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Best goalie of all time, plus more

posted Dec 21, 2017, 9:58 AM by Robert Vollman
Having played his 160th game, Connor McDavid now qualifies for the full $45,000 NHL pension when he retires. I’m sure that puts his mind at ease concerning his financial future.

The Greatest Goalie

Goalie shots and saves, which was previously only available back to the 1983-84 season, is now available all the way back to 1955-56. That allows us to finally compare modern greats like Patrick Roy and Dominik Hasek to earlier legends, like Ken Dryden and Tony Esposito.

Since the history of league-average save percentage is somewhat U-shaped, it’s important to measure a goalie’s performance relative to that average. Otherwise, goalies who played a portion of their career in the 1980s would look terrible by comparison. So, I made the following chart that chose the six goalies who exceeded the league average to the greatest extent, and illustrated how they did against the league average, year over year.

Just based on this, Dryden appears to be the best. He only played in his prime, and he sat out the 1973-74 season, but the gap between his numbers and the league average is the most noticeable. His first season back after sitting out was really only one season where he wasn’t far, far better than the rest of the league.

There are those who argue that he simply played on a dominant team, and that any goalie would have been that great. In my view, that’s poppycock (excuse my language). His career average was .921, and Montreal’s other goalies had a save percentage of .898 the year he sat out, and .893 the year after he left. That’s right around the league average. And it’s not like they had complete bums in nets, because Wayne Thomas, Denis Herron, and Michel “Bunny” Laroque were perfectly respectable goalies.

To put it another way, my long-time chum and colleague Tom Tango (@tangotiger) figured out that for roughly the same number of saves, Dryden allowed astonishingly fewer goals that Montreal’s other options. From 1970-71 through to 1979-1980:
10,213 saves, 870 goals allowed: Ken Dryden
10,238 saves, 1150 goals allowed: all other Canadiens goalies

Tom also put together the following chart (a while ago) that helps us visualize a goalie’s dominance on both an average basis (vertical axis) and long-term basis (horizontal axis). In other words, a goalie like Brodeur is great for having a good performance over a very long time, while Dryden is great for having an incredible level of performance for a much shorter time. Goalies like Hasek, Esposito, and Roy deserve credit for doing both, and probably qualify as the greatest of all-time.

I used to think that Hasek was the greatest goalie of all-time (or, at least, since the 1950s), which certainly remains a valid viewpoint based on Tom’s chart. However, now I’m starting to think that a pretty strong case can also be constructed for Dryden. 

Update on the 2017-18 Season

Home ice advantage normally isn’t that great in the NHL, but it is observable. You get to put your stick down last, you get a slight edge in terms of officiating, and most important you get the last line change so you can get the matchups you want. This season, the average team has a points percentage of .605 at home, and .518 on the road this season, and 20 of the 31 teams are better at home.

I put the information on the following chart, with each team’s home results on the vertical axis, and the road on the horizontal axis. So teams that are higher and slightly to the left, like the Islanders, Rangers, and Golden Knights, are much better at home, and those who are towards the bottom right, like Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver, are better on the road. Apparently there’s something about New York vs Western Canada that affects the way the team’s play?

I also split the young season into two equal halves to see which teams might be starting to come on strong. For example, the Arizona Coyotes started out really slow (vertical axis), but have improved since then (horizontal axis). They’re still not doing well, but they’ve been better than two teams on the decline: Buffalo and Ottawa.

I don’t get Ottawa. The Senators started out really strong, and had the seventh best points percentage (vertical axis). Since then, they’ve been one of the three worst teams in the league (horizontal axis).

St. Louis and Los Angeles have also cooled down, from being among the three best teams in the league (vertical axis) to being among basically average (horizontal axis). Heading the other direction, Nashville has been the best team in the league recently, after being similar to Ottawa in the early going. Surprisingly, the Vegas Golden Knights have only been getting better. It also looks like Minnesota and Chicago are coming on strong to make the Central extremely competitive, and this chart also sees how Washington has started to surge back among the elites.

Scoring from the Point

Further to my recent blog post that ranked each team’s defense, and as part of my latest piece on, I took a look at how much scoring each team is getting from the point. Unsurprisingly, the answer is the Nashville Predators — even without Ryan Ellis.

Combined  points from the team’s four highest-scoring defensemen
70 NSH
65 TB
63 LA
62 TOR
61 MIN
…(avg is 52)…
38 CAR
36 VAN
29 BUF

Nashville’s total is even more impressive than Tampa Bay’s, because their total offense is much more modest. So, I calculated this as a percentage of team scoring instead, and they still rank first. Teams like Edmonton, Carolina, Vancouver, and Buffalo remain in last, and the secret to turning the corner might be to find a way to get their blue line more involved in the scoring.

24.4% NSH
23.6% MIN
23.3% SJ, ARI
22.6% LA
21.9% CBJ
21.8% DAL
…(avg is 19.4%)…
16.8% NYI
15.9% EDM
15.8% CAR
15.2% BUF
14.3% VAN

Closing Thoughts

If you have some programming acumen, try using Harry’s scraper (@36Hobbit) to get data from NHL game files. He just updated his Hockey Scraper code on GitHub so it can really save you a lot of time. There’s still so much information that can be extracted from these files, so adding the ability to get the raw data is a great way to try to make something new and make a contribution to the community’s body of work.

In closing, I really appreciated Frank Provenzano’s (@FrankProSports) recent post, where he shared pictures of all his rejection letters from back in the day. Persistence pays off! We must continue to pursue our goals, even if it takes a long time, and we face a lot of rejection along the way. So, please keep your passions alive, and continue driving towards your dreams no matter how hard it is, or how long it takes.