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.