Q&A: NHL goalie coach Maharaj on which stats best judge goaltender success

Anaheim Ducks goalie coach Sudarshan Maharaj. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

TORONTO — In much the same way as the sport for which the term was originally coined, goaltending at the NHL level is a sweet science.

Like a boxer navigating the physicality of the ring, while adjusting to match and exploit the patterns of their opponent’s movement, netminders’ prowess lies in a complex web of abilities. It’s both physical and cerebral, with the added wrinkle of dependance on whatever group of defenders happens to be sent out in front of them.

It’s no mystery, then, that assessment of the position is no easier to pin down. Those without a deep understanding of what a goaltender is doing out on the ice, and of what they’re thinking as they do, have only statistics to refer to — an imperfect litmus test of netminding success.

Sudarshan Maharaj knows all too well the hits and misses that often come from those on the outside trying to assess NHL goalies. The veteran goaltending coach has been working with big-league netminders for nearly two decades, starting out with the New York Islanders back in 2003 and joining his current organization, the Anaheim Ducks, in 2013.

And with as expertly honed an understanding as anyone in the game of what most accurately indicates goaltenders’ success, he says the statistics most turn to often fall short.

“I’m a firm believer that save percentage is a team stat, not a goalie stat,” Maharaj says. “I’ve said that for years, and I’ve had coaches give me the raised eyebrow on that one. But when you look at save percentage — a team that gives up 62 backdoor tap-ins versus a team that gives up 11, that’s a massive difference. And that has nothing to do with your goalie’s ability. None.”

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So which statistics rise above the rest in terms of adequately zooming in on goaltenders’ impact on games?

“High-danger save percentage, medium-danger save percentage,” he says when asked which stats he uses in his own assessment. “Goals-saved-above-average I think is a great stat in a lot of ways, because it kind of balances out the teams that play under structure versus teams that have less structure. So, when I was looking during free agency, one of the things that I looked at prior to us signing Ryan Miller was a lot of those statistics.”

And even then, it’s an imperfect means of attempting to understand success in the cage, as key factors playing into the quality of a shot are still omitted.

“There’s some difficult things with it. For example, a fourth liner who buries his head and takes a shot from the top of the circle is very different from Alex Ovechkin one-timing one at the top of the circle,” Maharaj says with a chuckle. “But in a lot of the analytic scores, that shot is viewed as the same, because of where it’s fired from. There’s a little difference there.”

The heart of the issue is simply that it’s a difficult position to properly quantify, and over-simplification is far too appealing.

“You can be fooled by a lot of stats,” Maharaj says. “I remember one season, and this is no slight against any goalie, there were goalies that were winning Vezinas that were facing 500 less shots than some of the other goalies. Five hundred. And they’re winning a Vezina. Well hang on a second, if the numbers are comparable between a guy that faces 500 less shots, I’m giving the Vezina to the guy who faced the heavy workload.

“I think as the analytics of goaltending becomes better, we’ll start to see a little more of a better understanding of how to really compare them.”

Maharaj sat down with Sportsnet to discuss the value of giving goaltenders more rest during the regular season, what a day in the life of a goalie coach looks like, and the evolution of Ducks star John Gibson‘s game.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Sportsnet: The goaltending coach role seems like one of the most interesting from the outside, because goaltending is such a unique art in itself. What does your day-to-day look like when you’re in Anaheim with the team?

Maharaj: It really depends on the time of year. Early on in the season, we’re definitely spending a lot more time sharpening up skills. At this level, it’s amazing how, with so many games and so much travel, little things creep into the goalies’ games. So you have to be fairly vigilant in knowing your goalie and knowing at what point something is just off kilter, just a little bit.

Early in the year I’ll run through a checklist of things that I want to make sure that we have in place before the season starts. And then once the season starts, things will pop up and you spend time with that. At this point in the year, you’re looking for little details that have sort of crept in. When things are off just a little bit. You go in and try to really hammer on those little, small details, just to make sure that he’s operating at peak efficiency.

And depending on how much he’s playing — in this case for us, (John) Gibson is on track to play about 60 games, so there is a little bit of time in there where I can get a little extra practice time. But a lot of times, no. In the West division we get quite a few less practice days, simply because of travel. So it’s really about picking your spots when you can work on those things.

SN: There’s a prevailing thought out there that the best teams have goalies that don’t play quite as often. What’s your opinion on resting goalies more during the regular season and how much of a role that plays down the line?

