• Critics, backsides etc.

    by  • February 14, 2010 • Uncategorized • 16 Comments

    If you spend any time reading the Oilogosphere, you’ve probably noticed the development of a delightful new meme during the past few months: ” ________ has pretty much shoved it up the backsides of his critics once and for all as to his ability to be __________.” The meme comes out of a Robin Brownlee piece on JDD that was posted on December 10, 2009 in which Brownlee made the regrettable decision to fill in the blanks with “JDD” and “competent NHL starter.”

    How did JDD reward Brownlee’s anointment of him as The Future? With a nifty little 1-6 stretch in which he posted an .876 save percentage. When JDD showed some signs of life in a pair of games against the Leafs (one of the few teams as bad as the Oilers) and the Flames (on the precipice of a 3-8-3 skid), Brownlee made a big deal of restating the truth as he understood it, explaining that what we were seeing was “…Deslauriers emerging as a guy who can be the No. 1 puck-stopper for this franchise for years to come.”

    JDD responded to this touching display of faith with an 0-5-1 January in which he posted an .846 save percentage. He looked bad enough doing it that, after JDD’s last start in January, Brownlee expressed some concern, writing: “If Deslauriers doesn’t perform markedly better than Devan Dubnyk in the Oilers remaining games, he’s going to make it impossible to justify keeping him ahead of Dubnyk. I expected him to be better than this.” As is perhaps to be expected, a few people stopped by in the comments to take the piss out of Brownlee – there’s nobody more prone to snarkiness than a critic with an unstuffed backside.

    JDD promptly won two in a row, stopping 66 of 68 shots in a pair of wins over Carolina and Philadelphia, and then acquitted himself reasonably well in a pair of losses. Emboldened by JDD’s good looking performances, Brownlee expressed some hope again. Perhaps chastened, he couched his hopes in language about consistency but you could see what he really thought: “Even with those big swings, by the numbers, I’m thinking Deslauriers has probably been better than a lot of his critics thought he projected to, at least if you take into account how bad the Oilers have been.”

    JDD and the Oilers then headed off to Phoenix, where they were torn apart by the Coyotes. The Oilers were terrible, as was JDD and it was another 6-1 loss.

    Brownlee’s no dummy though. After taking a bit of a roasting in his comments section after his January 29 post, he came up with a new trick for his February 8 post: he went after something that I said a year and a half ago. After being referenced as a geek at another website in his earlier posts, I got my name mentioned (although no link or mention of the site name so that persons curious about the context could see the original post – Robin doesn’t know how to link) on ON.

    Even with his swings in performance, I’m sticking with Deslauriers. Time, as it always does, will tell if I’m wrong. If I am, it’s comforting to know I’ll have company as esteemed as Dellow himself.

    In July 2008, the following appeared on Dellow’s website about Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres, who signed a five-year extension: “As an aside, it should go without saying, but I think that the Ryan Miller contract was ridiculous. I have him as a pretty average NHL goalie, maybe slightly above. That’s not worth $6.25MM annually.

    “He’s exactly the kind of goalie who Ken Holland is talking about. Faced with a choice of him or Daniel Briere, I take Briere. Maybe that’s not fair because the Sabres learned from the loss of Drury and Briere not to let their stars walk but if Darcy Regier was talking to Kevin Lowe these days, Lowe might have been able to advise him that you don’t fix your unwillingness to pay guys in the past by overpaying lesser players.”

    Now you might wonder about the original post from July of 2008. It’s here if you want to read it in its entirety but the points I was making were as follows:

    1. John MacKinnon doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense;
    2. Paying Mathieu Garon $3.0MM doesn’t make a hell of a lot sense;
    3. The goalie market is going to be flooded with goalies in the summer of 2009; and
    4. Ryan Miller should not have been handed a five year contract worth $31.25MM.

    Three of those four points have stood up reasonably well, I think. There was a bonus cheap shot at Kevin Lowe for signing Souray that probably does as well, but it was sort of a reflexive thing that I didn’t put any thought into and cannot reasonably claim credit for.

