Tuesday, May 17, 2011

I Bet the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man had a Small Five-Hole

While I was rooting around hockey-reference.com looking for attendance numbers, I came across this chart that nicely illustrates my problem with modern hockey, or at least one of my problems. Look at the change in save percentages over the years. In 1983-84, the first year for which save percentage is tracked, goalies saved 87.3% of the shots that they faced. The save percentage grows gradually over time, first getting above 90% after the 1993-94 season, which happens to be the year in which the NHL's popularity was at its modern apex, at least in the United States. Now, there were a lot of factors that led to hockey reaching that zenith: the Rangers ending their Stanley Cup drought and the attendant overreaction by the Northeast media; a dramatic set of post-season series; Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux both being active, established stars (although Gretzky was coming towards the end of his career); etc. I would add to that list the fact that offense and defense were in balance.

In this past season, goalies saved 91.3% of the shots they faced, which is the highest save percentage since the NHL started recording the stat. The Eastern Finals are being contested between goalies with save percentages of .941 and .932. These explosions in save percentage are galling to me because they are not the result of increased skill on the part of goalies. (I'm sure that goalies now are in better shape than they used to be, but the same would be true of the guys taking shots at them.) Rather, it seems inescapable to conclude that save percentages are way up because goalies get to wear a ridiculous volume of equipment, such that they take up the vast majority of the goal simply by basic positioning. I don't pretend to be enough of a hockey fan to make this argument based on extensive research and game watching, but from what little of the playoffs that I've watched, I've noticed on numerous occasions that goalies are credited with making great saves when all they did was position themselves and then let the puck hit them.*

I find the reduction of scoring based on bigger goalie equipment to be a turn-off because there is no skill involved in picking the right accessories and then getting dressed. Scoring is down and fielding percentages are up in baseball, but I have no problem with that. If teams are giving up fewer runs because they are deploying centerfielders and shortstops who get to everything, then I'm going to enjoy watching baseball more to see those athletes in full flight. (I'll acknowledge that the emphasis on better defense has come with the price of more at-bats for punch-and-judy hitters, so there is a trade-off.) In contrast, it's not exciting to watch a grotesquely-clothed goalie stop 19 of 20 shots without having to show quick reflexes. I'm not denying that goalies have to have great reflexes to play the position, but the same would be true for baseball players if they suddenly started hitting .400 with regularity because they got to use aluminum bats.

Bringing the discussion back to the soon-to-be-departed local professional hockey collective, I have to credit something that Steak Shapiro said. (There is a Jewish prayer called the Sheheheyanu that is recited whenever something good happens that has not happened for a while. That prayer seems appropriate at this stage.) When discussing the potential sale of the Thrashers several weeks ago, Steak hypothesized that the team has had trouble finding a local buyer in no small part because that buyer would not just be buying a franchise with a dwindling fan base and no profile in the local sports market, but they would also be buying into the NHL. In light of the fact that the league has allowed its product to be devalued by a basic equipment issue, that reasoning is persuasive.

* - Note that shots per game have remained relatively constant over time. It's not as if scoring is down because coaches are playing too conservatively. If that were the case, then shots would be down. Instead. the decline in scoring has to be primarily caused by goalies' equipment.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Are we looking at the same table? Save percentage is indeed a story there, but the primary story that table tells is declining power play opportunities. Teams are getting 1.5 fewer power plays per game since the mid 90s, and the one recent year that had good scoring numbers had mid-90s power play opportunities (2006). This is hiding the fact that 5 on 5 scoring is up, and power play success rates are up.

Both effect scoring, of course, but one can be justified (sort of) with the rationale of safety. What could possibly justify not calling penalties? It's not like they aren't occurring; watch any game and you'll see tons of uncalled penalties for holding, obstruction, etc.