Game 16 vs WAS: The Backup Plan

Sorry kids, lazy post today – it’s 4 in the morning, I’m full of beer, and I’ve just remembered that I’ve barely written anything for the Capitals game. I’ll try my best to form a few coherent sentences here – but don’t count on it, because they’re going to be about goaltenders, who are without exception completely insane. (Incidentally, a word of advice to fellow bloggers who are also alcoholics – keeping a list of emergency topics to write about is a great idea and comes very much recommended.)

To lead into this one, I wanted to call a strange anomaly to attention: as of today the Avalanche have seen 8 backups, 2 goaltenders who are arguably in platoons (Bernier) or utter clusterfucks (Ramo), and only 5 legitimate starters. Some of these are due to mitigating circumstances – either the starters were injured or had played the previous night. Off the top of my head, this would apply to Howard, Ward, Pavelec, and Rinne, so that’s actually quite a decent chunk of the teams we’ve seen.

It’s probably a safe assumption that the backup ratio is due to circumstance rather than opponents taking the Avalanche for granted as they would have in past seasons, but still surprising given how well the team is doing. Given that the Avalanche has been winning games but riding good percentages, it seems strange that other teams would allow us us to shoot against weaker goaltenders and inflate said percentages. But from a more Av-centric point of view, it begs the question – could our scoring numbers also be buoyed by playing against weaker goaltending?

even strength save percentage

The reason I only use even strength save percentage is that wins and goals against average are heavily influenced by how well the team plays in front of a goaltender, and special teams are also a team-driven function, as shot quality becomes a far larger factor when up or down a man. Since it’s far easier to score on special teams, the number of penalties a team draws or takes also becomes a major factor – and the smaller sample size means that it can’t be expected to even out over an entire season. Note that while I included their year-to-date stats for reference, your average backup goaltender doesn’t have nearly enough shots against to make a fair judgment of how good he’ll be this year and it’s more or less meaningless, unless you think Peter Budaj is soon to supplant Carey Price as Montreal’s starter.

It’s doubtful that we’ll ever be able to measure a goaltender’s raw performance, as Mike Smith or Ilya Bryzgalov could testify from playing in Dave Tippett’s system. Even strength save percentage is hardly a perfect way to minimize the team’s effect on a goaltender’s performance, but it’s the best basic measurement we can find over a few years, without going too deep into the rabbit holes of puckhandling, team shot quality against, or clutchiness. (If I really wanted to optimize the model, I might also adjust each goalie’s save percentage by year for the number of goals scored that season in order to account for the era, eg: the post-lockout* uptick in scoring. I’m not going to do that though, because a) drunk and b) lazy.)

*The 2004-2005 lockout, of course. Isn’t it completely fucking ridiculous that writing about a lockout requires specifying which of three it is?

A few of these numbers are a bit unfair – Berra and Zatkoff have precious few games to work with and their sample sizes may not be indicative of their actual skill at all. While Johnson and Enroth have more to work with, I don’t think anybody would mistake them for playing to the level of their respective starters (though over 1383 career shots against, Buffalo has an excellent young goalie in Enroth). Over smaller sample sizes like theirs, using overall save percentage would make more sense, but I opted for consistency here so take them with several grains of salt.

With that said – it does seem rather likely that the Avalanche have been victimizing weaker goaltenders this season, with 11 goals in 5 games against starters compared to 30 goals in 8 games against backups. Said backups also appear to be distinctly worse at goaltending – their mean career save percentage is .914 at even strength, whereas their respective number ones average out to .924. For comparison, the 5 starters we’ve faced have an average of .926 over their careers. Even though both of the Avalanche’s losses come against backups, there’s reasonable correlation to say that the parade of meh-to-mediocre masked men has been a boon to the team.

So does that mean the Avalanche will be seeing less success as teams begin starting better goaltenders against them? The answer is a resounding … yes and no. Keep in mind that while the difference between .914 and .924 seems like a lot, it really only amounts to one additional goal allowed over 100 shots. It’s only over the course of many, many shots that this has a great effect on a team’s defensive numbers. The Avalanche have been doing particularly well against second-string netminders, but it could be for any number of reasons – defensive breakdowns, special teams (which I didn’t extract from the Avs’ goals), or total fluke through an insufficient number of games to make an accurate call.

The Capitals should be starting Holtby tonight, as Neuvirth played to extra time last night against the Coyotes. But even if he pitches a shutout, we should bear in mind that one game may as well be a statistical drop in the ocean. And even if the Avalanche start facing more starting goaltenders and losing more games, it should be noted that both elements – our winning ways and the inordinate amount of backups faced – are due to regress anyways. But certainly this puts our record under greater scrutiny, and it should be interesting to see its implications over a full season.

I guess the main lesson here is that if you enjoy narratives in your sports reading, don’t learn statistics.

PS: Delicious Icing is now on Twitter! Full disclosure: I am … challenged with social media to say the least, so this might be a bit of an adventure. I’ve also updated the About page to be as juvenile as possible – not sure if that’s anything I really want to advertise, but it isn’t like my judgment is impaired or anything, so here we are.


About Arthur

I like the Colorado Avalanche and tolerate the Toronto Raptors.
This entry was posted in 2013-14 Season, Colorado Avalanche and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Game 16 vs WAS: The Backup Plan

  1. wickediz says:

    For clarity’s sake, I’m going to quote my response to a question on MHH here:

    Q: Why do you consider Fasth the backup when he started in Anaheim’s first game of the season instead of Hiller, who was also dressed?
    A: I can’t claim to be well-versed in Anaheim’s goalie situation, but Hiller is a very good goalie … it really sucks for him that Fasth and now Andersen have come out of obscurity to play so well. Still, I think he’s the best of the three by a decent margin – his poorer numbers this year are subject to an ugly .733 S% on the PK, which he doesn’t have that much control over. I’m looking at the Avs’ performance rather than goaltender usage against us, so I considered Hiller the starter because he’s the better player and has been for Fasth’s entire career.

  2. Bronas V. says:

    Q: Would you consider Aaron Gray the Toronto Raptors’ starting goalie on account of his blubbery arms and hockey-ready beard, or would that honour go to Jonas Valanciunas, because his oblong head would easily fit into a goalie mask?

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