The Deeper Numbers that Justify Price’s “Best Goalie” Selection by the Players
The NHLPA player poll is an annual reminder that the people who play the game don’t always share the same opinions as those who watch and cover it. This year, the most notable divergence in opinions is in goal, where the players came to a somewhat surprising conclusion:
Players are likely to use different criteria for evaluating quality among their peers than outsiders. A well-earned reputation takes longer to fade, and feelings of frustration or even dread a goaltender has given you or your team leave a lasting impact.
Belief is powerful: players and coaches formulate game plans and execute them differently depending on their opinions of the keeper they’re facing. If a player believes only a perfect shot will score, they’re more likely to pass on shots they’d normally take – while the no-margin-for-error feeling actively sabotages many usual patterns of automatic execution. Just believing your opponent is excellent, in a very real sense, can make them harder to beat.
All of this makes it perhaps somewhat less surprising that the players chose Carey Price as the best goaltender, despite him being on nobody’s Vezina list this year and posting only strong, rather than elite, numbers.
His 91.6 save percentage sits him 9th among goalies playing at least 40 games in 2018-19; this is well above the 90.9% league average, but certainly not in the elite tier. Looking at more advanced metrics, Evolving Hockey puts Price 12th in goals saved above average, while the following “goals saved above expectation” chart by Sean Tierney (using Evolving Hockey data) paints a similar picture.
Considering factors like shot distance, type, and location to determine shot quality, Price stops more pucks than one would expect, but still sits near the middle of the pack. The publicly available data shows Price having a good season, and a definite rebound from his poor 2017-18 campaign, but nothing quite worthy of his top-ranking by fellow players.
Is their opinion simply rooted in a kind of bias, a combination of reputation and respect that elevates their perception of Price’s performance beyond his actual results?
That might often be true, but in this case, there’s more to their opinion than even the best public statistics reveal.
A company called Clear Sight Analytics (CSA), headed by former NHL goalie and current broadcast analyst Stephen Valiquette, tracks hockey games in far finer detail than the NHL’s own data collection system. By recording not only shot location, distance, and type, but also pre-shot events like pass type and distance, screens, and deflections, CSA is able to account for variables in the goaltending environment that can have massive influences on shot quality.
Consider, for instance, the difference between a clear-sighted shot from the point by a stationary defender, and the same shot taken through a layered screen. The clear version of the shot is an easy save – NHL goalies don’t stay NHL goalies for long if they allow more than one or two of those in a hundred attempts. The screened version, however, is comparatively a far more difficult save. A goaltender has to battle hard to maintain sight lines, and employ dynamic tracking and coverage tactics to optimize their odds of success.
The NHL’s data would make no distinction between both versions of the shot – but CSA’s data correctly marks the screened shot as far more difficult, more accurately representing the quality of the shot.
So, where does CSA rank Price? Looking first at delta save percentage (the difference between his actual save percentage and what an average goalie would be expected to score based on the difficulty of shots faced), we see a marked divergence from his rankings listed earlier.
According to CSA, because they record only intentional shots on goal (not dump-ins that happen to land on goal, for instance, nor shots that are caught but would have missed the net), each goalie’s true save percentage is significantly lower than their official NHL numbers: a difference of one to two percent doesn’t seem like much, but when you consider that 91% is average, while 93% is elite, you can see what a difference it actually represents.
Price performing 2.4% better than expected puts him in the top five of the league, elite territory with likely Vezina winner Andrei Vasilevskiy. Throughout the season, Price has consistently fared better by CSA metrics than NHL statistics, largely because the Canadiens don’t tend to allow shots from worse locations than other teams, but do allow more long lateral passes across the slot line (an imaginary line extending from the middle of the net straight out between the hashmarks to the top of the circles), which lead to some of the most dangerous shots.
Fifth place is very good, of course, but by itself is no argument for Price as the league’s best goaltender. A little more context changes the situation, however.
Of the listed goaltenders, only Price (58) has played more than 50 games. Vaslievskiy sits at 47, while Rask (41), Lehner (39) and Halak (36) lag far behind. Performance above expectation is important, but that performance becomes far more impressive when it’s sustained over a larger sample of games. It’s hard to be great, but it’s even harder to be great for long.
CSA’s goals saved above expectation is a way to evaluate a goaltender’s performance while taking workload into account, which shifts the top-five order significantly.
Given all shots faced, Price has stopped 31 more goals than we would expect of an average goaltender, tying him for the lead with Andrei Vasilevskiy. Maintaining the kind of quality Price has shown over the large total of shots he’s seen (4th most in the league, compared to Vaslievskiy’s 12th) is an impressive accomplishment, and certainly justifies the players’ vote. It’s debatable, of course, but this data supports a strong argument for Price. Add in the experiential factors discussed earlier, and the NHLPA vote is entirely understandable.
Of course, the CSA data raises another important question as the season rolls to its conclusion: should Carey Price be in the Vezina conversation? His quality-adjusted performance numbers are elite, earning him, at the very least, a top-three ranking.
But that’s a question for another time. Let’s fight about that here after the season ends on April 6th. It’s a date.