There is an argument, popular with those who inhabit Calgarypuck, that the reason for the Oilers low save percentage this season lies not with the goalies (as is believed by all right thinking persons) but with the defensive strategy employed by the team. Specifically, the argument is that the Oilers, by virtue of their overwhelming predeliction for shot blocking, frequently leave their goalies open to incredibly high quality chances from the opposition as the shot or pass gets past a prone defenceman, leaving an uncovered forward with an easy tap in. In short, the idea is that Kiprusoff’s amazing save percentage is due in large part to the amazing Flames defence (while he’s still one of the best goalies in the world; I don’t really get this part, but there it is) while the Oilers lousy save percentage isn’t the fault of the goalies but rather the fault of the Oilers defence. This fits with the popular Calgarypuck view that the Flames have an incredibly powerful defence while the Oilers defence is something akin to the 1975-76 Capitals. The whole shot blocking thing, as bizarre as it sounds, is a necessary part of the argument in order to ignore the fact that the Oilers give up very few shots.
Now, I’m probably a fool for taking this argument with any seriousness as I suspect it’s motivated entirely by anti-Oiler animus but I was curious to find other teams like the Oilers in history-teams who fit the profile of excellent shot prevention relative to the league while still giving up a lot of goals relative to the league. As it so happens, since the 1987-88 season, there’s been a reasonably strong correlation between the amount of shots that a team gives up and the amount of goals that they allow. Teams like the Oilers are not particularly common.
I’ve taken all the teams goals against per game and divided them by the league average for the season in question. I’ve done the same with shots per game. A number greater than 1 means that the team allowed more goals or shots per game than the league average; a number less than one means that they’ve allowed fewer. In the case of this year’s Oilers, their shots allowed number is a stellar .87 while their goals against number is a very average 1.02. They’re in the lower right hand quadrant in this chart, represented by the orange dot. As I would think is intuitive, the upper righthand and lower lefthand quadrants contain the vast majority of teams. Generally speaking, as shots rise, goals against rise.
Of the 453 team seasons in the time period in question, only 53 of them came in at below .90 in their shots allowed figure. Of those 53 teams, only 3 of them managed to top the 1.00 mark in goals against and that’s counting this year’s Edmonton outfit. The two comparators that that leaves are the 1995-96 Boston Bruins and the 2002-03 St. Louis Blues.
In 2002-03, the Blues allowed shots at 88% of the league average while allowing goals 102% of the league average. In 2003-04, they slipped slightly in the shot prevention category, falling to allowing shots at 91% of the league average while their goal prevention improved dramatically, as they allowed goals at just 94% of the league average. What changed? The 2002-03 Blues used SEVEN goalies-Tom Barrasso, Fred Brathwaite, Reinhard Divis, Brent JOhnson, Chris Osgood, Cody Rudkowsky and Curtis Sanford all made appearances for the Blues-Osgood was a late season acquisition from the Isles. In 2003-04, the Blues used just three goalies-Osgood, Divis and Johnson. Johnson played only 10 games and put up a nearly identical save percentage-.900 to .901. Brathwaite went from St. Louis to Columbus, where he played 21 games, got torched (although his save percentage improved from .883 to .897) and then disappeared. Barrasso retired. Rudkowsky disappeared into the minors. In short, none of the goalies the Blues used in 2002-03 other than Chris Osgood were able to sustain a career as a starter afterwards. Curtis Sanford has since returned to the NHL but he had only a small role in 02-03 debacle.
It’s difficult to say whether their defence was better in 02-03 or 03-04. Chris Pronger missed all but 5 games in 02-03 while Barret Jackman and Al MacInnis played a combined 18 games in 2003-04. I’d probably give the edge to 2002-03; although the loss of Pronger is obviously huge, MacInnis, Jackman and Alexander Khavanov all played 80+ games and ate huge minutes for the Blues in 2002-03; they played a combined 64 games in 2003-04, leaving the Blues to run with a top 3 of Pronger, Eric Weinrich (mid-season acquisition) and Christian Backman. I can’t really comment on defensive strategies employed by the team but all in all, there is nothing that jumps out at me personnel wise to explain why the Blues might have had such an abysmal save percentage in 02-03. The fact that so many goalies disappeared into the night following that season suggests to me that NHL GM’s thought they knew were the blame should lie.
