:

1. Sidney Crosby (up from 6th). It is clear Crosby should be ranked number one. He is the NHL's MVP and top scorer and is likely still improving.

2. Alexander Ovechkin (up from 5th). This ranking looks like an attempt to keep the idea alive that the next decade or so will be a battle between Crosby and Ovechkin for supremacy over the NHL. Although Ovechkin was a better player than Crosby in their rookie seasons (he was also older) and won the Calder Trophy, he did not progress nearly as quickly as Crosby did last year. This number two ranking seems generous. I wouldn't pick him as a likely Hart Trophy nominee this season - at best he has an outside shot.

3. Roberto Luongo (up from 25th). His ranking of 25th was far too low last season, but this one is a bit high. I think he is the best bet to be the top goaltender in the NHL this season, as his main rival Martin Brodeur is getting into his upper 30's and should be playing behind a weaker defence core than he has in the past.

4. Nicklas Lidstrom (up from 15th). His 15th place ranking last year was ridiculously low and although this one is better, it still seems low. He is the most dominant defenceman in the game and has been for years. His career should rank him among the best defencemen ever and most people don't think of him that highly. Would it be different is he was Canadian? Is it an anti-European bias?

5. Chris Pronger (down from 2nd). This ranking seems about right. He could easily have won back to back Conn Smythe Trophies (though he won neither) and is the main challenge to Lidstrom's reign as the NHL's to defenceman (assuming Scott Niedermayer retires).

6. Jarome Iginla (up from 7th). There was a crazy idea last year that was floated on many message boards that Iginla's best days were over (since he hadn't scored 50 goals in a season since 2002). Though he didn't hit 50 this year, he tied his career best output with 96 points while playing in the lower scoring west conference.

7. Vincent LeCavalier (up from 21st). We always knew he had talent to be a bonifide superstar, but his Richard Trophy winning 52 goals was the first definite sign that it was really going to happen.

8. Joe Thornton (down from 4th). Why does he drop this far when he is the second highest scorer in the league, while playing in the lower scoring conference? If it wasn't for some early season injuries he played through, he could have been the top scorer last year.

9. Dany Heatley (up from 10th). The highest goal scorer over the past two years. There is a popular argument from Ottawa that he is not the Sens best player, as Daniel Alfredsson is in fact a better player despite being a lower scorer. This is mostly a sentimental choice (Alfredsson has been a popular Sens captain for quite a while) and overthinking (goals are a very good indicator of hockey talent. You don't lead the NHL in goals without being a star).

10. Martin Brodeur (up from 11th). This ranking seems a bit low. There is not this big a difference between him and Luongo. Brodeur is getting the chance to show how much of his success was from the defence in front of him (Brian Rafalski is the latest to leave) and if he puts up another season as great as last year it should go a long way to silence critics.

11. Patrik Elias (up from 12th). Why is he up? Last season he disappointed with only 69 points and some defensive lapses. Surely a season like that should lower him in the rankings.

12. Joe Sakic (up from 17th). 37 years old and scores 100 points. This guy is one of the all time greats.

13. Miikka Kiprusoff (down from 1st). His first place ranking last season was crazy. This one seems much more reasonable. A very good goalie who could win some more Vezina Trophies before he is done.

14. Jaromir Jagr (down from 3rd). He is being punished for playing through injuries last year. Jagr should have a higher ranking than this one and could get into the MVP race again this year.

15. Martin St Louis (up from 47th). Bounced back very well from a poor 2005/06 season. A workhorse who logs an incredible number of minutes for a forward and is strong on both ends of the ice.

16. Marian Gaborik (up from 27th). He has a great partial season last year (limited to 48 games). If he can score at the same rate over a full season, he could be in the Art Ross race.

17. Dion Phaneuf (up from 32nd). Phaneuf has been consistently overrated on these lists. Sure he is a good young defenceman, but he is not the third best defenceman in the league. He is yet to be a serious Norris candidate and still makes immature defensive lapses at times.

18. Eric Staal (down from 14th). His 70 points last years was a disappointing drop and I expected he would drop further in these rankings. Still, he is the future of the Carolina Hurricanes and I expect big things.

19. Marian Hossa (up from 24th). He should be ranked higher. Atlanta may be off the hockey map and thus Hossa is overlooked. He is one of the top consistent scorers in the game.

20. Ryan Miller (debut). Miller is not this good a goalie. I think it is a case of a good goalie playing behind a very good team and having his wins totals inflated in the process. A goalie's wins are largely a team result (and not an individual one).

21. Daniel Alfredsson (up from 21st). This is approximately where he belongs. Alfredsson is a very good player. Second best on the Sens. It's not a surprise he had his two best offensive seasons once he had Dany Heatley on his line.

22. Chris Drury (debut). He is a 69 point scorer who has defensive value (but was not a Selke nominee). He finished third on his own team in scoring. Why is he rankled this high? Why is he ranked above his teammates who outscored him? Is it because the New York Rangers paid him a bunch of money? Everyone knows the Rangers don't overpay free agents (right Bobby Holik?).

23. Marty Turco (up from 49th). Last year's ranking was too low and based on a ridiculous idea that Turco is not a playoff goalie. Amazingly, he shed this myth with a first round playoff loss in 2007, though he played exceptionally well in the loss.

24. Jason Spezza (down from 22nd). He has put up two very good offensive seasons in a row while playing less than 70 games a season. If he can stay healthy he could be in the scoring race.

25. Henrik Zetterberg (up from 38th). Zetterberg had a very good season and might have been a post-season all star on left wing if he didn't get hurt.

26. Jonathan Cheechoo (up from 36th). Cheechoo's 69 points was well down from his 2006 totals and yet he rises in the ranking? I think this is an admission his 2006 ranking was too low.

27. Daniel Briere (debut). Briere was a glaring omission last season who takes a spot this year. I have no idea why he is ranked below teammate Chris Drury. Even if free agent money somehow gets taken into account, Briere sure got a lot of it from Philadelphia.

28. Tomas Kaberle (debut). He is a good defender but I find this a bit high. This list has not had enough defencemen on it so far, but ranking Kaberle the 4th best dman in the league seems a stretch.

29. Dominik Hasek (debut). He was left off last year due to injury issues. In 2006/07 he managed to stay healthy and put up a good year. I have little doubt he could do that again in 2007/08 if he stay healthy. I doubt that he can do that.

30. Brad Richards (down from 23rd). He dropped to 70 points last year, which was a disappointment, but I think he should have no trouble bouncing back up this list this season.

31. Martin Havlat (down from 26th). Had a great start to the year before getting injured and slowing down. He has never put up a great full season, but if Chicago's young talent makes some noise and he can stay healthy, this should be a career best season for Havlat.

32. Daniel Sedin (debut). Along with brother Henrik took over the first line duties in Vancouver when Markus Naslund showed he wasn't up to the task last season. It is a bit odd that he makes this list and Henrik doesn't when they posted similar offensive stats. I suppose it is because left wing is a weaker position.

33. Jean-Sebastien Giguere (debut). Amazing that a former Conn Smythe Trophy winner got left off the list last year. I guess it was unclear if he would be the Anaheim number one goalie (or if Ilya Bryzgalov could win the job). Giguere proved he belongs here by backstopping a Stanley Cup win for the Ducks.

34. Ryan Smyth (down from 33rd). As long as Smyth can stay healthy (and given his style of play that is no given) he deserves this spot. Some have criticized it as another player who was overrated due to his free agency press (see Chris Drury), but I think Smyth is good enough for this ranking.

35. Simon Gagne (down from 31st). A very good sniper who had an off year (as did everyone related to the Philadelphia Flyers last year). He could show us this ranking is low with a good season this year.