    Let’s be honest here. Labelling goalie contracts in excess of $4MM annually as “bad” and not looking stupid is pretty easy. Seventeen goalies are being paid more than $4MM annually. They include Vesa Toskala (.894 save percentage since signing that deal), Ilya Bryzgalov (earned his contract with a .921 in 55 games in Phoenix, followed it up with a .906 in 2008-09 and now back to posting a .921), Jose Theodore (promptly lost his job to Simeon Varlamov), Rick DiPietro (currently facing the possibility of a knee fusion), Tim Thomas (promptly lost his job to Tuukka Rask), Cristobal Huet (signed to replace Nikolai Khabibulin who was put on waivers and went unclaimed; Huet then couldn’t take the number one job from him), Marty Turco (incredibly overrated, although he managed to keep his job), Miikka Kiprusoff (terrible seasons in first two years of contract) and JS Giguere (lost his job shortly after signing the contract, traded to Toronto for Jason Blake and Vesa Toskala in an exchange of problems). That’s more than half of the guys who are currently on big contracts who may well not have gotten those contracts if their teams knew how things were going to work out.

    Now…about Ryan Miller. Jonathan Willis, ON writer and part-time mediator of disputes between ON and non-ON writers, came up with the following:

    …it’s fine to note now that he’s a top-tier goaltender, but at the end of 2007-08 that case had hardly been made. Miller at the time had three seasons as a starter under his belt, with a .914, .911 and .906 (with .906 being the most recent) save percentages, which would put him as an average to above average NHL starter. Miller was still relatively young (he turned 28 that summer) and had spectacular numbers over his college and minor league career, so I’d argue that Dellow’s mistake was in assuming he’d finished developing at 27. Since that contract was signed, Miller has a .918 season and .931 half-season under his belt, both far superior to his previous seasons, so he obviously hadn’t finished developing.

    Jonathan makes excellent points up to the point where he starts talking about the mistake in my analysis and that Miller “…obviously hadn’t finished developing.” I don’t think that this is necessarily true. It might be, it might not be, but I don’t think Miller’s last two seasons really prove anything.


    We’ve done this a lot – at this point, I’m sure many of you have your eyes flicker towards the save percentage on the penalty kill number when you see a goalie having a season that’s out of step with his past performance. It’s obviously well justified here – Miller is posting a ridiculous save percentage when the Sabres are on the power play. It’s not shown here but the Sabres have also really limited the penalty kill shots against this year – about 14.4% of Miller’s SA have been on the penalty kill, compared to a league average of 19.7%. I know Jonathan’s a believer in this mattering – Brownlee has previously said he doesn’t buy into it, when it was drawn to his attention while JDD had a superficially impressive save percentage earlier this year – so I’m surprised that he’s so willing to chalk up Biron’s improved numbers to development.

    (I put this graph together before Buffalo’s game with Carolina tonight. As I write this, there’s a box in the upper corner of my TV telling me that the Canes have scored two goals on four shots on the PP tonight.)

    Miller’s ESSV% has edged up, although not as much as it first appears when the league average is factored in. Is it possible that he’s become better at stopping the puck? Certainly. It’s also possible that the Sabres have become a better defensive team. It’s also possible that some more pucks have hit him than he deserved. It shouldn’t lead you to radically revise your opinion of a guy, at least not on the basis of only 1.5 years. Ryan Miller and the Sabres are about 60 games into a 410 game contract – we’ll see if it pays off but I’m not yet inclined to change my view that, given his record to date and the sheer volume of goalies on the market in 2009 (Miller was signed with a year remaining on his old deal), the Sabres made a bad deal. It might work out for them but my view of the bet hasn’t changed.

