Bringing hard numbers to Canada’s goalie debate

James Reimer. (Nathan Denette/CP)
December 17, 2013, 1:36 PM

Who will start in goal for Canada in Sochi?

Three months ago, this seemed to be a question of concern among Canadian hockey fans. Not anymore. Familiar names have rebounded with strong performances and goaltenders like James Reimer and Braden Holtby have maintained elite numbers to offer up depth that was not forseen in October.

Hockey Canada already tipped their hand as to who they preferred in the preseason, when they invited Roberto Luongo, Carey Price, Mike Smith and Corey Crawford to their ball hockey walk through. Hockey Canada tends to favour international and playoff experience over recent success. If we look back at the four previous Olympics we can see a pattern of apprenticing.

OLYMPIC_GOALTENDERS_01-(5)

The youngest Olympic starter was Brodeur in 2002 at the age of 30. Each Olympics featured an apprenticeship in which two of the goaltenders would return for the next Olympics. Fleury’s selection at 25 suggested that the plan was probably Luongo/Fleury/Price for Sochi.

This would have provided the same type of continuity as previous Olympic games.

OLYMPIC_GOALTENDERS_02-(5)

Fleury’s .880 playoff save percentage since Vancouver and spectacular playoff collapses pushed him out of favour. Luongo’s save percentage has declined since then, too, and his clutch performance has been questioned since an epic Cup collapse in 2011 vs. Boston. Hence the panic.

Hockey Canada’s selection pattern since 1998 leaves Luongo a virtual lock for Sochi, but should he be? When selecting skaters for the Olympic team a guy like Joe Thornton will not be grandfathered onto the team because of previous performance or international success, nor should he be. Canada has continually stuck to this ascension plan, but should they go with the goaltenders that are playing the best entering the Olympics instead?

I think the answer should be a blend of both. You don’t want to rely on a small sample size of analysis when presented with the immense pressure of bringing home an Olympic gold medal. The key is to find the middle ground. Initially, my analysis was going to include only the four camp invitees, but I wanted to see if I could identify any other goaltenders who should be considered. I wanted goaltenders who had registered an above average save percentage while maintaining a starter’s workload.

I looked at our large sample success rates of all the eligible Canadians. I plotted shots faced versus performance against the expected league average to see if I could expose possible small sample frauds.

SN_CDN_Goaltenders_career (3)

(For a larger view of this chart click here)

Goalies like Steve Mason, Devan Dubnyk and Curtis McElhinney, who have had some success since the lockout, are exposed and red flagged in the large sample. The Stanley Cup champion pedigree of Corey Crawford, Cam Ward and Marc Andre Fleury are also revealed as possible Sochi risks.

I repeated the same exercise to establish the strongest Canadian performances since the lockout of 2012-13. I highlighted below average save percentage as well as an expected starters workload.

shotsfaced_savepercentage

(For a larger version of this chart click here)

Jonathan Bernier and Josh Harding were penalized for their light 2012-13 workload, Harding only played in 5 games last season and Bernier’s career workload entering this season was less than Carey Price’s 2011-12 season. The rest of the candidates are either past their prime (JS Giguere) or just beginning to establish themselves as NHL players (Talbot, Jones, Scrivens).

The top right corner became the focal point for my study. Five goaltenders were able to perform above expectations while handling a heavy workload. Mike Smith and Luongo had been part of my original study so this left me with seven candidates: Braden Holtby, Carey Price, James Reimer, Marc Andre Fleury, Roberto Luongo, Mike Smith and Corey Crawford.

Using the SQP data in part two, I will compare and contrast their workloads to an expected average, identify who has been exposed to higher quality opportunities and expose strengths and weaknesses in performance since the lockout.

Are Luongo’s intangibles more important than recent performance? Does James Reimer belong in the conversation to wear the red Maple Leaf when he can’t even hold down the crease wearing a blue one? How good would Marc Andre Fleury have to be to forget that he has been an .880 goaltender in the playoffs since Vancouver 2010?

If you missed the heat charts, you won’t after next week.

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