36. Pavel Datsyuk (down from 35th). I am not sure why he doesn't get more respect. It's not because he plays in a seldom seen market. Detroit gets a lot of press coverage. On would think the reigning two time Lady Byng winner would be ranked higher than this.

37. Rick Nash (down from 9th). Last year he was ranked ridiculously high. How can an offensive forward who had a career best of 57 points be in the top 10? Another season has passed and he equalled the 57 point mark. Last year, some argued (see comments) that Nash should have been ranked ahead of Jarome Iginla.

38. Rod Brind'Amour (stays at 38th). Repeated as Selke Trophy winner. Some wonder if at 37 he is won't start to slow down, but he is in incredible shape, plays an incredible amount of minutes and is very valuable to the Hurricanes.

39. Zdeno Chara (down from 19th). I think this is too big a drop. He is one of the top defenders in the NHL and has an outside shot at a Norris Trophy.

40. Rick DiPietro (debut). A very good goalie. This debut position seems about right. He is the most valuable player on the Islanders.

41. Scott Gomez (debut). Signing a big contract with the New York Rangers seems to lead to overrating on this list. Last year his offensive totals fell to 60 points. So why did he make the list?

42. Sergei Gonchar (debut). A very good offensive defenseman, who is likely worthy of a top 50 spot.

43. Henrik Lundqvist (debut). Two years in the NHL with two Vezina nominations. Why can't he get a higher ranking than this? Does he have to sign a large contract as a New York Ranger free agent or something?

44. Evgeni Malkin (debut). Rookie of the year last year. He could take a big leap forwards next season or hit a sophomore jinx. This position is hedging their bets on his future.

45. Zach Parise (debut). He had a great playoff last year (as far as New Jersey went), but given that he had a career best 62 points last year, that is not enough for this ranking.

46. Dan Boyle (debut). Boyle made the second team all star last year on defence. Generally, an accomplishment like that should have him higher in the rankings. It was his biggest offensive year of his career and probably his best defensively as well and was a bit of a surprise. That keeps his ranking down, coupled with the fact not enough defencemen made this list.

47. Brendan Shanahan (debut). How often does a player turn 38 during a season, drop 19 points off his offensive totals and rise in these rankings? He would have to have joined the New York Rangers as a free agent to do that. Shanahan did, but in 2006 and not 2007. I guess the effect on his ranking was slower than that of Drury and Gomez.

48. Ilya Kovalchuk (down from 18th). This drop is much larger then it should be. Sure he dropped to 76 points, but he is ranked here with players who scored in the 60's of points and do not have his upside.

49. Mathieu Schneider (debut). He is a good defender but hasn't been worthy of a spot on this list for a few years. I guess signing as a free agent in Anaheim is worth a boost on the list (just like signing in New York is).

50. Niklas Backstrom (debut). It takes more than 41 games to convince me that Backstrom deserves a spot on this list. He played on a defensively sound Minnesota Wild team that allows low shot quality. Are you telling me Backstrom should be ranked ahead of Tomas Vokoun or Evgeni Nabokov or several other goalies who have established track records through several NHL seasons and play behind less disciplined defences?

Here is last year's list and here was my list last season.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Martin Brodeur From A Goals Saved Perspective

Martin Brodeur is one of the best goalies of all time. He is a three-time Vezina Trophy winner and well on his way to a Hall of Fame career where he might retire the all time wins and shutouts leader. However, he is a contreversial figure when looked at from a sabermetrics and hockey perspective. It is often hard to assess goalies statistically. It is the most team dependent statistics of wins and shutouts where Brodeur has most excelled throughout his career and some years he has not been among the league leaders in the somewhat more team independent measure of saves percentage (which is still team dependent because of shot quality). So how good is Martin Brodeur? This controversy gets discussed in my posts and comments here and here.

If we look at him using the goals saved method which is originated by Peter Albert (the hockey outsider) we can begin to get an idea.

Here is Martin Brodeur's career in terms of goals saved:

Martin Brodeur's Career in terms of Goals Saved
Season Brodeur's Goals Saved Goals Saved League Leader League Leader's Total
1991/92-0.5Patrick Roy54.2
1993/9426.5Dominik Hasek58.2
1994/952.6Dominik Hasek61.8
1995/9629.6Dominik Hasek37.9
1996/9742.1Dominik Hasek51.5
1997/9820.8Dominik Hasek50.1
1998/99-3.1Dominik Hasek52.2
1999/200012.2Olaf Kolzig33.8
2000/0121.4Sean Burke31.7
2001/0212.4Jose Theodore42.1
2002/0310.2Marty Turco35.6
2003/0412.0Roberto Luongo39.7
2005/0623.3Miikka Kiprusoff50.2
2006/0740.8Martin Brodeur40.8

Since goals saved is not a normal statistic, it is likely necessary to think about what these numbers mean. The number of goals saved a goalie has is the number of goals he would have saved relative to the average goalie in the league that season if he played on the average team. Thus a goalie with zero goals saved is an average NHL goalie. There is plenty of value to being an average NHL goalie, so a season with zero goals saved is not a bad season. One problem with the number is that it is compared to the average that season, which tends to rescale it from one season to the next and it is often helpful to keep in mind what the league leader did that year as a reference point.

Form looking at these numbers, we see that Brodeur was the person who should have won the Vezina last season according to goals saved (and he did). It is the only Vezina he ever deserved. He won in 2003 and 2004 with above average seasons that were well behind Marty Turco and Roberto Luongo respectively.

Several Martin Brodeur accomplishments are not measured at all with this analysis. His playoff record is not measured and he has an accomplished playoff record. Brodeur has won three Stanley Cups with the New Jersey Devils. He led the playoffs in goals against average three times and in shutouts three times. He has the best set of playoff numbers in recent history (at least since Patrick Roy). His international success is also not measured. He has been Canada's number one goalie in the last two Olympiads, with one gold medal win where he led the Olympics in goals against average. None of this is taken into account and all of it is an important part of Martin Brodeur's legacy.

The goals saved statistic is flawed because it does not take into account shot quality. Brodeur has consistently faced very low quality shots. New Jersey has consistently been a very good defensive team and played a very strong defensive system. Through much of his tenure, he played behind Hall of Fame defenceman Scott Stevens and future Hall of Famer Scott Niedermayer. If Brodeur faces weaker than average shot quality, then his goals saved numbers will be inflated. This is a common criticism of Brodeur and his legacy.

The goals saved statistic is also flawed because it does not take into account plays where a goalie is involved where no shot on goal is registered. In Brodeur's case, this is particularly true of dump-ins. Martin Brodeur is often regarded as the best puckhandling goalie in the NHL today and adds a lot of his value to his team by fielding dumpins before they become scoring chances. This was particularly true under the pre-lockout NHL rules where there was no prevention of goalies playing the puck outside the trapezoid behind the goal.

Shot quality data does not exist before the 2002/03 season and dump-in statistics do not exist at all so it is hard to quantify any of this. It is certainly possible (though hard to verify) that Brodeur really was much more of a Vezina Trophy candidate in 2003 and 2004 than goals saved tell us because of his puckhandling ability, however, this difference would have to be larger than the shot quality difference which reduces his value.

Over the course of his career, Brodeur has done very well. He is currently seventh all time in goals saved (though the data for this statistic does not exist before 1951/52 thus excluding many Hall of Fame goalies). He currently ranks behind Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek, Jacques Plante, Tony Esposito, Ken Dryden and Glenn Hall. This is elite company. Only a very good goalie could be ranked this highly, although the problems comparing goals saved numbers from one year to the next make this number one to be taken with a grain of salt.