    The really funny thing about Brownlee picking this example is that it sort of illustrates what I see as a bit of a philosophical difference in terms of assessing goalies. I think of assessing goalies as being sort of like driving on a road covered in ice. You don’t want to make sudden moves with the wheel; you don’t want to make sudden movements in your opinion of a guy. The lines between excellent goalie and good goalie; between good goalie and average goalie; between average goalie and poor goalie and between poor goalie and JDD circa. January 2010 are so fine and the role that randomness plays in a goalie’s numbers is so significant that his recent performance doesn’t tell you a great deal. If you make a quick movement while driving on ice, you end up in the ditch; if you react too quickly to trends in a goalie’s performance, you end up with two months of comments on JDD like Brownlee just went through. Or you sign Nikolai F. Khabibulin on the basis of his 2008-09 season.

    In the comments to the post in which he brought up Miller, Brownlee explained that it was intended as something of an olive branch and that everyone’s wrong sometimes. While I don’t have any problem with him – he’s a good reporter, unlike some of the other media professionals who write there – I take a bit of exception to the whole “…everyone makes mistakes.” While that’s obviously true, for the reasons set out above, I think it’s too early for Miller to serve as that example. More importantly, I’m not wild about Brownlee’s process. He obviously weights his own interactions with the players to a certain degree. I don’t have interactions with NHL players, so I don’t put any weight on that. There’s an excellent essay in Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, What the Dog Saw, that talks about people’s capacity to evaluate candidates for jobs based on their interactions with them. To summarize it in one sentence: “Unless you’re an industrial psychologist who is trained in asking questions that elicit relevant information, you probably suck at evaluating job candidates based on your personal interaction with them.” Brownlee is not, as far as I know, an industrial psychologist and I’ve got an awfully hard time getting past the fact that nothing in JDD’s track record indicates he’s a legitimate NHL starter.

    Saying “everyone makes mistakes”, as Brownlee does, doesn’t really cut it. Everyone’s going to get some things wrong but there’s a world of difference between having a good decision making process that is sometimes wrong and one that factors in all sorts of crazy stuff and is sometimes right. I’m pretty comfortable with my methodology of assessing goaltenders, which is basically nothing more complicated than being extremely conservative in terms of being satisfied that a guy is really one of the elites and understanding that there are a lot of goalies out there who can play at a satisfactory level in the NHL. If I were making decisions for an NHL team, I might lose the odd guy who really is that good to free agency but I think I’d be far less likely to end up paying a guy $3MM or $4MM+ to sit on the bench. In a league that right now has more competent goalies than it does starting jobs for them, with only a few true elites, making a mistake on a goalie really puts you behind the rest of the league, in terms of the salary that’s committed to someone who isn’t performing.

    So, I’m still pretty comfortable with my take on Miller’s contract. If, however, he ends up being Luongo-lite for the next five years and proves to have been worth the deal, I’m still not sure that I’d make a different decision if the same situation arose. Most goalies with his track record don’t turn out to have five Luongoesque years in them. In order for me to reconsider whether that was a wise contract to offer, I’m confined to looking at the information that was available at the time that the agreement was reached. I went and took a look through Google Archive to see if it had something to offer me about Darcy Regier’s thinking – this is what I came up with:

    “He’s established himself as one of the top young goaltenders,” general manager Darcy Regier said. “When you’re talking about conference finals, playoff wins, what he’s done in the playoffs, what he’s done in his career … when you look at his history, it’s not about potential. This is a goaltender that we believe in.”

    I’m not seeing a lot there in terms of what I believe to be relevant information that wasn’t available to me when I made the comment in July of 2008. It’s entirely possible that Regier had other information available to him – he certainly knows a lot more about Ryan Miller the person than I do, although as I said above, I’m not sure that that’s very valuable to him. The Sabres may well have developed some of their own internal metrics that suggested to them that Miller was worth more than his performance would indicate – I don’t know.

    I suspect a large part of the reason that Brownlee got so much grief over the JDD position is the certainty with which he presented his position. This is another philosophical difference between us. I’ve gotten some praise in some places for successfully predicting that the Khabibulin contract would be bad. I haven’t really crowed about it because that’s not what I was doing. My sense, when I looked at the contract he signed, his history, the marketplace and the history of old goaltenders, was that the Oilers had grossly overpaid for the spectrum of possible performances that he represented. As it so happens, one of the possibilities I saw – injury – came to pass. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I was right that this was a bad contract – it means that one of the risks that I saw as being associated with the contract came to pass. The logic of my position at the time either stands or falls on its own.

