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Using Danger Zones to End the Reimer-Bernier Debate

Using Danger Zones to End the Reimer-Bernier Debate
James Reimer Toronto Maple Leafs Goalie

Is James Reimer at the same level as Jonathan Bernier? (Photo by Scott Slingsby)

October in Toronto always features a recurrent ritual drama; sadly, I’m not talking about the start of a new hockey season.

The surest sign of summer’s death is the annual performance of Reimer versus Bernier. We all know how and when it ends already (poorly, in early April), but we still manage to get caught up in its unlikely plot twists, heroic acts, and tragic defeats.

Fans will take sides, and vehemently argue for their chosen goaltender’s superior ability and quality, as surely as the seasons turn.

To stop this eternal cycle, I dug as deeply as I can to find the most objective answer to that perpetual question: is James Reimer better then Jonathan Bernier, or vice versa?

The data is clear. Let me tell you who the numbers favour.

The Traditional Case

The oft-cited official NHL career stats for Bernier and Reimer place them on a similar footing. The equal number of games played makes the comparison especially symmetrical:

Bernier 175 76 67 20 9 426 5,075 0.916 2.63
Reimer 175 74 64 16 11 454 5,199 0.913 2.91

It’s not hard to see why Leafs supporters are divided on the duo. Reimer has a fractionally better win-loss percentage (even discounting overtime losses), and more shutouts. Bernier has a marginally greater save percentage, and a significantly better goals-against average.

In total, Bernier looks stronger, but Reimer apologists are quick to point out that Bernier’s numbers are a reflection of his time behind the Stanley Cup-winning Los Angeles Kings’ defense. They also argue that Reimer has had to face more (and more difficult) shots, making his statistics deceptively less impressive. Finally, they argue that he’s a much nicer guy.

I can’t speak to the last of these objections, but I can address the first two using more advanced statistics than the NHL provides.

Applying the Danger Zones: Parallel Goaltender Comparison

It’s possible to compare Reimer and Bernier directly using a danger zone method I developed this summer. An example of what I now call the Goalie On Another Team (GOAT) variety of this method (featuring Bernier) is available here. For our present purposes, the directly comparative version of the method (now known as Parallel Goaltender Comparison) is most useful.

To quickly summarize, War on Ice provides a breakdown of a goalie’s shots against into danger zones. Shots from far out are low danger, shots from close in are high danger, and shots in between are medium danger. This makes it possible to use a given goalie’s save percentages in each of these zones to determine how he might have done facing the same number of low, medium, and high-danger shots as another goalie. By accounting for shot volume and distance, such a parallel comparison helps to even the playing field when evaluating two goaltenders.

The argument that Reimer has faced more (and more difficult) shots over his career is true, but not powerfully so: Reimer has faced an average of 33.54 shots per 60 minutes at even strength, compared to Bernier’s 30.35. Similarly, Reimer’s high-danger shots account for 28.5% of his total shots faced, while Bernier’s account for 27.7%.

Even accounting for the volume and danger-zone differences, however, Bernier maintains his advantage. Using even-strength data only to minimize the team effects special-teams systems create, this is how our heroes would look if they faced each other’s career shots:

  Additional Goals SV% SV% Change GAA GAA Change
Bernier as Reimer -4 92.35 0.1 2.57 -0.03
Reimer as Bernier 6 92.25 -0.15 2.35 0.05

The table tells us that, over the course of their careers, there is some small difference between the two goaltenders. If Bernier had faced Reimer’s career shots, he would have a slightly higher overall save percentage than Reimer, and a slightly lower goals-against average. Reimer would see his save percentage dip somewhat lower than Bernier’s, and see his goals-against average rise. Bernier comes out ahead, but by even less than his traditional stats showed.