Maharaj: You know, about 15 years ago I was speaking at a coach’s clinic and there was a blogger in Philadelphia who had looked at the number of games that starting goalies had played. And if you look at the starting goalies that have won the Stanley Cup, with the exception of one — Jonathan Quick — none of the goalies in the last, now it would be over 20 years, have played over 64 games.

And I brought that fact up — there was another goalie coach in the NHL who came up to me after and he said, ‘Really? 64?’ And I kind of went over the details with him. That year, they pulled their goalie back a couple of games at the end of the year. He ended up winning the Cup that year, and he played 62 games. We joke about that when I see him every once in a while. But it is something that I had actually talked with our GM about when I first came on in Anaheim seven years ago. And he was kind of stunned by the stats, and bought into it as well.

So do I think there’s some truth to it? When you look at the fact that a guy plays, say, 64 games, then you have exhibition games thrown in there, then playoff games thrown in there, you could be up to 100 games, or over 100 games. That’s a heavy workload for a goaltender. So I think there is some benefit to it. You know, it’s kind of funny now, it’s always like, ‘(Gasp) You mean he’s going to play back-to-back?!’ Well you know, guys played back-to-back for years with no major repercussions. But there’s no question if you look at the data, there is a drop-off on the second night of a back-to-back. There is.

Personally, I’ve always been of the belief it’s a two-goalie system if you want to progress in the playoffs. And I think we’re starting to see more and more thinking along the same path.

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SN: What do you think it is that makes that such a big factor? What would the potential impact be of playing even 10 more games during the regular season?

Maharaj: Well there’s a few — there’s obviously the physical impact. Even though the goalie’s not moving for 60 minutes, he is out there for 60 minutes. So you have that impact. And then, for me, the major part of it is the mental impact.

It’s an individual position inside a team game. So there’s a mental fatigue that goes throughout the year. And every guy’s different, every circumstance is different, and workloads carry a big part of that as well. But the mental fatigue is, I think, as equally oppressive as the physical fatigue.

SN: It’s interesting you mention the difference in personalities. How much does that play into the situation, along with the difference in the type of market a goalie’s playing in, given it’s such a mental game?

Maharaj: You know, goalies, as they come up through the ranks and they finally make it to the pinnacle, the NHL, they learn along the way that there aren’t many supporters (laughs) They’re constantly under scrutiny. A goalie can face over 2,000 shots over the course of a season — some of those pucks are going to go in. Some good ones, some bad ones, they’re going to go in. And so they learn very quickly that they have to develop mechanisms to counter the constant attack that they’re going to be under.

So a lot of those guys do become a little more reserved, and a little more selective with who they let into that circle of trust. So, yes it is more magnified in big markets than smaller markets, but the reality is it’s the same process — you have to be able to deflect so that you can maintain that core confidence. Because it’s always going to be under attack somewhat, and under scrutiny. So regardless of the market, the guys all develop mechanisms for guarding against that.

SN: John Gibson has really become the go-to under-appreciated superstar among NHL netminders, who never seems to get the credit he deserves. Tell us about the growth you’ve seen in his game since you started working with him.

Maharaj: That is a great description of Gibby’s situation, because it took so long — I go back to not last year but the Christmastime the year before, he went on a run that was just spectacular. And I remember watching all these shows and reading these articles about the top 10 goalies, and rankings and all that — and he was nowhere to be found. And he, at that point, was something like a .950 save percentage for months. And it was at that point I realized the focus is on the east coast for hockey in the media and all that. And that’s not a crack at the media, but it’s just an understanding that we play at 10 o’clock at night, and not a lot of people out east are watching the games. So that was part of the reason for this delay in people picking him up. And I know there are people that there jobs are to watch the games and all that, but they’re humans. They’ve got to sleep too.

It’s been now almost three years now of brilliance at times for Gibby. In terms of the growth, I got a front-row seat to watching him develop — it was a fantastic thing for me to see. I’ve worked with 20-something guys that have played in the NHL, and there are days where I look at what he does and I shake my head. Like, it’s incredible.

The growth that had to happen with Gibby was [that he was] an extremely good athlete, extremely competitive but a quiet competitor. He’s not a yell-scream-rah-rah guy. He goes about his business in a very reserved manner. But one thing that he would do, he wanted to be Superman 70 per cent of the time and Clark Kent 30 per cent of the time, and I had to explain to him that you really need to be Clark Kent 90 per cent of the time, and Superman 10 per cent of the time. And that you really don’t need a cannonball to kill a fly — you need a fly swatter.