Martin Brodeur is clearly a top goalie. He is clearly a Hall of Fame goaltender. However, he is not the best goalie all time. There is little way to argue this point. Even if he becomes the all time winningest goalie, he will likely not be the best goalie all time. I think it is correct to leave him off the 36 best all time list as of right now, though another season or two like 2006/07 would clearly change that opinion. He is an example of why sabermetric analysis of goaltending is hard. He has several outstanding seasons with low shot quality against. Many times this low shot quality inflated his wins, shutouts and goals against average. While he was consistently well above average, he was not shown to have been the best goalie in any single season until 2006/07. He won Vezina Trophies that he probably did not deserve. There are mitigating circumstances. His 1996/97 season was good enough that in many years it would have won a Vezina, but it was in the middle of the run of Dominik Hasek's amazing six years in a row leading in goals saved. His puckhandling ability is not measured at all and likely gives him a higher value than these numbers show. His playoff and international successes are also not measured and also give him a higher value than these numbers show. Martin Brodeur is clearly one of the better goalies in history, but he is clearly not the best all time and is well back of Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek, Jacques Plante and others.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Failures of the Goals Saved Method

In my look at sabermetrics and hockey this summer, I have looked at the goals saved method to assess goalies. This method was developed by the hockey outsider (Peter Albert) in an attempt to have one number to evaluate goalies. The idea is to calculate the number of goals that were saved by a particular goalie (when compared to average in a given season) if that goalie had played for the average NHL team. This method is very successful in picking the best goalie in a given season but has problems when comparing between different seasons. This is because the comparison to the average goalie in a given season has no meaningful carry-over from one season to the next. If (for example) expansion occurs, there are more weaker goalies let into the NHL who play on weak teams that allow lots of high quality shots who will adjust the average goalie value downward, and thus make the top flight goalies look better when compared to average with the same performance that would not have been as far above average in a smaller NHL.

We can look at the ten best seasons ever posted by a goaltender according to the goals saved method and we get this list:

Top 10 Goalie Seasons According Goals Saved
Rank Goalie Team Year Goals Saved
1Ken DrydenMontreal1975/7673.7
2Bernie ParentPhiladelphia1973/7469.5
3Rogie VachonLos Angeles1974/7563.8
4Bernie ParentPhiladelphia1974/7562.1
5Dominik HasekBuffalo1994/9561.8
6Dominik HasekBuffalo1993/9458.2
7Pete PeetersBoston1982/8355.5
8Patrick RoyMontreal1991/9254.2
9Jacques PlanteMontreal1958/5953.8
10Jacques PlanteMontreal1961/6253.1

There is little reason to believe these are the top 10 seasons that a goaltender has ever had in the NHL (at least since the 1951/52 season - before which sufficient stats do not exist). It is very suspicious that the four "best" seasons ever all occurred between 1973/74 and 1975/76. This is likely because this is the point when the level of the "average" goalie was the lowest. The NHL was undergoing rapid expansion in the 70's and the World Hockey Association was as well. There were more goalies employed in professional hockey than ever before and some were low quality goalies on poor teams who pulled the average level of NHL goalies down - thus making the elite goalies of the time appear better than average by a larger than reasonable amount. After this period, the number of WHA teams began to decline and the NHL didn't expand again until it added the remaining WHA teams in 1979(thus removing the worst goalies from the talent pool) and no more seasons at the top of the goals saved charts were recorded.

A further problem occurs because shot quality data is not taken into account (it does not exist before 2002/03). Thus teams with top defences that allow lower quality shots will appear to have better goalies. It is no surprise that Ken Dryden, playing behind the Montreal defence that included Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe, is listed as the best goals saved season ever. He was a very good goalie playing behind a very good defence in a season where the average level of goaltending was depressed due to expansion. All the circumstances were right to overrate this season by this method. Did anyone at the time suggest that was the best season ever for a goaltender? If so, why didn't anyone suggest Ken Dryden for the Hart Trophy? He had been a runner up in the past, but not that season.

After the four years from the mid-70's come two Dominik Hasek seasons in the early 90's that happened in a rapidly expanding NHL. The league had added 5 teams over three seasons and this depressed the average level of goaltending. Hasek's two MVP seasons came later when the NHL was in between expansions and thus do not rank as highly on this list.

Next up is Pete Peeters in 1982/83. He is the first goalie ranked on this list that is not playing in a rapidly expanding era. Does that make his 1982/83 season the best ever by a goalie? He was playing behind one of the best defences in hockey. One that included Ray Bourque, Brad Park, Mike O'Connell and Mike Milbury and a forward unit that included the previous season's Selke Trophy winner in Steve Kasper. This was a great defence that likely allowed only low quality shots.

Next up on the list is Patrick Roy, playing at the beginning of the same expansion era that helped Hasek get his name on this list.

At the end of this list are two Jacques Plante seasons. These are the only seasons from the original six era on this list - where the quality of opposition in the NHL was at its highest - due to that small number of players and teams in the league. His 1961/62 season saw Plante win the Hart Trophy. This is the only season in the top 10 goals saved seasons where the goalie in question was seen as a serious MVP candidate. Although, it is reasonable to question these seasons as well because the Montreal team Plante played behind was a great team with a great defence that included such greats as Doug Harvey, Tom Johnson, Jean-Guy Talbot and JC Tremblay in those years.

It seems that to finish in the top 10 seasons in terms of goals saved, it is necessary to either play in an expansion era or behind a great defence. In order to be at the top of the list it is necessary to do both. While these ten seasons are all good seasons, they seem more like a random list of ten good seasons by goalies then a ranked list of the ten best ever.

The goals saved method is definitely on the right track. It fails with this list of best seasons ever because it does not take into account shot quality. This problem is one that cannot easily be fixed since shot quality data does not exist for most of the seasons in NHL history. It also fails when comparing one season to another because each goalie is referenced to the average in his given season and this average is affected by the quality of goaltending leaguewide (most notably by expansion). In order to compare different seasons, it is necessary to remove a "floating average" that varies from year to year. I am not sure this is possible. Goaltending has changed significantly over the years. For example, a top saves percentage from the 80's (Pete Peeters makes number seven on this list with a .904 saves percentage), would not appear very impressive when compared to today when a goalie can have a saves percentage better than .920 and not make this list. I am not sure how to solve this problem, but it is necessary to compare goalies to a standard that is not so dependant upon the overall goalie quality in a given NHL season (since that varies significantly over time).

When comparing goalies in a single season, the goals saved method is very good. It is not perfect and sometimes over or underrates certain goalies, but it is a good marker to compare goaltenders. When comparing over several seasons, it is far less accurate.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Let The Blackmailing Commence

All too often, professional sports franchises depend upon local taxpayers to make a profit. Local taxpayers are forced to build stadiums and give breaks on taxes and other expenses under the threat of the team moving to another city if the demands are not met. Quite often it is the franchises that are the weakest financially that ask for these breaks because they are the ones who need them to stay alive. This creates a class of corporate welfare dependant teams that cannot afford to put a winner on the ice when the league would be better served by letting the weaker members of the league die off either by contraction or moving to new markets.

These threats have successfully go the Pittsburgh Penguins new stadium funded and seem to be well on their way to getting a new arena for the Edmonton Oilers. Fundamentally, the problem is that NHL franchises are run by some very rich people, why should local taxpayers have to pay to make them richer? The NHL is a multi-billion dollar industry. If they cannot figure out how to make a profit from that money without holding local taxpayers hostage, does that not show a fundamental problem? In many cases, the taxpayer funding is a key part of the operating plans of teams.

