Judging a Goaltender Based on Playoff Qualification is Outdated
The New Jersey Devils remain one of the the surprise performers through the first half of the 2015-2016 season, currently holding the first Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference, just one point behind the New York Rangers who sit third in the Metropolitan Division.
Few expected this unheralded Devils team to be in the playoff picture this season, with a surprisingly effective first line doing its part to help elevate the franchise this term.
Another significant factor in the club’s success is the play of starting netminder Cory Schneider, who once again has shown his class between the pipes, becoming an increasingly involved member of the Vezina Trophy conversation as the season continues to progress.
In truth, the 29-year old probably should have been a part of that same conversation last season, but fell foul of the increasingly outdated notion that a goaltender cannot be the best at his position if his team does not make the playoffs.
The Marblehead, Massachusetts, native is not the first example of this, nor will he be the last, but his lack of consideration last year might be one of the most egregious.
In 69 appearances for the Devils last season, the fourth highest number of games played among goaltenders during the 2014-2015 season, Schneider faced the third highest number of shots (1,982) and posted a greater percentage of Quality Starts (Starts with a save percentage greater than the average save percentage for the year, or at least 88.5% on nights with 20 or fewer shots against – Developed by Rob Vollman in the Hockey Abstract.) than Vezina and Hart Trophy winner Carey Price.
This is not to say Price should not have won, but where the Montreal Canadiens star garnered 27 first places votes (and a further three second place votes) in the Vezina voting last year, Schneider did not receive a single vote. Not one.
The deeper we dig, the more startling this omission becomes.
Among goaltenders who played at least 1,200 minutes last season, Schneider’s even strength 5v5 adjusted save percentage (93.36% – via War On Ice) ranked fourth in the league behind Steve Mason (who incidentally also failed to tally a single Vezina vote), Carey Price and Ottawa’s Craig Anderson.
If we expand this to account for all situations, Schneider’s adjusted save percentage (92.58% – via War on Ice) was the third best in the NHL last season, with only Andrew Hammond and Carey Price finishing ahead of the New Jersey #1.
In both scenarios, Schneider was also inside the top ten in high-danger save percentage and the former Boston College Eagles goaltender also ranked highly in GSAA (21.17, third best in the NHL behind Price and Devan Dubnyk).
While statistical analysis of goaltenders is still far from perfect, the picture being painted seems clear – Schneider, and Mason in fairness, were among the NHL’s best performing puck stoppers last season, but failed to tally a single Vezina vote between them. Jonathan Quick was the only non-playoff goaltender to receive a single first, second or third placed vote from the NHL’s thirty General Managers.
Again, this is not to say Carey Price should not have won the Vezina or Hart Trophy last season, but Schneider’s example helps demonstrate the backwards approach taken to many awards selections. Where Price helped elevate an average to good Montreal team (depending on your stand point) to the top of the Atlantic Division, Schneider only elevated a poor Devils team to 25th overall. Therefore his performance is seen as somehow inferior when compared to Corey Crawford, Cam Talbot, et al., despite being arguably the better performer in reality.
Perhaps the greatest question one can ask at this point is what would have happened if you had swapped Price and Schneider last year?
It’s unlikely New Jersey would have fared much, if any, better with Price than they did with Schneider – they simply weren’t good enough overall, the 20 point margin by which they missed the post season a reflection of this.
Even if you theorise Price reduces that deficit by half, New Jersey would still only climb one place higher in the Eastern Conference. Would he still have garnered the same support for the Vezina if he were on a losing team?
In actuality, the Vezina Trophy is almost always awarded to a goaltender whose team makes the playoffs. Sergei Bobrovsky did manage to buck the trend during the truncated 2012-2013 season, winning the Vezina even though Columbus missed the playoffs (on a tie break with Minnesota), but the notion one goaltender is ‘notably’ better than another purely because his team qualifies for the post season needs to be addressed.
Naturally, in some, perhaps even most, cases this will be true – no one is pulling for Jonas Hiller to win the Vezina this year – but in situations like Schneider’s last year, the numbers speaks for themselves.
The Devils netminder excelled, but his efforts were largely ignored.
A similar situation may occur again this season, where Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck looks to be building a case to be a Calder Trophy candidate but is likely to suffer if the Jets miss the post season – something that appears statistically likely at this point.
Using the ‘big four’ (Wins. Goals Against Average. Save Percentage. Shutouts) as a measure of a goaltenders success has become outdated. There are so many more ways by which we can compare one goaltender to his peers now, and gain a better understanding of his value to his team in doing so.
In a time where assessing goaltenders has never been easier, thanks to the array of tools at our finger tips – from War On Ice to YouTube even – judging a netminder on whether his team made the post season or not no longer cuts the mustard.
All stats via Hockey-Reference.com unless otherwise stated.