So it was that process of learning to play closed, learning to play much more positionally sound, learning to quiet his game down. And when called upon, you pull out the weapon. It took a little bit of time, but that’s the progression of a young goalie. And once he figured that out and he got comfortable in that ratio, he really progressed. But it’s his quiet competitiveness that gets completely lost on a lot of people. I’ve had other NHL goalie coaches make statements to me about it and completely underestimate his competitiveness — but if you’ve ever spoken to any of his coaches, they all know. They’ve all seen it first-hand.

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SN: What about Frederik Andersen and the foundation he built up in Anaheim before his move to Toronto?

Maharaj: Freddy was another guy that had to get the physical component down and then the technical component down. And the amount of work that Frederik Andersen put in to get himself in NHL-calibre condition is remarkable. He really dedicated himself — exercise, diet-wise, attitude-wise. I’ve seen some guys buy in — Freddy Andersen bought in wholeheartedly.

And that in turn allowed him to make the technical adjustments that he needed to make to grow. And experience, time, maturity, and hard work took over. So I have nothing but praise for the base that Freddy Andersen put in on his own to become an NHL goalie. One of the things that drives me crazy is goalie coaches that stand out in front and beat their chests and talk about how they’ve created these goalies. These guys — the Freddy Andersens, the John Gibsons, the Dwayne Rolosons, the Marty Birons, the Kevin Weekeses — those guys are all outstanding athletes.

We aren’t squeezing blood from any stones — those guys are incredible athletes. Do we have a role in it? Absolutely. But I really dislike when goalie coaches claim to have created these guys.

SN: There’s been a significant shift in the game over the past decade, with things speeding up and the emphasis being placed on creativity and dynamic skill — from a goaltending perspective, what’s the process of adapting to deal with that?

Maharaj: I think we’re going to see save percentage dropping — I think you’ll see over the league a decline in save percentage. Scoring goes up, it’s natural. In terms of how you’re preparing the goalies for that, like a lot of coaches, you have to sort of mimic the situations that you’re going to see the most. So where we may not have spent time working on lateral plays in goalie practice, we spend a little more time working on lateral plays. You know, you’re working on your slide technique a little more, you’re working on traffic situations a little bit more.

I think as goalie coaches and and as goalies we have to mimic the scenarios that we’re going to see. So yeah, there is a shift — the small-area technical stuff, we still have to do that. But I think we have to add an awful lot of new scenario things because with the game opening up, we’re going to see much more high-danger chances. So we’ve got to work on them. We’ve got to get better.

And I know it’s frustrating for some goalies in practice. But if that shot is a clean shot from the slot, and you’re facing them in games, yeah in practice you may get scored on six out of 10 times. But you know what, if you can make that one or two extra saves in there, that could translate into an awfully big thing in a game. So it’s a matter of just embracing the change, and working with it.

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SN: How do the changes to goalie equipment factor into that, because obviously that’s been another aspect of trying to increase offence in the league. How does that affect technique?

Maharaj: It’s minor changes that have an impact. For example, the curving of the thigh-guard — the average fan wouldn’t even think about that. But when you watch the highlights, you’ll see a lot more goals creeping in between the elbow and the body, because you no longer have that flat surface so the puck’s not repelling out, it’s glancing off. There’s no use complaining and worrying about it. It’s a matter of working with it.

And I’m blessed in my scenario because I have two great athletes. I don’t have two blockers, I have two great athletes. And so, just working with your goalies in terms of utilizing their athletic ability to their maximum while still maintaining as much of their technical form as they can. It’s really a matter of just working on making sure that you’re making those small adjustments so that you’re tightening up all the areas. That’s just part of the game — we can complain about those changes, or we can work with them. And I think in our scenario, we want to work with them.

SN: I’m sure there must also be some sense of pride in continuing to perform at a high level in the face of those changes.

Maharaj: Absolutely. And like I said, when you have a John Gibson and a Ryan Miller, it just gives them more of an opportunity to shine. Because they are athletic goalies, they’re not relying on cheating with pieces of equipment and getting as big as possible and hoping it hits them.

That’s just not their game. In a lot of ways, it encourages their strengths. So we can turn it into a positive.

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