Toronto-Only Comparisons

As Sean Tierney demonstrated in a recent article, despite Bernier’s relatively poor 2014-15 season, he still maintained a better even-strength save percentage than Reimer in every danger zone. A Parallel Goaltender Comparison using the two seasons Reimer and Bernier went head-to-head is even more revealing:

  Additional Goals SV% SV% Change GAA GAA Change
Bernier as Reimer -15 92.64 0.88 2.60 -0.31
Reimer as Bernier 24 91.72 -0.90 2.72 0.29

Bernier would have allowed 15 fewer goals than Reimer over the last two seasons if he had faced his shots. His save percentage would exceed Reimer’s significantly, and his goals-against average would be much lower. If Reimer had faced all Bernier’s shots, his save percentage would be much lower than Bernier’s, and his goals-against average much higher. Since Bernier’s arrival in Toronto, he has significantly outperformed Reimer.

Jonathan Bernier celebrated his 27th birthday not long after signing a two-year contract, so what affect will aging have on his performance? (InGoal Magazine photo by Scott Slingsby)

Bernier’s performance behind the maple leaf has clearly distinguished him from Reimer (InGoal Magazine photo by Scott Slingsby)

Interestingly, Reimer still faces more shots against than Bernier, even considering only the seasons they have played behind the same defense. His 35.38 average shots against per 60 minutes is clearly greater than Bernier’s 32.79, leading me to speculate that the goaltenders may be responsible for at least part of that discrepancy: rebound control, or its lack, will affect shots against. Despite the volume difference, both goalies saw about the same percentage of their total shots against coming from the high-danger zone: 28.3% for Reimer, and 28.2% for Bernier. Nothing here indicates that Reimer faces more difficult shots.

The Winner

Reimer and Bernier’s traditional career statistics, advanced career statistics, and advanced head-to-head-seasons statistics all point to the same number: 45. While Bernier’s career numbers put him only slightly ahead of Reimer, his superior play behind the same team makes his victory clear. No measure favours poor James.

So that’s that. I expect this article to end the debate once and for all.

About The Author

Paul Campbell

Paul Campbell is a writer at InGoal, and a former CIS goaltender and women's goaltending coach for Mount Allison University. He occassionally moonlights as a university literature instructor.


  1. BeninLondon

    Because this is regarding Toronto goaltending and there is no way that it is ever over…..EVER…..I figure I will point out a flaw I see in using the HD, MD & LD totals as a be all and end all means of comparison and that is Toronto’s ability to move traffic out from the front of the net. The problem I see this causing is that distance the shot is taken from does not accurately dictate the true difficulty of the shot in all situations.
    I still love reading articles like this about advance stats but there are times when I get the feeling that we are trying to find the universal equation that gives us the video game style overall number in order to compare. I think it is a fun journey trying to get there

    • Paul Campbell

      That’s a good point. Danger Zones only tell you where a shot came from, not how it happened. Shots from the high danger zone are far more likely to score, on average, than low danger shots, but including other factors (like pre-shot movement and net-front traffic) would make the calculations more accurate. I wish there were public data that could allow for this.

  2. Anthony

    I think the biggest difference is Reimer had a good team in front of him when they made the playoffs in the shortened season which produces more wins and a few better stat lines . Since bernier came over he has clearly outplayed Reims but hast had the support in either season. That’s what happens when u don’t sign 3 20+ goal scorers to make room for that stiff clarkson !

  3. Paul Ipolito

    Still not sure how a shot from the right or left point is considered a “Low Danger” shot. Can you please explain the criteria and methodology of classifying the shots? Thank you

    • Greg Balloch

      It’s pretty simple, really. Shots from each zone have an expected scoring %, and that is taken into account when adjusting the save percentage.

      A goalie that makes a save on a shot from an area that generally yields a 13% scoring rate should be rewarded more than a goalie that makes a save on a shot from an area that generally yields a 2% scoring rate.

      We have the data to make these adjustments on the fly:

      • Paul Ipolito

        Thank you. I have always assumed that a shot from the point had a high probability of bouncing off a leg or stick.

        • Paul Campbell

          I agree that it would be better if we had data refined enough to separate deflected and screened point shots from clear point shots. On average, though, shots from the point have a lower probability of scoring than shots from closer in. Shooting percentage for Dmen is usually much lower than forwards for this reason. Even taking all the deflected/screened point shots into consideration, the odds of scoring from the point are lower.

  4. stephan

    How a goalie stands also affects shots against – it’s not just rebounds. A goalie who shows more net will tend to face more shots, all else being equal. Shooters will often elect to pass if they don’t see a hole. Catcher position is one thing that influences this, stance around the post is another.