The latest team to ask for taxpayer help is currently the weakest one financially. The Nashville Predators have a tenuous ownership situation. They are owned by Craig Leipold who wants to sell and has reduced payroll (and thus the quality of the team) this summer. A "local" group (headed by William "Boots" Del Biaggio who is intent on moving the team to Kansas City) has submitted an offer to buy the team. The likelihood of this group making a profit in Nashville, given the failing Leipold has with a pretty good team, are low. Likely this local ownership is a temporary solution that will delay the inevitable moving of the Nashville Predators to a new market. This ownership group is looking for taxpayer help. They want a favorable new lease with the Sommet Center, where they play home games, which would cost local taxpayers around $3 million a year. This is the first (will there be others?) demand for concessions from local taxpayers to keep NHL hockey in Nashville.

Nashville has proven to be a poor hockey market so far. It may have some diehard fans, but there have not been enough to make the team profitable. Likely taxpayer subsidy means we will be stuck with an also ran team that cannot afford to compete. The NHL does not need that. It would be better for the NHL to not have weak teams that cannot afford to keep their talent. It is better for local Nashville taxpayers to not spend their tax money on a weak local team that cannot survive without subsidy. As things stand, local taxpayers subsidize the arena by about $13 million a year. This would increase to about $18 million, but Nashville Predator ownership would assume some losses (hence the $3 million figure).

If Nashville cannot support a good hockey team (meaning one that does not offload talent when it becomes expensive if the team can win) without public taxpayer funding then it is better for all involved for them to not have one.

Here is the article from the Tennessean newspaper.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Successes of the Goals Saved Method

In my look at sabermetrics and hockey this summer I have looked at the goals saved method of assessing goalies. This method attempts to come up with a single number to score goaltenders - which represents the number of extra goals the goalie saved over the average goalie that season playing for the average team. This method is developed by the hockey outsider (Peter Albert).

This method is my no means perfect. Since shot quality data only goes back to the 2002/03 season, it does not include it. It also does not include anything a goalie contributes to his team besides making saves (i.e. defending dumpins or covering loose pucks in the crease that are not shots on goal) and it does not attempt to correct for the quality of schedule a goalie faces (which might be an issue in the unbalanced schedule of today's NHL). Nevertheless it gives a good look at who the best goalie in the NHL is in a given season. Saves percentage data only exists as far back as the 1951/52 season, so there are no results before that point.

Any goaltender who has a Vezina Trophy calibre season (using the modern day voted Vezina - until 1981 the Vezina was won by the goalie(s) on the team with the best goals against average) should be at (or at least near) the top of the league in goals saved. Usually this is true, but sometimes it is not. This method is very good at isolating those goalies. In the years before the Vezina Trophy was under its modern definition, I use the first team all star goalie in its place.

Here are the goalies who led the NHL in goals saved each year the data exists:

Goals Saved Leaders By Season
Goals Saved Leader Season Vezina Winner
Terry Sawchuk1951/52Terry Sawchuk
Terry Sawchuk1952/53Terry Sawchuk
Harry Lumley1953/54Harry Lumley
Harry Lumley1954/55Harry Lumley
Jacques Plante1955/56Jacques Plante
Glenn Hall1956/57Glenn Hall
Jacques Plante1957/58Glenn Hall
Jacques Plante1958/59Jacques Plante
Johnny Bower1959/60Glenn Hall
Glenn Hall1960/61Johnny Bower
Jacques Plante1961/62Jacques Plante
Glenn Hall1962/63Glenn Hall
Glenn Hall1963/64Glenn Hall
Glenn Hall1964/65Roger Crozier
Johnny Bower1965/66Glenn Hall
Eddie Giacomin1966/67Eddie Giacomin
Gump Worsley1967/68Gump Worsley
Jacques Plante1968/69Glenn Hall
Tony Esposito1969/70Tony Esposito
Jacques Plante1970/71Eddie Giacomin
Tony Esposito1971/72Tony Esposito
Ken Dryden1972/73Ken Dryden
Bernie Parent1973/74Bernie Parent
Rogie Vachon1974/75Bernie Parent
Ken Dryden1975/76Ken Dryden
Ken Dryden1976/77Ken Dryden
Ken Dryden1977/78Ken Dryden
Ken Dryden1978/79Ken Dryden
Denis Herron1979/80Tony Esposito
Richard Sevigny1980/81Mike Liut
Grant Fuhr1981/82Billy Smith
Pete Peeters1982/83Pete Peeters
Roland Melanson1983/84Tom Barrasso
Pelle Lindbergh1984/85Pelle Lindbergh
Bob Froese1985/86John Vanbiesbrouck
Ron Hextall1986/87Ron Hextall
Patrick Roy1987/88Grant Fuhr
Patrick Roy1988/89Patrick Roy
Patrick Roy1989/90Patrick Roy
Ed Belfour1990/91Ed Belfour
Patrick Roy1991/92Patrick Roy
Curtis Joseph1992/93Ed Belfour
Dominik Hasek1993/94Dominik Hasek
Dominik Hasek1994/95Dominik Hasek
Dominik Hasek1995/96Jim Carey
Dominik Hasek1996/97Dominik Hasek
Dominik Hasek1997/98Dominik Hasek
Dominik Hasek1998/99Dominik Hasek
Olaf Kolzig1999/2000Olaf Kolzig
Sean Burke2000/2001Dominik Hasek
Jose Theodore2001/02Jose Theodore
Marty Turco2002/03Martin Brodeur
Roberto Luongo2003/04Martin Brodeur
Miikka Kiprusoff2005/06Miikka Kiprusoff
Martin Brodeur2006/07Martin Brodeur

The goalie selected as the best goalie in the NHL agrees with the choice made by the goals saved method slightly over 67% of the time (37 out of 55 times). Nevertheless, there are times when the goals saved method clearly was wrong. The most obvious examples are when a team with a strong defence had their goaltender lead the league for several years in a row despite changing goalies annually.

This happened twice. The Montreal Canadiens goal led the league by goals saved from the 1975/76 season every year until 1981/82. For the first four years, Ken Dryden was their goalie, the next year it was Denis Herron and in the final year it was Richard Sevigny. More likely this is a testament to the Canadiens having the best defence in the league (Larry Robinson, Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe were all members of those teams) then to them having the best goalie in the league despite changing goalies. This also happened to the Philadelphia Flyers from 1984/85 to 1986/87- Over those three seasons, their goalies were Pelle Lindbergh, Bob Froese and Ron Hextall respectively. This was a team that had a defence built around Mark Howe, Brad McCrimmon and Brad Marsh and it was the best of its time. In both cases, likely this is a function of a top defence allowing few high quality shots more than it is goaltending.

Interestingly, the team that is known for having a top defence for many years that cannot pull off a long string of their goalies leading the NHL in goals saved is the recent New Jersey Devils. Martin Brodeur deserved his first career Vezina by the goals saved method this season, despite it being the third he actually won in his career. Brodeur is a good goalie to have deserved even one Vezina, but this is evidence that he may be a product of top defences giving him good statistics when he has only once led the league in goals saved and given the low shot quality his team allows, one would expect him to have been the goals saved leader on more occasions than just one.

The goals saved method is not a perfect way to analyze goaltending, especially because it does not take into account shot quality, but it does a good job of picking the top goalie in a given season and is correct more then 2/3 of the time in predicting the Vezina winner.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Motivation Behind A Push For Better NHL Stats

Yesterday, I wrote about rebounds. Specifically, I wrote that they are a missing number that could easily be kept in the NHL's real time scoring system (RTSS) that would help us get a better picture of what happened in a hockey game. In fact, the RTSS system could be significantly improved (for example some events listed in some of the games are clearly incorrect - wrap around shots of greater than 60 feet etc.).

This story was picked up by foxsports.com as I (and several other bloggers) have an agreement with them that they can carry our stories. The story appeared here. In the comments to this story, some people were downright hostile to the idea of having better hockey statistics.

