Despite being favored to return to the Stanley Cup Finals this season, the Detroit Red Wings have one glaring weakness: Goaltender Chris Osgood.
It’s the best of jobs; it’s the worst of jobs.
No other player is as loved and hated as the NHL goaltender. It may be a cliché, but it really does take a special breed to don the mask, someone who doesn’t mind getting hit with a six-ounce piece of vulcanized rubber fired from close range at 100 mph.
The only thing worse than getting hit with the puck is not getting hit with the puck. When that red light goes on behind you – and it will, hundreds of times if you’re good enough to have a career – you get all the blame, even if your defense left you hanging out to dry.
Sometimes you get more credit than you deserve, too. Let’s consider the case of Chris Osgood, who has experienced both sides of the love-hate continuum. The Detroit Red Wings went 26-9-8 during the 2008-09 regular season when Osgood was the goalie of record. But Osgood was actually having the worst of his 15 years in the NHL, posting an .887 save percentage and watching his goals-against average balloon from 2.09 to 3.09. The Red Wings bailed him out by leading the league with 295 goals, or 3.60 per game.
It’s a bit old-school these days to evaluate goaltenders by wins and GAA, but the general public still does it. The “save percentage” statistic is relatively new to the hockey lexicon; the first Roger Crozier Saving Grace Award was awarded 10 years ago to Ed Belfour of the Dallas Stars for his .919 SV%, but hardly anyone pays attention to this trophy. That’s great for handicappers, because this stat is much more indicative of a goalkeeper’s performance level than any of the traditional numbers. Save percentage accounts for the quality of team defense in front of the goaltender by considering how many shots a goalie faces in a game and over the course of a season. Goals-against average does not.
Of course, not every shot on goal is the same. A dump-in from 120 feet that happens to land at the goalie’s feet is much easier to stop than a wrist shot from Alex Ovechkin as he barrels down the left wing. The next wave of advanced statistics is trying to account for this, with varying degrees of success. Alan Ryder at Hockey Analytics introduced a metric called Shot Quality in 2004, but put it in mothballs in 2007 because of the difficulty in gathering reliable data. Gabriel Desjardins at Puck Prospectus (a new addition to the Baseball Prospectus family) has a simpler model that filters for even-strength and power-play situations, then crunches the numbers for an expected Wins Above Replacement over 82 games. Here were the top five and bottom five WAR goalies from last year.
|Tim Thomas, Boston
|Tomas Cokoun, Florida
|Niklas Backstrom, Minnesota
|Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh
|Roberto Luongo, Vancouver
|Martin Gerber, Ottawa/Toronto
|Vesa Toskala, Toronto
|Peter Budaj, Colorado
|Chris Osgood, Detroit
|Johan Hedberg, Atlanta
There’s our friend Mr. Osgood again. His performance last year was a giant red flag for handicappers looking at Detroit as the 6-1 favorite to win the Stanley Cup. The Wings chose to save room under the salary cap this offseason by letting No. 2 goalie Ty Conklin sign with the St. Louis Blues as a free agent, even though Conklin was their best goalie last year with a .909 SV% and a 4.0 WAR figure. Osgood’s new backup, young Jimmy Howard, has a .900 SV% in 10 career NHL games and allowed a couple of softies in last week’s 5-3 loss to Conklin and the Blues (+161) in Stockholm.
Conklin once again finds himself the No. 2 guy in St. Louis behind Chris Mason, who posted a .916 SV% and a 2.7 WAR with the Blues last year. As long as NHL teams and bettors keep undervaluing Conklin, the Blues will march all over the betting odds when he’s between the pipes.