Posts Tagged ‘goaltending’

Isn't the maple leaf supposed to be red?

So, at the risk of jinxing it (here’s hoping), how about those Maple Leafs?

Traditionally at this point in the season I am breaking out the Leafs jokes such as “What is the difference between the Toronto Maple Leafs and a triangle? (A: A triangle has three points.)” or “What do the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Titanic have in common? (A: They both look good until they hit the ice.)”

However, the Maple Leafs have ignored the usual script so far this season and actually find themselves in playoff position heading into December.  And I’m completely in the dark as to the reason why.

On paper this Maple Leafs outfit doesn’t look much different than the one that once again managed to cause hearts to flutter up until the final week of last season in the latest instalment in the will-they-or-won’t-they saga better known as the Maple Leafs’ playoff fortunes.  The usual suspects are still there eating up inordinate amounts of salary cap space: Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, and Mike Komisarek.  Add in the newly acquired duo of Tim Connolly and John-Michael Liles and you’re halfway to the salary cap already, which is the exact same position that the Maple Leafs have been in for the past few seasons.  The management is the same too, with the crotchety duo of Brian Burke and Ron Wilson still holding onto jobs many thought they would have lost years ago.

So, in this top-heavy world of underachievers and unwanted All-Stars, what has changed between this season and last for the team known as the Blue and White?

Well, it certainly isn’t goaltending.  Toronto’s goalies have allowed 80 goals (this number does not account for empty net goals) in 26 games thus far, which is just over three goals per game.  Add in the all-important save percentage stat that reads at a rather pedestrian .901 and it’s easy to see that there certainly aren’t miracles being worked in between the Leafs’ pipes.  It’s not as though their goalies are seeing a disproportionately low number of shots either.  James Reimer, Ben Scrivens, and Jonas Gustavsson have faced on average 31.2 shots per game, which is around or above the NHL average.  They can’t make the same excuse as Detroit’s Jimmy Howard and say that his defence just doesn’t give up many shots to begin with.

Phaneuf is finally regaining some of the form that made him such a hit in Calgary.

If it’s not the goaltending causing MLSE CEO Richard Peddie to get excited for the first time in a decade, maybe it’s the defence.  Maybe the Leafs have become stingier in their own zone than those great, snore-inducing New Jersey teams of the late ‘90s.  Alas, that doesn’t seem to be the answer either as they’ve managed to give up a 26th-best total of 85 goals against in 26 games.  Of the teams currently in the top eight of their respective conferences Chicago is the only other team to have allowed more than 80 goals, with seven teams conceding fewer than 60 up to this point in the season.  This defensive frailty is hard to believe when you consider that the Maple Leafs defence core consists of a top four of Phaneuf, Komisarek, Liles, and Luke Schenn and up-and-comers in the form of Carl Gunnarsson, Jake Gardiner, Cody Franson, and Keith Aulie, the latter two being stars for Canada’s World Junior team in recent years.  Gone is the mistake better known as Jeff Finger, but the Leafs’ defensive woes still continue.

That leaves us with what I like to call the Washington Capitals Syndrome (WCS): play a firewagon brand of hockey and score more goals than the opposition to cover up defensive frailties.  Washington has used this method to great effect to not only gain regular season success, but also get their coach fired because it is totally ineffective in the playoffs.

However, as I mentioned previously, Ron Wilson still has his job and I think a lot of the credit for that has been the emergence of Joffrey Lupul as a legitimate partner for Phil Kessel on the Leafs’ top line.  Lupul has been the Robin to Kessel’s Batman this season, matching Kessel stride-for-stride in the points scoring race while playing legitimate first line minutes.  As such it is no coincidence that the Maple Leafs also find themselves amongst the league leaders in goals for with 83 goals to their tally thus far.  Unsurprisingly, if we are continuing with the WCS hypothesis, the Maple Leafs are also getting great offensive contributions from their defence with Phaneuf and Liles racking up 18 and 16 points respectively.

While I term this the Washington Capitals Syndrome and am highly skeptical of its suitableness to playoff hockey, no one can deny that it is effective over the course of a regular season.  Washington has used it to great effect over the past few seasons, winning a President’s Trophy in the process.  Of course, the Capitals have a relatively more talented than Toronto’s current outfit.  Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, no matter how good they have started the season, are not Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.  Nor are Dion Phaneuf and John-Michael Liles in the same offensive category as Mike Green.

Mike Komisarek could be the key that allows Toronto to play sound defensive hockey.

What the Maple Leafs do have in their advantage over the Washington teams of recent memory is the personnel to play a more defensive-oriented game.  Washington was forced into playing a run-and-gun style because they lacked true talent on the blueline.  They lacked a true shut-down unit that could effectively combat opposing teams and such was their downfall when the opposition stopped theirs.  The Leafs have such a combo waiting in Mike Komisarek and Luke Schenn.  Whether or not such a partnership will develop is another story though.  It will take time, especially since Komisarek is just getting back into his stride as an NHL defenceman.  If such a pairing ever coalesces into something more than a pipe dream the Leafs might be a greater contender than you’d think.