Comments include: "Jesus Christ that article gave me a headache...how bout this....a rebounded shot...we will call that a SOG...and if it goes in...we will call it a goal" and "LEAVE MY SPORT ALONE! This isn't baseball. This isn't a sport which is all about staticstics."

If we take the scenario of the first commenter (danjdevils1) a bit further, why don't we report hockey like this: Last night Edmonton played Chicago and seven goals were scored. We don't because it doesn't carry enough information. Who won? What was the score? Who scored? How did they score? Did player X have a good game? These are all natural questions. In order to attempt to answer them we need some level of statistics. You will notice that the last couple of questions on that list are next to impossible to answer reliably from looking at a standard hockey boxscore.

The second commenter (Thadd) is worried about hockey "becoming baseball" - which is presumably a sport he doesn't like. Of course, hockey will always be hockey no matter how much information we can extract from a hockey game it will still be a hockey game. Hockey does not lend itself to statistical analysis the way baseball does, but that does not prevent the study of sabermetrics and hockey. Nothing will ever replace the thrill of watching a game and seeing how plays develop and how defences react to them. Hockey is a complex game, but that does not mean that we cannot learn about it by looking at the statistics of the game.

In fact, the second commenter has his own blog on foxsports which can be seen here. His most recent post discusses the Edmonton Oilers players who will be restricted free agents in 2008 (from the premise that now that Edmonton signed Dustin Penner they better lock up any useful 2008 RFAs because people may be gunning for them). He looks at eight players who are Oiler property - many of whom have spent more time in the AHL than in the NHL. How does he discuss the players? He uses statistics. For example he writes:

Jean-Francois Jacques(Left wing) - Was a plus and put up 27 points in 29 games in the AHL before come to the NHL to acomplish nothing in 37 games. I'm not sure, but I imagine he was playing 4th line minutes. Landed a -11 and 33PIM. He's a 6"4 217pound beast. This 22 year old 2nd rounder still has some developing to do and it might show next season.

Why does he use statistics? Because it's the only natural way to discuss them. To explain this better I will quote from Bill James

Statistics are simplifications of much more complex realities. It may be unnecessary to say this because, of course, all human understanding is based on simplifications of more complex realities. Economic theories are simplified images of how an economy works, replacing billions of complicated facts with a few broad generalizations. The same is true of psychological and sociological theories, it is true in medicine and astronomy. The search for understanding, wherever it roams, is a search for better simplifications- simplifications which explain more and distort less. Even the understanding gained from experience is, of course, a simplification of experience into the generalizations which are distilled from many experiences.

We all know many things and many different types of things which are not reflected in the statistical record. Acknowledging this, a good statistical analyst is sometimes able to reach out and draw areas of the game which were previously undocumented inside the tent, inside the focus of the statistical record. Sabermetrics is sometimes able to invent a way to correct for one or another distortion of the statistical picture.

So why does Thadd (the second commenter) use statistics to discuss the players? Because it is the only natural way to do it. It's impossible to describe every play you saw the player make in any other meaningful way. So he uses a simplification. He looks at the statistics. All I am asking is that these statistics be as accurate as possible and tell us as much as they can about the underlying reality which is hockey.

Monday, August 13, 2007


In my earlier piece assessing shot quality I wrote about the NHL's real time scoring system (RTSS), which has useful data for sabermetrics and hockey studies, but much of this data is poorly tabulated and must be extracted from the various NHL games play-by-play summaries and once that data is extracted it is often of questionable quality including some events that are clearly incorrect (such as 60 foot wrap around shots - which are clearly coding errors) but nevertheless is a useful data set to extract averages over entire seasons. In order to help NHL hockey be better analyzed, systematic improvement of this data set would be useful.

One simple method of improvement would be clearly marking which shots in an NHL game are rebounds. This could be done by the scorer of the game when shot data is inputted with little additional effort. In order to attempt to extract which shots are rebounds, it is common practise to record all shots that come shortly after a previous shot with no other intervening event occurring between the shots (such as a faceoff). However, there are different standards used by different analyses to determine which shots are rebounds.

In his shot quality study, Alan Ryder of hockeyanalytics.com uses the definition that a rebound is any shot two seconds or less after a previous shot with a distance of less than 25 feet. He shows these shots are for more likely to score then a "standard shot". In 2002/03 41.2% of these rebounds score on power plays and 34.8% at other times. This is a rather restrictive rebound definition and may miss some rebounds (rebound shots may be taken three or more seconds after the initial shot), but clearly captures those rebounds where the goalie is likely still out of position from the initial shot.

Recently, On the Forecheck has written about rebounds in the 2006/07 season on both the team and individual level. He uses a much more liberal definition of rebound, where a rebound is any shot with 5 seconds of a previous shot with no intervening event reported. This definition will capture some rebounds the Ryder definition misses, but may also gather false positives when a team attempts to clear the puck after a shot and loses it to the attacking team that quickly shoots or on an individual level when a player picks up a rebound and passes the puck to a second player who then shoots.

This confusion over what is and is not a rebound could easily be removed if the NHL noted rebounds in their real time scoring. Nevertheless, some conclusions can be made from the data. Certain teams (Buffalo, Colorado, NY Rangers took more rebounds then others (Edmonton, Chicago, Minnesota). Certain teams (Pittsburgh, Ottawa, NY Islanders) gave up more rebounds then others (Detroit, Tampa Bay, San Jose). Certain players were better at taking rebounds (Martin St Louis, Alexander Frolov, Jaromir Jagr) then others. The uncertainties in the exactly which shots are rebounds (would we see qualitatively different results with a different definition of rebound) makes it hard to push this analysis to any meaningful next level. However, there are some counterintuitive results. For example, I would have guessed that Tampa Bay being a weak team in terms of goaltending would give up a lot of rebounds. They do not. I would have imagined that power forward players who are able to play in the slot without being removed by defences pick up the most rebounds. None of the leaders in rebounds are clearly known as power forwards. What this all means is hard to tell without better data to study.

The NHL's real time scoring system has the potential to be very valuable to understanding some of the details of what happens in a hockey game statistically. In order to get to this point, we need more accurate data kept by the league and we need a better record of the important events in a game. One simple way to improve this record is to record when a rebound occurs, so we do not need to guess.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Hiding Salary Mistakes In Russia

Before the lockout, essentially all of the best players in the world played in the NHL. This situation is slowly being eroded as more and more NHL capable players are choosing to play in Europe as they find they can make the same amount (or more) money in European leagues than they can with the artificial salary restrictions placed upon them by the CBA. This is especially true in the Russian Elite League, where there is there is no player transfer agreement. This allows players who are under valid NHL contracts to jump to the Russian league (and vice versa) if they are so inclined.

So far, two players who are signed to valid NHL contracts have signed to play in Russia next season. They are Oleg Tverdovsky of the Los Angeles Kings and Stanislav Chistov of the Boston Bruins. The twist as James Mirtle points out is that this (especially in the Tverdovsky case) is being done with the apparent blessing of their NHL teams.

Oleg Tverdovsky's NHL contract has him due to make $2.5 million this season. He has not lived up to this contract and spent a good portion of last season playing in the AHL. While Tverdovsky plays in the AHL, his salary does not count against the Kings salary cap, but they still must pay it. He was expected to be sent to the AHL again this season, but has instead chosen to play in Russia. As a result, the Kings can list him as a suspended or defected player and now do not have to pay him. Tverdovsky playing in Russia thus benefits the Kings.

This is an interesting method of salary cap evasion. If a team signs a player to a contract that does not fit well under the salary cap and can convince the player to play in Russia, they are no longer responsible for the contract and they do not have to buy out the player.

