Voodoo, Madness, Mysticism: Goalie Ignorance Excuses
— Travis Yost (@travisyost) March 7, 2015
Travis Yost’s recent article on the difficulty of evaluating goaltenders sings that familiar refrain. As usual, his research and analysis is illuminating. General Managers don’t know how to evaluate and pay goalies. Save percentage, in all its forms, is poor at predicting future performance. Average and replacement-level goaltenders are almost statistically indistinguishable, and aside from a tiny elite and small batch of failures, everyone is in this range.
He’s not wrong about any of this. But characterizing goalies as voodoo is part of the problem.
The mythology of goaltender eccentrics is a mainstay of hockey lore. Jacques Plante was a brilliant madman. Glenn Hall was so nervy he would throw up before every game. Ron Hextall ate the ceremonial octopus before a game against Detroit. Ilya Bryzgalov contemplates the sublime immensity of the cosmos. Finding examples to confirm the “goalies are crazy” bias is not difficult.
The usual explanation for goalie lunacy is inherent in the choice to play the position: who would choose to stand in front of something so hard moving so fast? Surely, something must be wrong with such people. The mental strain of the position, where every error is a lights-and-sirens catastrophe, also takes its toll. They start crazy, and the pressure makes them insane.
This is ridiculous.
Nonetheless, the evolving narrative of goaltending madness influences, and is influenced by, the perception that goaltending is an unknowable mystery. The position is inherently complex, to be sure, but the hockey community has traditionally preferred to dismiss that complexity with clichéd folk-psychology instead of learning it.
The result is further isolation. Successful goalie coaches are “goalie whisperers.” This term is derived from the semi-mystical art of “horse whispering,” where naturally horse-empathic people train their animals through non-verbal communication. Reasoned communication and structured practice won’t work, of course: the irrational goaltender has to be reached at a magical, pre- or meta-rational level, like an animal. More generously, the goalie is seen as a disciple of the guru, absorbing his mystical knowledge and achieving sudden enlightenment. Mitch Korn as Gautama Buddha. Sean Burke slipping a needle out of his Devan Dubnyk voodoo doll.
The myth of the magic goaltender permits a pervasive ignorance; some of the brightest hockey minds, willing to discuss complex systems, cap technicalities, and in-depth player tendencies, avoid or butcher goalie analysis. Dave Lozo, recently of Bleacher Report, knows hockey. Nonetheless, he managed to write this about Ben Bishop in last season’s playoffs:
Just about any time a left-handed skater had the puck along the left-wing boards near the goal line, Bishop was down on a knee hugging the post for dear life. If anyone shot the puck from the near-impossible angle, he was lunging into the post as if he was trying to head-butt the spot where the post and crossbar meet.
Lozo had seen something he hadn’t noticed before, but he had no terms to describe it, and no prior knowledge to contextualize it. Bishop was simply using his usual reverse vertical-horizontal (RVH) blocking/post-integration technique. The head-butt Lozo describes is the required post-lean needed to seal the net on the shot. Because he didn’t know this, and didn’t consult anyone who did, Lozo mischaracterized Bishop’s play, which led to a poor evaluation of his mental state.
Yet I can hardly fault Lozo for his gaffe. Bishop’s injury had everyone looking at him more closely than usual, and many commentators were scrambling to distinguish normal goalie movement from injury-caused impediment. What Bishop’s injury revealed is that, most of the time, hockey people simply aren’t paying much attention to what goalies are doing outside the moments they are making, or failing to make, specific saves. Goaltending, for most, is a blindspot you only remember to check when the horn startles you.
Yost’s article points out the current limitations of predicting goaltenders through save percentage. Strides are being made with descriptive and comparative measures, like my own work using danger zones and adjusted even strength save percentage, as well as Nick Mercadante’s voodoo-evoking version of the latter. These post-hoc approaches provide usefully concrete descriptions, but do little to statistically predict a given goaltender’s future performance.
What we need is clear. Anyone who follows goaltending knows that what the puck and goalie do before the shot determines how difficult the save will be. Unfortunately, the projects dedicated to tracking shot quality are proprietary, meaning they are, ironically, creating even more mystery instead of providing clarity. Ryan Stimson’s fascinating, publicly-available passing project will be tracking many goaltender-relevant variables this year, but any lone endeavor will necessarily account for only part of what goes into shot quality.
A general lack of goaltending knowledge means that many with the intelligence, creativity, and technical savvy to move the analysis of the position forward feel unqualified. Those without a basic understanding of goaltending will have a hard time forming and testing theory, and may well fail to see whatever distinctions their data is trying to show them.
There is no easy solution to the current problem advanced statistical analysis has with goaltenders. A first step is to recognize that the mythology of the incomprehensible goaltender is just that: pure myth. The position is neither madness, nor mysticism, nor magic. The tacit permission these myths have given hockey professionals to remain ignorant about goaltending is hereby rescinded. If your job is to understand, analyze, and explain the game, it’s no longer acceptable to know nothing about one of its most important aspects.
Until the comfortable old false narratives are dead, nothing will change.