Whether or not the Maple Leafs can emulate Washington’s success in playing offensively-charged, but defensively-irresponsible hockey is one of the reasons to keep watching the Maple Leafs intently.  If they continue at the same pace it is very possible that Leafs fans will see their team in the playoffs, but it is also possible that they will crash and burn as their opponents learn to shut down the Kessel-Lupul tandem.

But that’s the danger of firewagon hockey.  You might win a lot of games 5-3, 6-5, or 7-4, but you can lose just as many 5-2, 6-1, or 4-0.  A hot goalie or tight checking can be your undoing just as easily as 4-on-2 rushes can be your saving grace.

Either way, the Maple Leafs just made the hockey season interesting, and not only because I might have to wait a little longer before breaking out my best Leafs jokes.

All statistics from www.tsn.ca as of December 4, 2011.

All salary cap numbers from www.capgeek.com as of December 4, 2011.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have never been blessed with outstanding I.Q. in the hockey operations department.  However, it’s taken until now to realize just how low that I.Q. actually has been over the course of time.

Roberto Luongo could have been a Maple Leaf...thank God it didn't happen.

In 1996, Mathieu Schneider was traded from the New York Islanders to the Toronto Maple Leafs, along with Wendel Clark, for Kenny Jonsson and the Leafs’ first-round pick in 1997.  At first glance this doesn’t seem like that stupid of a trade for the Leafs, but – much like the recent Phil Kessel trade – the value of a first round pick is not to be underestimated.

In this case, the first round pick turned out to be the fourth-overall selection that the Islanders used to select Roberto Luongo, who turned into one of the top starting goalies of his generation.  The big mistake the Leafs made was passing on a bona-fide franchise goalie of the sort that they haven’t had since before I was even born.

That brings me around to the actual topic of this post: the value of goaltending in today’s NHL.

You’ve heard all the cliches about how championships are built on goaltending or how teams build from the net out and for the most part they’re true.  I challenge you to show me the Stanley Cup-winning team that did not receive great goaltending on their way to victory, even if said goaltending came from someone that was completely unheard of before the playoffs began.

The last couple of years would seem to undermine such a theory.  Fewer teams are using an out-and-out number one goaltender.  Fewer goaltenders are earning mega-bucks contracts.  Teams are stocking up on B-level goalies to interchange throughout the season.

Some may conclude that this is an indication that the value of the goalie is declining.  Teams are less inclined to pay big bucks for a top-notch goalie because they feel that the money is better spent on forwards or defencemen as they feel such are more valuable in the chase for Lord Stanley’s Cup.  As such, goalies are seen as being more expendable.

The greatest goalie of all-time, Dominik Hasek.

That’s pretty bad news for people who grew up in the era of Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur, Dominik Hasek, Ed Belfour, and Curtis Joseph.

However, I would argue that the trends of the past couple years point to just how valuable goaltending really is.

Let’s start with the premise that the goalie is the most important member of the team.  I know that such an assumption could result in a rather circular argument, but assuming that general managers also start with the same premise will help explain the trends that we have seen.  The second premise that we need to acknowledge is that there are 82 regular season games plus a possible 28 games to come in the playoffs.  This represents a total of 110 games.  Thirdly, it is a fact of the game that goalies get injured, lose form, or simply need a rest.  These premises are inarguable.

What these three premises amount to is the fact that in order to have the best chance of winning the Cup, a team must get good goaltending every game out of the entire 110 possible games.  If goaltending is the most important factor towards winning it would behoove teams to ensure they have good goaltending every game of the season.

Now, in the modern, salary-capped NHL, teams can really only devote a certain percentage of their salaries towards goaltending.  Even with the emphasis on getting top-flight goaltending, NHL rosters have room for 23 players and teams would be rather foolish not to fill those rosters out.  Based on a per-player division of salary cap money, teams can afford to spend approximately $8.217 million on goaltenders (based on 3 goaltenders at $2.739 million per player).

The question is: how is a general manager to divide up this money to give his team the best shot of winning?

If we go back to premise three – that goalies get hurt, have off-days, etc – then it would seem that the historical strategy, that of investing all the money in one high-priced superstar, is rather flawed.  For instance, what happens when a team’s $6-8 million investment comes up lame with a pulled groin?  What happens when said investment has a stretch of bad games that causes the team to lose morale and confidence, leading to a long losing streak?

Niemi is a perfect example of teams diversifying their goaltending assets.

Today’s general managers are taking a different approach.  They are diversifying, investing in multiple goaltenders in the hope that at least one will be able to produce the goods at any given time.  Let’s look at the Chicago Blackhawks as an example.  They won the Cup on the back of Antii Niemi’s great playoff performance.  (Coincidentally, their opposition in the finals – the Flyers – used a rotating carousel of goaltenders to get there.)  Niemi was a relatively unknown quantity before that playoff run, but proved to be a shrewd investment on the part of Stan Bowman and his predecessor Dale Tallon.  But when Niemi’s contract ended, Bowman refused to give Niemi a new, inflated contract on the basis that he had several young, inexpensive options (not to mention the albatross contract he was saddled with in Cristobal Huet) on hand.  One of which, Corey Crawford, turned out to be a pretty good player himself.

