• Using Your Backup

    by Tyler Dellow • February 21, 2013 • Hockey • 2 Comments

    I wanted to take another crack at my point about Khabibulin starting against LA the other night. Over the past 25 years or so, a lot has changed with how NHL teams use their goaltenders. In 1987-88, the average starting goalie played about 51.1 games. It’s 52.4 games if you remove the Pittsburgh Penguins from the equation, which is sensible, given that Pittsburgh was a fiasco of a hockey team at that point and their “starter” in the sense of playing the most games, played only 27 games.

    Last year, that number was 58.3. Six extra games. This seems counter-intuitive to me because, although I haven’t really checked, my sense is that the spread of goaltending talent, from best in the league to worst in the league has narrowed in that time. Why would coaches evolve towards playing their starting goalies more, if there was less of a difference between the best and the worst? I suspect that there are a couple of reasons but that the most important reason is the increased competition for playoff spots and increased parity.

    In 1987-88, Patrick Roy played just 45 games. His .900 save percentage led the league. The Habs got a good year out of their backup – Brian Hayward posted an .896 – but the Habs made the playoffs by 34 points and won the division by 9 points. Montreal was reasonably assured of a playoff berth by what, mid-December? In the Smythe Division, where Edmonton and Calgary were in a pretty tight fight for the divsion title all year long, the starting goalies played 75 and 64 games respectively.

    As more teams have been added to the NHL, the odds of making the playoffs have gone down. Coaches look around for whatever edge they can find and have, presumably asked themselves “Am I better off with another ten games out of my starter, even given whatever fatigue issues might exist?” In a lot of cases, the answer would seem to have been yes.

    In light of this, I took a look at how coaches were using their backups last year in the final 48 games on teams in which there was a starting goalie who played 60+ games. I don’t think that anyone would disagree that, if the 2012-13 season were 82 games, that would be the camp in which we’d expect the Oilers to put Dubnyk. That gave me 13 guys. It’s probably notable that a lot of the near misses were guys who missed a bit of time with injury or who had a nominal backup of starter quality: Kari Lehtonen (59 GP, 12 missed due to injury), Martin Brodeur (59 GP, 7 missed due to injury), Jimmy Howard (57 GP, 16 missed due to injury), Ilya Bryzgalov (59 GP, 5 missed due to injury), Tim Thomas (59 GP, excellent backup), Corey Crawford (57 GP, nothing special as a goalie), Roberto Luongo (55 GP, excellent backup).

    In other words, I think it’s reasonable to say that teams with a defined starter are going to play that guy north of 60 times a season, subject to injury concern or the presence of a backup who isn’t a massive drop in quality. Last year, thirteen goalies hit the 60+ GP mark: Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan Miller, Jonas Hiller, Cam Ward, Craig Anderson, Pekka Rinne, Jonathan Quick, Carey Price, Mikka Kiprusoff, Antti Niemi, Mike Smith, Ondrej Pavelec and Marc-Andre Fleury. Here’s how those teams used those players and their backups over the final 48 games and the length of that time period, for comparison to this year.

    Here’s a summary of the information. There are a couple of caveats worth mentioning. Other than the Jets and Rangers, every team that ran their starter out fewer than 40 teams saw him suffer an injury that cost him games during the final 48 games of the season. Ward missed three games with a knee injury. Smith missed six games with a groin injury. Carey Price missed some games with a concussion (and, um, Montreal was tanking for draft purposes – they started Budaj in eight of their last fifteen games). Craig Anderson missed 12 games with a finger injury.

    I’m not really sure what the Jets were up to, other than a tacit recognition of the fact that Pavelec isn’t really much of a starter but the Rangers didn’t really have any concerns about the playoffs and could afford to rest Lundqvist on a regular schedule as the season rolled along.

    The third column in that table, B2B start, reflects how many times the backup was used in a back to back game situation. As you see, for the teams north of 40 starts in 48 for their starter, this is pretty high and tends to be the way in which they used their backup goalie. The number is actually a bit misleadingly low – the last weekend of the season was kind of Backup Weekend for a lot of these guys, with playoff spots no longer on the line, coaches gave the backup a start.

    The Oilers’ season this year consists of 48 games in 97 days, which looks compared to the schedules in the table above but actually, when you factor in the absence of the all-star break this year, isn’t really that different.

    All of which is to say, I tend to think that it’s not unreasonable to think that Edmonton, which is a fringe playoff team with one goalie who we have every reason to think is significantly better than the other, would start that goalie as much as NHL coaches have deemed wise in the past. Absent injury, that number seems to be north of 40, with the backup goaltender almost exclusively starting in back to back situations.

    By my count, the Oilers have six back to back situations left for this year. Deciding that, absent injury, those will be the Khabibulin’s final six (at most) starts as an Oiler ought to be the easiest decision that Krueger makes for the rest of the year.

    Email Tyler Dellow at mc79hockey@gmail.com

    About Tyler Dellow

    2 Responses to Using Your Backup

    1. Mike
      February 26, 2013 at

      Easy unless he continues to surprise us all eh. Who starts next game?

    2. Lee
      February 26, 2013 at

      Is there any site offering save % splits in season, so we can see how goalie performance is trending? Lifetime save % seems a fairly arbitrary way to determine Khabibulin should only start 6 games over the rest of the season, particularly if the metrics indicate Nik truly is the ‘hot hand’ at the moment.

      By my eye, the compelling reason to roll with Khabibulin at the moment is not any perceived ‘soft’ or inopportune goals that Dubnyk has let in of late. It’s the fact that his rebound control seems have to deteriorated noticeably. When Devyn’s playing well, he’s anticipating the play and directing the rebounds effectively. When he’s not, he just sort of gets his big frame in front of the shot but the rebound control is poor.

      If the argument is being made, and it seems to be, that there’s definitive data to support Dubnyk as the acknowledged starter now – surely current performance data has to factor in and not just lifetime save percentage?

      Within this argument, how do you rationalize against Khabi’s better save % this season? NK .935 vs DD .917 or is your argument essentially that riding the ‘hot hand’ is the foolhardy approach given that these metrics will eventually return to the mean? Isn’t that the whole point of the coach holding the hook (i.e. that they’re tasking with appraising and addressing performance changes on the fly)?

      With this road trip shaping up as the ‘season’ I would think it’s a very tough sell to expect the coach to let his tender ride out a slump in the hopes that he’ll turn it around before it’s too late. With goalies unfortunately, it’s very much a ‘what have you done for me lately’ business.

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