    When I see people asserting something as having been proven on the basis of ten games of play – and, while Brownlee’s belief in JDD might have been based on the entirety of his interaction with him, his belief that he had proven something to his critics was pretty obviously based on the most recent ten games – I don’t care whether they’re ultimately right or wrong. Ten games means nothing. There’s no reasonable foundation for the opinion there. With respect to Miller, whether he’s worth the pact he got, time will tell one way or the other. At the time the deal was signed though, there was no reasonable argument to be made on the information available to me that his performance indicated he was something more than average to above average. If Regier and the Sabres have developed better metrics, good on them. Personally, I wouldn’t bet anything on Miller continuing his performance and if you asked me to guess his save percentage for the life of his contract, I’d probably have him at something like .915 to .920. We’ll see what happens.


    16 Responses to Critics, backsides etc.

    1. February 14, 2010 at

      That PK SV% is incredibly relevant, and something I should have looked at on my own. It’s completely unsustainable.

      The one place I would disagree with you is on whether Ryan Miller at .915 – .920 is worth the money; if he can keep that up I’d suggest he is. There really aren’t many goalies who can sustain a .915+ for more than one or two seasons. I’d say if he settles into that range he’s an elite goalie.

    2. Julian
      February 15, 2010 at

      Haha, I’m loving this spat you guys have going.

    3. Hawerchuk
      February 15, 2010 at

      “If I were making decisions for an NHL team, I might lose the odd guy who really is that good to free agency”

      A very good strategy, but you’d surely get pilloried by fans if anyone you let go even played well for one season with his new team (let alone was actually a good goalie.)

      I think virtually every team with a goalie signed to a long-term deal will come to regret it. Cam Ward? I still don’t think Backstrom is for real either, I guess time will tell.

    4. February 15, 2010 at

      That Cam Ward contract is brutal. Just brutal.

    5. mc79hockey
      February 15, 2010 at

      @Julian – I don’t think of it as a spat. The thing I found weird about Brownlee’s reaction to the whole thing was the idea that an olive branch was necessary – I never had a problem with him. I’ve just never seen someone tie himself so tightly to a guy like he did with JDD and then endure two months like he endured. I genuinely thought it was funny.

      As for the rest of it, maybe it’s the nature of having to generate content for a newspaper on a daily basis but I don’t understand the compulsion to place so much emphasis on the most recent games that a team has played. There’s an old hockey cliche about how you’re never as good as you look when you’re winning or as bad as you look when you’re losing; I actually think that that’s very, very true.

    6. February 15, 2010 at

      I think if you compared Ryan Miller’s contract with the rest of the goalie contracts, you’d come to the conclusion that his deal is just fine. If you compare it to what makes sense, and realize that most of the goalie contracts that are given out are terrible, you’d think it not great.

    7. mc79hockey
      February 15, 2010 at

      There really aren’t many goalies who can sustain a .915+ for more than one or two seasons. I’d say if he settles into that range he’s an elite goalie.

      Well, again, it all depends on the context. I didn’t throw the graph in here but the league average save percentage is up about 10 points since the lockout – it’s .912 so far this year. .915 is pretty impressive over the past few years; it’s a lot less impressive going forward, probably.

      If you figure 99.2% or so of that is replacement level, you come up with .905 as being replacement level for goaltending. Assume the average team sees 2470 shots annually (this is a reasonable assumption – see here. Let’s assume Miller sees 80% of his team’s shots over that period, which is generous. 80%*2470*(.915-.905)=19.76.