Other teams, including the Toronto Maple Leafs, Washington Capitals, and Detroit Red Wings have also employed such a tactic (albeit with varying results).

In saying that, teams would still be foolish to pass on a potential Hall of Fame goaltender as the Maple Leafs did in 1997 (Luongo may not be Hall-bound, but his first few years in the league sure pointed in that direction), even if it will cost them a large chunk of salary.

After all, good goaltending is the most valuable commodity in hockey and great goaltending gets you in the Hall of Fame.

The people who score the goals get all the glory, not the people who stop them.

Wayne Gretzky is widely considered the greatest hockey player of all-time because he scored 894 goals (and assisted on 1963 others) and when you look at a list of the other nominees for greatest player you’ll see names like Orr, Howe, Lemieux, or Richard, all of whom were prolific offensive players and goal scorers.

Even Bobby Orr, one of the greatest defenceman of all time, is more widely celebrated for his ability to score goals and/or assist on goals than his contributions to keeping others from scoring on him.

This then begs the question of why do we value goal-scorers over goal-stoppers?  Alternatively, it makes us wonder why we should value goal-stoppers at all if the most valuable players in sports are all goal-scorers?

The first question is easy to answer.  In today’s world of the business of sports, where fan excitement equals dollars in the owners’ and league’s pockets, the goal-scorers are the primary entertainers and the goal-stoppers the antithesis of that entertainment.  Each goal adds the the fans’ excitement, making them more willing to watch the product being sold to them.  The goal-stoppers seek to shut down this excitement.

Thus, the goal-scorers are paid more, publicized more, and and valued more by the general public.  After all, it is the goal-scorers that give the fans the highlight-reel moments that are sure to stick in the collective memory.  It might be a physics-defying deke or a lighting shot to the top corner that raises the fans’ excitement.  Even in highlight-reel saves or defensive plays the goal-scorer plays his part by creating a chance so likely to lead to a goal that the goal-stopper is forced to do something miraculous in return.

So now that we know why the goal-scorer is valued, we must turn to the question of why we should value the goal-stopper.  Why should we value the player who dampens our excitement and stops other players from giving us the highlight-reel moments that we love so much?

While some people are likely to say that we shouldn’t value these players, I think that without the goal-stopper the sports that we love would be the lesser.

Consider that for half of any game one team is on offense and the other is on defence.  That means that for half of any game each player will have to play either offense or defence (unless it’s American football, in which case the players need to learn to play both sides of the ball before I can take the sport seriously).  It also means that if you can’t or don’t have the skills play both offense and defence, then you are only actually playing half of the sport.

For example, take a goal-scoring winger in hockey who doesn’t backcheck or block shots, e.g. Alexander Ovechkin.  For all of Ovechkin’s offensive prowess, he will never be a candidate for the Selke trophy for best defensive forward.  You will never hear commentators praise him for his defensive positioning or picture-perfect shot-blocking technique, those kinds of praise are reserved for work horses like Anton Volchenkov (who only plays half the game on the defensive side).

On the other hand you have players such as Pavel Datsyuk or Nicklas Lidstrom who play effectively on both sides of the puck.  Datsyuk, a regular 90-point player, is consistently among the top players in the league for forcing turnovers and plus/minus.  Lidstrom, in addition to his defensive skills, routinely puts up 50 points each season – reaching a career high of 80 points in 2005-2006.

And it’s not just in hockey that we see this opposition of the goal-scorer and the goal-stopper.  Other sports such as basketball, soccer, and rugby all require players to play both sides of the ball with equal effectiveness.  However, as with hockey, the goal-scorers get most of the glory.  After all LeBron James isn’t famous for grabbing defensive rebounds, but rather for making highlight-reel dunks.  Lionel Messi isn’t famous for making key tackles or marking effectively, but rather for his phenomenal skills with the ball at his feet.  Jonah Lomu wasn’t famous for smashing people in a tackle, but rather smashing through other people’s attempts to tackle him (just ask Mike Catt…).

None of these players are as effective on the other side of the ball.  LeBron doesn’t combine shut-down defense with his offensive game in the same way as Dwight Howard or Kevin Garnett.  Messi does not possess the all-round qualities of a Paul Scholes, Bastian Schweinsteiger, or Gerard Pique.  Lomu didn’t get around the pitch in quite the same way as modern masters Dan Carter or Richie McCaw do.

For a true sports fan, the defensive side of the game holds much merit.  There is a subtle art and a brutal efficiency to playing defence.  A perfectly timed body check or the instinct to latch onto a loose pass from the opposition and turn it into a scoring chance the other way is just as beautiful as Ovechkin’s latest shootout move or one-timer.

Therefore, the player that does both, the one that paints on both sides of the canvas so to speak, is much more valuable and much more deserving of our respect and admiration than the player that does one exclusively.

So I then have to turn the question around: why should we value players who only play half of their given sport?  Why should we elevate the goal-scorers to a status above that of the player who can both score and prevent others from scoring?

Why?