However, things may not be quite this simple. The Alexei Yashin case where Yashin held out for a season while under a valid contract with Ottawa was ruled that he still owed the Senators another season under the terms of the contract to make up for the lost season. Thus, it is entirely possible that Tverdovsky could decide that he is going to play in North America again either next season or some year in the future and Los Angeles will again be on the hook for his $2.5 million. The CBA does not allow re-negotiation of this contract, so LA's only option would be to buy it out (if they were aware of Tverdovsky's plans in time for the early summer buyout deadline).

Because of the CBA's salary restrictions, some players are finding Europe (especially Russia) to be a more lucrative place for them to play. This reduces the overall talent level of the NHL (though the reduction has not been huge yet it is increasing annually) and hurts the fan. Teams may also be able to use the fact that there is no player transfer agreement with Russia to let their players under problem contracts leave to Russia and be (at least temporarily) off the hook for the contract, however, the potential exists that if the player returns to the NHL he could still be owed the remaining money on the contract when he is even older and less likely to be of value to his team.

NOTE: This Boston Herald aricle claims Stanislav Chistov has not yet signed to play in Russia next season. Whether or not he is signed is immaterial since, with a lack of a player transfer agreement, he could jump back to the NHL at any time, though the Bruins might not have a roster spot for him if he does come back.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

36 Best All Time

Joe Pelletier has a request on his legends of hockey blog to come up with a list of the 36 best hockey players ever as part of a book to be written by a sports historian from Ireland.

As I am strongly interested in the history of the game of hockey, this was a question that immediately captured my attention. Ideally, one could make a sabermetric list of the best players to solve that question, except hockey is not a sport that lends itself so easily to statistical interpretation (though we are trying). That makes the answer to this question a bit more open to interpretation. Nevertheless, I sat down and wrote out my list of the 36 best players of all time (listed below in alphabetical order)

Jean Beliveau
Mike Bossy
Ray Bourque
Chris Chelios
Bobby Clarke
Paul Coffey
Marcel Dionne
Phil Esposito
Wayne Gretzky
Glenn Hall
Doug Harvey
Dominik Hasek
Gordie Howe
Brett Hull
Bobby Hull
Jaromir Jagr
Red Kelly
Guy Lafleur
Mario Lemieux
Nicklas Lidstrom
Ted Lindsay
Frank Mahovlich
Mark Messier
Stan Mikita
Howie Morenz
Bobby Orr
Jacques Plante
Denis Potvin
Maurice Richard
Larry Robnison
Patrick Roy
Joe Sakic
Terry Sawchuk
Eddie Shore
Bryan Trottier
Steve Yzerman

I then compared to the list Joe had suggested on his site and found we agree on 31 players and disagree on five. My choices that he omitted are: Paul Coffey, Marcel Dionne, Nicklas Lidstrom, Frank Mahovlich and Joe Sakic. His choices that I omitted are: Syl Apps, Martin Brodeur, Valeri Kharlamov, Henri Richard and Vladislav Tretiak. I will explain why I selected my five and omitted his.

Paul Coffey He is the second highest scoring defenceman of all time (behind Ray Bourque). He was part of four Stanley Cup championships in Edmonton and Pittsburgh. Aside from Bobby Orr, I have never seen any defenceman start an offensive play and consistently and successfully as Coffey. Presumably, he was omitted due to his defensive abilities. Though they were never the best in the league, they were not a liability until late into his career when his offensive abilities had started to fade. He won two Norris Trophies and was runner up to two others which is strong evidence for his ranking in the top 36 players of all time.

Marcel Dionne Dionne is the fifth highest scorer in NHL history. He did this despite never playing on any particularly great teams. As he did this, his best regular linemate was probably Dave Taylor (who will likely never make the Hockey Hall of Fame). Having a great career with weaker Los Angeles teams is what makes Dionne a top 36 player of all time. It is also what makes him overlooked. As a member of the weak Kings, Dionne never won a Stanley Cup. He never really came close. He had no finals appearances. No semi-finals appearances. People unfairly put the blame on Dionne for this. He scored 45 points in 49 career playoff games, so his lack of playoff success was not the problem with his teams; it was that nobody was around to support him.

Nicklas Lidstrom He is the best defenceman of our time. Lidstrom is a five time Norris Trophy winner (only Bobby Orr and Doug Harvey have done it more). He certainly isn't done yet; Lidstrom has a good chance of winning more Norris Trophies before he is done. Often, we tend to overlook the current stars on lists like this because we have not had time to put them into perspective yet.

Frank Mahovlich He is nearly universally considered the second or third best left winger of all time (behind Bobby Hull and in competition with Ted Lindsay). Although left wing is a historically weak position having three of them in a top 36 player list is quite reasonable. Especially when you consider that Mahovlich made the post season all star teams nine times (in the same years Bobby Hull was around so he had competition). When Mahovlich retired he was fifth all time in career goals with 533 and had over 1100 points. These are very respectable marks. He was likely left off Joe's list because despite all his accomplishments, Mahovlich seemed like somebody who could have done even more in his career. When he was on his game his graceful effortless skating and powerful shot were dominating. He played a finesse game despite being big enough that many expected a more physical game and thus he is looked at by some as a "failure". That is remarkable that one can fail and retire the fifth highest goal scorer ever.

Joe Sakic I think this is a case of overlooking today's stars because we have not yet put them in historical perspective in our minds. Along with Jaromir Jagr, Sakic has been the best scorer of the last fifteen years or so. He is the highest scoring active player in his career.

As for players Joe selected and I omitted:

Syl Apps I am conscious of the fact that the 30's and 40's are poorly represented on this list. I think it is due to the ever improving level of hockey played in the world and the ever increasing talent pool from which hockey players are drawn. I never seriously considered Apps and am a bit surprised to see his name on this list. I had Milt Schmidt and Dit Clapper as the most likely choices from this era that were omitted. Why way Apps selected? I am not sure. He never won an Art Ross or Hart Trophy. I suppose the reason is that he played in Toronto and was the best Leaf of this time. Toronto had a good team that won Stanley Cups and they are the hugest hockey media market so they have been able to make the legend of Syl Apps a bigger star than the actual Syl Apps was.

Martin Brodeur I am uncertain of where he should go historically. He will likely retire as the all time wins leader among goalies (though in an era where there are no more ties, this achievement is not as big as it once was) and could also be the all time shutout leader too. It's hard to argue that anyone who did that well in those statistics was not a good goalie (though it is possible to argue the value of those statistics). Martin Brodeur played behind a very good defensive team his whole career. He faced less shots per game and less quality shots then most (if not all) goalies most seasons. How much of his success was from team defence? Despite his win and shutout totals, many years Brodeur did not have a league leading saves percentage (though some years he did). New Jersey has remained a top team with Brodeur in net, despite losing Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer, so this is an argument in Brodeur's favor. Brian Rafalski will be gone next year. How would Brodeur do with a more mediocre defence in front of him? I am uncertain on the answer to this question and thus unwilling to rank Brodeur in the top 36 all time - though I must admit he is close.

Valeri Kharlamov His case is covered well in this piece I wrote when he was inducted to the Hall of Fame. It is clear that Kharlamov was a good player, but because he played so few games against top competition in his career it is very hard to know just how good. It is quite a leap to say he was top 36 good. He might have been, but more likely was not. For example, based on a limited number of international games played (and nothing else) you could make a strong argument that Mats Sundin is one of the 36 best of all time (he isn't). How certain are we that Kharlamov is not a similar case? I think it is most likely he is.

Henri Richard The case for Henri is 11 Stanley Cup wins. That is a record for a player. He was a good player, but never the best on his team. Never even the second best (though his team was stacked). That Richard retires with only 358 goals after 20 years and never won or was runner up to a Hart Trophy is an argument that he was a very good player in the right place at the right time to win all those cups. I would be more likely to choose Bernie Geoffrion is I needed another Hab from that era on this list - though I wound up choosing other players. Wasn't Geoffrion more dominant then Richard?