The 95-96 Bruins are similar to the 02-03 Blues in that they had a goaltending carousel. That Bruins team allowed goals at a rate of 104% of the league average and shots at just 89% of the league average. They used five goalies, of whom four played at least 500 minutes. Bill Ranford, Craig Billington, Blaine Lacher, Scott Bailey and Rob Tallas all filled the nets for the Buins that season. Again, their careers following this season were limited-the 25 year old Lacher never played another NHL game, the 23 year old Scott Bailey played just 8 more NHL games, and the 22 year old 22 Tallas played another 98 games over 5 different seasons. Bill Ranford had essentially one more year as a starter (retiring in Edmonton; shades of Cujo?) and then served as a backup for a while while Craig Billington caddied for Patrick Roy and later, Olaf Kolzig.
The difference here lies in the fact that the Bruins had a similar gongshow the next season-they used six goalies. Their shot prevention slipped to about league average and they allowed goals at 125% of the league average rate. Bad times. This was Ranford’s final year as a starter, Rob Tallas played a bunch of games, Tim Cheveldae (!) made some appearances, along with Paxton Schafer and Scott Bailey. The astute fan will note that he’s barely heard of most of these people. Late in the season, Ranford was dealt for Jim Carey as part of a larger deal. Carey played only 14 NHL games following this season.
Not until 1997-98 did the Bruins fix their goaltending, when Dafoe (65 GP), Tallas (14 GP) and Carey (10 GP) allowed goals at 90% of the league average on a shots allowed rate of 96% of league average. Dafoe went on to spend another 4 years as a starting goalie in the NHL. I’ll leave it to someone else to ask whether or not the Bruins defence was good over this period but it’s interesting to note that of the two teams that match the Oilers characteristics this year, one of them had Ray Bourque playing for them and the other had Al MacInnis. Not defencemen you’d envision as being associated with terrible defensive teams.
In short, it seems to me that as teams fitting the Oilers profile of extremely few shots allowed with average goals allowed are so rare, if it were to be the fault of the team’s defencemen and defensive style, you would think that they’d have to be noticeably horrifically bad. One would expect the Oilers to have one of the worst defensive corps in the league, paired with forwards who were noticeably lax in their backchecking and defensive play but who controlled the puck in the offensive end for lengthy periods. I don’t think that this characterization fits the Oilers. This is opinion, supported by nothing but observation which is contrary to the way I generally roll, but it just does not fit with what I see on the ice.
While I’m not generally interested in the debate about the strength of various teams’ defencemen, I would have a hard time accepting a characterization of the Oilers defencemen as any worse than average and would personally think that they’re a top 10 group. Chris Pronger is conservatively one of the top 10 defencemen in the league and the trio of Smith, Spacek and Staios probably all fall comfortably into the top 120 defencemen in the NHL. That still leaves Bergeron, Ulanov, Greene and Tarnstrom-even if that group is incredibly defensively unsound, I have a hard time seeing that they play enough minutes (or in Bergeron’s case, enough minutes without Pronger babysitting) to make the Oilers into one of the worst defensive clubs in the league. A defence corps made up of most of these players in 2003-04 (Smith, Staios, Bergeron, Ulanov probably played at least half of the Oilers defence minutes between them; Brewer has been replaced by Pronger) somehow managed to be good enough for guys like Conklin and Markkanen to put up solid save percentages behind-I find the suggestion that this group is now historically bad defensively to be implausible, quite frankly.
The tell tale characteristic of these teams really seems to be that they featured goalies who were near the end of the road, either through age or because they were never good enough. The Blues didn’t see fit to roll over their defensive corps in 02-03 and recovered nicely. The Bruins are a little hazier because they had the same problem the next year but the problem disappeared once Dafoe appeared. It’s possible that the goalies were unfairly blamed by the GM’s but the fact that they were unable to find anywhere else in the league to continue their careers suggests to me that it may well have been their lack of skill that was responsible for the problem. I have a hard time thinking that the case is any different in Edmonton.
I’ve added a couple of blogs to the list on the side. If you’ve spent any time reading Hockey’s Future or Oilfans, you’re probably familiar with Lowetide, who I’ve referenced here before and vic Ferrari (who posts as igor on the odd occasion that he ventures onto HF). Lowetide reads like a much less acidic Bill James in terms of the breadth of his knowledge and quality of his prose while Vic produces some very insightful stuff sprinkled with numbers and British expressions-I highly recommend giving each of them a read.