Hall-of-Famer Hašek Was A Cut Above The Rest
Dominik Hašek’s storied career ended almost seven years ago, but his legacy continues to grow as he was recently elected into to the Hockey Hall of Fame and had his jersey retired in Buffalo last week.
Memories of the great Czech goalkeeper have been shared all week long. There is no question that he was the star of the Buffalo Sabres in the mid-to-late 90s – but how much was he worth to them, exactly?
Hašek was a late bloomer that didn’t make the trip to North America or play in an NHL game until he was 26 years old. After starting his career with the Chicago Blackhawks – the team that drafted him, he would get traded to Buffalo two years later. His age 32 season is seen as the beginning of his prime, during which he began one of the greatest stretches in goaltending history.
From 1996 until the end of 1999 Hašek would win the Vezina Trophy three times, the Lester B. Pearson trophy twice, and the Hart Trophy twice. Only six goaltenders in NHL history have won the Hart Trophy – with only three coming after 1960.
Accolades aside, comparing Hašek’s numbers to those of his counterparts in the same era is enough to show how far ahead of the class he was. He led the league in save percentage six years in a row from 1993 to 1999. Over his career he led the league in shutouts a total of four times.
Hašek was routinely saving the Buffalo Sabres over 50 goals against per year compared to the league’s average goalie. 50+ goals saved above average is a plateau that has only been achieved on six occasions since 1983 (as far as records go back) and Hašek is responsible for four of them.
As you can see from the chart above, through most of his career with the Sabres Hašek remained at a level above his peers. He would routinely save his team more than 50 goals per season, which is unheard of even to this day. The zero on the bottom of the chart represents the average goaltender. There are just as many goalies below that line than there are above it. That, and the gap between Hašek and the next closest goalie really gives a sense of how much action he was facing, how much the Sabres relied on their goaltender, and how he continued to flourish anyway.
In the 1997-1998 season he saved 2.3x more goals than the next closest goalie in the league. Hašek saved 54.49 goals against, and Tom Barrasso was the runner up with 23.89 goals saved compared to the league average.
Hašek would have become the first goaltender in NHL history to achieve 60+ goals saved above average in one season in 1994-1995 if the season wasn’t shortened by a lockout. (It has been pro-rated in the chart)
It’s even more impressive that he did this while playing for the Buffalo Sabres. They were never a powerhouse team, even with brilliant goaltending. During the 1996-1999 stretch that Hašek was at his best, the Sabres scored at a lower than league average rate all three seasons. They averaged 2.66 goals per game, which is hardly enough to squeak by for most teams.
Despite their offensive woes, the Sabres remained an above average team in the standings every year because of one reason: The Dominator.
When the Sabres scored a single goal in a game that Dominik Hašek started – they had a 41.8% chance of finishing that game with at least a point. If they scored two? That percentage went up to 67.9%.
Nobody saw this first hand better than Hašek’s goalie coach until 1998, Mitch Korn.
Korn believes that Hašek would be valued even higher if he was playing right now because of his brilliance in shootouts.
“Every game that we played that ended in a tie would have been a shootout win.” Said Korn.
“But what you can’t determine statistically is how much impact he had on the strategy of the other teams.”
With modern puck-tracking and zone entry statistics that are available today it would have been possible to measure this effect, but that wasn’t available in the 90s. Korn saw it first hand and knew exactly how much it affected the other team to simply know that Hašek was at the other end of the ice.
“When the goalie is confident, it plays in the heads of both teams. Dom did that to people just by reputation alone.”
Working with Hašek every day gave Korn an interesting perspective on the goalie, beyond what the statistics say. Looking at his results on paper, he stands far ahead of everyone else in his era. Other than his unorthodox style that regularly threw shooters off, what was it that made Dominik Hašek so different from the rest?
“He was a great athlete,” Korn explained, “He was tremendously flexible, and he could contort – but I’ve seen better. But when you add that up with his ability to process and level of competitiveness, it was off the charts.”
The “ability to process” that he refers to was Hašek’s talent of reading plays at a lightning quick pace, or with traffic in front of the net. The ability to understand the game comes from within, and Hašek was able to predict the game – or “connect the dots” as he likes to call it – at a much quicker rate than the game has ever seen.
As a keen chess player on road trips, Hašek was mentally strong and would routinely beat his computer opponent by staying one or two steps ahead. The mentality of always being “one step ahead” carried over to his hockey skills.
During a game in 1998 when Korn’s Predators were playing the Sabres, he noticed something about Hašek which helped everything make sense.
“I saw a slapshot from the point, going to his blocker side. It hit a defenceman’s shin guard in the high slot, and deflected to his glove side. I watched him process and know the geometry of how the puck was going to deflect. He was waiting for the puck by the time it got to him. That was the kind of processing that he possessed.”
The fact that Dominik Hašek was a fantastic, flexible athlete wasn’t enough to make him great. It was his sharp mental skills combined with athleticism that made him a special talent. Hašek had the ability to track pucks and read plays at a rate that was never seen before. His athleticism was just the cherry on top.
“He saw everything in slow motion.” Korn recalled.
“He was amazing.”