Vladislav Tretiak Another Russian who never managed to leave Russia to play in the NHL (like Kharlamov). Clearly he was a good player, but how certain are we he belong on this top 36 player list? How certain are we that Tretiak is not roughly equal to Ken Dryden or Tony Esposito - who were both very good goalies but do not find their names on this list? I think that would be a much more reasonable ranking for Tretiak.

Like any top player list, there will be some argument about some of the choices. Is there anyone else that should have been included? Did anyone make these lists that should not be there? Go to the Legends of Hockey site and make your case (or argue with me here).

Friday, August 10, 2007

Assessing Goalies: Goals Saved

It is a tough problem in sabermetrics and hockey to properly assess goaltenders statistically. This is because goaltending statistics are heavily influenced by the team in front of the goalie.

Nevertheless, the hockey outsider (Peter Albert) has tried to come up with a single number with which to rank a goalie's contribution to his team. He calls this method goals saved. The idea is to come up with a team independent measure of how many goals a particular goalie saved (when compared to an "average" goalie).

The idea is to find the extra number of saves a goalie makes when compared to "average" and multiply it by his workload on an "average" team (for the number of minutes he played in the NHL with his actual team).

In order to determine how many shots a goalie saves (when compared to an average goalie) we look to his saves percentage. Ideally, we would want to adjust for shot quality but since I have never seen this data tabulated before the 2002/03 season it eliminates most of the history of the NHL from this analysis. Nevertheless, clearly differing shot quality can lead to incorrect results with this method. The use of saves percentage limits this analysis to the 1951/52 season and more recent as this data does not exist further back in history than this (to the best of my knowledge).

In order to compare a goalie's saves percentage to the "average" level in a league, average must be calculated. For the purpose of this analysis we take average saves percentage to mean the saves percentage of the league (once the saves and shots faced by the goalie in question are subtracted out - this is significant because in the original six days one single goalie on a poor defensive team could face more than 20% of the leagues shots in a season). There is a potential problem with this definition of average, namely that it changes every year. For example, in an expansion year, it will suffer due to quality of opposition issues. If the league adds a couple of expansion teams that play bad goaltenders on bad teams with bad defences, these goalies will reduce the league averages. Due to the fact they are bad goalies, they will have lower saves percentages than the rest of the league. Due to the fact they are on bad teams with bad defences, they will face more shots against than the average team (thus having larger than average effect on the average saves percentage calculation) and the shots will be of higher quality (thus making their contribution look even worse since shot quality is not taken into account).

Once we have the difference in saves percentage between our goalie and the "average" we need to look at a goalies workload. We know how many minutes a goalie played and we can calculate the average shots per minute in the NHL (thus we are not penalizing goalies for playing on teams that face very few shots or over-rewarding those who face lots of shots).

Now we merely multiply these two numbers to give us a team independent goals saved value for a particular goalie (relative to "average" as we defined it and assuming neutral shot quality).

This is a simplified analysis which gives us one number to compare goalies. Comparisons that stay within one year are likely far more valid then those stretching several years - because of the floating definition of average. The fact that shot quality is not taken into account is a problem (although this data only exists for a handful of years and is of questionable quality so that cannot be avoided). This also removes many second order effects that goalies can have that can make a big impact on a game. For example, goalies with better puck playing ability can reduce goals against by fielding dump-in attempts which are not shots on goal or goalies who allow many rebounds will face higher shot totals than those who tend to hold onto the initial shot. These effects could significantly impact rankings, but cannot be taken into account. Given the quality of goalie statistics kept in the NHL, an analysis like this is the best that can be done, however it is not any final ranking of goaltenders. I will write about the leaders in goals saved in some future posts.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Potential Tampa Bay Sale

A group that calls themselves Absolute Hockey Enterprises has reached an agreement to buy the Tampa Bay Lightning from current owner Bill Davidson. No price for the sale has yet been reported. Absolute Hockey Enterprises includes recently fired ex-Columbus Blue Jackets GM Doug MacLean, real estate developer Jeff Sherrin and Oren Koules a movie producer who was involved in such movies as Saw and Dumb and Dumberer. They have purchased the St Pete Times Forum (rink in which the Lightning play) and some surrounding real estate under the agreement. The NHL board of governors must approve this sale, but it is nice that a sale can occur in the NHL without the usual controversy that seems to accompany these things.

Bill Davidson, the outgoing owner was successful with the Lightning, including winning the 2004 Stanley Cup. He is now 83 years old, and may be beginning to divest himself of some of his business interests and was given a respectable offer (presumably). Davidson also owns the Detroit Pistons of the NBA and the Detroit Shock of the WNBA. I would not be surprised to see these teams sold in the next couple years when a buyer can be lined up.

Here is TSN's story on the potential sale.

NOTE: The purchase price has been revealed as $206 million.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Assessing Shot Quality

When studying sabermetrics and hockey as it relates to goaltending the biggest problem is assessing shot quality. This data is not easily available to a fan my looking at a boxscore, however it is recorded with reasonable reliability and available through the nhl.com play-by-play reports.

In hockeyanalytics.com, Alan Ryder takes a look a shot quality to see what conclusions can be drawn. His published analysis is on the 2002/03 season and shows proof of principle of the method, but its unclear exactly how all of its conclusions would hold up in other seasons of NHL play.

If we look at the play-by-play for a random game (chosen as the February 4th, 2007 game where Washington defeated the New York Islanders 2-1) we can see multiple shots recorded. For example at 48 seconds in the first period, the first shot is recorded. It is an even strength shot by Shaone Morrisonn which is recorded as a 58 foot snap shot which was stopped by Islander goalie Rick DiPietro and held for a faceoff. All the shots in the game are recorded in this manner.

The NHL records six different kinds of shots. They are wrap-around, tip-in, backhand, slapshots, wristshots and snapshots. They also record the distance of each shot. This is done by the scorer of each game. He will click on a location on a screen that is the shape of an NHL rink and enter the shooter and type of shot. This type of manual data entry will have some errors in it. Sometimes (for example) wrap around shots are recorded at huge distances from the goal (in excess of 60 feet). This is clearly a coding error. I am sure there is sometimes error in recording the shot type (most commonly confusing snap and wrist shots) and the distance of the shot is sometimes coded incorrectly. Since the data is entered by individual scorers, it is quite possible that there is a bias in some scorers to (for example) enter shots as closer or further then they actually are or to list more shots as (for example) wrist shots then is correct. The data is imperfect, but nevertheless can be used for analysis. Of the longterm of an entire season, probably the errors average out to become unimportant.

From this data, it is possible to produce a model that will give the expected number of goals from a given group of shots. Alan Ryder separates several special case shots from the data to treat separately. First there are empty net goal shots. These are 100% dangerous as they will score every time. Second there are penalty shots. He lists them as 25% dangerous since thats roughly the penalty shot success rate in 2002/03. He defines long shots as any shot over 60 feet. They have a very low chance to go in. In the 2002/03 season they only score 0.6% of the time. Rebounds, which were identified as any goal or shot within 2 seconds of a previous shot (assuming the distance of the rebound shot to be less than 25 feet). These scored 41.1% of the time on power plays and 34.8% of the time at other times. He also looked at scramble shots, which were defined as any shot of less than 6 feet that was neither a rebound nor an empty net goal. On average 21.2% of these shots scored. All other shots were treated as normal shots. On the power play, 12.2% of normal shots scored, at even strength 7.9% of them scored.

By taking into account shot type and location, it is possible to produce a spreadsheet model that gives the expected number of goals for a given group of shots against. For example, if we have a 40 foot wristshot, we can look through the data and find the chances of a forty foot wristshot scoring. This can be normalized for the number of shots faced to give the shot quality against. Teams with good defences will allow low quality shots. Teams with poor defences with allow high quality shots. When we look at saves percentagers of goalies, it will become possible to see that two goalies with equivalent saves percentages are not equivalent goalies if they face differing shot quality.