      So, that’s about 20 goals above replacement annually for Miller. 20/6 = 3.33 WAR. He’s being paid $5.75MM more than a replacement level goaltender would cost. 3.33 WAR is 6.66 standings points above replacement. That’s a cost per WAR of $863K, which would make him one of the pricier goalies in the NHL in terms of value. In Regier’s favour is the fact that he probably figured the cap was going to keep going up, which would drive down Miller’s cost per standings point.

      I’ve said before that I think that goalies are probably underpaid, and I still do. With that said, Buffalo is a team that has run a pretty tight ship financially. They’re spending close to the cap this year but have not historically. In committing the resources that they have to a goaltender, they’ve taken a pretty significant risk, particularly if their plan is to generally be well below the cap.

      I’m still not all that impressed with the deal.

    8. mc79hockey
      February 15, 2010 at

      @Triumph – Yeah, I don’t agree. I actually think the complete opposite of both of your sentences.

    9. mc79hockey
      February 15, 2010 at

      @Hawerchuk – Sure, you’re probably right but to be honest, I’m not worried about selling it to the fans. I’m worried about selling it to the guy who signs my cheques.

    10. February 15, 2010 at

      i’m genuinely confused, mc, first at your claim that the opposite of what i said is true, which i suppose is:

      “I think if you compared Miller’s contract with the rest of the goalie contracts, his contract is not great.”

      okay, the idea here being that miller’s performance was not particularly strong leading up to the signing of the contract, and then of course seeing that worse goalies get similar contracts, you’d then think it fine to give this one out to miller.

      re: goalies being underpaid – i’m surprised to see you say that – i imagine many are grossly underpaid (e.g. anderson), and the elites are underpaid as well, but you yourself said that adequate goalies are not scarce.

    11. mc79hockey
      February 15, 2010 at

      Triumph –

      I’m reasonably convinced that goalies, as a group, don’t get enough money for their contributions to winning. As a collective, they’re underpaid in terms of what they contribute.

      I figure Miller’s contract ends up looking bad compared to other goalies though because I think he’s going to be a lot more expensive, on a $/standings point basis, than other options that would have been available to the Sabres over the course of his deal.

      Does that make sense?

    12. February 16, 2010 at

      i can agree with #1.

      #2 i’m not so sure i agree with given that the sabres play in buffalo, which is right up there as the least popular place for free agents to go. it is interesting just how few goalies ever make it to market – just in the last year or so, luongo, thomas, backstrom, ward, and hiller have all signed extensions well before july 1. anyway, i’ll consider it more and actually do some research.

    13. February 16, 2010 at

      I think Triumph and MC are both right, actually. You’re just talking about different sets of “other goalies.”

      If you compare Miller to the other goalies in his price range (Triumph’s point), it’s really not that bad. You listed the examples in your post, MC, there’s a lot of terrible deals out there. If you compare Miller to the other goalies available in 2009 (MC’s point), there’s a much broader spectrum, and a good number of much better deals to be had out there (Anderson, Conklin, and Roloson seem plausible off the top of my head, though I’m not inclined to run the numbers myself at 2:30 AM), and it loses a good amount of lustre.

    14. Vic Ferrari
      February 17, 2010 at

      Ever heard of the Texas sharpshooter, Tyler? He fires a bunch of bullets at the barn, then walks up and draws the target on the wall after the fact.

      You’ll do what you want, but transferring baseball techniques over to hockey will not further the hockey conversation. The opposite in fact, you’re dragging us back.

      Part of me (the sensible part) wants you to carry on setting it all afire.

      Where the fuck are Rivers and oilswell? Springsteen was right, the poets ’round here don’t write nothin’ at all.

    15. mc79hockey
      February 17, 2010 at

      @Vic – Too cryptic. (Although I sort of think that you’re saying I’m drawing my target with Biron after the fact). Can you elaborate?

    16. David Staples
      February 25, 2010 at

      I’m glad Brownlee is prodding you because you certainly wrote on helluva post in response here.

      Your method of judging goalies is completely sound (with the proviso that the Sabres may well have found some other stat to judge the play of goalies, perhaps by counting up the number of soft goals that they let in over time ;) ).

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