    -a goalie

    • Paul Campbell

      The idea that a goalie can affect the number and type of shots he faces is an intriguing idea. I think it’s right, and we might be seeing that with the difference between Reimer and Bernier here.

      I’ve been looking at St. Louis lately. Last season, Jake Allen faced a far greater percentage of high-danger shots (25% for Elliott vs 29% for Allen), even though Elliott faced more shots per game. Is there some difference between them that accounts for this discrepancy? Does their own team, or the opposition, play differently? This wasn’t a fluke for Elliott, either. He has faced a very low proportion of high-danger shots his whole time in St. Louis

      • BeninLondon

        Want to confirm the names in the above comment as it appears Elliott faced a higher percentage.

        Is there a way to show which of these High Danger shots come from a first chance and which ones come from a rebound and adjust the percentages accordingly? The reason I ask is because maybe it is a situation where opposing teams feel the book on Elliott is to try to get more shots from further out in order to generate a rebound instead of necessarily holding onto the puck and moving to a closer zone in order to shoot to score instead. The higher number of shots would represent the attempt to generate rebounds and the lower HD shot % would be the result of more outside shooting coupled with controlling the initial LD shot and preventing a rebound from entering the HD area.
        From a non-stats guy the only way I could see of adjusting for this would be to have the same type of setup for initial shot, 1st rebound and 2nd rebound and then finding a way to combine that….somehow….it is that easy…you know universal equation and stuff. Not familiar enough with double blue’s software to know if it breaks down where from the ice each shot (1st, 2nd 3rd etc) and goal comes from….

        • Paul Campbell

          You’re right: I had reversed the names. I just fixed it.

          Your suggestion is solid. Chris Boyle’s Shot Quality Project accounts for rebounds, and many other factors, as does Steve Valiquette’s Royal Road work. Sadly, these are not publicly available, even for a price.

          I believe double blue does all the work you suggest, but you’d have to check with them to make sure:

          Ryan Stimson’s The Passing Project will be tracking a lot of relevant data this season, including (I believe) rebounds. It will be public, too, which I’m excited about.

          Aside from these tracking projects and technologies, I don’t think there’s another good way to determine rebounds. Danger Zones, as unrefined as they are, are the most specific goalie-relevant data out there.

          • Clare Austin

            War on Ice does account for rebounds, increasing the difficulty on shots that come within a certain period of time from the previous shot (a few seconds). They do the same for rush shots–defined as shots that come within a certain period (a few seconds, maybe 10?) of events in the offensive zone. So a Miss in the off. zone followed by a shot in the defensive zone gets a bump up in the difficulty scheme.

            An issue is that these are taken from the game play by play files, so the public data we have is dependent on what’s in those files.

  5. wowzers93

    I just though this reading this article. Is it possible that as a team gets momentum, meaning more offensive zone time (can be perhaps measured by looking at SF in a small period of time vs league average), the goalie’s sv% drops? Maybe we can identify who can withstand sieges the longest and see if they reflect team defense and goalie skill.

    I don’t know, I never played the game.

  6. Rick

    If a shot originates at the point, but is deflected into the net from the slot, which zone is considered to be the scoring zone?

    • Clare Austin

      I’m sending this to AC Thomas who founded the War on Ice site and see if I can get a clarification. I believe it’s counted at the point of deflection only, which makes sense. The in-close deflection makes it more difficult than a clear point shot would have been.

      • Clare Austin

        He said it should be the zone where it’s deflected, so it would count as more dangerous.

  7. Greg Morrison

    There is one tidbit of information that is lacking in that article. The fact that Reimer has been thrown under the bus against stronger teams. Don Cherry made light of it on a Saturday night saying all coaches do it. He said he did it with Gilbert/Cheevers and immediately after that comment the rotation changed.

    If you want more accurate statistics on who’s the better goalie you should look up who the individual is that is shooting the puck. That is more important than any of all the other numbers. If you have a player shooting who has 4 points compared to a 20 goal scorer firing the puck. The puck has a different target and is going to land in a different place.

    Hence the fact that Reimer played a lot tougher teams on average than Bernier.