It is also possible to study long term trends in the NHL. Does the obstruction crackdown of the last couple years lead to more traffic in front of the goal (and thus more tip-in goals for example)? To be meaningful, any spreadsheet model of expected goals from a group of shots must include enough shots to be statistically valid, but must not go back so far in history that changing circumstances are averaged into the data (as an obvious example shot quality from the 1950's when goalies went maskelss will be very different from that of today).

This attempt to assess shot quality is very valuable to the sabermetric study of goaltending. It allows for far better understanding of how well a given goalie is playing.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Penner is an Oiler

The Anaheim Ducks declined to match Edmonton's $21.25 million five year offer sheet for Dustin Penner and Penner is now an Oiler. This is probably going to be remembered as a key mistake made by the Oilers that ended the Kevin Lowe regime as GM.

Any general manager needs a coherent plan to build his team into a winner. It appeared that Lowe had one when he traded Ryan Smyth to the New York Islanders. It looked like Edmonton was going to try to keep their heads above water in the short term while their group of talented prospects hopefully matured into a solid team. It appears that the situation changed when the team completely collapsed down the stretch without Smyth. Edmonton lost 18 of their final 20 games (one in overtime leaving them with a 2-17-1 record). This was not acceptable. If Edmonton was this bad next season, Kevin Lowe would lose his job and the fans would be disillusioned. The plans were quickly changed and very quickly became one of desperation. Lowe promised that he was going to make that big trade or big free agent signing that would put Edmonton back on top. None were available. That didn't matter; Lowe became the guy at the bar who was determined to not go home alone. It didn't matter who he ended up with as long as it was somebody.

After several failed attempts to sign a big free agent, Edmonton finally signed defenceman Sheldon Souray from Montreal. It was something, but it wasn't enough to save his job or give the team any realistic chance of showing improvement in 2007/08. The problem was there were no more impact unrestricted free agents left who would consider Edmonton. So Lowe turned himself toward restricted free agents which under the right circumstances could be a good strategy. The problem was Edmonton is not a big enough spending market to be able to truly handcuff a team with a huge frontloaded contract and thus their only chance was to try to sign RFAs from teams that would be in salary cap trouble with their offer sheet. The other problem being that Edmonton is not that good a team. Even with the addition of a top RFA in their lineup, they will likely finish near the bottom of the standings next year and thus make the draft picks they would give up as compensation much more valuable.

Nevertheless, Lowe signed Tomas Vanek of Buffalo to an offer that was quickly matched. The next offer was to Dustin Penner of Anaheim. This offer sheet was not matched and Edmonton now has acquired Dustin Penner.

Dustin Penner was a 24 year old rookie last season with Anaheim. He scored 45 points and finished 5th in the Calder trophy voting for rookie of the year. Thus it is reasonable to expect that he should be the fifth highest paid 2006/07 rookie going forwards - instead he becomes the highest paid one. Since Penner is older than most NHL rookies, it is reasonable to expect that he will likely not mature and improve as much as some of the younger ones. Nevertheless, he will be making a large salary based on very optimistic projections of where his career might be headed. Most likely, he won't reach those levels, but it is possible that he might. On top of that, Edmonton gives up a 1st, 2nd and 3rd round pick as compensation. It is entirely possible that the first round pick could work out to be first overall in the 2008 entry draft (it is quite likely it will be near the beginning). Although Anaheim gets nothing immediate in return for Penner, the early draft pick alone could make the trade a good one for the Ducks in the long run.

Edmonton is a team without a direction. While they should be waiting for their next generation of players to mature (its the most coherent plan at this point), they are spending large amounts of money to attract their second choice free agents to town and giving up important blocks to build a future (such as their first round draft pick) to do so. They are a team that will most likely be bad next year, but won't have their first round draft pick to help them build for the future (they do have Anaheim's pick from the Chris Pronger deal but it is much later in the first round likely). This is an example of how desperation in management usually makes a team worse and not better. Edmonton is in bad shape going into next season and Dustin Penner will likely make the situation worse because of his compensation and unreasonably large ocntract.

Here is the TSN story on Penner going to Edmonton.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Nashville's Ownership Situation

The Nashville Predators expanded into the NHL in 1998. Craig Leipold had been the team's owner since day one. He hired a good hockey man in David Poile to be his GM and allowed Poile to slowly and methodically build a winning team in Nashville with little outside interference from ownership. The Nashville Predators have become a pretty good team finishing in fourth place in the NHL last season with 110 points. They have yet to have significant post season success, but looked like it would be only a matter of time before that followed. The problem was Leipold was losing money. He brought a good team to Nashville and not enough people in the city cared. Revenues were low. Attendance was low. Seeing Nashville as a poor hockey market, Leipold decided to sell.

Enter Jim Balsillie into the picture. The Canadian businessman had already made an offer to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins with the intent to move them to Southern Ontario. This was an offer he later withdrew when the NHL stood in the way of relocation. Pittsburgh is a solid hockey market that was having trouble getting a new arena deal and moving them would not address that issue. When Nashville became available, Balsillie made a $220 million offer to buy the Predators. Again he planned to bring the team to Southern Ontario. The NHL does not look too fondly upon team relocations because it deprives then of the expansion fees that would be paid by new owners of expansion teams in the relocated markets and because it is a blow to the mythology that the lockout was done in part to prevent franchise relocations. Publicly, the NHL frowned upon Balsillie's offer and led Nashville to look in other directions for a potential owner. It is speculated that their private opinion of Jim Balsillie might be more complex.

At any rate, with some uncertainty over ownership, the Predators acted to keep costs down in the upcoming season. They let Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell go to Philadelphia just before the free agency deadline, they traded Tomas Vokoun and allowed Paul Kariya to leave via free agency. The future Predators would not be as talented, but they would be cheaper - at least until new ownership was ready.

The next potential suitor was William "Boots" Del Biaggio. He is the frontman for the Anshutz group that is trying to bring the NHL to Kansas City where they have an arena ready waiting for tenants. He would still be acting to relocate the team and this is still against the NHL's wishes, but it is more agreeable to them because Kansas City is a market in the US heartland where the NHL is desperately trying to grow roots in pursuit of a new US TV deal - which would be a huge boost the NHL revenues were it not a pipedream. Another team in Southern Ontario doesn't help the total NHL revenues the same way. Sure they might be financially successful, but they won't increase the revenues of the other owners the way a potential US TV deal would. There was opposition to moving Nashville to Kansas City, but it was not as big as the opposition to a move to Southern Ontario.

The ideal scenario for the NHL is to keep the Predators in Nashville and fill Kansas City, Southern Ontario and anywhere else with expansion franchises. When local businessmen started to put together an offer to keep the Predators in Nashville this was seen as the best possible outcome.

The problem was there isn't enough interested local money. Del Biaggio got himself included in the group that offered $193 million to buy the Predators from Leipold. He imagines that the weakened Predator team will be unable to make necessary revenue levels and will be more easily moved to Kansas City when the local Nashville businessmen, who are his partners, get tired of losing money. I imagine this is the most likely scenario at this point. The city of Nashville did not support the Predators at a high enough level when they had a good team, and likely they will not have as good a team going into the new season. I think the Nashville Predators are a "dead franchise walking" that got a temporary reprieve from this offer. There is no guarantee that this sale will go through as planned and even if it does, they are not out of the woods. The Nashville fans will have to support the team at higher levels than ever before with less talent on the ice.

Here is the TSN story on the letter of intent to keep the Predators in Nashville.

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